Thursday, October 31, 2013


Master Corporal Chris Downey reflects on rehabilitation: “I made a promise to him not to waste a minute of my life for the gift he had given me.” “I’ve had the right support around me... The first day I was able to tie my own shoe again they made it seem like I’d cured cancer.” Chris Downey is racing to the South Pole, 336 Km with Team Soldier On. Three years ago Chris sustained major damage to the right side of his body in a bomb blast in Afghanistan. Hear an audio clip at RACE TO THE SOUTH POLE

Wednesday, October 30, 2013


Here is one difference between working with seniors—as I so often do now—and working with younger people. When you work with younger people, you are supported in hope by the unspoken assumption of possible continuous improvement. When you work with seniors, you are challenged to have hope while, at the same time, acceptung the premise that people may already have experienced the best moment of their lives. The hopes of older people are not so much about achievement. It is less about what they hope to do and more about how they hope to be treated. It is less about who they hope to meet and more about how those they already know will show loyalty to them.

Monday, October 21, 2013


I walked the length of Dawson Park today. The round trip took nearly an hour. The weather was perfect and I thought that I should do this more often, since the walk in the park is a clear path, extremely easy to follow with a white cane. In fact, I would do it more often if only it were a little easier to get into the park. The problem is not distance. I live a few dozen yards from the trailhead, but the path through those few dozen yards is extremely difficult for a blind person to navigate. Anyway, I had completed most of the walk and was just beginning to worry that I might get lost going home when a jogger approached from behind and slowed to my pace. Don’t be proud, said a small voice inside me. “If he offers to help you get out of the park, let him do so. Be careful not to brush him off. “Hello,” he said. “Hello,” I said. “I have a question for you,” he said. “What is it?” I said. “Well, you’ve probably never been asked this before, but, well, you seem to be a bit blind,” he said. Don’t brush him off too quickly, warned the little voice inside me. Cut him some slack. He probably hasn’t had a course in discussing the degrees in vision in appropriate language. Agree with him. That will keep the conversation going. “A bit blind,” I agreed, managing a small smile, hopefully inviting but not fake. “Well, I was just wondering if you ever thought of any spiritual treatment for that,” he said. Don’t brush him off, cautioned the little voice inside me. This may not be the time to tell him that your blindness has persisted for sixty years, despite the fact that hundreds of strangers have approached you offering you salvation. “I have a satisfying spiritual life,” I said. “Okay,” he said, and hurried away in the direction of the parking lot. Did he actually leave? I shall never know, but I didn’t hear any cars starting. I couldn’t shake the suspicion that he was watching me from a distance as I struggled to look competent while I threaded my way awkwardly home through the maze-like configuration of paths, curbs, gravel patches and lawns. Could it be that I still have a few things to learn about effective communication? Next time, maybe, just maybe I will be smart enough to say, “I have a satisfying spiritual life, but would you mind giving me an arm to help me out of this park?”

Saturday, October 19, 2013


My life, this fall, has been blessed by the presence of curious people. There’s Derek, a City University student who works at Walk In Counselling, the place where I volunteer on Thursday afternoons. “There is a time in counselling when you make a shift and the whole picture changes,” he says. “How do I know when that time comes—the time to stop exploring the situation and change gears? What are the signs I would see? What should I do when I see them?” There’s our almost-ten-months-old Ben, who suddenly, irreversibly, has discovered the secret of propelling forward on hands and knees. “What is it,” he babbles in words that could be mistaken for ba-ba-ba, nose inches from the floor, “that you keep behind the toilet anyway? Why don’t more of the people in this family spend time hunting the fascinating dust bunnies that hide in the deepest corners of closets?” There are all the friends who recently have asked, “Who would you like to see win the municipal election?” There’s Jung-Suk, the recently hired Director of Communications at the CNIB where I currently counsel. “What can you see,” he asked, the moment I crossed his threshold. My favourite thing about curious people is that their curiosity makes me wonder. Because of them I have tried harder to understand the municipal election. I have given serious consideration to that magic moment in counselling when you see what might be possible and then reach out to reveal it. I have renewed my own curiosity about the corners of my closet. And I have begun to speculate about what I might have written about Jung-Suk if, when I first entered his office, I had actually “seen” him.

Friday, October 18, 2013


I voted in the Edmonton municipal election yesterday. And even though I cannot see to read a ballot, my vote was cast in perfect privacy. I went to City Hall, sat down at the Automark voting machine, and listened as the machine read me the operating instructions. I selected a mayor from among six choices, a councillor from among 16, and a school trustee from among two. Then I put my ballot in the box, thanked the staff, told them how thrilled I was to be able to vote in privacy, boarded the LRT at Churchill Station and hummed, for the sheer joy of it, all the way to the university. More than any other level of government, our city has made voting easy for people who cannot use a print ballot. In future, we will only be voting once every four years instead of once every three years. This change will give our elected officials more time to work for us. I support this change, but I hate to give up even one chance to vote in such a delightfully inclusive manner.

Sunday, October 13, 2013


“And in my mind I still need a place to go, All my changes were there.” –Neil Young “The next time we go to Vancouver,” I said to David, “I want to go to Jericho Hill School.” “We already went there once,” he said reasonably. There was no denying the truth of it. For him, once had apparently been enough. We did go there once, back in 1974, when I was nearly 21 and the school was almost closed and the principal, smiling and gracious in a manner that seemed totally foreign to my memories of her, sized up david, glanced at my wedding ring and said to me, “Well, it seems that things have turned out rather well for you.” With that cogent summary, she ushered us off the property. Unspoken by David was the question: “Why would we bother going there again?” For this I had no real answer, only that I wanted to go. Our encounter with the principal was my last memory of the school, and this was a thing I regretted. For I had felt like a stranger in her commanding presence, a guest, unwelcome to explore the rooms I had known so well, or to speak unsensored of my experiences. A part of my life was closed off to me. I wanted to go back, to wander in the time before the principal tied my life into a neat bow. In my mind’s ear, Neil Young sang one possible explanation for my wanting: “All my changes were there.” I was a tearful, homesick 11-year-old Alberta farm child when I first went there in the fall of 1965. She was not the principal at that time. Mine had been the world of curling rinks and grain elevators, of chicken coops and hay lofts, of spring seeding and fall harvesting. I’d had never ventured beyond the safe shelter of loving parents. The house I had always known clearly remembered the days of kerosene lighting and outdoor bathrooms. In 1965 it still did not have a telephone. Vancouver BC was an unimaginable place. It might have been Wonderland, or the Land of Oz, for all I knew of cities. But Vancouver had a school for blind children. So that is where I was destined to spend my first few teen-age years. The Jericho Hill School for the Deaf and the Blind was not a single building, but rather a hodgepodge of structures, old and new, terraced and strewn on a steep hill leading up from the ocean at 4100 West 4th Avenue. At the bottom of the hill were the dining hall—half condemned and smelling eternally of cabbage boiled too long with ancient Brussells Sprouts, the office where we collected our allowance on Friday afternoons—three quarters condemned and creaking under every footfall, and the gymn—one ancient freestanding room, not condemned, though possibly soon to be. Part way up the hill stood the bowling alley where I learned to bowl badly, the swimming pool where I learned to swim sort of, and the Braille Building which housed the school for the blind, along with the dormitories for the junior blind girls, the senior blind girrls and the senior deaf girls. Over to the west was the building that housed the infirmary where the nurses soaked my boils, the auditorium where we put on plays, the residence for the junior deaf kids and the junior school for the deaf. Further up the hill were two buildings that housed the senior school for the deaf, and the home economics and industrial arts classrooms for the blind. Up even further stood the dorm for the senior blind boys and deaf boys. In the three years I spent trudging up and down that hill, I never climbed up to that level. The boys’ dorm was strictly off limits for us girls. In 2013 I was determined to go back there, to climb that hill again, even though I had heard that the condemned structures were gone and the Braille Building had been demolished. “I just want to walk on the grounds,” I said to David. So we boarded a bus sporting a sign that said #4 UBC and got off at Jericho Beach Park. The hill I remember has not changed. For some strange reason, no buildings have taken the places of the old. The swimming pool stands where it always stood and the sunken garden that separated it from the Braille Building remains as it was when I first knew it, nearly 50 years ago. I could face north and conjure up the mournful cries of the foghorns that were ever present when I woke on winter mornings. I could face south into the bush that backed our classrooms. David and I could descend the paths I trod in the rain to breakfast, lunch and dinner. We could take the path behind the pool and climb the 70 steps to the home ec room, now used for other purposes. We could even ascend those last two flights to the boys’ dorm. When we got to the top and surveyed the scene below, a gentleman asked if we needed directions—a reminder that this area might still be beyond limits for me. I left that place in the spring of 1968. My condition was much as it had been on the day I left home—tearful, not really wanting to leave. I was the strange inhabitant of two worlds that did not touch, except through me. Each world was separate and complete unto itself. Both of them were home to me, yet I could not dwell simultaneously in both. Three years is an eternity in the life of an 11-year-old. During that three years I had given up my Barbie dolls. I had expanded my body into bras and compressed it in panty gurdles. I had been kissed and learn go-go dancing. I had been confirmed in the Anglican church. I had visited the home of people wealthy enough to have a private swimming pool. I had slept in the same house as a drug addict. I had sold Girl Guide Cookies door-to-door. I had learned to read braille music. I knew jokes I could not tell my family. I had read To Kill A Mockingbird. I had sat upon a rock until my clothes were soaked by a rogue wave of the incoming tide. I had seen the Supremes perform at the Cave. I had eaten octapus at the Seven Seas buffet. I had drunk Shirley Temples. I had learned to iron. I could spell words in sign language. I had been lonely. I had been loved. I had been adopted by the families of friends I still cherish to this day—friends who could not possibly imagine themselves in the life of an alberta farm girl. It did not matter that the buildings were gone. A thousand insignificant details flooded my mind as we wandered up and down the hill. I recalled how the chairs were arranged in the dining hall, the shape of the pitchers that held the morning hot chocolate and the hooks where we hung our dripping coats. My ears heard the music room with its seven pianos, all playing discordantly from their corners during morning practice. My feet approached the library wall and my fingers touched the 144 enormous braille volumes that comprised the World Book Encyclopedia, 1960 Edition. I remembered throwing crooked pots on a pottery wheel and debunking horror stories about how hard it was for blind children to cope in public schools. (I had coped in public schools for the first six grades. That made me an expert.) I could hear Miss Darwood entering each room in the hallway calling: “Good morning girls.” (what she meant was, “Get up girls.”) I could feel the tension of waiting for her to get to our room. I would shut my eyes one second before she arrived and pretend to be asleep. I could hear the thunk of feet kicking the pop machine that stood steadfast at the swimming pool entrance, sometimes stealing money, other times delivering root beer, Coke or orange. The entrance is still there, but the machine is gone. David said he could see the stain on the wall where a machine had once stood. You can visit the past, but you can’t stay there. David and I left the grounds when I had kept him there as long as I dared. The paths through the forest and along the beach were beckoning us. But as we left, I opened the door a crack, lest he should think we would never go back. “I might,” I said, “want to come here some day and sit on the lawn that slopes down from the place where the Braille Building used to be. I might want to sit there and write.”

Saturday, October 12, 2013


Nine months have passed since we launched an effort to provide a gluten free diet for David. He had a sore and swollen tongue, the apparent extension of a condition whose origins could be traced back to early childhood. When the tongue specialist (who knew there were tongue specialists?) suggested a gluten-free approach, I, frankly was disappointed. I had been hoping for drugs. Now it is one thing to hope for an improvement, and quite another to hope for that thing in the face of fear. Mention drugs, and I imagined early morning reminders to “take your drugs, Dear.” Mention gluten free and the future indeed seemed terrifying. Visions of life without fresh baked buns and Saturday visits to the Italian Bakery for iced chocolate doughnuts danced in my head. There would be no more Welsh Cakes. All our future restaurant meals would involve slippery salads consumed in precarious balance on high stools at health food bars. There would be no more pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving, no stuffing at Christmas. Life with a gluten free husband would exceed the worst nightmares that a wheat farmer’s daughter could conjure. “Perhaps I will learn something,” I promised myself weakly. There is one sure sign that my hope is low. You see it when I start promising myself that I’ll resort to learning. Nine months have passed, and what have we learned? · There are more gluten free recipes than you’d think. The Internet is a-0buzz with them. As with all recipes, some turn out better than others. · There are other ways to make Welsh Cakes, waffles, birthday cakes, doughnuts, Rice Krispies Squares, pyrogies, lasagna and pretty much everything else you ever ate that had gluten in it. · There are a lot of things you used to eat that didn’t have gluten in them. · There are more gluten free options at restaurants than you would think. · There are even quite a few restaurants that carry gluten free bread and offer to serve it to you. · You can get more exercise on a gluten free holiday because you walk further when you make a point of deciding whether to stay by asking restaurants for gluten free options before you sit down. · You can lose a little weight on a gluten free diet. (author’s note: you can’t lose any weight eating gluten while your spouse goes gluten free.) · And, perhaps best of all, you can learn that you are loved, because your children, your siblings, your friends, and your colleagues will go out of their way to make inclusive changes. Come to think of it, you can learn a lot in nine months!

Sunday, October 06, 2013


The passing of our friend and neighbour, Ed Pawlovich, was one of the things that made us sad this summer. We knew Ed by reputation even before we met him. Eleven years ago, on the day when we first viewed our current house and wondered whether to buy it, the owner took us out on the front veranda and pointed to Ed’s house. “Ed and Sharon live there,” she said. “They are wonderful neighbours.” We were soon to learn that she was absolutely right. Sharon and Ed made us welcome in the neighbourhood. Ed was a social guy. He worked hard, but he loved to take a break and come over for an hour of what he called ‘porch time’. This involved sitting on the steps of our veranda, petting our dogs, and chatting to us about anything and everything. He never failed to be gracious to us. Even though his flowers were beautiful, he would announce that our flowers were putting his to shame. His snow shovelling was always done before the flakes hit the ground, but if we were shovelling first, he would notice that and say he’d better get to it. . When he saw us building a crooked fence, he came right over to help us straighten it. Ed was a protector of the neighbourhood. He carried a bag on his walks and picked up garbage every day. He made friends with people who lived in the bush and because of that, he could assure us that they were doing no harm. If he noticed that things were getting out of hand, he would be the first to call the City. Ed had interesting things to talk about. Some might have called him a gossip, but people loved to talk with him and to hear what he had to say. He introduced himself to workmen as soon as they entered the neighbourhood. Because of this, he always knew what they were doing. If somebody was building a new house, Ed found out how long they thought it would take. If they were digging sewer lines under the river, then Ed was there for a tour. On our veranda, he would tell us about walking through the underground pipes. He told us stories about growing up in Riverdale. He knew how to find fresh asparagus in the bush. He never told us where it was, but he brought us some to eat when it was at its very best. Ed had a tool for everything. He taught us how to burn off weeds with a torch. He helped us lift ceramic tiles with an ice scraper and scrape off the grouting with an old brick. He had long tools for reaching treetops and short tools for tiny spaces. Once, when our electronic keyboard went silent and no tool would awaken it, he invented long skinny pliers to fix it. We and Ed travelled in different social circles, had different interests. He attended the Big Valley Jamboree. He hated politics and public meetings. He never cared for what he called ‘long-haired music’, the background softness I liked to play at parties. He wouldn’t have thanked you for tickets to the theatre. But Ed was our buddy, pure and simple. One of my favourite Ed memories was made near the end of his life, on his last day of porch time. He was sick. He was exhausted. He was grumbling. I wanted to cheer him a bit, so I smiled at him and called him a curmudgeon. This was a new word for him. After he got home, he sent Sharon out to ask me to repeat it and give her the definition. When we went to his house for ‘kitchen time’ he wanted me to sayit again and he rolled it round and round on his tongue like a shiny new treasure. These days, when we walk in the park, people stop to give us their condolences. They tell us how much they will miss Ed. They know we will be lonely without him. We are lonely, but he has left us all with some really great memories.

Friday, October 04, 2013


Pirate: I am one lucky dog! Kitty: oh yeah? Pirate: Yes. Want to know why I say I’m a lucky dog? Kitty: I suppose. Pirate: Well, you know that baby we’ve been seeing—the one that changed Wendy’s name to granny? Kitty: Yeah. Pirate: and you know how you told me that he would be chasing me around the house, pulling my TAIL, eating my food, and getting me scolded for growling at him? Kitty: yeah. Pirate: Well, I’ve seen him three times now kitty, and I’m thinking you’re wrong. Kitty: I suppose it could happen. Pirate: The first time he came to my house it was March. I guarded my food, I stayed far away from him and I curled my tail as tight as I could. He just laid around on various laps. All my effort was wasted. Kitty: and? Pirate: The second time he came it was July. I guarded my food, I stayed far away from him and I kept my tail curled tightly. He just laid on the floor blowing bubbles. All my effort was wasted. Kitty: And? Pirate: the third time he came it was September. I didn’t bother guarding my food. In fact, I didn’t even need so much of my food because of the yummy stuff he dropped on the floor for me when he sat in his high chair. When he finished feeding me, he’d sit on the floor and roll onto his tummy. Then he would raise himself on all fours, almost as if he were a dog. He looked right at my tail, gave me the most beautiful smile and said, “ehh! ehh!” I thought “Now I’d better be careful.” I’d look straight at him and curl my tail tightly. Then he’d push with his hand until he crept backwards. Every time he pushed he got fartheraway from me. He’s harmless kitty. I tell you. You ought to be more optimistic. Kitty: And what will you do when he learns to creep forwards? Pirate: Oh, I’ve got it all worked out. Every day now I put my tail behind me and practice walking backwards. Kitty: you can lead a dog to enlightenment, but can you make him think?