Heather Conn Blogs

spoutin’ about by the sea

India’s Daughter lays bare a cultural indictment of women

For International Women’s Day, it would appear to make more sense to see a documentary that celebrates women’s empowerment, rather than one about a death resulting from a high-profile gang rape. Jyoti Singh, a 23-year-old medical student, died in 2012 as a result of serious internal injuries suffered after she was repeatedly raped on a night bus in New Delhi.

Yet, I am grateful to have watched India’s Daughter last night for many reasons: it took the story out of the headlines and into humanity, onto the victim’s parents and their dignified anguish and the achievements of their daughter; it put faces on both the perpetrators and the thousands who protested, in outrage, against this horrific crime; and it laid bare the raw misogyny not only of a rapist and his defence lawyers, but of cultural attitudes in India that have viewed women as worthless for centuries.

From his Delhi prison where he awaits death by hanging, convicted rapist Mukesh Singh condemned the impact of the documentary itself: he said that it will now encourage rapists to kill their victims, rather than “just” dump them at the side of the road, as he did with his victim and her male companion. He thought the victim deserved what she got, especially since she was out “late” (past 9 p.m.) accompanied by a male who was not a family member or relative. In his view, she should have remained silent while being raped; then things would have been easier for her.

It’s a challenge for any gender to hear such hateful opinions, yet they need to be heard. We, as women, need to know and see who holds such views and to learn how widespread they are. Two of the rapists’ defence lawyers (males, of course) shared their own astounding prejudices. One likened a woman to a flower, saying it was a man’s job to protect her, and if she became damaged or soiled in any way, she no longer had value. The other vowed that he would pour acid on his own daughter if she defied or dishonoured him.

Within India’s caste system, these lawyers are among the so-called educated class; most of the rapists were raised in poverty in one of Delhi’s slums. Women’s devalued role spans all castes in India, where female infanticide is common practice. Girl babies are often aborted, undernourished or murdered.

Even the victim’s own brothers questioned their parents’ decision to take money from land reserves, essentially their own inheritance, and apply it to their sister’s education. She was only a girl, after all. And the young wife of one of the convicted rapists, who denied his guilt, said that if her husband was hanged, she’d have to kill herself and her toddler son because she’d have no one to protect and there’d be no reason left for her to live.

Censorship-prone India has banned screenings of this film, which is a gross disservice to all of its citizens, particularly women. I applaud the decision of both the BBC and CBC to screen on International Women’s Day this searing indictment of both a culture and crime that has hatred of women (not just one) at its core. Even while creating this post, I kept writing “India’s Children” instead of “India’s Daughter”; I felt like my subconscious was trying to remind me that this is an archetypal story that affects us all. Its ramifications live far beyond this one rape and murder.

While travelling solo in India for seven months in 1990/91 in my early thirties, I was sexually assaulted numerous times by Indian men. The prevailing attitude was that any western woman travelling alone was a prostitute. This view was heightened when my male Indian companion accompanied me; men from taxi drivers to waiters assumed that I was his hooker and some even denied us a ride for fear of backlash. (I write about some of these encounters in my yet-to-be-published memoir No Letter in Your Pocket.)

Thankfully, laws in India have since changed to help female victims of rape, incest, and similar crimes fight back and win in the courts. Sally Armstrong outlines these successes in her book Ascent of Women (Random House, 2013). At least the rapists in Singh’s gang rape, including a 17-year-old tried as a juvenile, were all arrested and convicted. One of them had reportedly committed hundreds of prior rapes.

For more info on India’s Daughter, see  Arti Patel’s feature “Watch ‘India’s Daughter’ No Matter How Much Pride You Have” on HuffPost Living Canada.

, , , , ,
March 9, 2015 at 10:38 am Comments (0)

Sharing the path with “all creatures great and small”

cats low-res 872

Cats on the Camino, gathering under a window, waiting to be fed

horse low-res 321

A pilgrim from Spain feeds his horse before starting another day on the Camino

“I will cease to live as a self and will take as my self [sic] my fellow creatures.”

—   Shantideva, an 8th-century Indian Buddhist scholar and yogi

On a windy, cold day, walking through forest past the town of San Martin del Camino, I watched two pilgrims ahead of me scoop up things from the path and put them in a white plastic bag. The twenty-something couple, travelling with an older man, bent down at least a dozen times and continued to fill the bag.

When I approached them, they said, in English: “We’re going to have them for dinner.” Snails. Escargots. The pilgrims were French. A typical delicacy for them, right?

snails low-res 656

I felt sorry for the poor little snails. This was day 24 of my pilgrimage. By then, I had shared The Way with many snails, ones with black-and-brown striped shells that looked at least twice the size of our snails at home. I thought of them with fondness as my fellow travelers, along with the slugs, ants, beetles, lizards, and bigger creatures—dogs, cats, horses, sheep, and cows—that shared brief portions of my journey.

For me, these tiny sentient beings were as much a part of the trail as human pilgrims. In my busy life back home, they often went unnoticed or ignored. On the path, they had become visual focal points for me. After all, my eyes were constantly looking down, surveying the terrain for the most level surface, trying to avoid any potential footfalls. Amidst stones and other stationary features, insects added a spark of movement that invited more attention.

beetle and poppy low-res 594

I began to see them as a symbol of life’s interconnectedness. At times, while hiking alone on the  Camino, my mind and body, with no conscious effort, entered a sense of profound oneness with my surroundings. Physically, I felt as if I was no longer separate from what I could see and feel. Everything—my moving legs, shadows and bugs on the ground, birdsong in the air, waving tufts of wheat—were linked energetically as one fluid form of life. Insects weren’t just little dots beneath me: they were part of my own soul and being.

This sensation was so palpable I wondered why I didn’t feel it all the time.  I wrote in my journal: “I truly felt as if I had reached a state of grace while hiking alone today. . . It felt as if all life was sacred, including the flies, splats of cowshit—everything.”

Beyond  visual sensations, the Camino offers frequent reminders of bird and animal presence: the clang of cow bells, cuckoo calls, seemingly nonstop birdsong, and rooster crowing, even in the evening. Along the route, storks build thick, high nests of large branches on the flat eaves of many stone churches. The migratory paths of many birds follow The Way.

orange beetle low-res 769

The bright colour of this beetle, on a white path, drew my interest

We are never alone if we are willing to let all of nature into our hearts. Perhaps that is why I revel in solitude when in the outdoors.

beetle pile low-res 822

A cluster of beetles in the shadows

In hills with radiant rows of heather, thick and tall, on the highest part of the Camino (1,505 metres), while walking from Santa Catalina to Acebo, I noticed individual beetles, shiny and iridescent, along the path. Then I came across a cluster of them, later writing in my journal: “They’re startling in their mundane beauty.”

While contemplating these wee beings, I was surprised that the words from a hymn, which I sang in church as a child, came back to me:

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
The Lord God made them all.

heather low-res 815

some of the gorgeous hills of heather on the Camino

Had the Christian roots of the El Camino reached me? I had not thought in terms of “Lord” or “God” in many years. I believe in Soul and Spirit and divine essence, a unifying link of Oneness, rather than an externalized God or Saviour. Yet the phrase “all creatures great and small” stayed with me as I walked, almost as a mantra.

swallows low-res 837

swallows amidst pilgrims’ laundry

On day 27, while walking from Acebo to Cacabelos, I saw what looked like a large chickadee, with dark orange on its throat, alight on a low branch of a shrub. I remained only about a metre away and it did not fly away. Two days later, a yellow finch with some orange in its tail feathers hopped along the dusty path just in front of me.

cows and dogs low-res 934

These direct encounters with nature occurred while I was solitary and had seen no other pilgrims for at least an hour. They reminded me that any notion of separateness, viewing someone or something as The Other, or better or less than, is ultimately an illusion. All living beings share a heart that beats. That is enough to unite us all, big or small.

Then why did I inwardly condemn the pilgrims who repeatedly got drunk or treated the Camino like any regular two-week vacation? I resented the brashness of some bicyclists who hurtled downhill, loud and sometimes with little warning, expecting those on foot to make way for them. My mind eagerly put them in a category separate from me.

sheep low-res

On the Roman Road with U.S. pilgrim Michael Romo

With humans, I feel the need to maintain the illusion of my own identity, making others somehow wrong so that I can feel righteous or more evolved. With insects and animals, no such filter is necessary; with them, it is easier to connect from pure spirit.

NEXT WEEK: La Casa de los Dioses

 

, , , , , , , , ,
August 16, 2013 at 1:38 pm Comments (4)

El Camino: Trust your inner yellow arrow

HC on a country road low-res 961

I’m a country pilgrim, content in shade

“Spirituality is living from an authentic inner self that exists beyond ego identity and materialist reality. It means following one’s spirit into the Unknown and risking loss of perceived security and safety. It means connecting to a vast, divine essence that can provide deep guidance and fulfillment.”

 

Simply put, spirituality involves letting go of fear. I wrote the three sentences above in response to a list of self-assessment questions or “inner waymarks” in The Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago. This guidebook by John Brierley, used by almost every native English-speaking person on The Way—includes prompts such as “What do you see as the primary purpose of your life?” and “How will I recognize the right help or correct answer?” (Brierley, a former oil executive and Dubliner, realigned his priorities towards inner growth after a pivotal visit to Scotland’s Findhorn community in 1987.)

hotel eslava low-res 264

Hotel Eslava in Pamplona, Spain

I wrote these answers on day five of the Camino Frances, while resting at Hotel Eslava in Pamplona, Spain. In response to the question “How will I recognize resistance to any changes that might be necessary?” I wrote “Fear and worry are my resistance . . . [along with] self-doubt and negativity.”

 

Trusting myself and others has been a lifelong challenge. On the issue of “confidence to follow my intuitive sense of the right direction,” I gave myself 7 out of 10. This did not refer to geography but life direction—when would I know that I was choosing a path that reflected an authentic self, rather than one motivated by a need for recognition?

 

As part of this 800-kilometre walk, I was determined to open myself up to greater trust. Unlike some pilgrims, who called ahead to reserve at hostels or hotels or read about all the albergues in each town, I decided to trust that I would find what I needed when I needed it. Whenever it felt right or my body was too exhausted to continue, I would stop. Each day, I didn’t read my guidebook or look at its maps too thoroughly because I wanted to stay open to spontaneous discovery.

 

That process worked. Only once in my 34-day journey was one of the albergues I had ended up at full. Every day, starting on the path by about 7:30 a.m. helped ensure that I would arrive at most places by early afternoon, when beds were still available at hostels.

yellow arrow low-res 717

Camino’s ubiquitous yellow arrows
provide comforting reassurance

 

Four days before arriving in Santiago, I came to a crossroads on a country path between Mercadoiro and Portos. A large rock had a yellow arrow pointing in a different direction than what my intuition told me to follow. I wanted to keep going on the wide dusty path that I was already on; it seemed like a natural continuation. But that yellow arrow, part of the directional system of the entire Camino route, had never led me astray.

 

My cynical mind wondered: Did some prankster move the rock so that the arrow pointed in the wrong direction? I chided myself for such thoughts. This was the Camino, after all, a space that promotes a spirit of sharing and truthfulness. After two other solo pilgrims arrived, both middle-aged men, and chose to obey the arrow, I decided to follow them.

 

For about an hour, the three of us walked down a path with no way markers or yellow arrows visible. Finally, we realized that this was not the right direction and had to retrace our steps. I felt irritated at this “wasted” time. I had put more faith in others’ choices and made the yellow arrow an external authority over my own intuition. That arrow had never been wrong before. What could I learn from this? Maria Theresa, a pilgrim from Colorado whom I met repeatedly along the route, said: “We need to learn to follow our inner yellow arrow.”

 

Ironically, the only other time that I got lost and wandered off the Camino was later that afternoon.  Alone, I found myself in a field of tall, dried grass, descending a long, steep cow path barely wide enough for my feet. I had no desire to go back up. Continuing downwards, I trusted that it would connect with the highway, which I could see below me. I hoped that I wouldn’t have to cross one of the electric fences I had seen or jump down to reach the road. Thankfully, the pathway led right down to the highway. After consulting my guidebook map, I cut through the closest town and managed to return to the Camino route, feeling proud of my ability to get back on track.

path to highway low-res 941

This narrow path (left, foreground) led me safely back to the highway

By this time, I had walked the Camino for a month. For six of those days, I shared the path with a married, middle-aged German businessman who walks portions of the Camino every few years as a nurturing solo holiday. A lovely man, he expressed an attraction towards me but I had no interest in any connection beyond friendship. At times, he said that I seemed fearful; I worried that he would say or do something inappropriate. Would I have to fend him off? After we discussed my desire for openness and trust, he assured me that he would not do anything to hurt me. After suffering assaults on previous travels, I deeply appreciated his conviction. With that bond of trust, we have stayed friends and continue to email each other as supportive friends.

See Camino Guides for more information about John Brierley’s multiple guidebooks.

NEXT WEEK: Feet and the Camino

, , , , , , , , ,
August 2, 2013 at 9:45 am Comments (6)

The Great Dictator: Chaplin’s 1940 words still relevant today

 

When people are mired in despair and violence, it takes courage to speak out against those in power and to share one’s vision of a better world. Charlie Chaplin did that almost 75 years ago in his 1940 film classic The Great Dictator.

 

I felt inspired to share some of the speech that Chaplin wrote and delivers in the movie, in which he plays a Jewish barber mistaken for dictator Adenoid Hinkel, a Hitler lookalike. This tragicomedy, released in the early years of the Second World War (before U.S. involvement), was the first Hollywood film to stand against fascism and anti-semitism and to denounce Hitler. It later helped cause the branding of Chaplin as a Communist and his challenges with the Hollywood blacklist.

 

Sadly, Chaplin’s words seem just as apt today, especially following last week’s Boston marathon bombings and Watertown, Ma. shootings. In Canada, we could easily apply them to Stephen Harper’s attempts to quash freedom of speech and erode the democratic rights of all citizens.

 

Sure, the words are overwrought, they exclude women, and cite traditional religion, but think of when Chaplin spoke them. People were losing their lives to fight for democracy. This was a gutsy public voice against not only Hitler, but war and capitalism.

 

In this film sequence, Chaplin plays a character mistaken for Hitler, who addresses “his” army with a passionate plea:

“I’m sorry but I don’t want to be an emperor. That’s not my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone if possible;  Jew, Gentile, black men, white.

“We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each others’ happiness, not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone. And the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way.

“Greed has poisoned men’s souls; has barricaded the world with hate; has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge as made us cynical; our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost. The aeroplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in man; cries out for universal brotherhood; for the unity of us all.

“Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world, millions of despairing men, women, and little children, victims of a system that makes men torture and imprison innocent people. To those who can hear me, I say “Do not despair.” The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed, the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people. And so long as men die, liberty will never perish.

“Soldiers! Don’t give yourselves to brutes, men who despise you and enslave you; who regiment your lives, tell you what to do, what to think and what to feel! Who drill you, diet you, treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder! Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men—machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men! You have a love of humanity in your hearts! You don’t hate! Only the unloved hate; the unloved and the unnatural.

“Soldiers! Don’t fight for slavery! Fight for liberty! In the seventeenth chapter of St. Luke, it’s written “the kingdom of God is within man”, not one man nor a group of men, but in all men! In you! You, the people, have the power, the power to create machines, the power to create happiness! You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure. Then in the name of democracy, let us use that power.

“Let us all unite. Let us fight for a new world, a decent world that will give men a chance to work, that will give youth a future and old age a security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power. But they lie! They do not fulfill their promise. They never will! Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people! Now let us fight to fulfill that promise! Let us fight to free the world! To do away with national barriers! To do away with greed, with hate and intolerance! Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness.

“Soldiers, in the name of democracy, let us all unite!”

, ,
April 22, 2013 at 4:14 am Comment (1)

Fiestiness and fun: International Women’s Day comes to the Creek

The Suffragettes

Thanks to The Suffragettes, an all-women performance group on B.C.’s Sunshine Coast, I’ll never hear the song “There was an old lady who swallowed a fly” the same way again.

 

The four nimble dancers, clad in suffragette-style period costume, shared a hilarious, feminist parody of the children’s song on March 8 as part of an International Women’s Day celebration. To the applause of 150 people at Roberts Creek Hall, they related the tale, to the same tune, of a lady who swallowed a lie, rather than a fly.

 

The lady in this song version, whose lyrics are attributed to Meredith Tam, swallowed the rule “Live to serve others!” along with lipstick and fluff and a ring: “looked like a princess but felt like a thing.” One day she awoke: “She went to her sisters/ it wasn’t too late/To be liberated, to regurgitate.” She threw up the lie and unlike the woman in the original song, she will not die.

Nicholas Simons

This playful song was part of an excellent line-up of local talent—singers, musicians, and poignant speakers—at a pot luck supper sponsored by the Sunshine Coast Labour Council. Sunshine Coast MLA Nicholas Simons welcomed the crowd, which sat at tables adorned with arrangements of deep pink roses.

 

Emcee Alice Lutes, a Sechelt councillor, and some audience members teared up when shishalh elder Barb Higgins (Xwu’p’a’lich) recited a poem she’d written, Walking on a Mountainwhich evoked “warriors of the heart.”

 Barb Higgins ((Xwu’p’a’lich)

Barb’s daughter Holly later sang several songs, her solo voice resonating clear and loud across the hall. She recited her own poem, which included the line “Thank you for this blood that runs through my veins.” She invited everyone in the hall to join hands with the people beside them, look into their eyes, and say: “Be strong.” The mostly female crowd—at least a dozen men were present and welcomed—eagerly complied.

Dionne Paul

Shishalh band member Dionne Paul, a local Idle No More activist, shared a moving story about her birth. As part of what she called The Sixties Scoop, when Canada’s federal government was taking First Nations children away from their homes, she was to be adopted by a non-native couple in West Vancouver. Her mother, in an abusive relationship, was unable to care for her. At the hospital, only minutes before she was to be handed over to the pair, her aunt and uncle rushed in and said that they would raise her. As a result, she grew up surrounded by her true heritage, enjoying the cultural blessings of her First Nations lineage.

 

She said: “My dad was the very first feminist I ever met. He told me I could be whatever I wanted. I got my fire, strength and drive from my dad.”

 

Fathers, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, mothers, and Gaia—all were honoured at this free neighbourhood event. From “Bread and Roses” and other labour songs to the traditional European songs performed by the seven-member group Sokole, the evening reinforced a flavor of gratitude and solidarity among women and all humanists, regardless of gender, who seek a world of respect and equality. As local school board rep Betty Baxter told the audience: “Our movement accepts people for who they are.”

Jill Conway, Karen Stein, and Daniela Dutto

Popular local groups such as the Knotty Dotters and Definitely Diva rounded out the delightful evening. An a cappella trio of Karen Stein, Jill Conway, and Daniela Dutto sang a women’s liberation song from Tanzania and a beautiful rendition of Gaia Chant: Another World is Possible by Ann Mortifee and Chloe Goodchild. Another world is possible, a new day is here/we can work together now, to go beyond the fears. . . Oh Gaia . . .             

The hope, clear spirit, and irreverence expressed throughout the entire event–not to mention an ardent refusal to adopt Stephen Harper’s vision for Canada–reminded me yet again why I feel so grateful to live in such a fabulous activist community.

, , , , , , , , , , , ,
March 10, 2013 at 4:40 pm Comments (3)

One Billion Rising, B.C. style: Women dance in peace and solidarity

Curious pedestrians stopped to watch. A man in a taxi stared out the back-seat window. A nearby sidewalk vendor with a kazoo and crazy red costume sold Valentine’s trinkets to passersby.

 

But as darkness descended last Thursday, thirteen women in downtown Vancouver, BC, Canada focused on slow, spontaneous movement, in silent unison. We were part of the global solidarity dance One Billion Rising, held on Valentine’s Day as a symbolic demand to end violence against women and girls. (The name of the event, created by Eve Ensler’s organization V Day, refers to the reality that one in three females on earth will be beaten or raped in her lifetime, which amounts to more than a billion women.)

While women in cities around the world gyrated, sang, and held flash mobs, our group, arranged in a line, clutched a long, rolled-up red cloth. We lay it on the ground in front of the old courthouse steps on Robson Street, now part of the Vancouver Art Gallery. This defined our space, as a symbolic boundary, while a supportive male friend watched our belongings.

 

With informal facilitator Ingrid Rose, we took turns leading an improvised series of synchronized movements, decided in the moment by each rotating “leader.” Some of us used flashlights to spark the night as we all clasped hands to our hearts, raised arms skyward, bent down to touch the earth, and maintained an ongoing fluid flow of motions with our arms and legs.

I learned that such group movement with no set pattern or formation, yet with everyone doing the same motions, is called “flocking.”

 

This group activity, embodying the intention of nonviolence, felt like a combination of tai chi, yoga in motion, and Gabrielle Roth’s “flow” rhythm. All but one of the women were strangers to me, yet sharing this collective action felt like an ongoing hug from warm friends. We came together, we cared, we acted, without attachment to others’ reactions, and without fear in the night.

 

We danced not as spectacle or as separate performance, but as an extension of everyday life. Beside us, a First Nations man displayed hand-carved wooden masks, laid out on the steps for potential buyers. Electric trolley buses rattled past. From the top of the steps, a drunk man with a beer can heckled us briefly, then ignored us.

We were dancing both for ourselves and for women and children everywhere. Some in the group cried out or intoned as we danced. After forty minutes, we stopped and formed a circle. Without any planning or discussion, we each spontaneously called out words or phrases that our dance had inspired, things like “empowerment,”  “peace,” and “safety.”

 

Under a crescent moon, amidst the harsh lights and noise of the city, it was a rare opportunity to extend and experience a soulful presence. It invited us to redefine our relationships through peace, not just with others, but with ourselves.

In Sechelt on B.C.’s Sunshine Coast, about 25 women and one man danced at Trail Bay Mall in front of Clayton’s supermarket as part of One Billion Rising.  As Jan Jensen led a lively group to song lyrics that celebrated women, more than two dozen people watched and clapped in appreciation. Dance participant Wendy Crumpler says: “It was amazing: a very moving experience as well as being fun. Afterwards, there was this wonderful feeling of having done something together that was important.”

Click here to see video of One Billion Rising event in Sechelt.

, , , , , ,
February 19, 2013 at 9:49 pm Comments (0)

When illness hits, gratitude can follow

After more than a week of suffering through a cold and the norovirus—from nausea, vomiting, and coughs to headaches and extreme fatigue—I am slowly regaining strength. It feels like waking up from an operation, raw and vulnerable, with my senses trying to operate under layers of cotton balls.

 

Ahhhhhh. Such illness, which left me feeling too weak to stand for a few days, is certainly a great reminder of the daily tasks that I normally take for granted. Simple things, like easy breathing and having energy to think clearly, read, and multi-task, seemed beyond possibility. How did I ever find the energy to do all that I normally do?

 

Thankfully, this illness is only temporary. Lying on my back, feeling barely able to move, I thought of all of the people who face debilitating illness every day, whether it’s a recovering cancer patient or someone with a terminal disease.

 

I thought of how weak my dad must have felt when he was dying of multiple melanoma. I asked him once, after he’d moved into a hospice, if he’d like to do a crossword puzzle with me. He replied: “You’re asking too much of me.” He didn’t have the energy.

 

Yesterday, I spoke with my 60-year-old friend Michael in Ontario, a fit, healthy man who recently had a stroke out of the blue. He fell about 20 metres from a stepladder, then managed to crawl upstairs to bed, not realizing what had happened to him. After 48 days of intensive neuro- and physiotherapy, he now walks with a cane. Otherwise, he’s fine.

 

Now Michael says that he’s “restructuring.” His brain has found new neural pathways. He’s no longer locked into his old ways of seeing and interpreting things. Friends say that he seems happier. He smiles more. I tease him that he’s enjoying the benefits of decades of zen Buddhism without having to meditate.

 

He appreciates that he’s lucky to be alive. I agree. I’m sure glad that he’s still around.

 

There’s nothing like the loss of our familiar self, the life that we can fall into without much thought, to make us realize how special every day truly is. I’m grateful that at middle age, peering back into wellness, I am grateful for what I see—and can do and be.

 

 

 

, , ,
January 25, 2013 at 3:31 pm Comments (0)

Restorative justice works — I tried it

He didn’t rape me, he was no murderer, yet when I faced the 20-something male stranger who kicked in my front door last month, I initially refused to shake his hand, feeling scared just sitting next to him.

 

In my early fifties, I was about to experience my first restorative justice session, held last Saturday, a day before the start of Canada-wide Restorative Justice Week (Nov. 18 to 25). This is a process whereby an offender and victim meet, share their views of the related incident, and come to a mutual agreement regarding accountability and restitution. This perspective considers minor crimes an office against an individual or community, rather than the state; therefore, it avoids court proceedings and a criminal conviction.

 

Accompanied by a young female constable, the offender and I faced each other in a small room in the new RCMP building in Gibsons, BC. My chest tightened at the sight of the man’s striped jacket, the same one he had worn that awful October night. I had been alone in my rural home, weak from the flu, watching TV in my pajamas and bathrobe at 10:30 p.m. Hearing repeated knocking, I had decided to answer the door. Perhaps someone in our community-minded neighborhood was in trouble.

 

Unable to see through the door’s peephole, I went to a window next to the door and pulled across the curtain.

 

“I need a ride,” slurred the tall, blond man in a baseball cap under my overhead deck light. I couldn’t tell if he was drunk or high. He was carrying a near-empty six-pack. He repeated the request.

 

“We can’t give you a ride,” I repeated, not wanting him to know that I was alone. My husband was away, working. The guy mumbled that he was from Vancouver Island and asked me if I had been there. He said someone had told him there was a party here and he wanted to know how many people were inside. Was he trying to assess the situation for an attack?

 

“There’s no party here,” I told him. “You’re probably looking for the Legion.”

 

“The Legion’s closed,” he said. He didn’t leave.

 

“I’d like you to get off our property or I’ll call the police,” I told him. He didn’t move. “I could call the police right now.”

 

“Sorry, sorry,” he said, sheepishly. I stepped away from the window. The curtain fell back into place.

 

SMASH! I ran into the hallway, aghast to see my locked door open, the inner left door frame broken and fallen halfway outside. Omigod. Would he try to get into the house and rape me?

 

All I could think was: I have to stop him from getting in. I put all of my weight, fatigued from the flu, against the door. The end of the lock reached into space, nothing left to hold it in place. I dialed 9-1-1 and gave a description of the man to the dispatcher. Relieved that he hadn’t gained entry, I relaxed a little. But was he lurking outside?

 

A male constable arrived quickly and showed me a photo on his phone of the suspect. Police had just picked him up on a nearby road. They would hold him overnight. More relief. He was charged with mischief. The officer asked me if I would be willing to testify against him. The man had no criminal record. But what if he sought revenge for his first offence? I didn’t want to be victimized again.

 

Weeks later, Constable MacPherson, the RCMP’s local restorative justice representative, had called me and asked me if I’d consider a restorative justice session. I said yes.

 

Now I sat in this newly built room, which still smelled of fresh wood, and at first, avoided looking at the offender. I told him everything about that night: my fear; his arrogance in expecting a stranger to do his bidding; his lack of impulse control, his unwarranted trespassing and on and on. What if he had done this to my 93-year-old neighbor? She could have had a heart attack. His actions could have caused post-traumatic stress disorder in someone. I spoke of taking responsibility for one’s actions, of empathy and compassion, how every action and statement we make has an impact, in the moment, on others.

 

The twenty-something constable, only four years on the force, spoke of her own fear and adrenaline that night, when she had to arrest him while alone on a dark road with no streetlights. He had become belligerent in the police vehicle, denying his actions. I found out that he had followed my neighbors down their driveway only a half-hour before appearing at my door.

 

The man admitted that he had once put his fist through a wall after an argument with a past girlfriend.

 

“That scares me,” I told him. “This is your wake-up call. You need counseling.” I spoke of violence against women. He agreed to counseling, which became a term of our agreement. If he didn’t follow through, he could be re-arrested.

 

He paid for my door repairs and apologized repeatedly. I also received a hand-written letter of apology. I shared my appreciation of his willingness to get help and to participate in this session. The constable said it was rare to have both parties agree to restorative justice.

 

Before we ended our conversation, I wanted to shake his hand. “You earned it,” I told him.

 

I left, feeling heard and validated. As the constable had explained, if this had been a court case, I would not have been able to address the offender directly. Such an opportunity felt deeply gratifying. I spared nothing in my assessment of his actions.

 

I’m not surprised that restorative justice shows a high rate of victim satisfaction and offender accountability. For minor infractions, this is how true, meaningful change begins: in raw, person-to-person honesty, one heart at a time.

, ,
November 23, 2012 at 11:27 am Comments (3)

Seek peace on Remembrance Day — and always

On Remembrance Day, I woke up at about 4:30 a.m., unable to sleep. Oddly, I was thinking of the life expectancy of a tail-gunner in the Second World War. These men, who operated machine guns while cramped into a highly visible plexiglass bubble in the rear belly of a plane, were exceptionally vulnerable to enemy fire. I had heard that they rarely survived a week of such work. Other sources say seven weeks or two flights. Twenty thousand of such allied gunners died during the war.

 

I can’t imagine what it would be like to take on such a high-risk task, knowing with complete certainty that you would be dead within weeks. Flying so exposed at high altitudes, these men often suffered frostbite. As lookouts, if they relaxed their guard for a moment and missed seeing an enemy plane, they and their crew mates could be dead within seconds.

 

Yet so many young men willingly undertook this dangerous role. I would like to honour the courage of such men and the thousands of others at battle on land and sea, who died for the cause of freedom against fascism and Nazi power from 1939-1945. But ultimately, is any war justified?

 

Remembrance Day always brings me conflict. I admit that I enjoy freedoms now because of those who gave their lives in the past. My heart aches for those whose young sons and daughters have died in a global conflict, for the veterans who have returned, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and receiving little government aid.

 

Yet, I don’t support the hype around labeling dead soldiers “heroes” when they were exploited as pawns in a war for oil interests under the guise of “liberation,” as in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Persian Gulf. I am a pacifist, committed to nonviolence. I don’t even like using the term “enemy.” I praise the nonviolent resistance movements of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi. I support the notion of ahimsa, which yoga master Kripalu describes in the following way:

 

Ahimsa is the state that exists when all violence in the heart and mind have subsided. It is not something we have to acquire; it is always present and only needs to be uncovered. When one practices ahimsa, or nonviolence, one refrains from causing distress—in thought, word or deed—to any living creature, including oneself.

 

Many people might think that this state is unattainable. Yet, we can all become more conscious of the conflict within ourselves, which we project onto others. Peace begins within. Would I be willing to take up arms in self-defence? Probably. Does that make me a hypocrite? I don’t know.

 

On Remembrance Day this year, Yoga by the Sea offered a peace meditation at the same time as the memorial ceremony held at the Legion in Roberts Creek. Dozens of people gathered to meditate, in silence, for about 40 minutes. I think that such events are a wonderful counterpoint to the honoring and continuing of war. Peace rhetoric is easy; living it is a daily challenge. Let’s all strive for peace within our hearts and share this every day, as best we can, in forms both big and small.

, , , , ,
November 13, 2012 at 12:13 pm Comments (2)

What kind of change agent are you?

Awareness. Commitment. Action. One person alone can’t alter an entire economic system, but working with others who are committed to take action to change it can make a difference. That’s one of the messages of The Story of Change, the latest in environmental activist Annie Leonard’s animated video series The Story of Stuff.

 

In this six-minute short, Leonard blames bad policies and business practices for our current western economy, which values profits over people and the planet, and creates enormous inequities in taxation and income. It’s not enough, she says, to be a smart shopper and stop buying stuff that you don’t need that will end up in a landfill. We need to demand changes from politicians, regulators, and manufacturers.

 

The movie explores what effective change-making has looked like over time, presenting two world examples of successful mass change: the U.S. civil rights movement under Martin Luther King Jr., and India’s shift to independence, spurred by Mahatma Gandhi. Neither of these pivotal events of social transformation would have happened, Leonard says, if the respective leaders, King and Gandhi, had pursued their quest as loners.

Annie Leonard

She emphasizes that any significant effort to build a better future shares three key factors: a big idea, a commitment to work together, and the ability to turn the big idea and commitment into action.

 

I wholly agree, and yet the movie fails to acknowledge the value and power of inner growth and change, which often creates the launching pad for external action. The spiritual beliefs of both King and Gandhi were major influences behind their desire for change and their commitment to peaceful resistance. If King and Gandhi were themselves violent people, they could not have inspired and led others towards peace and dramatic social change. Their inner change had to come first.

 

That’s one reason, in my view, why many collective attempts at change fail. The so-called leaders haven’t done enough inner growth work (whether it’s in aid of maturity, anger management, compassion, forgiveness, love etc) to walk the talk and inspire others without creating emotional meltdowns, hatred, resentments, and disillusionment. The resulting hypocrisy and contradictions between their espoused views and goals and their daily behavior become too discordant for many followers, who often quit in disgust.

 

 

As they say: Never underestimate the power of one human being to make a difference. As Gandhi said: “We must be the change we want to see in the world.” Someone’s presence, demeanour, and attitude, even with no words spoken, can alter any atmosphere or group.

 

I believe in the approach Heal Yourself, Heal the World. Yet, as Leonard points out, it’s not enough to remain isolated after changing yourself for the good. Only when you join with like-minded others for a larger cause can widespread change take place.

 

What kind of change agent are you — networker or nurturer, builder or resister? Discover your “changemaker personality type” (communicator, builder, networker, nurturer, investigator or resister) in the short quiz following the video.

, , , ,
July 23, 2012 at 8:15 pm Comment (1)

« Older Posts