Where I fit in the box of crayons....

Do you ever get that feeling like there's more out there? That's the feeling that brought me to beyond borders. The global community is growing, and I have not yet become a part of it. I want to be a contributing citizen to the global community through participation and action. Over the years, I have developed an appreciation for diversity and difference, and look for other ways that people are doing things. There’s a whole world out there beyond our North American perspective that has the potential to change the way I see things, and to change my life. Gahndi said, "Be the change you want to see in the world." I think we should not only find the change within ourselves, but also take part in the change we want to see in the world. I hope that Beyond Borders will offer a medium in which I can be the change I want to see in the world, and also take part in that change.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

OMG Greece!

It took me nearly as long to get from Ternopil to Kiev as it took Felix to get from Toronto to Kiev!! The main thing is that Felix and I are together again. We are readjusting to being together again and maximizing our time in Greece.
We are currently in Athens. Today we took a side tour to explore the southern parts of the Grecian mainland. We saw the Corinth Canal, and then went to the Treasury of Atreus (originally believed to be the Tomb of Agamemnon) including the behive tombs and shaft graves, and then to the Palace and Acropolis at Mycenae, and then to Epidaurus the place of the museum of Asclepius – the original medical practitioner (his daughter is Hygea - meaning health - who gave her name to our english word Hygenic) and the ancient Asclepieion Amphitheatre. Busy day, but so amazing to get a chance to see so much.

Seeing that is it September and the main tourist season is over, the tour groups tend to be smaller, and the demographic tends to swing a little bit more in to the “zoomer” category. I love hanging out with older people! I love their life experience, and their knowledge, and really value the way they interpret the world after having lived on it far longer than I have. I always find the conversations are less chatty, less small talky and tend to deal with deeper richer subject matter. And another observation I have made while here (hahaha I talk as if it’s been ages…) : Let’s face it, it is NOT cheap to get to Greece (especially from North America) and so the people that we have met so far seem to have a certain level of affluence, coupled with a generally high(er) level of education than the average American. Today we/I made friends with a bunch of the couples in our tour group. (Are you surprised?)

I spent much of the day talking about what I have been doing at the orphanage and what life is like in Ukraine. I really value these opportunities to talk about the girls, and expose others to something they may not have been exposed to. I find that so few people have any idea about the conditions in Ukraine, let alone what a state run orphanage might be like. People are always interested in hearing about the beyond borders program, and how long I’ve been with the girls, how many there are, how old they are, and what I plan to do next. Every now and again I get to talk to someone that has a much deeper experience/knowledge/understanding of what I am doing in Ukraine and these are the GEM conversations.

On our day excursion to Argolis I had one of these conversations. We had lunch at a large table with 4 other couples all from the US. The couple from Rochester was talkative and helped to get the conversations started by asking questions and opening up space for discussion. Her and I had already talked while climbing up the Mycenae Acropolis (it was a steep hike, and she walked with a cane so I hung back with her to make sure she had a hand if she needed one). Her husband commented on what I have been doing in Ukraine and we launched into a discussion about that. The female in one of the couples was chatty, but the husband was more reserved… well until later when him and I were on the bus a bit early from one of the other stops and he began to tell me a bit about him. He is a child psychiatrist, and does special work with children that have been adopted by American families from developing countries (particularly Romania, Colombia and India). He asked about professionalism at the orphanage and what kind of help was available to the girls – AFTER I laughed we talked about the structure of the orphanage and the levels of challenges that I have faced as a North American working in a state run Ukrainian orphanage. We talked about working with children within a North American context. I asked if he saw patters of presenting problems and diagnosis, and if the main presenting issues varied depending on where the children had come from. We talked about Attachment theory and how he saw it as an important tool in helping the children adjust to not only being adopted, but also living in a new culture and country. I asked about whether he saw foreign adoption as a bonus or a challenge for both the children and the families. He told me about the chaos that these situations can create in otherwise generally stable family units. I talked about my girls and the lack of support they receive, especially on an emotional level. And I discussed identity development: what I think about identity development, and how I saw it as an important thing for my girls. He asked what I have done to promote identity development, and I described how I’ve been able to watch their identities emerge (if even only partially) as I’ve tried to massage them over the summer.

At the end of our conversation I thanked him for sharing his wisdom and experience with me. I realized how rich the conversation was, and how important it was for me because I able to talk about my girls on a professional level with a fellow professional who “got it”. I enjoyed the experience of being a “colleague” rather than some university kid. I thanked him for sharing ideas, and for helping to stimulate me to begin to see some of my experiences in Ukraine and at the orphanage through a more professional lens. He let me know that he was happy to hear about things that were being done to improve the quality of life for children in other parts of the world, and was also interested to take another look through his case notes and look for patterns that might be culturally related.

The sharing of ideas is such a wonderful experience – and how funny that it happened in Greece the birthplace of what we think of as education and philosophy and “modern” thought.

What a wonderful way to spend my first day in Greece!
More stories to come!


Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Soul of the World

“Please except this story from one traveler to another. May your journey be long and fulfilling. There may be bumps along the road, but take each challenge and learn from it” -Kevin Brown April 2010

The story is that of Santiago, the Andalusian Sheppard that discovered he has a personal Legend and followed it through to the end and found his treasure.
A Personal Legend is that what you have always wanted to accomplish. The King of Salem explains that “every one, when they are young, knows what their personal legend is. At that point in their lives, everything is clear and everything is possible. They are not afraid to dream, and to yearn for everything they would like to see happen to them in their lives. But, as time passes, a mysterious force begins to convince them that it will be impossible for them to realize their Personal Legend.” The King believes that everyone on earth has a treasure that awaits them.

Treasure is not gold or riches – the story of Santiago helped me to solidify my belief that life’s greatest treasure is fulfillment, and following a path to what you REALLY want most regardless of the challenges and repercussions that might await. It is said in Santiago’s tale that when you want something with all your heart that is when you are closest to the Soul of the World and the Soul of the World is always a positive force. The problem is that “people are afraid to pursue their most important dreams because they feel that they don’t deserve them, or that they’ll be unable to achieve them” another problem that faces us now it the artificial importance that we place on things like careers, and money and material possessions. I think we lose our interest in following our deepest desires (as we cross over into adulthood) because we are faced with the shackles of “responsibility” that is ubiquitous in our culture. The King of Salem reminds Santiago that “in the long run what people think about bakers and sheppards becomes more important that their personal legends.” In our culture first we balk at those who do not go along with convention and affix the shackles of responsibility of the developed world, BUT this changes as soon as that person has succeeds at following their personal legend and finding their “treasure”. Once they have succeeded we are instantly overcome with envy and elevate the person to star status for mustering the courage to rebel against convention and follow their own Personal legends. This tells me that we are all aching to follow our dreams and listen to our hearts but society is able to exact too much control over our journeys to personal fulfillment.

The reality is that we all dream. We might not listen to our hearts, or have the courage to follow our Personal legends, but the dreams exist, and it is the “possibility [however remote] of having a dream come true that makes life interesting”. We tend to get so caught up in the everyday that we forget to take notice of the good things that are always happening to us – this is the root cause of that feeling of boredom when every day is exactly the same as the last and the next. All too often we forget that “it is the simple things in life that are the most extraordinary”. I think that we should spend more time looking for and learning how to recognize the small joys that are around us all the time; stop to smell the roses (so to speak).

The King suggests to Santiago that one of the hardest decisions is “choosing between something you’ve grown accustomed to and something you want to have”. Santiago realizes the importance of decisions, and the power they have to completely anyone’s trajectory “when someone makes a decision they are diving into a strong current that will carry them to places that they had never dreamed of”. The first time I heard the story of Santiago I thought it was about fate and allowing life to lead you down a path. The more I thought about the story of Santiago I realized that I was in error. I revisited the story of Santiago and found that it was quite the opposite – in order to realize personal fulfillment one must take an active role in making decisions, learning lessons and engaging in hard work to make it to the end. The journey to realizing a Personal Legend is not easy, but it is certainly rewarding. The story of Santiago encourages us to take an active role in our lives and not sit idly by as life takes over for us. Santiago warns us of a grave error “I am like everyone else I see the world in terms of what I would like to see happen not what actually does” if we see the realities, we are more likely to act to make a difference rather than seeing the world as what might be and leaving reality up to “fate”.

The story of Santiago has a strong overtone of faith and a guiding hand that knows all and transcends the physical world. I’m not into God, so I have trouble envisioning a dude sitting somewhere controlling things… but to me this force - the soul of the world – is our humanity, a force that connects each being to all others. Santiago realizes that “intuition is really a sudden immersion of the soul into the universal current of life where the histories of all people are connected and we are able to know everything because it is all written there”: we can better understand the world if we understand that because of the world we are all inextricably connected. It is important that we all realize that no matter what it is that we do in our lives “every person on earth plays a central role in the history of the world”.

Over the past year (from the moment I got accepted to the Beyond Borders Program) I have worked really hard to listen to my heart and follow whatever path it thought was best. The most important thing that I have learned in this year (despite spending a bunch on money on a “formal education”) is that I have a Personal Legend, and I know that I will not be happy with myself, or with my life, if I am not constantly on the path towards my Life Treasure. I can’t tell you what my Life Treasure is going to be because I cannot see the future, but someone on Santiago’s journey explains that the here and now is much more important than what is to come: “If you pay attention to the present, you can improve upon it and if you improve upon the present what comes later will be better”. I am willing to suffer the repercussions of not following convention (you should be laughing at this if you know me even a little bit) in favour of seeking out my Personal Legend. This is an uncharted path, and I expect many bumps along the way, but as the Camel driver explains “people need not fear the unknown if they are capable of achieving what they want and need” and after spending four months here in Ukraine I have learned that what I want and need is to listen to my heart and pursue my Personal Legend.

Maktub (it is written) that “no matter who you are or whatever it is that you do, when you really want something it is because that desire originated in the soul of the world and it is your mission in life” I encourage you to listen.


September 11 - 9 years later

I won't write alot, but I will share some thoughts.

Burn the Quran Day is a disgusting illustration of the hubris that perpetuates the tensions between American Cultural Imperialism and Muslim Extremists.

The battle of the "Ground Zero Mosque" is still being waged.

The 9th anniversary of the September 11th attacks is now embroiled in controversy, hatred, and more threats of violence from one side to the other. Many families of 9/11 vitims believe that today should be a day of peace, and fear that the anniversary has been hijacked by politics

I think Today we should think about acceptance and unity and have faith that diversity enriches us rather than threatens us. Them against us creates tragedy, us together with them creates change....


Friday, September 10, 2010

I started running forwards, and now I’m walking backwards

It is strange to be in a position where I am forced to look back and take stock of the last 4 months of my life (wow it’s four months tomorrow!) when for the last year (at least) I have been more accustomed to looking forward to these four months. I have not yet let it sink in that my time is “up” – I’m not getting on a plane for a few weeks, but my days here in Ukraine are numbered.

A long time ago I wrote a strange blog where I promised to tell you about my biggest challenges here and I never kept that promise (They all Places Bets). I will now. I couldn’t talk about it before because it felt like letting it out gave it too much power over me and over my time here. Now that I have just about reached the end and am confident in my successes I am in a position to better analyze the problems and challenges.

For the month of June (my first month at the Internat) and part way through July I wasn’t really sure that I was doing the right thing. I wasn’t as happy as I had expected to be working at the Internat. Actually to be quite honest my stomach lurched and knotted the moment I hit the base of the driveway up to the orphanage building. I really fought with this feeling – the nausea, the anxiety, the upset because I was committed to making sure that I was still giving the girls the best that I could.

I have this problem: I am afraid of my negatively coloured emotions (like I talked about in my Auscwitz post). I am so rarely taken over by negative premonitions and experiences where I can not find the silver lining that when it does happen I always fear the worst. This fear of the negative is exponentially multiplied when I’m alone and don’t have anyone to process with (I am a verbal processor – I need to talk through things to make sense of them). I struggled silently for nearly two months thinking that the feelings I experienced while at the Internat were related to the job, and the girls and not being fully interested or motivated. I was feeling like I was in the wrong place, and maybe even a little bit disappointed that I had worked so hard for something I didn’t really want. I didn’t feel like I could blog about it because I had built up an expectation in my self and in others, and was feeling really guilty that I thought I “hated” it. There was also this smell that wafted from the grounds that added to the nausea. There were days where it was almost too much to deal with and a few days I nearly turned around and went home. The first 15 minutes were always the most unpleasant and I really had to be strong and engage tons of positive self talk to stick them out and move on with my days there.

Finally I told two people about how I was really feeling: Felix and Devin. Lucky for me they asked questions and allowed me the time and space to process. I was able to sort through and unpack my feelings about being here…

The main thing is that there are many layers of things to fight through here. There is the language barrier, there is the culture, the systemic problems associated with disabilities, the politics, the economy; then there is the structure at the Internat, the boneheaded director, the uncaring staff, the lack of programming for the girls, and also fighting to form emotional bonds with the girls. I am a fixer: I like to/need to problem solve and implement changes that fix the things I think are wrong. In talking to Devin and Felix I managed to recognize that I was working myself up into a frenzy and exhausting myself with the “how do I fix it ALLL” every time I got to the orphanage. I was feeling really defeated and down trodden at all of this things I had to fight against to make the kind lasting change I felt I needed to make to feel successful at the end of my time here. I was also feeling pretty lonesome particularly related to the fact that I had no one to draw energy from, and no one to bounce ideas off of and brainstorm with. I really need that kind of stimulation and I was definitely feeling it while I navigated my challenges.

I got through the days with the girls and at the Internat with a realization that the bottom line was that my time in Ukraine was intended to enrich the lives of the girls – to help them build skills and grow as human beings and no matter what I was feeling I had to concentrate on those goals.

A conversation with Devin helped to change things around. His advice was to focus on one area and make the most amount of change in that one area and then the next person to come and focus on a different area. This helped me to assess my priorities and set my goals and helped to relieve the feeling that there was just too much to fight against all alone.

My main priority the entire time has been the girls. I am concerned by the other things, but first and foremost it is about enriching their lives before attacking the larger more systemic problems. It was funny how quickly the switch in my priorities and goals translated to a switch in my experience. The next time I was at the orphanage the lurch and knots were gone, I didn’t notice the smell, and it seemed like all of a sudden I “clicked” with the girls I had been working really hard to bond with.

I noticed that the quality of the time I spent with the girls didn’t change, but it was easier to get up and get going in the morning and less of a fight to stay connected and be creative and engaging with the girls. With the shift in my attitude came a whole bunch of positive things and positive changes which made being here in Ukraine even more enjoyable than it had already been the first 2 months.

Since the switch in my own outlook I have had 2 months of incredible experiences at the orphanage and with the girls. I have seen changes in the girls in how they express themselves and what they are willing to do and noticed their personalities bud and grow. Maybe even more importantly I have seen changes in the way the staff work with the girls, and how they respond to me; they have changed over time from being resistant to allowing me to work the way I want to being unbelievably supportive of my efforts and even participating in activities.

I think that I really believe in the importance of challenges – even though I sometimes wish that everything could be easy. I am glad that I am finally able to talk about the challenges that I experienced here in Ukraine, but even more so I am ecstatic that I can report that I have been able to overcome the challenges.

Yesterday was my last official day at the orphanage (felix and I will be going to visit in my last week but that is a good bye visit and not a working visit) and as sad as I was to be leaving the girls, I was really proud of the progress we had made together over the time we spent together.

ALSO on a positive note: I found out that that terrible smell that wafted around most of the summer was from the bushes that line the entire property, and not just a general smell of terrible that came from the institution! I can not tell you how happy that made me!

I will write more “closing thoughts” in another post where I have a fresh group of 1000 words to work with *wink*

Thanks for helping me to run forward, and also allowing me the space to walk backwards…


Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Першого вересня

Today is the first of September – in Ukraine that means that it is the first day of school. Canadian students get an extra week to enjoy their summer and prepare for another year in the hallowed halls of academia.

A group of girls poses for me in their official 11th grade uniforms

I thought that I might have to wait another week for this to hit me, but being part of the “opening ceremony” at the orphanage and walking through the city today evoked an interesting shock to my emotions. I realized this afternoon that for the first time in 22 years I will not be buying new pens and pencils, or a “back to school” wardrobe. I didn’t have to worry about getting into courses, constructing the perfect schedule, or tuition. There will be no textbooks, no midterms and no exams.

Yikes! The anxiety welled up a little bit today as I walked through the hustle and bustle of a city come alive with students and beaming parents. I saw friends reuniting, the spiffy clothes, the quick conversations of summer adventures, the nervous little ones as they hurried to their first day. Parents having to take the day off to usher their offspring into the newest chapter of their lives. These are all the wonderful parts of going back to school. Watching all this unfold got me feeling a little bit nostalgic for these wonderful moments of the first day back. There is a ritual associated with going back to school that we are all aware of and participate in (and have consumerized ). Ukrainians live in a very traditional culture and so the ritualization of most things, including and especially the first day of school, happens on an even grander scale, so it was an even larger whack in the face! (like the girls and their 11th class uniforms pictured above)

I got a little bit panicky that I was merely an observer this year and not a participant. For so long “student” has been such a large part of my identity. I really wonder about what life will hold when I arrive back in Canada – too late to beg and plead to get back into school, but yet without a job lined up and no idea where to start.

The funny part about that is 4 months ago I was so happy that it was all over and done with (for a little bit) because I had grown tired and weary of academia. Afraid I was on the verge of becoming one of them (have I posted about my views on academia? Perhaps I should, but I’ll save that for another day). Four months ago there would have been nothing anyone could do to make me sign up for more of what had become so blasé, so under-stimulating. And here I am panicking!

Someone asked me the other day if I was afraid to come home – I started to giggle, and then my palms got sweaty, and my heart sped up. I hadn’t thought of it that way but he hit the nail on the head. Four months ago I started over – new city, new country, new language, new people, new culture, new job, new experience, new life. In less than a month I will have to start all over once again – new city, new country, new language, old people, old culture but with a new identity (NOT a student), new outlook, new understanding, and probably most importantly (for North American society) without a job! I am not sure what to expect out of life when I step back onto Canadian soil. It was thrilling to think of the “freedom” before I departed for Ukraine, but now that this “freedom” is imminent it scares the daylights out of me!

Not being able to enter back into the warm cozy shelter that school provides allows reality to get at you – job, life responsibility, money, and the most dreaded: adulthood. I’m not as excited about not going back to school as I thought I might be! For me September first has been a reminder that I am not ready to grow up!

I realize today that there is something that is of significantly more importance than finding a job, or starting a career: as soon as I am back I must figure out how to escape the clutches of what I see to be an eternal punishment that is closing in on me – I must thwart adulthood! If you have any ideas of how I might achieve this, please let me know....