Saturday, December 31, 2011


I love the way language changes—the new meanings for old words, the old words that make a comeback. You can see it everywhere, once you decide to notice. Look in the news, where our modern search capacities track such phenomena. Journalist Tom Spears, for example, has noticed that the Ottawa Citizen printed ‘iconic’ 370 times in 2011, not even once in 1990. By 2032 it might appear thousands of times, or maybe none at all. Nobody knows which word would achieve iconic status, taking its place and soaking up the printer’s ink in the event of its demise. If I had the tools I’d find out how often ‘hope’ appears in the news, whether its use has grown or shrunk. Perhaps some day I will have the tools, maybe even be lucky enough to know how to use them. But that isn’t likely to happen tomorrow. The question is, what shall I do while I wait?
A few stories come to mind, might as well take a moment to tell them. This Christmas season, with the family gathered for kitchen chatter, seemed like the perfect time to drop a phrase that once echoed in our house. “Beats for you,” I said. Everyone understood.
I don’t know what ‘beats for you’ means in other households. In ours, it means, ‘Turn the clock back 20 years and imagine us smiling at one another, giving a playful push.’ “Beats for you,” the pusher would say with a grin. A mutually understood implication bubbled unspoken just below the surface. The intended meaning could, I confess, have been delivered with more directness. But what self-respecting just-about-teen-ager would say to his brother, “You have been fortunate to avoid the full force of my wrath on this particular occasion?” If you wanted to make a veiled threat with a smile, you’d warn of potential ‘harsh beats.’
I have no idea where the language of beats came from. Maybe it started at school, maybe on television. I know I didn’t start it, but I will confess that I encouraged it. I used it, though probably not at the office. It is difficult to imagine what direction my career might have taken had I—assigned the job of disciplining an employee—opened with a grinning exclamation, “Beats for you.”
Childhood is a veritable breeding ground for the introduction of expressions. This, possibly, is because youth so often exclaim. Most of our out-of-fashion exclamations began with kids and youth—cool, neat, rad, mint! Mint! What’s that you say? You’ve never heard anybody say ‘mint’?
Well, if you’ve never heard young people exclaiming ‘mint!’ every 14 seconds, then it is clear to me that you never attended Jericho Hill School in the mid 1960’s. The school was out in Vancouver, many miles from my Alberta farm home. I was 11 when I arrived. “I’m from Alberta,’ I told my new roommate.
“Mint!” she said. Being the new kid in the dorm, I let it go, didn’t mention it the first time, or the fiftieth time I heard it. I knew her a little better by the next day, so I said, “What does ‘mint’ mean?”
“What does ‘mint’ mean?” she repeated, drawing a wondrous breath. “What does ‘mint’ mean? You don’t know what ‘mint’ means? They don’t say ‘mint’ in Alberta?”
“Well,” said I cautiously, not wanting to cast too dull a light on my ancestors, “I suppose it’s possible that they say it, and I simply haven’t heard it.”
“Mint,” said she, rising to the occasion with the gravity of a philosophy professor accepting an honorary doctorate, ‘mint means nice.”
“Mint!” I replied. Twelve hours later I had almost forgotten that there was once a time when I didn’t say it, except in reference to certain candies my Granny kept in her purse.
Some days I get down about language, start thinking that no new language is ever good, that all new words of exclamation start with F. Sometimes I long for the days of ‘mint!’ Most often it’s the talk shows that bring it on. It’s listening to the endless programs where callers are encouraged to call in complaining about how the language has gone to the dogs, how the apostrophe is wrongly used, how young people can’t even write a business letter.

Then I go out shopping, and a cashier just past her 16th birthday asks me, “Will that be cash, or card?”
Out pops my credit card. She picks it up, peers at it, runs an affectionate finger over the security chip. “Perrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrfect!” she cries. And here is the message, the sign, the affirmation that the days of ‘mint!’ are still with us, albeit in a different form. I know that all is right with the world.
In 2011 Everything Became Iconic

Wednesday, December 28, 2011


Here, from our Governor General is a message for the future.
Governor General David Johnston

OTTAWA— In the little over a year since I was installed as Governor General, Sharon and I have had the opportunity to travel to almost every corner of our
country—and to meet with Canadians from nearly every walk of life. It has been a remarkable experience.

What has struck us most is the generosity of Canadians. Generous with their talents, their time and their treasure. More than 80% of Canadians make some
kind of financial donation to a worthy cause every year. And some 12 million Canadians spend over two billion hours volunteering.

Those are impressive numbers and speak to the kind of people we are—and the kind of country we’ve built. We are a nation of barn raisers.

Whether it’s because of the geography we share or the climate we endure, giving seems to crop up everywhere in our society. We are bound to one another.
And every day, in countless ways large and small, Canadians demonstrate their gift for giving.

I have been reflecting upon the generosity of Canadians while thinking about the year ahead. In every new year lies the promise of a new beginning.

An opportunity to improve our lives and enrich our country. And as Canada approaches its 150th anniversary, in 2017, it’s time to renew our efforts to imagine
the kind of country we want—and to start building it in the New Year.

Imagine a smarter, more caring Canada. A Canada where giving—in all its forms—time, talent, altruism become an even more integral part of our daily lives—a
main stream part of being Canadian.

During the holiday season, each of us can plainly see the effect that the spirit of generosity and goodwill has upon our lives and our communities. And
each year we ask ourselves, ‘Why can’t every day be so full of sharing?’

Indeed, ‘Why not?’ An everyday culture of giving is one of the defining features of successful societies everywhere. This has been the case throughout Canada’s
past, but we cannot take it for granted. Together, let us renew our gift for giving as we look to the future.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011


In the hour before dawn on Christmas morning
With the air as soft as a downy pillow
And the traffic so light you could play on Rowland Road
As the toddlers’ parents ponder a post-present nap
And the teen-agers parents wonder when they will be able to open,
We are walking the streets with Pirate
In the face of a looming crisis.

In our pockets there is no bag
To capture the inevitable.
Bags abundant still at home
Useless on the closet shelf.
David in the throws of worry
Me above it all.

“Ridiculous!” I scoff
“To be so utterly concerned.
2,000 walks, 2,000 bags
Who can boast of such a record?
A perfect pick up history.”

“I have a Kleenex,” David says.
“Neurotic,” echoes my reply.
Self-proclaiming Pirate chooses,
“Here’s the place where I shall go!”

Then from the shadows rings a voice
A front-porch-sitting Christmas smoker,
“Merry Christmas,” cheery call.
“Leaving us a present are you?”

There proudly sporting the smuggest smile
That ever graced the pure of heart stands
I, awaiting Dearest David
As he calmly demonstrates
the infinite worth of prior planning
And the pick-up power of the lowly Kleenex.

Saturday, December 24, 2011


“Are you ready for Christmas?” they always ask. It’s a strange question, don’t you think? What would it take to be so ready that a person would answer with an unqualified “Yes!”?
I, though I’ve never found the language to admit it openly, am always ready for Christmas, so long as you don’t measure readiness by the completedness of shopping, or the evidence of baking, or the perfection of carols practised beyond the genuine probability of error. What I do notice though is how, every year, despite the calendar, and the counting down, and the planning, and the scheduling, never cease to be surprise when Christmas arrives. “It’s here already,” I remark—though not too loudly. Would I want anyone to think I hadn’t been expecting it?

Friday, December 23, 2011


And as I played the familiar carols
Getting them ready for special occasions,
Feeling the ancient rhythms,
Absorbing the timeless beauty

I wondered at so very much complaining
about Christmas music played too soon in stores
And so very little
About the rush to early shopping.

Thursday, December 22, 2011


Shall I pause to celebrate
The timeless gifts that keep on giving?

The accordion that came when I was 11
Accordions build lifelong character.

The china on the festive table.
China builds family memories.

Much-loved music playing on the stereo,
The clothes that bring the compliments.

And the very best of all,
Delivered 38 years ago today
With a promise and a ring,
A husband.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


I never cared for chemistry classes. “Get it over with as quickly as possible and make sure you pass,” was what I said. But if I ever get truly interested in chemistry—interested for more than one day—which I’m not promising, I may very well owe the credit to a most remarkable teacher--Dr. Margaret-Ann Armour. It is almost 24 hours since I spent an hour with her, I am not preparing for an exam, and I still remember some of the things she taught me. Now that is something to notice!
Margaret-Ann is internationally known for her passionate teaching. She has a style that makes science accessible, relevant and interesting. “Science is not something done by a group of experts sitting in a lab somewhere,” she says. “Science is all around us, in the natural world and in our own bodies.”
Her teaching ideas are designed with a hook to draw people in, and an unshakable belief that we’ll want to be there once she’s got us.
She told me she could make a yellow compound and then shake it. As she shook it, it would turn red, then green. I was a little bit impressed at that point—a little bit. Then she told me that if we left the compound to its own devices, it would turn red, then go back to yellow.
I listened politely, but then, without even meaning to, I asked a question. “Why does it revert?”
“It’s because the dye in the compound picks up molecules of oxygen as you shake it,’ she said. “But the compound isn’t stable. So it slowly releases the oxygen again.”
It was a story, and I like stories, but since there would be no exam, I expected to forget it some time within the next few minutes. Margaret-Ann, however, was not finished with me yet. “That’s how it is with blood in our bodies,” she said. “It picks up molecules of oxygen in the lungs and the heart sends it through the body. It deposits the oxygen in the cells along the way, then goes back for more.”
I have been taught about the lungs and blood before. I hadn’t bothered to give it much thought. But when I heard myself telling the story to others, I knew that a skilled teacher had been messing with my attentions.
We got into that conversation because she was telling me, at my request, how she engaged the interest of young aboriginal students at a camp the Hope Foundation sponsored on the University of Alberta campus. “When those students came in to the lab the group was quiet. Normally I would get things going by asking questions. But that wouldn’t be the right thing here. They need time to feel that they belong. So I talked for a while and then I went right into having them make nylon.”
The process of making nylon went very well. By the time the nylon was made, the students were involved. They were ready to ask and answer questions. After that, they went on to make Bakelite.
Not missing a chance to engage me, she assured me that I would understand what she was talking about because of the work I do. I would know how important it is to consider first the needs and interests of the people you are trying to help, how important it is to hook them, to make participation irresistible to them.
The lesson ended on schedule. Margaret-Ann went away, but not without leaving something behind. For here I am today, writing about compounds on THE HOPE LADY Blog, and wondering how much the average person would know about chemistry if every teacher could teach like Margaret-Ann.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011


Me: We got an invitation today. We were invited to do something.
Myself: Really? We’ve had a lot of invitations lately, but I don’t recall getting any today. What have we been invited to?
Me: We’ve been invited to give up a grudge, one we’ve been holding a long time.
Myself: I don’t recall being invited to give up a grudge, unless, maybe, you mean that letter we got that said nice things about us.
Me: That’s the letter all right. So are we going to?
Myself: Are we going to what?
Me: Give up the grudge.
Myself: You mean today? You want an answer right now? What’s the rush?
Me: There’s hardly a rush. We’ve been carrying this grudge for decades. But I’m finding it a bit of a burden, and I’m just wondering when we’ll be giving it up.
Myself: Well I don’t really know when. The grudge, as you call it, is perfectly justified. We were wronged, you might recall, treated rather badly. I would say we’re owed an apology. I hardly see how a pleasant letter can stand in for that.
Me: What about several nice letters? There have been a few of them over the years, you know.
Myself: Well, I hardly think several nice letters spread over a long period equals an apology. Apoligy is the standard form of invitation when it comes to giving up grudges.
Me: Standard, maybe, but maybe not the only form. What about a few invitations added to a few nice letters? There have been a few invitations to events, as I recall, and never a word of hostility. Surely that counts for something.
Myself: Maybe. But you never really know where words of hostility could be hiding. Maybe they’re written between the lines.
Me: I’ve got that covered. I’ve been looking between the lines of every letter. There’s nothing there except white space. But, look, I’m not hard to deal with. Maybe today is too soon to part with something so familiar as this grudge. Maybe we won’t be able to part with this grudge until tomorrow. What do you think?
Myself: Tomorrow? Well we’ll see what tomorrow brings. I’m not making any promises. This will take some time to consider, and I’m pretty busy, what with Christmas coming and all.
Me: So just tell me one thing, will you? What is your biggest fear about giving up this grudge.
Myself: Fear? What do you mean, fear. I have nothing to be afraid of. It’s just a grudge, after all. What’s so scary about a grudge?
Me: Plenty, I’d say. Most of the world’s wars—maybe all of the world’s wars—are fueled by grudges. I’d call that scary. And here’s another thing. Only half the world’s apologies are generated by genuine remorse. The rest are matters of convenience. Try as I might, I can’t really think how it was convenient to write these nice letters. Now here’s another idea. Could you give it as a gift?
Myself: Give a grudge as a gift?
Me: No, dummy. Could we give up the grudge as a gift? Give the gift of forgiveness?
Myself: Well, there’s a new Christmas idea, the gift of forgiveness. But then, you’ve got to be careful with these new ideas? One year it’s a new idea, the next year it’s a trend. You know how these things get going. One year it’s Cabbage Patch Dolls. Another year it’s I-phones. Pretty soon the whole world is changing, and everybody’s talking about the new trend. Can you imagine what might happen if everybody started giving the gift of forgiveness for Christmas?

Monday, December 19, 2011


Lisa Rowbottom is studying counsellors who intentionally modify their strategies to meet the psychological counselling needs of people who have FASD. It isn’t easy finding people to study, but she now has three, and is hoping to find a fourth. I spent an hour or so answering Lisa’s questions last Thursday morning. The benefit of that time went to me as well as to Lisa. She got a research participant, and I, preparing in advance to make good use of that hour, got the incentive to pull together my thoughts. In doing so, I noticed how counselling people with FASD is a process to which I haven’t given much dedicated thought. I’ve simply plunged in when the need arose, and felt my way in, paying heed to my knowledge about the complex set of emotional, cognitive and behavioural barriers I’d be likely to encounter, and the stories of real people that give me cause to hope that the effort is worthwhile.
I’ve lately been observing how, when it comes to growing up with FASD, things happen, but they happen slowly. A person who had never been able to communicate in writing will, in the early 20’s, suddenly start text messaging friends. A person whose grasp of math has never allowed for serious money management will, at the age of 29, take a score sheet and manually calculate the Yahtzee totals.
At conferences I often hear it said that people with FASD, showing remarkable verbal ability, appear to be smarter than they actually are. They talk a good line, but their actions don’t follow their words. The flip side of this is also true. People with FASD, in my experience, use their verbal ability to talk a good line sometimes, and a bad line at others. They ruminate. Their words influence their mental health in a very negative manner, and our words about how they never follow through compound the negativity, for us and for them.
FASD is a disability—a very complex disability—not simple, like blindness or deafness. If you fail to see it as a disability, if you try to break it down into parts and address them one at a time, you’ll get brain fatigue trying to understand it with logic, broken heart protecting yourself in its emotional storms, and a case of frustration so big that only an extended tropical vacation can cure it.
At conferences I have heard it said that insight-based psychotherapies don’t work well with people who have FASD. Frankly, I don’t think we know what works and doesn’t work. That’s one good reason, I’d say, for Lisa to be doing her study. Another good reason is that others, like me, have probably developed some undocumented strategies to use with people who have FASD. Undocumented is the operative concept here—explaining why we find so little useful counselling information in the literature. Alas, we counsellors have something in common with people who have FASD. We’ve been slow to develop.

Sunday, December 18, 2011


We might get an artificial tree next year. That’s what we’re saying now, listening to the words we are saying, trying to figure out whether we mean them.
It’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas. In the corner of our living room stands a tree so fragrant that Mark and Tracey can smell it through the crack under the door to their upstairs apartment. It’s a tree with character, wide, embracing, flattish on top, shaved at bottom. Skinny branches extend their curving needle fingers to clutch at the bounty of treasures accumulated over the decades. Last night’s dinner guests said: “what a lovely tree, so full, not a single bare spot.”
The 2011 tree is everything an artificial tree will never be—difficult to handle, original, quirky. David acquired it at a Food Bank fund-raising event on Churchill Square. He asked them for a tall one, not realizing that he was making the choice to take home a tree that required the carrying strength of Hercules with a trunk that only a logger could love. He might have asked for a different tree, had it been a Thursday evening, or a Saturday afternoon. But that is not how it was. He had got it in the true Christmas spirit, in a sleepy haze at 5:30 AM on a Friday morning at the end of a week of working long hours of day and evening due to the commitment required during City Budget time. He had gone to get it at the earliest possible moment so that he’d be home in time to help Lawrence get his car into the repair shop before work.
All day, bottom in a pail of water, the tree languished stiffly in the garage, limbs imprisoned in string, silently wondering how we’d find a stand to hold it. “We might get an artificial tree next year,” we said, locking the doors behind us, hoping time would bring wisdom.
It takes a family to manage such a tree. Friday evening became an impromptu guys’ night out for Lawrence and David. After a period of experimentation resulting in the sacrifice of a dozen branches and approximately 10 billion long needles, they went shopping, came home with an electric reciprocating saw, and wrestled the trunk into submission.
Mark and Tracey loaned us their tree stand. It’s a bit more secure than ours for such a heavy tree. And we thought maybe we shouldn’t bother to get a new tree stand for ourselves, just in case we meant it when we said we might get an artificial tree next year.

Saturday, December 17, 2011


Two people sent emails early on Wednesday morning with stories to bolster my hope. I hadn’t asked either of them for that. Nevertheless, they had chosen the best possible day.
There are days when I really need somebody to tweak my hope. Wednesday was one of those. I was giving two hope presentations, one at the George Spady Centre, the other to the ATA Guidance Council. I was planning to say that you have to pay attention to hope, to notice it in amongst everything else. And there, offered on a silver platter, were two things I could notice—two things that gave me hope.
Jim had sent an article from the Globe and Mail. Secret Santas paying off strangers’ layaway accounts
Generosity, according to the story, had started with one person and gone viral, the way the urge to burn police cars tends to go viral in a riot. It happened in a store in Michigan, where an anonymous shopper paid off some debts for others. Publication of the story set off a trend of copycat behaviour in other stores, stores in other states. The very idea that generosity could be contagious was highly hope-enhancing, given all the Black Friday, threaten-and-crush news we’d been hearing, given the expectation that Black Friday behaviour will soon be present not only in the U.S., but also here in Canada. That alone would have been enough to put me in the mood for a presentation. But there was more.
David sent me a letter to the editor that appeared in The Edmonton Journal. Raise would close salary gap
Accompanying the letter was a note that said: “You could have written this.”
What he meant, but had not said, goes something like this. “Wendy, here is a completely straight-up no-nonsense letter saying something you’ve been harping about since the early 1970’s—that we can reduce the wage gap any time we choose to do so by giving equal dollar raises instead of percentage raises.”
It was affirming to know that one person has been listening to me. It felt good to see it written so plainly. It sounded good to hear somebody else say it. It gave me hope that we might actually begin to do something about the wage gap—some day. All this hand wringing about how we need to reduce the wage gap, need to reduce the need for food banks--gets a little tiring.
I do hope I will soon begin speaking out about one possible solution—to somebody other than David.

Friday, December 16, 2011


Tracy bear: “I rode the elevator in the Education Building with five other women. All of them had Ph.D.’s. All of them were aboriginal.”

Saturday, December 03, 2011


I hope to live in a country where a person can do a good day’s work and live comfortably on the wages earned for the effort. It’s a good hope to set your sights upon, a comforting hope, an easy hope to coddle. It’s a good hope to keep in a decorative box on your mantel, good right up to the moment when you open the box and take it out.
Like so many hopes of an ethereal nature, I’ve found that this one burns a bit when you hold it close and put its feet to the fire. In our house there lives a man who gets up every morning before I do, leaves for work before I do, and usually gets home after I do. For his efforts he is paid $11.00 an hour. Where will he live in the future?
“We’ll buy you a place to live,” I say, lifting the lid of the box where I keep my hope and peering inside. Facts are facts. We do not yet live in a country where a person making $11.00 an hour can save for a property purchase.
Free housing, you think. That ought to help make that $11.00 salary go a little further. But, when you really look at it, there’s no such thing as free housing. There are condo fees, and taxes. There’s the power bill, and the heating bill, and the phone bill, and the cable cost. You only have free housing when someone else pays all of that—not just this month, but next month, and next year, and maybe forever, if the hard day’s work you are able to do is not likely to earn you much more than $11.00 an hour.
In my world there are some seniors who live well. They have a comfortable home. They travel a bit. They can afford to hire some help when they need it. I hoep to be one of those. It’s a scary thought, the possibility of endangering this hope so that a person earning $11.00 can have a decent life. Isn’t that the government’s job? Or is it mine?

“If you wait for a better time… better than this very moment, if you wait until you feel settled, divinely inspired, perfectly centered, unburdened of your
usual worries, or free of your own skin, forget about it. You will be waiting tomorrow and the next day, wondering why you never managed to begin, wondering
how you did such an excellent job of disappointing yourself.” –Eric Maisel, Coaching The artist Within

Friday, December 02, 2011


Who wants hope and turns to me
To see if I have some?

An endless parade of people oppressed
By depression and poverty and family illness,
The guidance counsellors at schools bent with tragedy,
Care-givers in a drunk tank,
Pain doctors,
People with Parkinson’s,
Offender treatment staff,
Spouses and children of someone with alzheimer,
Downtrodden agents of child protection,
Day programmers for disabled seniors,
Student counsellors learning their trade,
Colleagues at Hope House,
My own family.

With no solution for any of these,
Sometimes I think there would need to be
A bottomless pit of hope to mine
With stories and pictures and words of encouragement,
And most of the time I think there is one.