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

Thursday, November 26, 2015

What's It To You?

The subject line of the anonymous email is an ominous foreboding of what it will contain. Daring to be outspoken on certain issues has a tendency to attract this kind of email, and it is most certainly not the first time I have experienced it, and not likely to be the last. This time it centres around the audacity I have displayed in being vocal online about an issue close to me and those I love, and of dire urgency in our world.

“What’s it to you”, the email begins. “Why don’t you just shut up about gay kids. It’s not like they have it so bad.”
It is unsigned, of course, and the identity of the sender is protected by one of those anonymous email sites where one can send any matter of vitriol to others without recourse. I could respond to the email directly, but my preference is always to drag the things that lurk in the dark into the light, and so I do so today.

The LGBTQ youth issue boiled over again recently in an article, an op-ed and a letter to the editor in our local daily paper. I won’t comment further on those directly, except to say I am exceptionally proud of the Fort McMurray Public School District and their province-leading proactive approach to LGBTQ youth in their schools. The Intrepid Junior Blogger, who spent eleven years of her educational life in the FMPSD, was one of the beneficiaries of this proactive stance, and she was one of the students who founded the Gay-Straight Alliance at Westwood High School. Her experience at the FMPSD has formed her expectations as to how this issue is approached.
So, at the very outset of answering the “what’s it to you” question my daughter’s experience must be considered. I never even knew what a GSA was until she informed me she was helping to found one. Together she and I watched the debacle over Bill 10, and together she and I became progressively more informed on LGBTQ youth. Social justice has always mattered to me, and over time it has come to figure prominently in the IJB’s life, too. When my daughter asked me to use the tools in my tool kit – meaning this blog and my ability to write – to help to address the issues facing LGBTQ youth it meant I needed to learn far more than I knew, and so I did.

What I learned was devastating to me. We often speak of how our society will be judged by how we treat our most vulnerable – children, seniors and the like. And the reality is that statistics clearly show LGBTQ youth are a vulnerable group and one in need of specific consideration as the challenges they face are tremendous.
The following are taken directly from an Egale Canada Human Rights Trust survey in Canadian schools – and warrant immediate and serious attention:

Key Findings: School Climates in Canada Today

Homophobic and Transphobic Comments

·         70% of all participating students, LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ, reported hearing expressions such as "that's so gay" every day in school and almost half (48%) reported hearing remarks such as "faggot," "lezbo," and "dyke" every day in school.

·         Almost 10% of LGBTQ students reported having heard homophobic comments from teachers daily or weekly (17% of trans students; 10% of female sexual minority students; and 8% of male sexual minority students). Even more LGBTQ students reported that they had heard teachers use negative genderrelated or transphobic comments daily or weekly: 23% of trans students; 15% of male sexual minority students; and 12% of female sexual minority students.

·         Hardly any LGBTQ students reported that they never heard homophobic comments from other students (1% of trans students; 2% of female sexual minority students; 4% of male sexual minority students). This suggests that if you are a sexual minority student in a Canadian school, it is highly likely that you will hear insulting things about your sexual orientation.

Verbal Harassment

·         74% of trans students, 55% of sexual minority students, and 26% of non-LGBTQ students reported having been verbally harassed about their gender expression.

·         37% of trans students, 32% of female sexual minority students, and 20% of male sexual minority students reported being verbally harassed daily or weekly about their sexual orientation.

·         68% of trans students, 55% of female sexual minority students, and 42% of male sexual minority students reported being verbally harassed about their perceived gender or sexual orientation. Trans youth may report experiencing particularly high levels of harassment on the basis of perceived sexual orientation because often trans individuals are perceived as lesbian, gay, or bisexual when they are not.

·         More than a third (37%) of youth with LGBTQ parents reported being verbally harassed about the sexual orientation of their parents. They are also more likely to be verbally harassed about their own gender expression (58% versus 34% of other students), perceived sexual orientation or gender identity (46% versus 20%), gender (45% versus 22%), and sexual orientation (44% versus 20%).

Physical Harassment

·         More than one in five (21%) LGBTQ students reported being physically harassed or assaulted due to their sexual orientation. 20% of LGBTQ students and almost 10% of non-LGBTQ students reported being physically harassed or assaulted about their perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.

·         37% of trans students, 21% of sexual minority students, and 10% of non-LGBTQ students reported being physically harassed or assaulted because of their gender expression.

·         Over a quarter (27%) of youth with LGBTQ parents reported being physically harassed about the sexual orientation of their parents. They are also more likely than their peers to be physically harassed or assaulted in connection with their own gender expression (30% versus 13% of other students), perceived sexual orientation or gender identity (27% versus 12%), gender (25% versus 10%), and sexual orientation (25% versus 11%).

Sexual Harassment

Levels of sexual harassment are high across the board for LGBTQ students. The following groups of students reported having experienced sexual harassment in school in the last year:

·         49% of trans students

·         45% of students with LGBTQ parents

·         43% of female bisexual students

·         42% of male bisexual students

·         40% of gay male students

·         33% of lesbian students

The higher levels of sexual harassment for gay male than for lesbian students may be attributable to greater exposure to sexual humiliation as a distinct form of unwanted sexual attention. Also, lesbian students may be less likely than gay male or trans students to perceive their experiences of harassment as sexual. Further analysis will explore the experiences included in this finding.

Unsafe Spaces

·         Almost two thirds (64%) of LGBTQ students and 61% of students with LGBTQ parents reported that they feel unsafe at school

·         The two school spaces most commonly experienced as unsafe by LGBTQ youth and youth with LGBTQ parents are places that are almost invariably gender-segregated: Phys. Ed. change rooms and washrooms. Almost half (49%) of LGBTQ youth and more than two fifths (42%) of youth with LGBTQ parents identified their Phys. Ed. change rooms as being unsafe; almost a third (30%) of non-LGBTQ youth agreed. More than two-fifths (43%) of LGBTQ students and almost two-fifths (41%) of youth with LGBTQ parents identified their school washrooms as being unsafe; more than a quarter (28%) of non-LGBTQ students agreed.

·         Female sexual minority students were most likely to report feeling unsafe in their school change rooms (59%). High numbers (52%) of trans youth reported feeling unsafe in both change rooms and washrooms. It is notable that these places where female sexual minority and trans students often feel unsafe are gender-segregated areas. Not only does this contradict assumptions that most homophobic and transphobic incidents take place in males-only spaces, but it also points to a correlation between the policing of gender and youth not feeling safe.

If anyone can read those statistics without feeling a compelling sense of alarm for the safety of LGBTQ youth I would suggest their reading comprehension skills are weak. And here is another deeply troubling statistic: LGBTQ youth face approximately 14 times the risk of suicide andsubstance abuse than their heterosexual peers.
Fourteen times. It’s almost incomprehensible, but there it is, staring you in the face in black and white. Fourteen times.

That’s what it is to me.
And that’s also why I have absolutely zero intention of “shutting up” about LGBTQ youth. It’s why anyone who claims they “don’t have it so bad” doesn’t have a clue about the reality, and it’s why LGBTQ youth issues may be the greatest emergency we as those with a responsibility to protect the vulnerable face today.

This isn’t about “being on the right side of history”. This isn’t about “political correctness”. This has nothing to do with race, nationality, colour or religion. This is about tender young lives, forever altered and far too many lost because we sit around as adults and talk and debate and “create policy” and make red tape so we can cut the red tape. This is about our children – yours and mine – and ensuring this world is one in which they thrive. This is about making sure every single youth, regardless of how they choose to self-identify, receives the benefit of our protection and is safe in their schools and in our world. You know who have never sent me anonymous emails or messages? The youth who have contacted me, LGBTQ and others, who wanted me to not only know their names but their experiences. Their bravery and courage is outstanding, and far outweighs the voices of those who wish to silence them. That's "what it is" to me - and what it should be to anyone with an ounce of compassion or concern for the children and young adults who are not only are most precious resource right now, but our very future. And those who do not see that, who think people like me should shut up? They may as well go tilting at other windmills, as this one is steadfast and not about to alter direction today, tomorrow or any day until those statistics related above are remnants of the past, and not the reality our youth live today.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Don't Let Hatred Have A Home in Your Heart

When I was about fourteen I went to my father and asked him the kind of question that often stumps us as parents, not sure how to answer or respond. I expected him to react in the way other adults had when  I asked them: a sigh, a sad shaking of the head, an explanation that it was complicated. But in this, as in most things, I underestimated my father, who had clearly given the topic a great deal of thought.

A voracious reader, I had been reading about the Holocaust. It was a learning journey for me, particularly confusing at times as I knew my ancestry was strongly and overwhelmingly German, and there were moments when I read about the atrocities of Nazi Germany that I could not even comprehend how I could share any link to these people as it was so far removed from what I knew to be right. So I went to my father and asked him one question: how could someone like me make sure something like the Holocaust never happened again?

I was so very naive in some ways. This was long before I knew that my father had volunteered to fight in the Canadian army in World War II, rejected only due to his flat feet unsuitable for long marches and likely because they knew he was underage despite his claims of being old enough. He volunteered even knowing that if accepted he would find himself on the opposite side of family he still had in Germany, going to war with his own. This was long before I knew the kind of discrimination he faced in Canada during those years as a Canadian German, insulated to some degree in the small German farming community where he lived but always careful when visiting the Prairie cities to never speak German as it would arouse suspicion and could end in being questioned by police, a beating or worse. The fact that he had been born in Canada meant little during those years, as simply being of German descent and being able to speak German made him and other German Canadians a target. I knew none of this then, things I would only learn in later years, and so I asked a question that must have awoken some very old memories.

You see I expected the sigh and the head shake, but my father didn't do that. My father looked at me and said it was quite simple.

"Don't let hatred have a home in your heart," he said.

He went on to explain how Hitler controlled the German people by encouraging them to foster hatred in their hearts and heads, ensuring they collectively hated entire groups of people. He used that hatred and his fomentation of fear to carry out the most hideous acts in human history. My father explained that if the German people had simply said no - that they refused to hate and fear their neighbours - that they could not have been controlled in the way they were. could not have behaved in the ways they did, could have seen the darkness long before it arrived and stopped it.

He told me to never allow someone else to tell me who to hate or why, because it would allow them to control me. He told me to never hate an entire group based on the actions of a few - as one could judge the entire human race based on the actions of people like Hitler, and condemn our entire species as evil and corrupt. Hate bad people for doing bad things, he said, not entire groups based on their nationality, their race, their colour. Never for a second believe that simply because a few do terrible things that all are terrible.

In later years, when he shared his stories of being German on the Prairies in those years, I realized how his words reflected on his own experience, too. He experienced fear and hatred simply because he was German Canadian, much like the Japanese Canadians we put into internment camps. It was based on a hatred and fear for an entire group, never acknowledging that a few individuals who do terrible things should not and could not be considered representative of everyone.

And in recent days I have thought a great deal about my father and his words as I watched the fallout from the terrorist attacks in Paris.

I watched as people I know fell prey to hatred in their hearts, spewing it forth on social media as they expressed their hatred and fear of Muslims. I observed in stunned silence, as they showed the kind of hatred that leads only to more hatred...and worse.

Let's be very blunt here: terrorism has no religion. Terrorism is based on extremist ideologies. The terrorists in Paris might have claimed to be Muslim, but that does not mean they are representative of Islam any more than members of the KKK are representative of Christianity. Terrorists are terrible people who do terrible things. Whatever they claim to be - Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists - they are simply bad people who do bad things. They do not represent entire groups of people, but if we allow ourselves to believe they do we have just opened a door in our heart to hatred and begun inviting it in.

And once hatred has set up residence it is hard to banish it, as hatred has insidious tentacles that grow inside you. How do we think terrorists are formed, anyhow? Out of love and compassion, or because they too have allowed hatred to have a home in their hearts and minds? So if we allow hatred to set up residence in ours, aren't we uncomfortably close to those terrorists in a manner where it would be better to be far different from them?

I have had the great honour and pleasure of spending time with our Muslim neighbours in this community. I will never forget my experience at the first Hijab Day, how the women showed me how to wear the hijab, their lovely smiles and words of kindness, the sense of sisterhood and understanding, and their willingness to be so vulnerable in sharing their world to allow someone like me to better understand it. I have had the experience of interviewing leaders in the Muslim community about their new mosque, treasuring their willingness to share their story not only with me but with other journalists I sent their way, taking a risk to open their doors to people like me who want to write about them. And one of my dearest friends wears a hijab and is one of the bravest and kindest people I know, always there when I need her.

And these are the people I am being told to hate? These are the people we are meant to fear, to see as some sort of threat? I can only wonder at the level of hatred in the hearts of those who spread such bile.

Don't let hatred have a home in your heart. You have the power to change history, my friends. If every single one of us refuses to answer when hatred comes knocking, when we choose compassion and understanding and inclusion instead of fear and hatred we push hatred further and further out into the cold. When we refuse to give it a home we change not only ourselves but the world around us. Instead of dwelling on our differences we embrace our commonalities. Rather than fearing what we do not understand we seek to learn more about it. And if each of us follows this path, reaching out and inviting each other into our hearts, we can successfully kick hatred to the curb, where it will watch in envy through the windows of our hearts as we celebrate together in peace, happiness and joy.

And that, my friends, is right where hatred should be.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Not Afraid

“I thought about going to Paris next year,” says one voice.

The other says: “Well, I guess that’s out now.”
The first voice replies: “Now I am not sure if I will ever go – it’s just not safe” and they move away from me, caught up in the conversation of which I have just caught a snippet. But in that snippet I found such sadness and defeat, because in those three short sentences I saw that terror had won.

This past weekend I suspect many of us did some soul searching. Some of us spent our time unfriending and unfollowing people on our various social media streams, disappointed and even disgusted at some of the hateful things that spewed forth in the wake of the horrendous attacks in Paris. Some of us were carried back in time to 9/11, remembering what we felt then and reflecting on how it changed the way we saw the world. Some of us sat transfixed to our televisions and our computer screens, watching as the stories unfolded.
As for me, I spent the first 24 hours studiously avoiding the media coverage as I had learned my lesson during 9/11. The first few hours are often filled with panic and bereft of any real information, as there has been no time for in depth understanding to develop. The story will unfold over the days to come, and there is no urgency to watch the pain and suffering of others, at least in my mind.

During those 24 hours, though, I thought a great deal about how I had never been to Paris. I thought about all the other cities I have visited and lived in, and I decided that Paris would surely need to be in my travel plans soon, because I have always wanted to see it and my desire had not been quelled in the least by these attacks.
Perhaps that is why the overheard conversation troubled me so. Do you know how terrorists win? They win when they make us live in fear. They win when they stop us from working in tall office towers in New York City or flying on airplanes. They win when they stop us from using subways or visiting nightclubs.

They win when they make us think twice about visiting one of the most amazing, historic and fascinating cities on the planet.
Terrorism isn’t just about killing and maiming. It is about creating fear and controlling us through it. It is about turning us against each other, making us fear each other. It is about planting seeds of doubt and watching them grow into forests of anger, resentment and hatred.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but long ago I rejected a life of fear. I spent some time there, living in fear, and it was a dark place where the world became devoid of joy. And so I made a choice. I decided I would never live in fear again, because life is too short to be afraid.
There are undoubtedly some who think this reckless, this refusal to be afraid, and yet I find it tremendously freeing. Yes, there is some risk – but just as with every life one day mine will be over, hopefully long from now and the result of old age and not the plots of others. But regardless of how and when I die I will know one thing: I lived a life without fear, and it has been richer for it as I have taken chances and done things I never would have done had I let fear rule my existence.

Make your choice as to how you live, just as I have made mine. Just know that it is a choice and not something pre-ordained. Choose, and choose wisely, because it is a choice that will determine the remainder of your brief but bright life on this planet.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Wonderful Thing About Tiggers

I suspect most of us who have spent any time with the classic stories of Winnie the Pooh have a favourite character. Perhaps we identify with Pooh, the hapless and loveable (if a bit clueless) bear, or maybe we see ourselves more in the category of the learned Owl. Maybe we feel closest to Piglet, a tiny creature who seemed wiser beyond his small size, or Roo, the ultimate maternal figure. For me, though, it was always a battle between two characters on very different ends of the spectrum of personality: Tigger and Eeyore.

For a good part of my life I feared I was Eeyore. Negativity came easily and naturally to me, as it does to most people, I think, as it plays into the fears and anxieties that we have hardwired into our species. There were many times I felt quite akin to that donkey, with his melodrama and melancholy and pessimistic outlook on the world. And yet, something inside me always yearned to be Tigger, but I thought perhaps that being Tigger was something you were born with. Either you had bounce or you didn't, I thought.

And then, in 2007, I found a video from a man named Randy Pausch. Pausch was undoubtedly already an unusual man when he gave the speech that became the video - intelligent, accomplished, and respected. He had also been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer which is, even now in a time when we have learned so much about cancer, fundamentally a death sentence. He gave what he called his "Last Lecture" a sort of summary of what he had learned about life - and in the video he addressed the entire question of Tigger and Eeyore.

Thanks to Randy Pausch I realized, maybe for the first time ever, that being Tigger was a choice. Being optimistic, being positive, even just being happy was a choice you could make. It was life changing. Eeyores and Tiggers were not born that way - somewhere along the way they had chosen it, and maybe didn't even know they had.

The last few months in this community has had visions of Tigger and Eeyore dancing in my head with increasing frequency. There is no doubt we have seen some difficult times - an economic downturn and the subsequent impact on those we know, those we love and our own lives. We have seen incredibly divisive provincial and federal elections come and go (and those elections preyed upon the Eeyore inside all of us, there is no doubt of that, as there were those who used fear and anxiety as an attempt to manipulate us). We have seen criticism of those in all levels of government, those in media, those in the public service, those in private seems endless, in fact, the pointing out of what was done wrong and when and by whom. It has been a veritable tsunami of grey donkeys with black clouds hanging over them, it seems.

There has been some imbalance, I think, a tendency towards Eeyore-ism and a shying away from the bounce of the Tigger, the irrepressible resiliency of those who know the world is not a perfect place, but who are grateful for what they have, accept the things they cannot change and work to change the things they can. The trouble with Eeyore was that he was terrific at identifying problems, but he was never particularly good at solving them. Tigger wasn't always much better, but he was never afraid to try a new solution, and if it didn't work out then he would move on to the next one, and the next, and the next, because Tiggers don't give up. Ever.

I don't mean this post as an indictment of anyone, and if you are reading this and begin to feel your hackles rise in self-defense all I ask is that you stop and think about why you are feeling defensive. Often when we feel defensive it is because we see ourselves in what is being said or written, and perhaps we are not comfortable with seeing ourselves that way. Ask yourself if you would rather fall on the side of Eeyore and Tigger, and whatever the answer is simply make sure you are happy with that role.

For myself, though, many years ago I chose to be Tigger. When I told that to someone once they said it must be nice to have a life so trouble-free as to choose a life of happiness, and all I could do is quietly reflect on how little they understood that being Tigger meant being Tigger even when life threw you things like the death of both your parents, the sad and painful end of a 24-year marriage and the chronic disease that slowly stole the vision in your left eye. It was easy to be Tigger when things were good - it was far harder when things were bad, but that is when I needed to choose optimism, positivity and to be happy the most.

It is perhaps worth noting that some of the most positive, optimistic and resilient people I know are the ones who have faced the most difficult life experiences: the loss of a child, a serious illness with an uncertain prognosis, upheaval in their relationships or work. These people - their ability to keep their bounce - are what inspire me on a daily basis. Their refusal to give in to the Eeyores in their own lives (as Eeyores often view Tiggers as frivolous dreamers, unrealistic and maybe even foolish) is what ensures I will never give in to the Eeyores in mine - in fact, I just avoid the Eeyores, because life is too short to spend time with donkeys with black clouds over them when you can be with tigers that bounce and sing.

So there it is. Be a Tigger, or be an Eeyore. But never for a moment think that you didn't choose it, because whatever you are you have chosen that path. And that means you can choose a different one, too. I am living proof, someone who balanced on the line between the donkey and the tiger for a very long time before finally taking the leap and making a bounce into a life where I choose to be happy, stay positive and practice pragmatic optimism for myself, my community, and our world. What you do is up to you.

You see the most wonderful thing about Tiggers isn't that he was the only one. The most wonderful thing about Tiggers is we can all be one, if we want to be. And I am, and always will be, without apology, a Tigger who bounces.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

"The Good Survivor" and the Nature of Being Irrepressible

Irrepressible. It is perhaps one of my favourite words, and one on occasion used to describe my own attitude and approach to life. It is the quality that I find most appealing in other people, too, an unwillingness to give in or give up, a constant commitment to meeting new challenges and seeking new opportunities. And it describes some of my friends pretty well, too.

Some of those irrepressible friends happen to be local filmmakers. Over the last few years I have watched them tackle various challenges and embrace new opportunities, always both excited by their adventures and humbled to call this irrepressible group of individuals my friends. Just recently they embarked on another challenge.

"The Good Survivor" is a film concept currently competing with other film concepts to win funding and distribution through Telus Optik TV. Like many of these film challenges this one involves getting other people to vote for the concept they would like to see made into a film, and Tito Guillen, Ashley Laurenson, Steve Reeve Newman, Dave Boutilier and Dylan Thomas Bouchier have launched an impressive campaign to garner those votes.

I have never made a secret of how fond I am of the people named above, and perhaps none more so than young Dylan who has made quite an impression on me with his own irrepressible nature despite the challenges he faces in his own life. He is, like my own Intrepid Junior Blogger, one of those young adults who makes me feel good about our future, as he is articulate and clever and engaged and compassionate and a damn fine actor to boot. As for the rest - Tito, Ashley, Dave and Steve - well, what can one say about people who are always there when you need them, and who follow their own dreams and ideas with the kind of passion and fervour you wish you could instil into every person on this planet, knowing it would be a far better place for it?

So this is where you come in, dear reader. In order to see this dream materialized, this team of Fort McMurray locals needs your support. The voting process is simple, costs nothing but a moment of your time and could get some amazing local filmmakers one step closer to realizing a dream. You can vote at this link - but vote now because voting ends on Monday:

And check out the concept and pitch videos here:

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Fort McMurray, We Have Ignition

It was very early Sunday evening, but due to the time change the sky was quickly growing dark. I had been so busy that I had not yet taken in a very special public art exhibit, and it was the final day for the works to be on display. There was the option to sign up for a bus tour, but I am no good at those kind of scheduled things, struggling with timelines that may differ from my own desires and a tendency to wander off when deep in thought (the reason why I will never visit another country with a tour group, as it would be frustrating for all parties). Instead I bundled into a warm coat, tucked my iPhone into a pocket, and headed downtown to see igNIGHT.

This year marked the second year of this remarkable temporary public art display. In a place where the dark comes early on those cool fall nights, it is the perfect opportunity to showcase public art works that incorporate themes of light. We are still very early in our exploration of public art in this community and we experience some degree of confusion over what is (and is not) public art. For instance the controversial “Weather Catcher” at Jubilee Plaza is an architectural feature, not public art, and the controversy surrounding it has muddied our early days in this exploration as we must learn to differentiate between public art and other forms of public features (a future blog post on that is certain, but for now I will focus on something that most certainly is public art, being igNIGHT).
I drove around in my car, clutching my coat around me whenever I stopped to observe the remarkable pieces of glowing artworks that comprised igNIGHT. It was in Jubilee Plaza, though, that I found myself stopped for some time, unable to pull myself away from the juxtaposition of two pieces from different artists that played on each other and played with my thoughts.
“The Pool”, composed of glowing disks atop a small platform, was an intriguing pattern of lights and colours, and when I visited alive with the shouts of children as they hopped from disk to disk, making up rules of the game they had just invented along the way.

“You can only move forward,” shouted one voice. “No going backwards!”
“Everyone needs to hop on the red disks as soon as they light up,” shouted another, and there were shrieks as almost instantly the glowing disks began to change to red and children hopped frantically from one disk to another.

It was one of the most lovely things I have seen here in a long time, children interacting with a public art piece, full of life and joy...and it was even more compelling given the artwork facing the disks.

“Rage rage against the dying of the light”, it spelled out in bright incandescent light bulbs. It is a line from a poem I know by heart, written by Dylan Thomas and penned in response to the death of his father. A year after writing the poem Thomas himself died at the age of 39, far too soon for such a gifted poet, but as part of his legacy he left behind a poem that makes one think of our own mortality, and that of others.

As I stood in front of the artwork I heard the children still shouting behind me, playing on the disks. “Do not go gentle into that good night,” ran through my head repeatedly, followed by “rage, rage against the dying of the light,” as I thought of how just like those incandescent bulbs that formed the sign each of us would go dark one day, our light gone from this world. As I have grown older and recognized I have fewer years ahead of me than behind I have begun to come to terms with my own mortality, but it is the mortality of others with which I struggle, as I am not good at letting go.

Consider the humble incandescent bulb. Invented in the late 1800’s, this ubiquitous household item that we take for granted entirely changed our world. Cheap, readily accessible, easily used – the light bulb revolutionized our entire existence. Given the time since invention, it is not likely there is anyone alive who remembers a world before the existence of the incandescent bulb...and now, due to a desire to lessen our environmental footprint, countries all over the globe are phasing out the type of light bulb that changed our world in favour of other kinds. The light of the incandescent bulb is dying.

As I stood in front of the public art piece dozens of different thoughts competed for primary attention in my head. “Mortality”, screamed one. “The juxtaposition of children laughing and a poem about facing the end of life,” shouted another. “The bulb!” shrieked yet another. “The incandescent bulb, blinking out just as our lives do, a metaphor for lives that burn hot and bright and then suddenly go dark.”
Before I knew it forty-five minutes had passed and I was still in front of the artwork, the thoughts now starting to assemble themselves in a more orderly fashion, the children behind me now gone on to other things. The plaza was quiet and dark and cold, and all that existed was me and a sign that said: “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

As I walked back to my car I thought about how this art installation would remain in place until the final bulb on it has burned out, the sign going dark forever. It felt fitting and it felt right and in some way it felt almost glorious, as far from raging against the dying of the light I recognized my own acceptance that all things, from lives to light bulbs, one day come to an end.
I climbed into my car, driving away and feeling as if I had just experienced something quite profound, thanks to a simple public art display. I drove to Boreal Park and took a few photos of the lighted canopy at Shell Place (architectural feature and not public art, incidentally) and thought about how public art can enrich our lives, like the children who played on the lighted disks of The Pool and the almost surreal experience I had just had in front of a simple lighted sign.

Fort McMurray, we have ignition. Public art has just begun to ignite here, thanks to events like igNIGHT, and I know there is far more public art coming to explore, enjoy and evoke our feelings. I am so grateful to have the opportunity to watch it grow from a spark into a flame, a light that if we tend it carefully never has to burn out. We can watch it glow for years to come, and never need to rage against the dying of that tender and wonderful light.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Can You Tell Me How to Get to Sesame Street?

When I was little I lived on Sesame Street.

Okay, maybe not literally, but in my imagination I was a resident of Sesame Street, a place where puppets and people were equals, where race and colour of skin didn’t even seem to register with anyone and where the sun chased the clouds away.
Oh, there were challenges on Sesame Street. After all, Oscar the Grouch lived in a garbage can and was clearly the surly neighbour, but everyone was still fond of him because, well, that was just Oscar. Cookie Monster clearly had a substance abuse problem and The Count was unable to control his obsessive-compulsive counting. Big Bird wasn’t the brightest despite his brilliant yellow plumage, and on occasion there was conflict between the characters.

But there was a sense of community, a neighbourhood feeling that transcended the differences. They were all essential parts of Sesame Street.
When I was in Grade Ten Mr. Hooper, a long-time fixture on the street, passed away. Instead of shying away from the topic they wove his death into the story, and I recall watching that episode even though I had mostly outgrown Sesame Street by then. A beloved neighbour had died, and Sesame Street was grieving.

In a recent post I wrote about a note left on my car, one that was far from neighbourly and that spoke to a darker side of our human tendencies to be possessive and territorial. Since I wrote that post I have been deluged with emails and messages containing similar stories, of notes left on cars and in mailboxes, and of far, far worse behaviour.

I received emails from those who are afraid of their neighbours. The messages came from all over our country, with some even coming from the United States.

Sometime in the last few decades we moved away from Sesame Street. The gentle camaraderie of neighbours, the backyard barbecues and front porch coffees ended and were replaced it seems by flashing computer screens as we develop pseudo-communities with people we will likely never even meet.
We lost the map to Sesame Street. There are still places where it exists, I think, but I am hearing far too many stories of places where it is gone, and maybe forever. I believe we can still find it, map a path back to the magic of Sesame Street and reclaim our neighbourhoods.

So friends, can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street?