Monday, June 29, 2009


Last week I learned something I had not previously known. I learned that Michael Jackson was black. The news surprised me more than a little. Having never once wondered about his skin colour, I found myself thinking over and over again about the huge changes that took place in the last half of the twentieth century.
I can’t say I was ever an avid Jackson fan, and a blind person is definitely not the most likely person to observe skin tone, but still I am surprised because my state of not-knowing has been going on for a very long time. I didn’t know it back in the days when his sweet voice sang the song about Ben. I didn’t know it when Thriller made it big. I hadn’t discovered it at the turn of the century. In fact, I might never have found it out had his death not surprised the media so much that they stopped all conversation about anything else for several days, thus rendering themselves desperate to say something—anything about Michael Jackson. It was during that never-ending, mind-numbing deluge of over-information that the word got out.
If there’s a medium that ought to be colour-blind, you’d think it would be radio. In this day and age it would not be unusual for an up-and-coming singer to be black without my knowing it, but that was certainly not the case when I was young. Skin colour was everything back in the days of early rock and roll, back in the days when Elvivs was making it big. In those days there was black radio and white radio. A white singer could take a song from black radio, a song never heard by whites, and turn that song into a hit.
Without being aware of it, I listened to white radio. It wasn’t a conscious choice. White radio was all we had here in Canada. When I was a teen-ager my transistor radio pumped out an endless drone of news about the riots that plagued cities and universities across the United States. I listened at first in wonder, then turned off the radio to save the batteries for the music. Unruly crowds of bottle-throwing building-burning mobs were of no interest to me. There was, I supposed, a certain level of inequity. But I did not fully understand that black people were not allowed to vote, or assume positions of leadership, or take certain jobs in hotels, or use washrooms that I would use. Even if I had understood, I would likely have said that all this trouble wasn’t likely to fix anything.
I liked to think that I was a civilized teen-ager, civilized and practical. If I had had dreams about how things could be, a vision of a better future, I might have wished that, by the time the early seventies rolled around, a famous singer could be black without my knowing it. I might have wished that it could take 38 years for me to hear the news. Then again, if I had fully understood how things really were, how much things would have to change in a very short time, I probably would have thought these wishes could never come true.
So I really am delighted to learn that Michael Jackson was black—even more delighted that I didn’t know it. There was no reason why I should have known it. Things had changed so much, yet so subtly that Michael Jackson was presented on my radio—my white radio. It’s a story I will try to remember when I want to hope things can change.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


Today is Wednesday. This morning we Hope Foundation staff stood chatting and drinking some truly excellent coffee that Joan brought in. Joan is our Monday receptionist and so much more. When Bev observed that Joan brings so much wonderful stuff to us, I went to my emails to re-read something Joan recently observed about hope. Reprinted with her permission, this is what Joan Kovacs wrote about being the Monday receptionist and much, much more at Hope House. : “”I was approaching my 60's and decided that I was of no real value in the working world. I was quite skeptical but started doing reception and gradually could bend, fold and mutilate with the best of them. Then two things happened. I started
venturing opinions on matters that were taken seriously and I realized that at the end of the day, I actually felt good. Good is difficult to explain but I knew that I hadn't felt it for a long time. I have learned that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to feel hopeless around other people who are hopeful. I have learned that hopefulness does not just appear and stay, it has to be nurtured and worked on and encouraged. I have relearned that in order to heal it is important (to me) to feel that I can give back in some way; and I have learned that small acts of kindness go a long way to making someone else feel hopeful.”
Those of us who have the pleasure of working with Joan have also learned that acts of kindness go a long way to making someone else feel hopeful.

Sunday, June 07, 2009


I had coffee with the robins yesterday morning. Actually, Only I had coffee. They had worms.
I was sitting on the veranda, just a few feet away from the nest. . The robin parents were journeying back and forth between nest and ground. My heart went out to these busily proud new parents. I’ve read that baby robins require up to forty feedings a day. Fortunately for robin parents this frantic process only goes on for about two weeks. Yesterday was Day 1.
They fed morning snacks and kept on feeding right through the lunch hour. There were afternoon snack breaks. Fortunately Daddy robins stick around to help out. Evening came and the feding frenzy had not diminished. The guests who came to our house for Grandma’s birthday party sat in the living room gazing out the window at the robinly comings and goings. The robins turned toward the window occasionally, staring down upon the delighted on-lookers. We had the mildly uncomfortable feeling that we might be invading their privacy somehow. But then, ought not any robin wanting nesting privacy to think forty times before nesting atop a busy veranda pillar directly in front of a living room window?

Wednesday, June 03, 2009


I sent an email to Barack Obama. Even before I had pressed Send I had begun to doubt myself. What self-respecting Canadian, after all, would send fanmail to a U.S. president? Why I truly am a proud Canadian, and never once have I send fanmail to a Canadian prime minister. In fact, I’ve rarely written to a Canadian prime minister. I think only once, during a moment of utter outrage when Elizabeth May was about to be denied a position in the televised leaders’ debate.
It seemed a little silly to waste an email on barack Obama. Certainly he would not take the time to read my note. Most likely I’d only be costing him money, wages paid to the person who reads the email. Still, it seemed like I ought to support a hope-focussed leader living right next door. I thought he ought to know that there are centres for hope studies. I thought he ought to know that there’s a hope scholar in Canada who teaches university classes using text from his speeches. I thought that maybe a really bad day would come, a day so filled with despair that he would be reduced to reading fanmail just to keep himself going. The more I thought about all this, the more sense it made to dash off a little note. So I did.
Barack Obama didn’t reply to my note—at least not right away. I kind of appreciated this because I knew that any reply I would get wood be a form letter. Even the most dedicated heroes are reduced to answering fanmail with form letters. So I really did not mind receiving no reply.
But then I did receive a letter in the email—not in the first month, not in the second month. It came in the third month. The subject line read: Health Care News worth Sharing. The signature said Barack Obama. My first thought was: “”Oh no. I’ve got my name on some general email list. Right now I’d better unsubscribe.””
I thought of the email as junk mail, but I didn’t unsubscribe in the first week. It seemed too soon. I didn’t unsubscribe in the second week either. In the third week I moved the email to Deleted Items. But I still didn’t unsubscribe. The letter was safe for a while. I only delete Deleted Items about once a year.
Then yesterday I heard a radio interview with a Canadian who has been recruited by American companies to make public pronouncements over American media describing our Canadian health care system as ineffective and excessively costly. . That got my attention. I opened up the deleted Items folder and had a second look. The message from Barack says

“”The Vice President and I just met with leaders from the House of Representatives and received their commitment to pass a comprehensive health care reform
bill by July 31.

We also have an unprecedented commitment from health care industry leaders, many of whom opposed health reform in the past. Monday, I met with some of
these health care stakeholders, and they pledged to do their part to reduce the health care spending growth rate, saving more than two trillion dollars
over the next ten years -- around $2,500 for each American family. Then on Tuesday, leaders from some of America's top companies came to the White House
to showcase innovative ways to reduce health care costs by improving the health of their workers.

Now the House and Senate are beginning a critical debate that will determine the health of our nation's economy and its families. This process should be
transparent and inclusive and its product must drive down costs, assure quality and affordable health care for everyone, and guarantee all of us a choice
of doctors and plans.

Reforming health care should also involve you. Think of other people who may want to stay up to date on health care reform and other national issues and
tell them to join us.

Health care reform can't come soon enough. We spend more on health care than any country, but families continue to struggle with skyrocketing premiums
and nearly 46 million are without insurance entirely. It is a priority for the American people and a pillar of the new foundation we are seeking to build
for our economy.””

I thought about the Canadians who are being paid to tear the system down before it even gets off the ground. I wondered about their expectation for the future, how much they’d like to be one of the 46 million Americans who have no health insurance.

Lately I’ve been going to the doctor. Nobody asks me how much money I have. My insurance is guaranteed. Sure I grumble. I’d like to be treated more kindly, seen more quickly by specialists. Of course I’d like to keep taxes as low as possible. But it occurred to me that maybe Stephen Harper, our very own prime minister, maybe Stephen Harper doesn’t know I want to pay taxes to support health care. Maybe Premier Ed Stelmach doesn’t know it either.

It has never occurred to me to send fanmail to our premier or prime minister. Unlike Barack, they rarely make public statements that fill me with hope and delight. But I just might send them a little fanmail about our health system, and I don’t think I’ll unsubscribe to Barack’s email list any time soon. One little email isn’t exactly overkill after all, and my fanmail must have been read, given that they knew this topic would be of interest to me.
I believe universal health care is a very hopeful thing. I believe that supporting it is an act of hope. I think I’d better boost the hope of our leaders by saying how much I like it, to be a small voice speaking in the din of all the complaining that comes so much more easily to the tip of the tongue and the button marked Send. Hope grows when people work together for something they value. False despair is out health system’s greatest threat.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009


We almost won the $49,000,000 lottery last week. That is to say, we had a ticket on that lottery, and the winning ticket was bought in Edmonton. So we almost won, and we knew we had, though it turned out that the winning ticket was split 13 ways by a group of payroll employees and none of our numbers matched theirs.
Still, I can’t help but feel that we almost won the lottery, because our close call led us into so many interesting conversations with friends. “”If you won that money,”” asked one of my colleagues, “”and you were going to give some of it to the Hope Foundation, what rules would you attach for how it had to be spent? Would you spend it on better furniture, or decent computers or what?””
“”Well,”” I answered thoughtfully, for this is a question I had already asked myself, “”I think we’d find the money for better chairs and decent computers if we really decided to. What we don’t seem to find money for is competitive staff salaries, because we always want to make sure we can keep the people we have so we never ask for competitive wages. So I think I’d insist it be spent on that.”” I was imagining the six-figure numbers in the newspaper ads. The brightest and the best would come banging on our doors, insisting that they be hired. We could give money away to creative researchers, to impoverished clients. My colleague was nodding right along. These ideas weren’t new to her. She also had a ticket and had already thought of them.
Another friend said, “”The hardest thing would be deciding what charities to give the money to. You know, there’s so much need out there.””
Later in the week people were still talking about it. Sitting around the dinner table, the Robertsons said, “”It would be very difficult to figure out how to share the money with your family in such a way that nobody would feel wronged or cheated.”” They went on to recount stories of families split painfully over money from a benefactor who had made a huge effort to be fair.
On and on went the conversations. Each time I had one I would ask: “”Don’t you think you’d want to keep the money?””
“”Oh no,”” replied my friends. “”I wouldn’t know how to spend it all. It would ruin my life.””
So there we were, my friends and me, living out a concept that my colleague Lenora LeMay calls ‘possible selves. Each of us was imagining ourselves as the best that we could be, having wealth and sharing it. The whole scenario enchanted me. Then I remembered a story I’d heard.
A group of employees won a lot of money a few years ago. The day they won the money some of them said they planned to share the winnings with the colleagues who had missed the chance to put their names on the ticket. The media loved that story, but the plan did not come to fruition. Jobs were quit and holidays were taken. The driveways of the winners sported shiny SUV’s and snow mobiles and off-road vehicles. With that in mind I took a second look at all of us and wondered how much of the $49,000,000 we’d be willing to keep. Even more to the point, if we had split it 13 ways, how much of the $3.9 million would we feel we needed? Would we be as generous as we thought we’d be when the chips were down?
After days of serious pondering I finally reached a conclusion. Win or no win, I truly am a lucky person. Imagine having the joy of being close to so many people who didn’t mention one shiny thing they’d like to buy! Of course they’d buy a few shiny things. Who wouldn’t? but the shiny things were not the first option that came to their imagination. As friends go, you really can’t improve much on that. But you do have to wonder why it is that we all buy those tickets.