Musings from the ever-changing, ever-amazing and occasionally ever-baffling Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

When I Was Hungry You Gave Me Food - The Soup Kitchen in Fort McMurray

I suspect over the course of this blog regular readers have detected certain recurrent themes. You might have noticed my love for animals, and thus my support of our local SPCA, and my concern over the welfare of the homeless in our community, and hence my interest in the Centre of Hope. You may have  noticed how often I write about places like the Wood Buffalo Food Bank, and other non-profit organizations in this community. I do so for a few reasons, I guess. I believe we as citizens have a responsibility to the others who share our community, and our world. I believe we are judged as a society by how we treat those who are vulnerable, and I want to ensure we are judged kindly in this regard. And I suppose my support of non-profits traces all the way back to my parents, who were very Catholic.

What does being Catholic have to do with non-profit organizations? Well, not much really because people of all faiths - and people who do not belong to any faith - work with and for non-profits. For my parents, though, part of Catholicism and religion was "walking the talk". The words were easy, they would say, but the actions are hard. And so over their entire lives my parents were involved in helping others, sometimes through their church but often on their own, too. The religion part didn't stick with me, I guess, and the last time I was in a church would have been at my mother's funeral four years ago - but the desire to help others, and the understanding that this is not an option but a necessity, has been deeply ingrained in me.

Last week I attended the 17th annual Soup Kitchen Banquet. If you aren't familiar with it the Soup Kitchen has been serving lunch meals to those in need in our community for years now. They serve at the Fellowship Baptist Church every weekday like clockwork, the doors opening at 11:30 and closing again an hour later. And in that time they serve dozens of people - averaging about 76 a day, but as the years have gone on and fortunes in this city have waxed and waned those numbers have on occasion fallen - and risen again. I suspect there is a perception that they feed only the local homeless, but this is simply not true. I learned that at the banquet when an elderly gentleman, who has been in our community since 1969, spoke of why he eats at the soup kitchen. He has a home, and he has been here for a very long time - and while he says the food is good he eats there for the fellowship, for the companionship - and that makes sense to me, because breaking bread with others is perhaps the staple of our society.

It wasn't lost on me that my table mates at the banquet and I, and dozens of others, were breaking bread together while hearing stories of seeking food and fellowship at the Soup Kitchen. It wasn't lost on me that one of the most profound stories in the Bible involves food, the Last Supper of course, where Jesus broke bread with his disciples for the final time. And it wasn't lost on me that while religion sets down some fundamental guidelines there is a difference between talking about them and acting on them - and that those who volunteer at the Soup Kitchen every day are not reciting religious tenets but rather living them.

Every day volunteers from several different faith organizations, and those from none, serve meals to the homeless, the elderly, the new immigrants, the unemployed, and the working poor. They do so in an environment that is safe for them and their patrons, and they do so not because of glory or reward but because it is the right thing to do. They do so because food is a fundamental need, not a luxury. And they do so because I suspect, somewhere along the way just as happened to me, they learned that talk is easy but actions are what matters.

I chose very deliberately to write this post today, on Easter Sunday. I think there is a natural connection here, the concepts that faith lays out for us and then the choice we have - to simply recite them, or to instead live them. There are two lines from the Bible that stand out the most for me when it comes to non-profit work, and they are these:

Two very simple lines, and as profound as they are simple. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me - which in my life I have chosen to interpret as meaning that whatever one does to anyone else they do to me as well, because we are all connected in this world. Every act, good or bad, positive or negative, has impacts far beyond the initial result, and so every time a meal is served at the Soup Kitchen and a hungry person is fed there is a positive impact not just on them but on the rest of us. It is a ripple effect that starts in the basement of a local church and ripples out far and wide, right through this community and beyond.

It was an honour to attend the Soup Kitchen Banquet, and one day I plan to see if I can spend a couple of shifts volunteering there. I always love to listen to the stories of those who share this community with me, and in the end I always find it is not those I am "helping" who truly benefit but rather me as it opens my heart and mind to others every single time. Perhaps I will break bread with some of the Soup Kitchen patrons and we will share a meal, an act that has connected us as humans likely far before we even developed language to communicate.

I will leave you today with one final thought. No matter how you celebrate Easter Sunday, no matter your religious belief system, no matter whether you even believe in God or not, I think this final line is pretty fundamental, because I think in the end this is what it is all about. It is all about actions, not words - and compassion.

 Happy Easter, Fort McMurray.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Daffodil Days Are Here Again

Last year at this time I posted a blog about daffodils, my father, and the battle with cancer that far too many in our country still fight every year. Once again this year I am wearing my daffodil pin, a vibrant yellow that brightens my day despite these long last dreary days of winter before spring truly arrives. Today I have chosen to post a link to that blog post, as relevant today as it was one year ago.

I hope you choose to join me and wear a daffodil this year. For me it is a memory of my father, and a time that seemed bleak and a bit devoid of hope. But just as winter can on occasion seem to last far too long hope does indeed spring eternal, and one day soon the daffodils will poke their yellow heads out of the ground to greet the sun once again. And just as there is hope for spring and daffodils there is hope that one day there will be no need for daffodil days because we will have fought the final battle with cancer and won. That is truly the hope I hang onto in the dark days of memory.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

When Dancing Goes to the Blogs - Dancing With the Stars Wood Buffalo

Well, I could hardly say no, really. For starters it was an intriguing offer - and what finished it off was that it involves one of the non-profit organizations in this community that is very close to my heart. The non-profit in question? The Fort McMurray SPCA, a place where the Intrepid Junior Blogger and I often go to cuddle cats, and where last year we adopted little River Song, the ferret who has stolen our hearts. The SPCA is close to my heart because I love animals, and always have, but also because I recognize the sheer importance - and magnitude - of the work they do in this community. And the offer involving the SPCA? Well, they asked if I would like to go dancing - with some of the professional dance partners from their upcoming "Dancing With the Stars Wood Buffalo" fundraiser.

Now, we should be clear on one thing. I cannot dance, and some days I am dubious about my ability to climb stairs. I have never been known for my rhythm, grace, or coordination. I warned them about this but they brushed it off breezily (and I could only hope they warned my future dance instructors so the poor things knew what they were getting into). I was quite nervous about the whole thing, actually, mildly terrified because I knew that there would be a video camera there recording it for YouTube infamy, but I could not say no. So that's how I found myself in a practice room at Keyano College - dancing.

The good folks at Events With Vizability, who mount Dancing With the Stars, had arranged for me to work with two dancers. And what two different people they were! Andre Lusan is an older gentleman originally from Brisbane, Australia, who has been dancing for years. Vanessa Beltran Rodriguez is a young woman originally from Venezuela, as tiny as Andre is tall. Their differences fade away when it comes to dance, though, and the passion they share for it. I feel genuinely grateful to have had these two as my instructors, because not only did they teach me some basic dance they made me feel comfortable while doing so, and they showed me that dance should be about having fun.

Andre and I worked on some very basic steps, the jive, eventually moving out into the fan. As he said it's a dance you can do anywhere, and the steps are fairly simple. Despite the simplicity of the steps I managed to mess it up repeatedly, of course, confusing my left foot for my right and wondering why they always seemed to be in the wrong place. Andre's patient manner was put to the test as I bobbled my way through the initial steps, but gradually - ever so gradually - it began to make sense, and I was doing it. I was actually dancing, and not just hopping around. I was placing my feet, and I was thinking about the steps. I realized that eventually, with enough practice, the steps would become so second nature that one could stop thinking about them, stop focusing on the feet and instead focus on the pure joy of movement. Andre and I talked about the place dance has had in his life, including a life spent dancing with his lovely wife, and his three children. They spent years going to dance classes and clubs, a family activity that connected them all to each other, and to the dance community.

Now, one thing I didn't realize is exactly how hard dancing is in terms of a work out. I was pretty breathless after half an hour with Andre, although he hadn't even broken a sweat. I started to get some idea of what it must be like to prepare for Dancing With the Stars, an event that pairs local celebrities with professional dancers like Andre. Andre told me that he and his partner Courtney Dawe (a constable with the local RCMP detachment) practice every night for half an hour. I was a bit staggered by the level of commitment that takes, and the realization that doing that every night would make my body hurt in an entirely new way. Just that half hour with Andre had my calves protesting, and I wasn't done yet. I was moving on to a lesson with Vanessa - and from jive to Latin dance.

Vanessa is, in a word, beautiful. Beautiful in appearance, beautiful to watch dancing, and a beautiful spirit inside that petite frame. I was a bit nervous about trying Latin dance, as I have seen it done. It is amazing to watch, but I was pretty certain my body did not move that way. There is something fluid and sensual about those movements, something alluring about them. Vanessa assured me though that dance is about having fun, and about enjoying movement. And so Vanessa showed me some of the basic dance moves from Venezuela, and we talked about how in even one country the traditional dances can differ from one region to another. It was clear that for Vanessa dance is simply part of life, a way of expressing herself and a significant part her culture and heritage.

Vanessa and I worked on moves that had my body crying out the next day. Our hips moving in a figure eight, lowering our bodies to the beat, our wrists spinning we danced, her with grace and beauty and me with far less of that but still with enthusiasm - and joy. It is impossible to dance with Vanessa and not feel that joy, to not be infected with her enthusiasm and passion, and so I danced with a certain freedom of movement normally reserved for dancing around my kitchen far away from the eyes of others and video cameras.

After dancing with Andre and Vanessa we each chatted with the camera, and I was both intrigued and terrified to hear what they would have to say of my performance. I was pleased that both seem to think I have some hope, and I cannot fully express my gratitude for sharing their knowledge - and their passion - with me. I cannot wait to see them dance at Dancing With the Stars in April, as now I have some idea of the amount of work that it takes to prepare for this event. And I also know that while it is work it is probably a life changing experience for those who do it as dancers and celebrities, because that passion for dance is really just an extension of a passion for life. I may only be discovering a passion for dance but I do have that passion for life, one normally expressed through the written word. Just maybe, though, I will see about expressing it on occasion through dance, too, and I have Andre and Vanessa to thank for that.

Now, about Dancing With the Stars Wood Buffalo - if you don't have tickets, buy them now. One, it benefits a local organization that does such incredibly important work in this community. I truly believe that societies are judged by the way they treat their vulnerable - the elderly, children, and animals - and so I believe that a strong SPCA reflects well on all of us because it shows that our priorities are in the right place. If we take care of our vulnerable then we know we are doing something right, and every single day of every single year the SPCA cares for hundreds of vulnerable animals. You can support the event by buying tickets and by voting online for your favourite celebrity couple (it costs $20 to vote and the couple with the highest number of votes becomes the Peoples Choice award winner).

You can support the SPCA by donating directly to it - and you can consider adopting an animal in need, providing a forever home for a creature that will reward you with love and loyalty. Our little River Song ferret is perhaps the gentlest of all three of our weasels, prone to giving kisses and much like a dog in her eagerness to greet us when we come in the door. Perhaps we saved her but her love and affection saves us every single day, and the IJB and I cannot imagine a life without her now.

And if you want to dance? Well, Andre and his wife are involved in the Fort McMurray Social Dance Club, which meets monthly at the Royal Canadian Legion in Waterways. I am thinking I may just check this out in the future, because I have discovered something about dance. I discovered that you don't have to be an expert at it to enjoy it, and I discovered that just like writing you need to practice to improve. I have even discovered that someone as graceless and generally movement-clueless as me can dance, just a tiny bit, and it was a joyful discovery because it means it is just one more outlet to express my passion for life. And in my world any way to express that passion is one I will explore, because life is, in fact, amazing. I often say I deal with the world by "writing it out", putting my hands on a keyboard and letting the words flow. Perhaps on occasion I will put the keyboard away and instead I will "dance it out" - and let the emotions flow out through my body, and through dance.

My tremendous thanks to
Vanessa and Andre
dance instructors with patience - and passion.
My thanks to 
Events With Vizability
Dancing With the Stars Wood Buffalo
for the invitation,
and to the SPCA for doing what they do
every single day.

This video captures some of my time spent dancing.
My favourite moment is when I was dancing with Andre,
had my footwork all messed up, corrected it quickly,
and gave him an "oooo, aren't I clever?" grin.
He wasn't fooled for a second ;)

Monday, March 25, 2013

Scouting Out the Talent in Fort McMurray - Billy Talent Band

It was a dilemma, but a mild one as it goes. I heard via Facebook that one of the Intrepid Junior Blogger's favourite bands was coming to town on March 23rd. I thought that date looked familiar, though, and when I checked I realized it was in fact the same night as the annual Northern Lights Health Foundation Spring Fling. I say it wasn't really much of a dilemma, though, and that's for two reasons: a)whatever the IJB wants always takes priority, and b)while I enjoy a good gala I am a rock concert girl at heart, and have been since I was a very young adult. And so one morning I woke the IJB up with the news that Billy Talent Band was going to touchdown in Fort McMurray - and I had tickets.

The IJB is actually the one who introduced me to the music of Billy Talent Band. We have eclectic music tastes in this house, ranging from punk rock to classical (and I don't just mean the IJB - I have a long history with punk music but I'm digressing here - I'll only say I grew up in the 80's, wore a lot of safety pins, and had very funny coloured hair for many, many years). When she played Billy Talent for me I liked them - a lot. They are Canadian, they are fast, they are talented, and the lead singer's voice has this amazing raw quality that both the IJB and I adore. And that's how she and I ended up at the Keyano Syncrude Sports and Wellness Centre on Saturday night.

Now, the Keyano Centre has held many events and galas, but this was, I believe, one of their first rock concerts. It's a tough concert to start with in terms of organizing, because it was an all-ages event with a beer garden, a VIP section, and a crowd with a wide range of ages. I will say they did a pretty good job, although there were some hiccups. Having to go through a security pat-down every time you went to the bathroom was tedious, and no one really wants to get patted down more than once, or wait in line to do so after you've already been through security. I told the IJB that if she needed to go she better find a corner because I had no intention of going through security for a pat-down twice, and she quickly agreed since she had been patted down too and didn't exactly enjoy the experience (in fact she looked at me a bit peevishly afterwards and darkly commented that she didn't think strange adults were supposed to touch children that way). I felt a bit sorry for the beer garden crowd, because they were pretty far back in the field house and away from the stage. And frankly the hallway coat check was a nightmare, fine when coming in to the venue but horrendous when leaving, creating a clogged hallway that was virtually impassable (and in my opinion a risk if you needed to evacuate quickly for some reason). However, on the whole the venue did quite well, especially since I suspect they might have been a bit nervous about the whole thing since this was very different from the usual gala crowd. I will say the stage security impressed me deeply with their professionalism, and I will explain why.

We arrived early, because the IJB is only thirteen and in order to see the stage she needs to be at the front. We parked ourselves close to the stage, just off to the side, and very early in the evening the head of stage security came by to tell me that if things got ugly in the pit that they would pluck us out and deliver us to safety. I was genuinely appreciative of this, although a little bemused too as the IJB is more likely to start the body surfing despite her mild appearance. And as for me, well, I have been in "mosh pits"well before they were called that and fending for myself at concerts for decades. That conversation made me realize though that the security was excellent, and so they were through the entire show, keeping the peace and still allowing the crowd to enjoy the concert.

Photo credit to Jerry Neville

And what a concert it was! First act Indian Handcrafts was a duo, two guys with a very interesting sound, and one that both the IJB and I found perfect for setting the evening into motion. Next was Hollerado, a band that is hugely energetic and entertaining. Then it was time for Sum 41, and a flawless performance. This band is tight, from the guitar riffs to a lead singer who manages to whip the crowd into a little frenzy of excitement. There was one amusing moment during these opening acts, too. You see there was this teenage boy who started slamming into the IJB (on purpose, it seemed) and who received a hip-check from some lady with red hair, a hip-check that sent him careening the other way (and I won't comment on the lady with red hair except to say that messing with the IJB is always a bad idea, especially when her mother outweighs you, outsmarts you, and was slamming with punks before your parents were born). All hip-checking aside the three opening acts were perfect for getting the crowd ready for headliners Billy Talent Band - who basically took the stage and blew me away.

Photo credit to Jerry Neville

I knew I liked Billy Talent for their music, but their live performance is just absolutely stellar. Personable, funny, talented, and really, really, really hot, these guys pretty much propelled the crowd into the stratosphere. There was body surfing, and there was a whole lot of jumping (me included). There was singing along, and there was a lot of screaming. The IJB was hopping, I was hopping, the whole crowd was bouncing, the smell of marijuana was in the air (although stamped out quickly by the alert security - look, people, it's present at rock concerts so if you are shocked by this revelation then you probably shouldn't go to one, okay?), and it had a very, very true rock concert feel. Being patriotic Canadians they even dedicated a song to Stompin' Tom Connors, a touch I thought was particularly lovely since they did it despite some of the younger set in the crowd being unlikely to know (or care) about dear departed Tom . By the time Billy Talent left the stage for good (after a smashingly good encore set) the IJB and I were completely deaf, sweaty, and starving.

Photo credit to Becca Hess

We went to the coat check and fought for our coats (and once again the hip-check came in handy here), and escaped into the cool evening air. As is our usual post-concert custom we headed to McDonald's and indulged in fries and burgers and excited talk about the amazing concert we had just seen. And it was amazing - perhaps the best concert I have ever seen here, and, according to the IJB, the best she has ever seen, period.

While the venue had a few hiccups overall it was an incredible evening. The musical talent and raw energy of the crowd completely made up for the security-loaded bathroom visits and cattle chute coat check. It was truly an incredible evening. The IJB and I had a stunningly good time, and while I missed the gala I would venture to theorize that the crowd at Billy Talent was a bit more vibrant and energetic (based on the fact that on Sunday morning my entire body hurt from jumping, dancing, and hip-checking, I had virtually no voice left, and the IJB looked a bit like she had been run over by the Billy Talent tour bus). It was perhaps one of the most fun evenings I have ever had here, and the IJB agrees. To those who brought this concert to Fort McMurray I say thank you - thanks to Rock 97.9, Rockin' River Productions, and the Keyano Sport and Wellness Centre for a great evening of rock. To the bands - Indian Handcrafts, Hollerado, Sum 41, and the incredible Billy Talent Band - thanks for coming to Fort McMurray, and I hope to see you back here soon. And to the young man I hip-checked - I sincerely hope your bruises fade quickly and that you remember to never, ever mess with an older woman who appears to be quiet and meek because you really have no idea what lurks beneath that quiet exterior, do you? :)

Photo credit to Becca Hess

Saturday, March 23, 2013

How You Measure Success - The Pendulum Swing

How do you know when a movement is successful? Well, success can often be measured by the response of others. If something is incredibly successful then you often find that someone, somewhere, feels they need to counter it. Maybe you start a pro-something Facebook group and they feel the need to start an anti-same-thing group. Or maybe, as I witnessed recently, they feel the need to start a Twitter account to counter your success. You see this is what has happened with the positivity movement in Fort McMurray - and what it shows is that it is succeeding.

Over the last few years I have seen a definite upswing in positive feelings about this place. Not only are people experiencing those feelings but they are sharing them - on Twitter, on Facebook pages, in letters to the editor, and through every possible avenue. I suppose it was a reaction to years of bad press and negative thinking - but whatever it was it caught on like wildfire.

Now, I would caution that we can never forget that we have issues. As any counsellor can tell you the first step is to admit you have a problem - and Fort McMurray has problems. Just like every other community, though, we can have issues AND have pride. We can talk about our negatives while we trumpet our positives. We can address our problems and share our successes. And we have become much, much more successful in spreading a positive message about us, both internally and externally. How do I know it's working? Because it has caused some to think we need the other end of the pendulum represented. It has caused those who have negative viewpoints to think they need to get their message out, too - because they see the success of the positive message, and for whatever reason they feel a need to counter it.

There are those who get upset about these negative Twitter accounts, but I'm not one of them. To me it means we are on the right track. It means we are successfully changing the image of this community, enough so that those with opposing viewpoints feel the need to get out there and be more visible.It means we are provoking a reaction - and that, people, is a very good thing.

Now, I won't advertise those negative types by telling you how to find them - but what is intriguing is that they have found very little traction. Whenever they appear they receive quite the smackdown from the Fort McMurray cheerleaders, and it is amusing to witness some days, too. The negative types seem to be under the illusion that the cheerleaders don't think we have any problems here, but that is not my experience at all. My impression has been that the cheerleaders are the ones who can recognize the issues but also see the things that are so great about us, too. Perhaps they lean more towards the rah-rah Fort McMurray side, but they are not so blind that they do not see the issues.

Sometimes success means that it inspires others to try to counter it. In this regard I think we can count the image-changing movement in Fort McMurray a success, and the more successful it is the more likely we are to see those who wish to tear it down. What we cannot do is allow those who wish to see the focus on the negative side of our community change our own focus - which is to spread the word about the positive things about our community while still talking about the challenges we face. I am one of those who has always believed that the other end of the pendulum swing has an important role to play. I am one of those who believes environmental groups are necessary to counter the far other end of the swing in industry. And sometimes I believe the existence of the far end of the pendulum swing can be used as a measure of success - which is exactly what is happening here in Fort McMurray. Today I celebrate the success of the positivity movement in this community - and I do so because I know it is working. The other end of the pendulum swing tells me so.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Taking Credit on Highway 63

Credit to Know HR

One of the things that really irks me is people trying to take credit for things they did not do. I suppose it is human nature, as we all love success, but when others - and particularly politicians - try to claim credit for things they did not actually accomplish it drives me bonkers. And so it was last night on Twitter when I noted an opposition MLA in the provincial government was trying to claim that pressure from the opposition helped to force the twinning of Highway 63. This is such a preposterous claim, and today I will show you why.

People in this region have been clamouring for the twinning of Highway 63 for years, and long before the formation of the party that is now in official opposition. The real push to get it done, though, came almost one year ago now on a day in April when seven people died in a horrific collision. The provincial election was just over, the ink not even dry on the papers reporting the win by the Progressive Conservatives. The government had not yet even had a session when this accident occurred, and I suspect many didn't even know where their offices were. But something did happen after that accident, and it wasn't an uprising from the official opposition. It was an uprising by the people of this region.

The credit for securing the commitment to twin Highway 63 should not go to the parties in opposition in the provincial legislature. I did not see one of them at the Twin 63 Now rally, a rally that drew numbers unprecedented in this region, and that showed a social activism we have not really witnessed here before. They did not plan that rally, they did not invite the media to it, and they did not fight to make it happen. Two young women named Ashley St. Croix and Nicole Auser did that, and thousands of people came to that rally on a busy Saturday afternoon in May. I know because I was there, too.

I did not see the opposition parties start petitions that garnered thousands of signatures, signatures of those who demanded to see a commitment to twin Highway 63. They did not drop those petitions off at local businesses, and sit at events with a pen in their hand asking every passerby to sign them. That was Annie Lelievre, the mother of a young man lost on Highway 63. She fought tirelessly to see the commitment to twin Highway 63 made. I know because I know Annie, and I saw how hard she fought, even when it seemed she had no more fight in her.

The opposition parties did not write thousand of emails or letters to those in power demanding the twinning of Highway 63. They did not start websites devoted to those lost on the highway. They did not shout out to the universe that this needed to happen, and that it needed to happen now, and that if it did not happen that they would continue to shout. No, that was not a group of politicians who did that. That, people, was us.

Do I think some credit should go to our local MLAs, Mike Allen and Don Scott? Yes, I do, because they carried our voices to the legislature, and they were able to share our anger and pain with their colleagues. They were able to act as the messengers for our demands, and they undoubtedly played a role. But the real credit for securing the twinning of Highway 63 should not go to politicians, and I will never allow them to take credit for the work of Ashley and Nicole and Annie and the thousands of others who truly made this happen. The real credit for all of this goes to you, the people of Fort McMurray and beyond, the ones who wrote letters and attended rallies and signed petitions. The real credit must go to the people.

One day in 2016 I hope to be there when they open the newly, and completely, twinned Highway 63. I want to be there for two reasons, you see. First, that little ribbon of road has become intertwined in my life, a topic I have written about, talked about, thought about, and cried about more often than I care to admit. And second I want to be there when a politician of any stripe tries to take credit for making it happen (let alone politicians who didn't even show up at things like a memorial rally). I want to be there to remind everyone that in this case the ones who made this happen were not politicians or industry executives. I want to be there to remind everyone that the credit for this life-altering event (and it will be life-altering for those who have their lives saved by twinning, although they may never even know it) belongs to the people of Fort McMurray who made it clear that they would not stop and would not give up until they saw it happen. This was not about elections and votes and promises and false political outrage over an issue - this was about a community that had seen enough crosses, heard the siren of enough ambulances, and cried enough tears. This was about an entire community that came together to make something happen to save lives - and I will fight to make sure that they get the credit that is due to them and not see it stolen by someone wishing to score political points. The commitment to twin Highway 63 was not a victory for government or opposition or any other political party - it was a victory for the people of this region who made it happen. And I would suggest that anyone who thinks otherwise - or who tries to take credit for it - should reconsider, because I will be happy to remind them of who should really be taking credit on Highway 63.

Photo credit to Norm Sutton

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Coincidences, Distant Family, and Fort McMurray Ribbons

I suppose one could dismiss it all as the world being a very small place, and coincidences being just part of life. And of course I believe those things, that the world is indeed a small place and that coincidences happen to all of us - but sometimes the events in my life exhibit such synchronicity and extraordinary coincidence that I cannot help but wonder if there is some thread somewhere that ties it all together.

You see it began a few days ago when I eulogized my beloved Aunt Rose in this very blog. I wouldn't normally use this community blog for that purpose, but in her case it seemed appropriate because my Aunt Rosie was the ultimate Alberta woman, having spent pretty much her entire life living in this province. I always thought of her as our family Alberta rose, a beautiful flower on the vast prairies, and so when she died I decided to write about her here. What I couldn't have seen was the events that would come after that, though.

When I wrote about Aunt Rose I linked the story to the site where I found her obituary. I thought perhaps some family members may read it, although I doubted that a bit. I am not particularly good at keeping in touch with extended family, and I had not see Aunt Rose - or most of my other extended family - for many, many years. When life is busy that extended connection is often the first one to slip, and so while I wrote about my aunt I acknowledged how long it had been since I had seen her, too.

This week I opened up my email and found a message. You see my Aunt Rose, who was my dad's sister, was married to a man named Eddie. The message was from the wife of Eddie's nephew, so not a direct blood relation to me but rather a relation through marriage - family nonetheless because we share a memory of someone we both called Aunt Rose, and Uncle Eddie of course. The message from this distant cousin-by-marriage thanked me for the post on Rose, and said she had given a printed copy to Uncle Eddie. I was touched and replied to her, and she responded almost immediately. And what was in that response was pretty amazing.

You see this lady, this cousin-by-marriage, has family here in Fort McMurray. A brother, a son, a son-in-law - and she casually mentioned that her aunt Helen, an elderly lady, had recently been recognized at a party at "some island there", as she put it. And that casual comment stopped me cold, because of course I knew exactly who she meant. She meant Helen Bishop, the lady who was born on MacDonald Island 90 years ago, and who was honoured at the 2012 MacDonald Island Park State of the Island gala. I was there when it happened. I had seen the video of the lovely Helen, and heard her story of life here. I had seen her put on an orange MacDonald Island Park jacket. And of course I had mentioned her in this very blog when I wrote about the event, and when I thought about all the changes she would have seen in this world, let alone this community. What really amazed me, though, is that now I work at MacDonald Island Park, a place which stands on the island where she was born. And the slender ribbon that ties us all together in this world once again wrapped itself around me, and I was left musing on the synchronicity and coincidence of life.

Perhaps I was not related to Helen Bishop by blood but yesterday when I drove to work I felt related to her in some far more intrinsic way. Ninety years ago she was born on a little island in Fort McMurray, and she watched as this community grew and changed just as she did. I may not have witnessed that life, but I was there to witness when she was honoured at a celebration of that island, and of this community. Sadly Helen Bishop passed away shortly after the State of the Island, and she will not see as it moves into the next phase (the development of Shell Place, and all the changes that will come with that). And while she will not see it with her eyes I suspect she still has family here that will - and now she has someone who feels connected to her in a new sense, and someone who drives to that island almost every single day marvelling at how rapidly this world changes, and how very fortunate she is to witness it at all. That person is, of course, me.

I know I should dismiss this all as coincidence, and as this just being a very small world. And perhaps it is, and that is all there is to it. But I would be lying if I said that I did not feel that this new knowledge of my connection to Helen Bishop is special, because to me it is. When I realized the connection, however tenuous and slender, it warmed me in some way I cannot explain. When I thought about Helen Bishop, and MacDonald Island, and my place in this community it just seemed once again that the ribbon that ties me to Fort McMurray winds tighter every day. Every day I find another connection here - another person I find inspiring, another organization I respect, another opportunity or challenge - and this week a family connection, a slim one perhaps, but a connection nonetheless. Learning that I am connected in some way to a woman who was born 90 years ago not only in this community but on the island where I now work - and the place that I have always believed is the heart of this community, and that has been a part of my entire life here - was meaningful to me. It was yet another tie in the Fort McMurray ribbon that binds me to this place, and yet another reason that I call this place home, because if there is some sort of grand design in this world then I think part of that design was for me to end up here, at this time, in this place. If you believe in fate then I think, perhaps, Fort McMurray was mine, and every once in awhile the universe likes to remind me through slender ribbons of connection.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

A Sign of the Times - The Wood Buffalo Food Bank and Need

When the press release arrived yesterday I wasn't really surprised. I've been expecting to see releases like it, and I have already seen glimpses of similar issues with other non-profit organizations. Yesterday it was the Wood Buffalo Food Bank, and the issue was an increase in their client numbers - an astonishing increase, up 30% from this time last year. And this isn't an isolated incident because their numbers have been up for awhile, and they are finding themselves staring at quickly emptying shelves and an increased number of people to feed. And this, to me, is deeply worrisome - and likely a sign of things to come.

Normally at this time of year the Food Bank is in pretty decent shape, just three months after the annual food drive. This year, though, increased demand for services - a jump of 30% - has meant that food and money that would have lasted far longer has disappeared rapidly. What worries me about this is the fact that we are just on the very edge of seeing our population begin to really grow again (according to all estimates) and this is likely to become a far more common scenario. Organizations like the food bank are likely to see continuing increased demand for their services, and the pressures on them will continue to grow. Just as the community grows so will the need for non-profit services - and it worries me because I think we have become a bit complacent.

Many of us know we are now known as the "most giving community" per capita thanks to our generosity with the United Way every year. Most of us donate to non-profit organizations, and many of us do volunteer work, too. I think, though, that we might be holding the belief that we do not have to do more than we currently are - and that is an illusion. As we see population growth we will see growth in the need for our non-profit sector too, and we will need to be ready to address that.

Today I am asking you what you will do to ensure that as we grow we meet the needs of those in our community who are struggling. Today you can give to the food bank, and I will repost the press release I received in its entirety below. Today, though, we also need to begin thinking about tomorrow, and our future in this region. We need to start thinking about a social policy framework, an infrastructure of a different kind than bridges and roads and buildings. We need to start thinking about ways to use our resource wealth - our wealth of both our natural resources, oil and people - to ensure that no one in our community goes hungry or homeless. Today we need to start asking ourselves what we can do as individuals, governments, businesses, and industries  to make a difference in this community, especially now as it grows. This press release is likely just an early warning, a sign of the times to come when there is more need and demand than ever before. Today I humbly suggest we start thinking about how we will meet it, because tomorrow might be too late. We can start by giving to the food bank today - but we cannot for a moment forget about tomorrow, because tomorrow is coming, and we need to make sure we are ready for it.

Press Release from Wood Buffalo Food Bank

FORT MCMURRAY, Alberta – Food Bank Sees Large Increase in Usage

On March 18, 2013 the Wood Buffalo Food Bank Association is requesting the assistance of its community. January 2013 saw a 30% increase in usage over January of 2012 and February 2013 saw a 33% increase of February 2012.

This increase in usage means that our stocks are being depleted 30% faster than anticipated and what should have lasted till end of May beginning of June is already being used up. While the stock of some food items such as pasta, flour, sugar, canned beans, etc... are plentiful our primary stocks of canned vegetables, canned meats, and pasta sauces are depleting far faster than new stock is coming in.

The Wood Buffalo Food Bank would like to ask our community to help support our organization by donating at your local grocery store, directly at the food bank, or by hosting a food drive where you live, work, or play. A list of our most needed items can be found on our twitter and Facebook daily and well as in the Fort McMurray Today every Tuesday.

The Wood Buffalo food bank would like to thank all our supporters whether corporate or individual every dollar and every pound make a world of difference to a hungry family. If you are interested in running a food drive and need some help please contact us for information and assistance.

At the Wood Buffalo Food Bank, the need to serve our clients in the most efficient and respectful way possible is paramount to our goals. In order to be a hand up and not a hand out we must make every effort to make our services accessible to all of the citizens in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Monday Morning and Thoughts on Haters

Sometimes in my passion for this place I forget something. I forget, sometimes for good sized stretches of time, that there are people who hate Fort McMurray. Often it's because I don't encounter them regularly, as most of the people I know are actively involved in making this community a better place, raising their families, working at their jobs, volunteering their time with social profit organizations, and just making a life here. But I know they are out there, and every once in awhile I encounter them. I suppose we could call them many things, but for expediency let's just call them "the haters". And then let's have a little chat about hate.

I've lived in a few places in this country. Living in a place I never had even visited is not new to me, not "my first time at this rodeo", and so when I moved to Fort McMurray I knew there would be good and bad, pros and cons, positives and negatives - just like everywhere else I have ever lived. I also learned a few other things over those years, and I will share some of them here:

1) There are people who can hate it anywhere they find themselves.

I remember when I first moved to Toronto as a young adult. I ran into people who would complain bitterly about the city. Now, this is a city with endless entertainment options, shopping malls full of every variety of goods, services of all kinds, and, at the time, relentless job opportunities. And yet some still complained about the city, about how it was such a terrible place they couldn't stand it. I suspected they would be the ones who would find something to complain about in paradise, too. Some people just are born to complain, and likely do so on Christmas morning when surrounded by family and piles of gifts and food galore. I avoid them, because frankly life is just too short to be around people who are so painfully depressing. They must be a real joy in the lives of those forced to spend time with them. I'd chew my arm off to get away from them if necessary.

2) Nobody is forced to stay anywhere unless they are in jail or on parole.

I also recall finally having enough of one individual's complaints in Toronto and asking them, very innocently, when their parole was up. They looked at me blankly and I drily commented that from their attitude I had made the assumption they were being forced to stay in Toronto by parole conditions as clearly they had no choice and could go nowhere else in the country or world. The point is that unless you actually are incarcerated we are in no prison except those we make for ourselves, and therefore we can leave at will and find new opportunities elsewhere. We might make less money elsewhere, true, but that brings me to....

3) George Bernard Shaw was pretty smart.

What does playwright George Bernard Shaw have to do with this, you ask? Well, there is a story attributed to him that I believe applies. Shaw encountered a woman and asked her if she would sleep with him for a million pounds. She answered yes, of course she would. He then asked if she would sleep with him for five pounds and she became angry, hotly asking "What kind of woman do you think I am?". Shaw, being a rather clever sort, responded "Madam, we've established what kind of woman you are - now we are just haggling over price". It's a funny story, but relevant too. If you are the kind of person who equates money with happiness then you might be willing to sell your happiness for enough cash - but then we have established your priorities, and making somewhere a better community isn't likely one of them.


Those are three of the many things I learned while living across this country. But I have some additional thoughts too (yes, I know, you're shocked!). I think that people who hate it in Fort McMurray - or anywhere else - have three options. I see it like this:

1) Continue to live or work here and hate it.

Life is brutally short, people. You spend a short time alive and a long time dead. If you truly want to spend that short time of being able to feel anything feeling misery then no one can help you change that. Please don't pretend there are no jobs anywhere else in the country - there are, they just may not pay as much or be as easy to find. You are benefitting from the potential and opportunity here, but if it makes you miserable is it worth it? How much do you sell yourself for exactly? I am not one of those "don't let the door hit you in the ass on the way out" types. I'm one of those "why would you sell your ability to be happy?" types. I'm one of those who thinks that if you are miserable you should change it - because unless you are here in jail or on parole you have the power and ability to leave and find happiness elsewhere.

2) Leave and try to find happiness elsewhere.

I think I covered this pretty well in 1). You are not forced to be here. Maybe you'd be happier somewhere else. Or maybe you'd be just as miserable because you've chosen to be unhappy wherever you happen to be. That's up to you. Just don't assume that everyone else is as miserable as you are, because some of us love it where we are.

3) Stay - and find something to like.

Maybe you could try to find one thing you like about this place. Maybe you find a coffee shop that makes you happy, or you volunteer with an organization that brightens the lives of others. Maybe you try to expand your world a tiny bit and find just one small thing you like, and maybe, just maybe, you find a glimmer of happiness here. Maybe you'll never love it here, but then again maybe you will. All I know is that given the choice between misery and happiness I will do anything to try to find happy - and trust me, I know that choice.


So, those are today's thoughts on haters and Fort McMurray. I will say it right here and right now - Fort McMurray is not utopia. It is not heaven, it is not nirvana, and it has problems and issues like every other place in the world. Fort McMurray is not perfect, but if you only love perfect then I fear for your future relationships because the true beauty of life is in the imperfections. Imperfections are what gives the world depth and complexity, character and interest. There are things here that drive me bonkers, like bad parking jobs and people who speed through school zones - but those things happen everywhere, and while I get annoyed I also just laugh at how crazy this world is, and how imperfect. And then I go do some volunteer work or interview someone really intriguing and the world balances again. So, to those who love it here I say thank you - thank you for doing what you can to make this a better place, because if you love it here I know that is one of the things you do. When you love something you always want to do make it better, and do things for it. If you run into someone who hates it here brush it off - because that is truly their burden to carry, not yours. If they want to spend their days in misery so be it - they've made a choice just like you did.

And to those who hate it here?  Well, all I have to say is this - when is your parole up?

Friday, March 15, 2013

Of Intrepid Junior Bloggers, Airlines, and Momma Bears

I like to believe that generally speaking I am a nice woman. I tend to believe in good manners and best behaviour, but on occasion I reach a certain point where I toss that aside and give in to my darker, and more volatile, side. That happened recently when the Intrepid Junior Blogger was flying south to visit her father, and we ran into a little trouble at the Fort McMurray airport.

Now when you put the words "airport" and "a little trouble" together you know there is no way it can be little at all. Any trouble at an airport is big trouble, and I know this because once upon a time I worked for a small airline in northern Ontario. We used words like "a little trouble" when speaking to passengers all the time, and roughly translated it usually meant "suck it up, buttercup, there isn't a chance in hell you are flying anywhere today because the wing just fell off the plane" (or some other lesser incident, usually, but one that nonetheless meant travel chaos). So, when I arrived at the YMM airport with the IJB and saw the line-up to check-in at Air Canada I was aghast.

The line, you see, stretched all the way back to the doors, snaking around the terminal like some horrible conga line of rolling luggage. They were checking in three flights, true, but it still got my instincts going because line-ups like this at airports are usually the first sign of "a little trouble".

Now, it drives me nuts that you can check in ahead of time but we have no bag drop or bag tag printers, forcing you to still check-in at the counter if you have luggage. This makes me crazy, because the concept of on-line check-ins is to save time, and it doesn't save any time the way it currently is. I assume this will be addressed with the new terminal, but currently it drives me completely bonkers because it doesn't make any sense. This meant the IJB and I had to wait in line, and wait, and wait, until, about three people to go ahead of us, the dreaded announcement was made.

First they announced the flight the IJB was on had "taken on a delay". A two hour delay. Well, no big deal, really, flights can be delayed, so I was quite okay with that. And then, as an afterthought, they tacked on that the aircraft had also been downgraded - from a 75-seat aircraft to a 50-seat aircraft. Suddenly "a little trouble" was looking a lot more ominous.

Knowing what I do about airlines I guessed that the flight was full, meaning 25 people would be looking for seats. When we finally got to the counter I asked some questions. Was there a seat for the IJB on the flight? The passenger service agent indicated she did not know. If there was not what procedure were they using to bump passengers to later flights? Again, she did not know. When was the next flight with seats? She did not know. After each answer I could feel my head shaking, a silent warning to her that these were not the right answers to give me. And, finally, she offered that she had heard a "rumour" that there would be a flight added that night at 9 pm (it was currently about 1 pm). Then she told us we could go and take a seat and wait to hear about the flight and whether the IJB was on it, but she could not give her a boarding pass or tag her bags. I looked her in the eye and told her that the IJB is a 13-year old flying alone, and that I genuinely hoped that was taken into consideration when assigning seats.

As directed I went and sat down. And then I went on a little Twitter rage.First I tweeted to Air Canada that they could add me to the list of unhappy customers. Within minutes they replied and asked me to message them directly with my concerns, which I did. First I told them about the delayed flight, the downgraded aircraft, the vague and nebulous answers, and the "rumour" of a later flight that was being offered as information. I suppose I was a bit harsh, but after years working for an airline I knew that telling passengers that another flight was "rumoured" was worse than having no answers. I gave them the flight details, and I added that my child was flying alone. I told them this didn't exactly give me, or the IJB, confidence in their airline. And then I watched as within minutes an agent was handing the IJB a boarding pass and tagging her bag.

As we were waiting in the security line the IJB stared at me in amazement. I suspect it's one of the few times I have ever actually impressed the kid, and I explained a few things to her. First I explained that I worked for airlines so know a few things about how they function. Second I explained that unlike many other businesses being nice gets you virtually nowhere with an airline. If you are too nice you are often the one left sitting behind when everyone else has a boarding pass. I explained you want to be the one they know will be glaring at them from the uncomfortable waiting room seats. You don't want to be rude to them - that is never the answer - but you don't want to be a doormat, either.

I don't know if my Twitter rage is why she ended up on the plane, but I think there may well be a connection. All I know is I have a strong sense that she would not have been on the plane had I not contacted Air Canada via Twitter and made my case (including questioning the wisdom of agents talking about rumoured flights and not being able to answer very basic questions about procedure, like how they determine who to bump from a downgraded aircraft). And the other thing I was reminded of that day is that I am a pretty ferocious momma bear type, and while I probably would have been waving good bye to the plane from the terminal as it left without me I was quite determined my kid was getting on that plane (or, said another way, "nobody puts baby in a corner").

A few days later Air Canada got another taste of Fort McMurray Twitter rage when they announced a seat sale - and when they announced it they not only called us Fort MacMurray but said we were not included in the seat sale pricing. It was adding insult to injury, and the collective howl was immediate and effective. Dozens of people went on their own Twitter rage (as well as emailing) and by the end of it Air Canada was apologizing and adding YMM to the seat sale, too. I suppose it was an example of "We are Fort McMurray, hear us roar" or some such equally empowering adage. And it was pretty damn amazing to witness.

So, that's my Air Canada story. For the record the IJB arrived at her destination happy and pretty impressed with her mother (and that's pretty rare these days, what with the teenage thing going on, so I was feeling pretty pleased, too). In the end I felt pretty good about Air Canada, and the IJB will fly with them again some day. Not for a bit, though. My blood pressure just can't handle many more of those momma bear moments, and I suspect I should be saving them for important things - like future boyfriends. I think I'll get a sign made for the front door - "beware of (momma) bear". It only seems fair to give some sort of warning, really.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Community and Coffee - Starbucks Opens!

There are few things I find more exciting than a grand opening. The opening of a new business of any sort thrills me, but especially if it touches on one of the things I am crazy about. For the record I am nuts about clothing, shoes, and coffee, and when I heard about the "sneak peek" opening for the new Starbucks on Franklin Avenue I knew I had to go - because coffee is what runs through my veins.

I've watched the building go up with anticipation. I happen to be a "Starbucks girl", loving everything about them from their coffees to that wicked cheesecake brownie they've been serving to the green aprons to their business philosophy. Last night the new, and Fort McMurray's only, stand-alone Starbucks opened its doors for two hours. For those two hours you could enjoy live music, check out the new atmosphere, and get a free drink and food - all for a donation to the Family Crisis Society. That sort of community social profit and corporate partnership is what makes my heart sing. That sort of collaboration makes me smile, and so did the sign that greeted the Intrepid Junior Blogger and I when we arrived.

It looks pretty much like most other Starbucks, but I love the walls and unfinished ceiling. I love the free wifi. I love the tables and soft chairs. I've been looking for a new coffee spot to call my own recently, and I think last night I found it. I wanted a place where I can sit and think and read and research and write, hold interviews and meet with friends. I think this is the place.

It was packed last night, full to the doors, and rightfully so as it benefitted both a wonderful local social profit organization and gave community members a chance to huddle indoors, away from a cold and blustery day that seemed so cruel given our recent spring-like weather. The weather outside was nasty, wind blowing and snow falling, but inside Starbucks it was warm and cozy. The staff was all smiles, wearing their green aprons, slinging drinks and food, and keeping their calm despite the chaos around them. And I like that, because that is exactly how I work, too (like a duck on water, calm on the surface and paddling like hell down below).

I have already set up my first "business" meeting there, for this week in fact, and plan to take a friend there this weekend for coffee as well. I hope in the future to approach the new owners and managers about organizing a little "ymmtweetup", just a gathering of folks from Twitter (or anyone who wants to come, really) to meet and chat and drink coffee and enjoy each other's company. I write this early in the morning and my first stop on my way to work will in fact be the new Starbucks, and I expect by next week they will know me by name and drink order. This is what I have been waiting for, you see. This is just another sign of the future that is coming to Fort McMurray, a future that includes things I have so missed like a stand-alone Starbucks (and while I love the folks who work at the Safeway Starbucks the atmosphere is a bit lacking). This is a sign of more good things to come, about exciting new places to drink and eat and shop. And speaking of shopping now that we have a  stand-alone Starbucks I find myself hoping for a Nine West shoe store. Hey, a girl can dream, can't she?

Welcome to Fort McMurray,

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Love, Loss, and Letting Go - A Personal Story

It is with some trepidation I share a very personal blog post I wrote two years ago on March 10th, the second anniversary of my mother's death. Four years ago today it was the evening before her funeral, and the beginning of a long personal journey for me, one that led me to write this blog, and eventually to a very new life. I share it today with you because over the past two years I have come to see the readers of this blog - and those who share my community - as my family, and so I reprise it here with the hope that it will help you know a bit more about the person behind these words.

Love, Loss, and Letting Go

Two years ago today my mother died. Those last three words seem a bit surreal even now, and it was quite certainly surreal then. When I thought about this blog post I knew I wanted to write it but found ways to avoid it all morning. I knew what I wanted to say but wasn't sure I would find the words, so all I can do is try. I hope I do this story justice.

When I decided to blog about today's anniversary I realized there were many things I could write about. I could write about the phone call from my sister telling me there had been an "incident" with my mother - "incident" now being a word that has forever taken on sinister connotations for me. I could write about being told it was time to come home as her survival was unlikely. I could write about the airplane flights that passed as if in a nightmare. I could write about the men on the airplane who, when I rushed past them, made some comment about my obviously being important to be in such a hurry, and my vitriolic response of "My mother is dying - is that reason enough to hurry for you?", and rushing off the plane with tears in my eyes to beg for the last standby seat on my connecting flight. I could write about those days and nights in the ICU, the most terrifying place in the hospital, where you meet other families, some who will take their loved ones home and some who will never see them alive again. I could write about the decision to end life support. I could write about holding your mother's hand as she dies. I decided, though, that while all those things deserve to be written about that I wouldn't write about them today. Rather, I would write about my mother, and me.

In the photo above I would guess I am about 3 or 4, which makes my mother about the same age as I am now. I was her last child, born to her late in life. I have been called by others an accident, but never by her. She always called me a surprise, and one of the very best. She and I were very close, and I suppose some of that is because I was her last child, and the one who remained home after the others had left the nest.

She had not had an easy life. She lost both her parents prematurely, and felt very responsible for her younger siblings as a result. She had lived through poverty and grief, and likely more bad times than good. She had five children and I know at times it must have been a struggle, especially when my four eldest sisters were all little and she was often home alone as my father tended to the farm.

She was the quintessential stay-at-home mom. I remember when all my friends discovered that I had a mom who baked her own bread, buns, and cinnamon buns. They quickly learned her daily schedule and it seemed that every week on baking day they would suggest that day to study at my house, knowing they would be fed. In fact after she died I received notes from friends, some whom I hadn't heard from in years, expressing their sympathy and telling me they would always remember how kind she was to them and how she always fed them. I recall her feeding all my boyfriends, including some who showed up when I wasn't home. There were a couple of times when I asked her to stop that as I suspected that men are like cats in that if you keep feeding them they keep coming back, and I was trying to dissuade those particular boys from returning.

Most of my friends liked to hang out at my house because my mom was home. Many of their parents worked, but my mom was a comforting presence in their lives, and in mine. I will admit she may not have been the most educated woman on the planet but she had common sense paired with a huge and loving heart. Those things make up for a lack of education in my opinion, and I suspect my friends felt the same.

I don't want to make it sound like she was perfect. Throughout her life my mother struggled with mental illness. For those who think that I shouldn't reveal such things publicly all I can say is that I believe the reason the stigma about mental illness remains is because we refuse to acknowledge it, and only by shedding light on it can we address it. I suspect the stigma is the reason my mother avoided treatment for her problems. The thing is, though, I didn't love her despite her mental illness - in some ways as I grew older I loved her more because of it. Even as a child I recognized that at times she needed someone to be her logic and reason when she could find none, and I decided I would be that for her. I also became fiercely protective of her, knowing that at times she was too fragile to cope with the world.

Most of all my mother loved her children unconditionally, without reservation or apology. She loved me when I did well, and when I failed. She loved me through good decisions, bad decisions, and decisions that frankly now make me shake my head. She loved me when I was good to her, and when I was cruel. She loved me every moment of every day of her life, and I never doubted that. And I loved her that way in return. I still do. She gave me the most tremendous gift - not just life, but a life knowing I was loved, and being able to love that way in return.

After my mother died the funeral home called and said that even though we had requested a closed casket any family members who wished to see her prior to the funeral could do so. I don't know which of my sisters went - we've never really discussed it as that was an intensely personal decision. I decided to go see her one final time. Now I share with all of you something I have never told anyone but some very close friends. When I went to see my mother I brought her something. I slipped an envelope behind her pillow as I said good-bye. The envelope contained a short letter I wrote that day. I told her how much I loved her, and how much I would miss her. I told her how much I would miss knowing that there was one person in the world who loved me unconditionally and with the kind of love only a mother knows. And finally, I thanked her. I thanked her for giving me the greatest gift of all - teaching me how to be the kind of mother who loves their child without condition, reservation, or apology. That, my friends, is what she gave me - the ability to love my daughter in the same way she loved me.

My world tilted on it's axis two years ago, and in some ways it has never been the same. I miss my mother every day, and love her as intensely now as I ever did. What I also do every day, though, is love my daughter as intensely as she loved me. I hope some day my daughter can say she loved me not despite but also because of my faults. I hope some day she finds strength in knowing that her mother always loved her without condition, and without reservation. I hope some day when I am gone that she can let me go but also carry me with her every day, just as I carry my mother with me.

Mom, this is for you. I love you.

Instincts and Heart in Fort McMurray

I saw her through the window at Starbucks as I was getting my coffee that morning. I hadn’t noticed her when I walked into the Safeway, so perhaps she arrived after I did or perhaps I was oblivious in my morning rush to secure coffee. I was waiting for my coffee, looking out the windows, when I spotted her sitting at the small round table on the cement outside.
She had a cigarette in her hand, and she was visibly shivering. My reaction was immediate and instinctual. I suspected she was one of our homeless population although I did not recognize her from my visits to the Centre of Hope. New to the city, perhaps, or just passing through as transient homeless occasionally do. She wore what appeared to be a new coat, clean and looking like it would be warm, but I knew that such a coat did not mean she was not homeless because new clothing is often given to those who find themselves freezing on our streets. It was not the coat that made me think she was homeless, or the cigarette – it was the way her body shook, the way her slender and frail hands shivered.
For some reason I was instantly uneasy, too. I just had the sense that something was terribly wrong, and I couldn’t help but be afraid that something bad had happened to her. There was something in the way she was shaking that troubled me, and it upset me, too. I found myself struggling with what to do. Should I go outside and ask her if I could help? Take her a warm coffee? Or just go on my way and assume that I was wrong and that she was simply someone who had stopped at a convenient spot for a cigarette on a chilly morning?
They called my drink at that point, and I turned to collect it. Only moments had passed before I had the coffee in my hand and the lid secured but when I turned to the windows she was gone. I could not see which direction she had gone. It was like she had simply vanished, disappearing into the streets as the homeless here often seem to do. And as I walked to my car I continued to feel uneasy and unhappy because I felt I had failed.
You see I think I should have walked out the door and asked if she was okay as soon as my instincts said she was not. I should have asked if I could buy her a coffee or some food. I should have followed my heart that said she was in trouble and not listened to my head that led me to doubt myself. I was terribly, terribly disappointed in myself that day, and I continue to be.
Perhaps she was not homeless at all and my instincts were wrong. But something tells me that I was right, and that she was in some sort of distress. I have not seen her again although I return to that Starbucks every morning and watch for her. If I ever do see her again I will offer to buy her coffee, even if her hands are not shaking. And if I never see her again I will not forget her, either, because she reminded me that sometimes one needs to simply follow their heart and not allow that internal debate to deter you from action. She reminded me that I am not perfect, and that I can do more, and do it better. You see I think we all have a responsibility in this world, and it is to each other. I think about how if she were my daughter or sister I would want someone to ask if she was okay, to extend an offer of help even if was not needed. Next time I will not disappoint myself, and next time I will not debate. I will follow my heart and place a cup of warm coffee in those shaking hands, and offer assistance. Next time I will follow my instincts, and let my heart lead me.