Telling the story of my life in my home - Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Making History in Fort McMurray

There are few things I find myself unable to write about, at least immediately after they occur. For troubling events I often find myself working them out through my words - but it is the other events, the ones where I can almost feel my heart bursting at points, that defy my attempts to pin them down on paper, instead fluttering around like tiny butterflies unwilling to be captured.

This weekend I was part of two such events. All I can say about them - at least right now, until the butterflies drift down to earth once again - is that they were magical. They were the kind of magic, though, that comes from hard work, teams of amazing and dedicated people and a belief in what we can accomplish - and in our community.

Two days, back to back, that have left me aching in every muscle, feeling slightly hung over without having touched a drop of alcohol and completely, overwhelmingly, exhilarated. Instead of words today I am going to rely on some photos, because these are the images I will carry in my heart long after the words have faded away. 

Thank you, Fort McMurray and Wood Buffalo. I am so grateful every single day to be part of this community, but you see over the last two days we made history - and I am so proud, and so humbled, to have had the opportunity to be part of it.

Shell Place Grand Opening, June 12, 2015

Northern Kickoff presented by Shell, June 13, 2015

~The official disclaimer: these comments are purely my own reflections and thoughts, 
and do not represent the opinions or views of the organization by which I am employed~

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Living in the Moment with the Imagine Dragons

There are moments in time so unique and unforgettable that you know they have found a special spot in your memory. You know you will tuck them away and pull them out in the future, reflecting back on an experience that meant more than it would seem to on the surface. Last night was one of those moments.

We almost didn't go. I had purchased the tickets - and not just "a ticket" but an entire experience - months ago but work matters had intervened and I had told the Intrepid Junior Blogger that sadly we could not attend the Imagine Dragons concert in Edmonton. She was understanding, if disappointed, but she was even more surprised when suddenly this week the clouds parted and it became not only clear that we could go but should go, an opportunity for a small road trip before the summer and a break before our lives step into very high gear for awhile. And so, on rather short notice, we threw some things into a suitcase and hit the highway, travelling a few hours down south to make a memory.

As we waited in the line-ups, first to check in for our VIP experience and then to meet the band, the IJB was remarkably calm. She doesn't get excited about much, approaching life with a degree of calm I wish I could emulate. She isn't much of a hero worshipper or fan girl, either, generally unimpressed by fame or fortune. Much like her mother, though, she struggles to live in the moment, always thinking about the next class, the next exam, the next phase of her life. Her outward calm hides her constantly working mind, one that is relentless in conjuring up expectations and creating often unanswerable questions. It is a pattern I know far too well.

As we waited we both noted how terrific the staff were at Rexall Place, and how calm they seemed to be too, the flow of these events honed over the years and dozens of concerts just like this one.

But for the IJB this wasn't just another concert. This was her first stadium concert, different from the small concerts of 1500 or so fans she had attended before. As someone who cut her teeth on huge concerts in the late 1980's featuring bands like New Order, Psychedelic Furs and Echo and the Bunnymen, I knew how special that first concert is, and how it sets the tone for your expectations of those in the future. I knew how concerts are one of the rare times when you can set aside all other thoughts - the pounding music and bright lights making it almost impossible to do otherwise - and live purely in the moment. But I also knew not all concerts are like that, some instead lacklustre affairs with disengaged performers there to earn a paycheque and disinterested in their audience. As someone who had spent years with musicians I knew the magic that happens when audience and artist connect, feeding their energy to each other and leading to one of those heart-stopping moments of perfection. I also knew this was unpredictable and elusive, and one never knows when it will happen...and now I know it happened last night, and the IJB was there not just to see it but be part of it.

In our brief moment with the band we discovered a group of four young men who were kind and gentle, calling the IJB sweetheart, telling us how much they love Alberta and how happy they were to be there last night. One could think these were just hollow words, rehearsed and insincere, but we didn't doubt their authenticity as they were delivered in such a seemingly heartfelt manner it erased all doubt. And once they stepped on the stage any doubts of their love for what they do, of their genuine affection for their fans, of their pure joy in being there, disappeared in a puff of smoke.

There are so many things one could say about the Smoke and Mirrors tour. Opening act Halsey was intriguing, particularly her reference to the Pride Parade held in Edmonton the very day she was performing for us. I was delighted to finally see Metric perform, a band I have loved for a long time and had been anxious to see live - but it was the Imagine Dragons who owned the stage and the audience from the moment they walked out.

The stage set was unbelievable, the remarkable column-like screens creating a unique backdrop for every single song. Watching them move and shift, watching them become not just part of the set but part of the narrative of the songs, was astonishing - but even without the stage I believe it would have been an incredibly special moment.

There were points when it was incredibly beautiful, when Rexall Place was lit up by the tiny lights from thousands of cell phones floating in the dark like little fireflies. Decades ago we held up lighters, and every time I see this I feel that flashback to the past and I know how much the world has changed - and how much it has stayed the same. 
There were points when there was laughter, and points where there was nothing but the sound of thousands of voices - including mine - singing the lyrics we know by heart.

For me though the special moments were when I would look at the IJB and see her, eyes closed, singing along and knowing every word, and completely and entirely living in the moment. It is so rare to live in the moment now, in a world filled with distraction and information rushing at us from every angle. It is a gift of the most precious sort to live in the moment, one we often struggle to find.

It would be an unkind understatement to say they brought down the house. They did so much more, leaving it all on the stage as good artists do, connecting with an audience of thousands and yet I suspect making each person feel like they had connected with them personally. When they played their encore - after the crowd erupted into cheers when they left the stage the first time - huge glittery leaves rained down on the crowd, creating a moment that was not only beautiful but magical, and one I managed to catch on camera.

There are some firsts in life. You can only ever have one first kiss, one first lover, and one first concert like this. You never know how those "firsts" will unfold, and how they will shape your memories. Last night I had the honour of being there as my daughter experienced her first stadium concert, and I saw in her face the kind of our joy and abandon a live music experience should bring.

As we left the stadium with the crowds around us and walked towards our car, the sky now dark and the city lights bright, she said: "I don't know what it is but concerts like that just make you feel like you don't give a damn about anything else." 

All I could do was smile, because that's exactly how I wanted her to feel. That feeling is called "living in the moment" and last night, thanks to a band called Imagine Dragons, we did.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Biting the Hand That Brews You

The latest brouhaha (brewhaha?) swirling around a once-Canadian (and now foreign owned) coffee company and the oilsands is making headlines all over the country, it seems. Tim Hortons, traditionally associated with core Canadian values like hockey and moms and dads and kids, was running some ads on the video screens in their restaurants, which likely brought them some nice little revenue in addition to that they garner from that  crack-like addictive coffee and those delectable Timbits. Trouble is one of the ads they were running was promoting Enbridge, and when some anti-oilsands activists got wind of this they started a movement to have the ads yanked.

The anti-oilsands group claims 30,000 Canadians signed a petition to force Tim Hortons to drop the ads, and so, caving to the pressure of those individuals, Tim Hortons made the decision to pull the ads. The real debacle here isn't that Tim Hortons pulled some advertising from their stores, as is their right, or that they spit in the face of oilsands workers (they probably didn't make any friends at Enbridge, but I think Enbridge will survive, and I don't believe Tim Hortons are anti-oilsands, just anti-being-the-target-of-a-petition). No, the debacle is that apparently Tim Hortons has no idea who their market demographic is, because I suspect few of those 30,000 petition signatures were penned by Tim Hortons regulars.

Tim Hortons has a clear and definable brand. It's not elitist coffee with fancy Italian sounding names for cup sizes. No, you can get a small or extra large at Tims and not need to learn an entirely new language. Oh, they brew up lattes for those in need of the fancy coffee, but their core business is the standard double-double, served hot and preferably with a donut. And their core clients are blue collar Canadians, people like the farmers, ranchers and oilmen in my family who show up at Tims in dirty coveralls and boots that smell suspiciously farm-like. They love Tims because they don't want a serving of politics with their coffee - all they want is a good solid brand that espouses their values on things like hot coffee, artery-clogging donuts and Canadian beliefs like hard work and family, and a place where they can freely (to borrow their phrase) "shoot the shit".

I am frankly stunned that Tim Hortons seems oblivious to this. I didn't even know they were running Enbridge ads until they yanked them and the outcry arose among the very core of people who will wait in drive through line ups 30 cars long just to get a damn cup of coffee they could get anywhere. Tim Hortons actually allowed politics and controversy into their doors by yanking the ads and earning the ire of those who really just want coffee and a Timbit.

I would hope somebody in their communications and marketing red flagged this. And anyone in those departments who told the upper brass that this would be an okay move without significant repercussion should be fired as clearly they don't have a clue about the Canadian market, as this bonehead move shows. Far better to withstand the complaints and hide behind the contract excuse ("we have a contract with Enbridge we must honour") and just not renew that contract than yank the ads causing a furor and, in the end, damaging their brand.

Brand is something that may take decades to build. It's the association your mind makes when a name is mentioned, like when someone says Tim Hortons and you think coffee and donuts and charming ads about parents getting up way too early to take their kids to hockey practice, Tim Hortons cup in hand. But now Tim Hortons has managed to tie their brand to controversy and politics, likely tarnishing it forever in the minds of some of the Canadians who sit in those drive through line ups every day. The trouble with a strong brand is it can take decades to build - and only moments (or one bad decision) to destroy.

This isn't really even about oilsands or petitions. It's about not understanding the people who have bought into your brand, and in this case those who drink your brew. Tim Hortons shouldn't be ashamed that they have offended the energy sector. They should be ashamed they don't know who their customers are, even when their customers knew - or thought they knew - who Tim Hortons is.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Hope in the Dark 2015 - Final Thoughts

5:50 am

I am huddled deep inside my sleeping bag. My throat feels raw, likely from the cold night air combined with the forest fire smoke that has been hanging above us all night. I've been awake (but not up) for awhile, woken by the sounds of voices and just wanting them to shut up so I can sleep some more. There is no noise coming from the box beside me, as the IJB is fast asleep. And then I hear Barb's voice and I know it is time to go.

Hope in the Dark is over for another year.

I fling back the top of my sleeping bag and realize the field around us is deserted and we are, it seems, the last ones still asleep. I shake the box and a muffled angry voice tells me to go away. I tell the voice that I will pack up my things and return for her, allowing her a few more moments of sleep as 5:50 in the morning is not a time teenagers like to be awake, unless they are still up from the night before.

I pack up, trudge up the hill to the car and then come back for her, the last person standing (or sleeping as it is) at Hope in the Dark 2015. She reluctantly slithers out of her warm den and puts on her boots, We break down her box and pack up the car, and then we head home.

Home. A word that is loaded with meaning and emotion, a word that for four years now has come to mean even more after a night sleeping in a park.

11:00 am

I've managed a small nap and I'm at a store picking up a few things. I tell the clerk I spent the night in a park and explain why, and they look at me and say: "Well, some of them choose to be homeless you know." I look at them and after four years of a night of cold and dark and learning I simply say: "No. They don't."

It is a nice lie we tell ourselves, you see. I don't believe a single person in this world grows up with the ambition to be homeless. I don't think anyone says: "Hey, I think I'll be homeless today." It happens to us through situation and circumstance, and on occasion perhaps those who are experiencing homelessness choose to stay there not because they don't want a home but because the experience has so changed them that they know it will be a fight to adapt to a different life in a home again. Some have tried to get off the streets and failed because they have become accustomed to a life on the streets and they know they will struggle to leave it because it is a life they know and understand.

And I know this because after four years of Hope in the Dark I realized that this year I was used to the experience, as was the IJB. We could have slept in that park all day, long after the others had left. We were okay - not happy perhaps, but we had adapted to a life in the rough. We understood the rhythm and the routine, and we were prepared.

It is convenient to tell ourselves that others choose to be homeless. You see of we can put that choice on them then it eliminates our responsibility and culpability. Suddenly we have no blame and no role to play because "they" have chosen it. It is a comforting lie, as so many lies are - but it is still a lie.

Every night in our community about 50 people sleep rough on our streets. Over the past ten years sixty of them have died. Don't you dare lie to yourself that they chose to live and die on our streets, because they didn't. While that lie makes it easier for us to sleep at night in our cozy homes it does nothing for them, and it does nothing to create the hope they need to survive - and eventually help them to turn hope into home.

To the Centre of Hope: thank you for taking me and my daughter on a journey of learning and understanding. I think it is vital for you to know that not only do you provide hope and change the lives of those experiencing homelessness you have changed our lives, too, and shown us the meaning of both hope and home. 

To my fellow Hope in the Dark participants: thank you for being there and giving up your bed for a night to learn and understand, and for fighting the lies we tell ourselves together.

And to my daughter, the IJB: thank you for being the last one standing at Hope in the Dark and for being the kind of person I am not only proud to have given birth to but honoured to know. You are the reason I think our world has every right to have hope - even in the dark.

Hope in the Dark Live Blog - Part Four

1:30 am

It is quiet now, almost everyone settled into their sleeping bags. I can hear voices here and there, scattered and indistinguishable in the wind. Someone close to our bags is snoring. Some others are talking too loud in my opinion, the lights on their phones too bright. I am already irritable it seems, starting to get cold and cranky.

The moon, affected by the wildfire raging far too close to Saprae Creek, has gone blood red. It is a startling sight.

Earlier a friend dropped off hot chocolate and coffee, much needed as the night turned darker. The IJB and I have talked a lot tonight, perhaps even more than we usually do at home. Separated from the distractions of life like computers and cats, laundry and dishes, we are forced to rely on each other. We are a good team. Strong. Resilient. And occasionally goofy, tossing pillows at each other and laughing.

But that was earlier. Now we are trying to sleep, although the rustling noises from her box tells me the IJB is still working on her homework.  The damp is beginning to set in, the cold starting to make itself known. The reality is she and I are sleeping outdoors in a park, not because we are homeless but because we want to understand what it means to be. We never want to forget how lucky we are. We never want to take our lives for granted. We never want to lose our hope, including the hope we find in each other. Together we want to find hope in the dark.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Hope in the Dark - Live Blog Part Three: Flickering

12:30 am

Just as they do every year when the sky turns dark the people from the Centre of Hope held a candle light vigil to remember the patrons they have lost over their ten years of operation.

Sixty. Six and zero, the candles a stark reminder of sixty lives ended on the streets of our community. The brisk wind threatens to snuff out the candles and I cannot help but see the similarity to the lives snuffed out on our streets every year.

Sixty. An average of six every year over the last ten years, members of the Centre of Hope family gone. It has been, as Barb from Centre of Hope explains through tears, a bad year. They lost too many family members, too many patrons gone.

Lives snuffed out, just like candles that don't stand a chance against the wind.

Hope in the Dark - Live Blog Part Two

11:00 pm

We are already in our sleeping bags (with the IJB in her box). It's cold already - and the mosquitoes are out, buzzing around our heads.

I peek into her box and find her doing her AP math homework by flashlight. I find it strangely upsetting, maybe because I have met young adults like her who are on the streets and who may never finish school.

The folks from Centre of Hope have been around "stealing" from the participants. The IJB and I are wise to this trick and one of us always stays in our camp to keep watch. Reality is when you are homeless you are prone to being the victim of crime - theft, assault, everything and anything. What few possessions you have are fair game for others.

As I put in my nightly eye drops I reflect on how anyone who has my eye condition and is homeless would likely simply end up irreversibly blind. When I was in the hospital for the surgery to fix my corneal perforation the nurses were talking about a fellow patient with the same condition who was "non compliant". It was pretty clear this patient was seeing some rough times - she was my room mate and while she may not have been homeless I suspect her life was difficult. At times my eye disease has meant putting in eye drops every hour and having ones that must be kept in a fridge - how would someone homeless do this? How would they travel to see the specialist I see in Edmonton on a regular basis? How would they be able to follow the treatment plan I will need to follow for a corneal transplant like I will soon receive?

Truth is if I was homeless, I would be blind with no likelihood of ever regaining my sight, a chance I only have because I have a home, a job and a support system.

Suddenly I'm terrified. This is going to be a long and troubling night,