Monday, December 27, 2010

My friends Scheherazade and Ana-Maria

There are some people you meet in life you just know will be remarkable from the start.  To be part of their lives, though on the periphery, has been a powerful joy and delight for me.   Soon I'll be seeing them again. Would you like to meet them too?  See below...

Ana-Maria was a Dutch volunteer working with the same organization in Ecuador when we met her in the mid '90's.  She was coming down a set of office stairs when I first spotted her and she greeted me with open arms, like she knew we'd be friends for decades.  I was instantly drawn to her take-charge style and boisterous humour.  When Rob and I were struggling in Guayaquil (once referred to as the ugliest and most dangerous city in South America) and about to pack the whole adventure in, she found us an adobe house over a river in what was to become the most beautiful city in the world for me - Cuenca, where she was living.  This move extended our stay for a few more years, and they were by far, the richest.  I cried when we left there.

When we moved back to the Yukon, Ana-Maria came for an extended visit to sort out what was next for her.  She'd been unable to fit in again to her regular life back in Holland.  Like us, it felt like everything had been changed forever.  After two months, she made a declaration from our hammock in the living room (which was our only piece of furniture in Cuenca), "I had to come to the Yukon to find out that my life will be in Guatemala."  And off she went, to quite her job, to sell her house and all her assets, to fund this primal urge.  It must have been the ultimate test to be stranded for a stint at the Amsterdam airport, leaving everything she knew for certain behind, about to launch into a fresh new adventure, on September 11, 2001.  "Didn't you feel like it was a sign to go back? Weren't you afraid to go on?  You were in limbo, there was so much uncertainly!" I asked.  "No, to me it was confirmation that I was doing exactly the right thing."  This sums up Ana-Maria quite well.

I first met Scheherazade/Arlaine in Antigua, on a cobbled stone street.  She was limping mildly and her head was bent in serious concentration.  When she spotted Ana-Maria and I approaching her, her face burst open with stories of her recent fall and her determined ideas about life.  I took notice of her unusual spirit right away.  Arlaine once described herself as a starlet when she was young but the course of her life was altered by the reform school she was sent to.  I'm not exactly sure what a starlet is but I know it involves poise and presence, which is still vibrantly visible.  As was true of Scheherazade, Alaine's stories shaped who she is today.  During my month in Guatemala I watched these two amazing women formulating and creating their new existence there, each with their individual projects in mind, going forward.

Several years later, while recuperating from surgery (on a futon Rob had cobbled together for me out of logs punched out of the guest cabin windows), I got a call from Ana-Maria and Arlaine.  They were on a white beach in Mexico thinking and scheming with me in mind.  Would I be interested in spending a winter in La Paz, running Arlaine's small inn while she concentrated on the building of her project in Guatemala? Well, let me think about that...  A few months later Arlaine picked me up in L.A. and like it was perfectly normal, we drove down the Baja road, fueled on tuna salad and many more stories.

Arlaine's latest update:  
Arlaine's website:


Sunday, December 12, 2010

Philanthropy 101

True confession: I've always wanted to be a philanthropist when I grow up.  It's a laughable idea considering the state of my finances but is it strictly related to money?  "Love of mankind," reads my mini dictionary.  In this way I'd agree that my curiosity of people in general has been approached with love, openness and wonder.  It's an intrigue to be part of peoples lives for a while to discover their secrets to unbridled joy in the midst of so little.  While we seem to suffer under a pile of stuff that remains to be edited, continuing to accumulate mindlessly, so caught up in the constant distractions of our culture.

Recent thoughts on philanthropy brought me to the back of my closet to unearth a custom made sweater from a woman's co-op in Ecuador, that I never wore.  This was the stage in my life, my mid 30's, when Rob and I first got together as a writer/photographer team in South America.  Part of our job for this child sponsorship organization was to visit projects that had been supported by doners in 14 countries from Australia, North America, Japan and Europe.  We were their eyes and hearts for a while, which gave us the honour to be the guests of many villages and to be welcomed to their inner circles.  This particular woman's group was typical in that they gathered regularly to create and keep the operation going while their leader, always a man, was away to work in the states.  In the vast remote mountain area of Bolivar, this group sat perched on a precipice, chatting, laughing at us, and with us, wearing their specific hats identifying their indigenous group and their status within it.  It had seemed to us that the women were responsible for keeping the culture alive with their traditional dress, while the men had to leave in flocks for economic reasons.  These women made the best of it.

As specified, the sweater has trees all over it, purple ones with grey fruit and red falling snow.  I've decided to give it away as part of my personal wealth; it's time to let go and be selective of the stuff I choose to hang on to.  I want to act locally as well as globally.  Though few people in my life would appreciate such a quirky and precious item, so loaded with history, who would also be the right size.  For a week now, I've been packing the bag around waiting to encounter one of my favorite young women at our local cafe.  Here's a funny thing, the recipient of my philanthropy seems to be missing in action.

Sunday, November 21, 2010


Photo: voyage of self-discovery, 1989, Capacocia, Turkey
Last weekend we had new friends over for Mexican soup.  Midway, between spoonfuls, he had a faint recollection of being here 30 years ago.  It was the sauna more than the house, that brought back this long ago moment.  "It must've been during our partying years," she said blankly, having no such memory.

For Rob and I the sauna has a special heart warming appeal too.  It was where Rob declared confidently, away from the Realtor, that this was the place he'd waited a long time for.  The classic log cabin on a quiet lake was the perfect antidote for our upcoming last stint overseas, in Columbia, where we knew it would be rough.  The proverbial carrot to await us.  This was a snapshot I still have of pure love for Rob; there he was making his wishes known to the Realtor (why is this word capitalized?), no negotiations, no inquiries into the water and septic systems.  This is fine, thank you very much, we'll take it.  He wore an old down coat with feathers leaking out of it and duct tape on the elbows, three weeks before Christmas.  The Realtor did not take him seriously, it seems nobody buys a house before Christmas.  But there was a rush on, we were leaving soon, the deal was made in a hurry and the rest is history.

But the partying comment stuck with me last weekend.  I pondered this at length with my friend Elke a few days later.  I blurted out "I think I didn't party enough in my youth!!"  Imagine this bizarre statement from a middle aged woman.  I was never much of a drinker, especially combining the fine art of mingling and small talk and driving home in one piece.  "Maybe you could start partying now - I'm sure it's never too late," Elke eagerly offered.  But no, that wasn't it either.  I was climbing cliffs with homes carved out of the sides toting my journal and an apple for lunch in the Turkish countryside of Capadocia.  That was my idea of a party.  Searching out Freud's bust in Vienna,  soaking my feet in fountains eating a baguette for lunch in Paris, picking the grapes off the vines in the Beaujolais region, that was deliriously fun to me.

In conclusion, fun is the intended target these days.  It's cheap, long overdue and I can't beleive I have to be reminded of this.  Today's fun was out on the freshly frozen lake, on skates with a bundle of beaver chewed sticks wanting to scurry home and not play tag with the neighbours.  But one tried to grab my precious beauties, taunting me, and I wouldn't let go.  So laughing hysterically, I was yanked around by my cargo, on wobbly legs and sent sailing on smooth ice.  It was a good belly laugh with tears, catching my breath.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Honouring Bobby

Don't you hate when you make promises to yourself, like a blog a week, and then distractions and procrastinations creep in completely unexpectedly?  Setting a goal should be enough, right?  Then it all unfolds magically and triumphantly...tada!  You'd think by now at my age that self delusions and reality would have met and had tea to sort out these gaps and patched up their differences.

The thought and image that I can't get past is of Bobby, lingering in my 1977 high school year book.  I know, I know, I said I'd torch these things 2 weeks ago, but I still can't let go.  Then Remembrance day happened and brought me right back to these three volumes; at least now they are dust free.  In my grade 11 class photo, my eyes are averting the camera and I'm looking over at the person in question; Bobby Girouard.  It probably was not him catching my attention at the time, we were cordial but not friends.  In our younger years, we lived on the same street, but there are no huge recollections of him.  He was quiet, like me, and struck me as a gentle being.  Still all those years later, it is unmistakable, I am looking over to him.

Fast forward a few decades, Chief Warrent Officer Robert Girouard is the 44th casualty in Afghanistan.  He was 46.  I've been trying to make sense of this ever since we watched the riveting CBC documentary profiling the soldiers lost in this latest war.  It occurs to me that Bobby was one of those kids that stood up to bullies and dedicated his life to it on a global scale.  As a pacifist I could never fully appreciate that until just now.  The kind of bravery he and many others like him demonstrate makes me marvel and appreciate the peaceful life I am fortunate to have.

This proves it once again, you never know how the past will influence your future.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Festering at Fifty

Photo: once a single pronged thing, this cactus is developing a character all its own on my kitchen window sill.

As part of my 50th birthday gifts to myself, I went far beyond the norm and the mundane.  First it was the Mongolian yurt, then it was the astrological readings; yes, I went really "out there".  The natal astrological chart was quite fascinating, even with my limited knowledge of such things.  Two points were noteworthy; first the planet Chiron was prominent in the skies at the moment of my birth.  Discovered in 1977, this little known planet represents the "wounded healer" and orbits only every 50 years.  This explains so much; what's at play here is not merely a garden variety menopausal episode but the very stars are contributing to my ongoing festerings and awakenings.  I've decided to take comfort in this sense of powerlessness and see what will reveal itself.  Apparently, this is what I've been feeling for a year and I'll continue to feel it for a year to come.  Hormone replacement therapy can't touch this.

Secondly, my astrologer told me that I was a nun in a past life.  Strangely, this resonates especially with Rob who said I was very nun-like when we first met.  I reminded him that at that moment, I was reading his Rune cards at his bachelor pad cabin during a fund raiser for Canadian Crossroads International and I had gotten there in my car painted like a Holstein cow.  But the point was that I had carried over some of these nun characteristics with me to this present life.  In the past I was obedient to the scriptures, but now, I guide my life according to my heart.  Not exactly a giant leap of logic for anyone who knows me but there is further proof.

A few days ago I was flashing my tatoo in my favorite coffee shop.  The story of the old thing goes back 20 years when I got a divorce from my first husband.  This was long before tatoos became fashionable and common.  I needed something powerful to mark the moment, to solidify my decision to choose growth and mystery instead of what I had; stale stability and predictability.  What I needed was to travel extensively, to roam around aimlessly, to explore wildly whatever opportunity afforded.  First it was the train across Canada and by the time I got to Halifax I had the tatoo well thought out; an anchor with a heart in the middle on my ankle.  My brother Pierre was in the navy then so he knew the place to take me on the shaddy side of town.  I reasoned I needed something strong to anchor me into a new life, with new outlooks and philosophies.  How easily it would have been to slip back into the comfort and ease of my marriage that no longer fit properly, like a sloppy old shoe.  The heart was obvious, to give me tender guidance to my soul.  Remarkably, all that remains of the tatoo today is the heart; no more need for that cold hard anchor. I am firmly on my path now, only parts of me wishes I knew where it was going.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Slough: to cast off, shed outer skin.

Photo: 1991 village of Peletoutou, Togo, bathing Georgina, a community event.  I'm relieved to see I finally removed my watch.
It happened two weeks after my 50th birthday, when I open my eyes one morning and spotted a thick layer of dust on my high school year books.  What was I hanging on to that era for?  I survived all that mediocre intensive hormonal training in 1976 but how did it shape me exactly? 

I vow that today is the day I finally burn these things and start sloughing off this useless stuff.  After all, 50 is a new time for discernment, deciding what is truly important and worthy of packing around.  This stuff might even be holding me back, suffocating growth.

 I give them the once over before the formal torching and make a few observations; most students are uniformly shaped.  The popular kids are holding trophies, microphones, sports equipment, each other... In particular,  I see the smiling seductive face of my first taste of baffled betrayal.  Lynne was my friend the summer she moved to our remote neighbourhood but in the fall she casually dropped me when she found out I was not part of the "in" crowd.  This required some fancy doing at the morning bus stop when she succeeded in avoiding me among the 6 other kids there.  One time, she had no choice but to share my seat on the bus, she sat so far removed on the edge it was like I was radiating something fierce.  Hurt and confusion was moderated by my curiosity; she was so desperate to fit in, to be accepted, yet my parents would hold her up as the finest specimen of femininity.  Why couldn't I be more like her, they'd ask.  How could I say she was mean and snooty and had a loose reputation with the boys at school?

So where was I?  In my grade 10 class photo I am posing proudly next to my friends Donna and Elizabeth, not only the sole black people at BHS but the only black people in all of Bathurst, New Brunswick at that time.  They were political refugees in a time before the term existed.  Thirty five years later I can see clearly the evidence of global ideas already firmly planted in the heart of this shy, awkward, self conscious girl.  I had a hunch then that soon I'd be far far away making new friends and discovering the world in my way.  I see that subtle look of confidence there in my sly grin.