Feeling our Pain

Taken on a quiet paddle

We all have preferred styles of attention and ways that we perceive what is happening to us. It takes lifelong practice of what I call “mirror-wiping” to see things as they are, instead of as we are! “I” am always my first problem, and if I deal with “me,” then I can deal with other problems much more effectively. Similarly, grief work begins with cleansing the lens of my perception, and simply being “here” to what is. Buddhist teacher Cuong Lu is a student of Thich Nhat Hanh, and here he describes a practical way to be present to our pain.

Do you want to put an end to the dark thoughts racing through your mind, the pressures you feel every day, the many ways you don’t feel seen or heard? What do you really want? What do you really want to end? Your thoughts bombarding you 24/7? Your loneliness? Your despair? What do you think happens when life ends? Do you think you won’t feel anything, that you won’t suffer anymore? . . .

Instead of acting on these impulses—stop, wait, and study the details of your life: the skin on your hands, the despair in your throat, the searing currents running through your veins. Study these things as if your life depended on it. When you stay fully present with your feelings, your sensations, and the world around you, even when it seems dark and cold, joy will arise. Joy and suffering are two sides of the same coin.

The way to free yourself from pain is to feel it, not to run away, as difficult as that may be. Be a mountain and be porous at the same time. Become interested in yourself, your thoughts, your emotions, your sensations. This might not make sense now, but it will. . . .

Pain and suffering make life beautiful. This might be hard to believe while you’re suffering, but the lessons you can learn from hardships are jewels to cherish. If you’re suffering, it means you have a heart. Suffering is evidence of your capacity to love, and only those who understand suffering can understand life and help others.

The world needs your suffering, your courage, and your strength. Don’t try to kill your pain. Share it with another, communicate it. If the first person you talk to isn’t the right one, find someone else. Somebody somewhere wants to listen to your pain, to connect with you and understand you. When you find them, when you lighten your burden and discover the jewels and joy that are alive beneath the pain, later you’ll be present for others who are suffering.

Richard Rohr Center of Action and Contemplation


I never do this in a blog post, but I am making an exception

The most important part of this post is the quote by Cuong Lu. I found it yesterday by chance after I clicked on Richard Rohr’s site – something I haven’t done in a very long time. It certainly speaks to me and what I am going through now as a result of a year and a half of Covid, and I think there are lots of people out there who could benefit from these words, so I am putting it all out there.

One of the distressing byproducts of Covid is the anxiety and depression it can induce in people. One of the high risk groups are people who have dealt with anxiety disorders in the past. In my case, Covid has led to a recurrence of an old anxiety condition that has not surfaced in seven years.

Now it is back and I am working really hard on drawing myself out from a prolonged period of pretty high anxiety. It is certainly a very slow road.

Many others I suspect are going through this too so I hope this is helpful to those who read my blog. These are extraordinary times and I really think we need to be communicating about how we are doing right now. To do so normalizes the distress and helps everyone to feel part of a community that is struggling with the prolonged pandemic.

No one likes to feel bad, whatever form this takes, but I sincerely believe there is value in times of distress. When we suffer, it causes us to lean in, to learn more about ourselves and grow. Growth and learning can be really hard, but it still is an opportunity to look inside with compassion and interest to see ourselves in a new way.

I have written about my own mental health struggles in the past and these posts are usually the ones that get the most response. That is a good thing. I don’t mind putting myself out there, especially if it helps someone else who is suffering.

We don’t like suffering and we usually do whatever we can to avoid this. While this is natural, I suggest that we have to be present to the challenging times, not just the good ones. We need to learn not to judge these times as ‘bad’, they really are just a part of what it means to be human and we all go through these at various times in our lives.

The best response is to take the time to settle in and reflect.

As Cuong Lu says, “Become interested in yourself, your thoughts, your emotions, your sensations. This might not make sense now, but it will. . . .”

I hope people respond to this post, especially if this helps. I hope people post on how they are doing right now so we can all realize we are a brave bright community that is struggling. I do believe that there is comfort in all of this and that this particular post may help out as people contribute to what I am writing here now.

Even if you don’t write anything, I hope you find some comfort in the notion that the dark times are times of opportunity to learn and grow. Even in discomfort and distress there can be the beginnings of joy.

Could this be a dialogue? I sincerely hope so.

What does your Covid balance sheet look like? The Good, The Bad, The Ugly.

I am starting with a question for you all. What does your life balance sheet look like after 14 months in a global pandemic?

This is a unique time in all of our lives. No story has dominated the news cycle anything like Covid – not in our lifetime. If you wanted to look for comparisons, you would have to go back to the Second World War. Absolutely nothing has dominated our lives like the pandemic.

So, how is your life going? I get asked this a lot mainly because I am in my fifth month on Noom and they tend to ask you lots of questions that call for a certain amount of personal reflection. I think it’s worth the trouble. Since the beginning of January I have been able to shed almost 20 pounds of excess baggage and I am looking to lose 10 more – Nomm likes it when you make public declarations!

How do you figure out your balance sheet in the biggest global crisis you are likely to see?

For me, it has to be a balance – Good, Bad and yes, Ugly. There is some of all of this for me and I would say probably for you too.

The Good is important, it is what we value the most and it is what paints the brightest self portrait. There are good things going on because of Covid. I have signed up for a Ph.D. which I will start this fall. I have had enough time to reflect that this is a good life challenge for me and many of you in the Twitterverse actually supported my decision to take this on – thanks for this.

I mentioned Noom, that is something I am doing with my partner, Heather and along with this we are new converts to the Peloton which is helping up get our hearts and I would say our heads back into good shape. Both of these healthy projects took flight nearly 10 months into the pandemic. Think of that; we have done our fair share of languishing, but we decided to take something back, get some greater control in a world where so much is beyond us.

One big positive thing in all of this has been the noticing. Early on in the pandemic I started walking our dog Dory all the time. This was Dory’s version of the Peloton, and she is still looking pretty sleek! The walks allowed me to see all around our neighbourhood and some of the walks eventually took Heather and I as far as the Ottawa River – these walks unfortunately were beyond what Dory could manage.

A recent Covid Walk shot – the photos had to be in our neighbourhood and no people could be in the shots. At any one time, only four pictures could be displayed.

The walks and the photos are a long-standing Good that has come out the pandemic. Once you really start noticing the world around you things begin to open up.

The Bad is not somewhere I want to dwell. We all hear this all the time, every day. It is almost comical how many bad news stories our local CBC Ottawa radio station is able to conjure up. They seem to take a certain glee in featuring yet another colourful local story about how our lives have been strained and drained over the past 14 months.

My Bad is the same as everyone’s. The places we can’t go – Kilimanjaro – Cuba – Montreal – the Maritimes – you get the picture. The people we can’t be with – for me this is mainly family. Our meetings with family are challenging and sometimes downright silly like when we all hid under a canopy on Christmas Eve in the middle of a torrential rainfall.

So, let’s not linger, the Bad is part of our shared experience, it varies depending on people’s circumstances, but we all share the Bad.

What about the Ugly? What does that look like for you? How have things become ugly for you and for your world? The Ugly could be your social media. Here we have a neighbourhood Facebook Page where post after post decries the habits of some of the homeless people in our area. That is nothing but Ugly.

For me too social media has played a part. When you can’t see people except for their screen, sometimes things can go terribly wrong. Just a few days ago I totally lost it when something I had spend hours on got a bit messed due to a technical glitch. Really, no one’s fault, but I totally lost it.

Why does this happen? How is it that it seems easier now than ever to become totally unhinged?

Is Covid unhinging us?

I later apologized for my bizarre behaviour, but I am perplexed by the Ugly. Can we understand this? Can you talk about your ugly side?

While I love the Good and accept the Bad, the Ugly has me wondering. What is going on? In other cases, long-time friendships are at risk because of some of the strains brought on by the pandemic.

I do not have any answers to finish off this post. The Ugly is what it is and I do hope the damage is not permanent. For me in times like this, I like to go back to Pema Chödrön and all of her wisdom. She is truly a voice for our time. She talks about treating ourselves, even with the ugly with loving kindness:

But lovingkindness—maitri (Pali, metta)—toward ourselves doesn’t mean getting rid of anything. Maitri means that we can still be crazy, we can still be angry. We can still be timid or jealous or full of feelings of unworthiness. Meditation practice isn’t about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better. It’s about befriending who we are already. The ground of practice is you or me or whoever we are right now, just as we are. That’s what we come to know with tremendous curiosity and interest.

Pema Chödrön meditation

This is my answer to the Ugly. We are challenged to treat ourselves as fallible humans capable of great things and sometimes of true ugliness. We don’t dwell in the Ugly instead we lean in to learn.

We lean towards the Good, we acknowledge the Bad and we learn from the Ugly.

My mom in dementia

People need to be honoured, people need to be written about.

In 2017, I wrote about my dad as he lay in a coma. It got lots of attention. He fell and lingered for weeks before he died. This post I honour my mother, but I doubt it will get as much recognition.

My mom is alive, but the wonderful character, the beautiful person who she was is almost dead.

My mom has advanced dementia. Her last real grasp of reality died with my father, but she lingers.

We moved her to Ottawa after my dad died, and when Covid allows, we visit her. She has endured months in the hospital after a broken hip, but she rallied and survives.

Today I had a visit and she railed at me, she screamed when we tried to give her medication.. She shouted at me when I wouldn’t bring her home -what is home??

She clawed at my visor and spit at me. I tried to distract with an old movie, she was a lover of old movies. Today it didn’t work.

I took her outside, I toured her around the residence. She complained – really loudly, that this was not her home.

For one moment, I think more of myself. I have no family to help with this. There is a brother, but he is in so much psychic pain he is not able to help.

I witness this and I have to remember. My mom was a good mom. My mom loved us and made our home the hub that all my friends felt comfortable coming to. Our place was always so much fun, she welcomed everyone to our place. we all grew up with her.

My mom was crazy, she would dance right into the super 8 film my dad was trying to take of beautiful cliffs in New Brunswick. My mom is who I talked to when I came home after too many beers who listened patiently when I blathered on about nothing. My mom let us use her wedding dress for a movie we were making. Who dived into the pool in that dress??

My mom was always there for us. My mom listened.

Now who is my mom? What does she think, what does she feel?

I am not sure she feels the absence of her wonderful partner. She talks about ‘Frank’ but I don’t know if she realizes he is no longer there.

Soon after my dad died, she told me a story. She was asleep in a different section of the room on the night he died. She talked about how he came to her that night and talked to her. I can’t remember what she said about that encounter, but it was a vision of comfort and love.

Now there are photos of the two of them together throughout the room, but I don’t think she recognizes them. Some times, I am Frank or her brother Paul also long gone. Sometimes I am Paul, but I am a bit surprised when she recognizes me.

Today her plea was to take her home. I told her that she was home, but really, that made no sense to her.

This is living with dementia. It is too easy to be angry with her because she is no longer the mom I knew. I write this to help me to remember to respect who she was even though she is still here. She is not who she was.

This is part of life, seeing your loving parent descend into something that resembles madness. There is no solace in this. There is no comfort, there are memories, but they are faded right now.

I write this out of great respect for my mom. I write this to remember. I write this to help me to me a loving son on the next visit when who knows what will happen.

Is it possible to mourn the living? I don’t know. I respect and love who she was. This is life, this is dementia.

Living in the Times of Covid – 19: A Journal

So, I reorganized my CD collection, sent a video to my mom and put a silly picture on Facebook. My very busy agenda for the day is complete. I am thinking now it is time to start an on-line journal on our days staying inside.

Just to be clear, none of this will be me complaining. I have a sister-in-law who is a nurse in Montreal, our daughter and her partner and our daughter-in-law are all front-line health care workers. They are the ones I know who are actually going through challenging times now.

Thank-you Norma, stay safe!

This is more of a reflection piece. Where was my mind at during the Pandemic?

If you can see the photo I put up on Facebook, you can get a sense of where my head is at. I really think, number one, the idea needs to be stay stable, don’t go off the deep end, this is a really weird time.

But at some point, we will all go over the deep end.

Two nights ago during a Zoom book club, I didn’t follow my own advice. I had spent an hour listening to the daily presser with Donald Trump fact-checked by Now This News. It is really good because they fact-check Trump in realtime. Good, but very disturbing.

Going from this train wreck to a discussion on books about hiking was a little too much. I erupted about Trump, about trekking books, about everything. If my Zoom partners could have backed further away from their computer they certainly would have. For good reason, my state of mind is now a discussion item and I can hardly blame people for that.

Trying to keep an even keel these days is a real challenge!

We all have minor and major disappointments. We can’t see our friends and family. Everyone is seeing opportunities and plans go up in smoke. In the very worst cases of course, many people are dying terrible deaths.

There was an incredible article in the Sunday New York Times – He Could Have Seen What Was Coming: Behind Trump’s Failure on the Virus.

It is a long article – four pages in the NY Times.It really outlines in gruesome detail how President Trump hid from what was coming. Then I read an amazing piece by Nicholas Kristof, Life and Death in the Hot Zone. Here is the video he made of his time in a COVID ward.

 

So, I think we need to do a bit of both. We need to send out the silly photos, we need to share our pictures about baking bread and we need to read good pieces on hiking too. We need to do it all. We need to face up to what is happening too.

There is no balance in the time of COVID -19. There are highs and lows and all are good. We need to witness the terrible and we can’t turn our faces away from the corrupt and stupid. Somehow, we need to find a way to see both.

For me right now, the best I can do is write. Yes, it is a bit of an apology for a wonky state of mind, but we all need to acknowledge that this is a different time. Terrible for some scary and uncertain for everyone.

If this works I will keep writing, maybe tomorrow.

In the meantime, take care everyone!

ps – I leave you with this – while I don’t really like books on trekking I love trekking videos – definitely, to each their own!

Sometimes you have to move on – working with vertigo

Today I was working with my trainer trying to get this old body ready to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro again.

We are really working on my leg flexibility right now, one of the things I need to get good at if I want to climb a huge mountain mass like Kilimanjaro. It is a very slow process.

Doing lunges and trying to stay upright

We thought that it would be interesting to do some writing about living with vertigo, especially training with vertigo because sometimes you just have to move on.

In late November, I came down with a vicious attack of vertigo. Everything started spinning and there was absolutely nothing I could do about it. When things didn’t get better by the next morning we went to the hospital to check things out.

I got some pretty immediate treatment seeing how I was displaying the same symptoms as a stroke. Fortunately, after a day’s worth of tests and lots of doctors, it was determined that I had something called vestibular neuritis or an inner ear infection. Not all that interesting, but something that is pretty common. It can also have a dramatic impact on your life.

Now six weeks later, I still have most of the symptoms of this condition. I am dizzy most of the time, my balance is off, sometimes considerably but I don’t have any problems with my hearing or vision, here I am fortunate. I have daily exercises that I do. One has to do with rotating my head while throwing and catching a ball – our dog really likes this one.

I am fortunate because right now my work schedule is pretty light. In December I didn’t do anything but catch up on old movies. I actually did a Facebook survey to get some ideas for things to watch – I got a pretty good list!

Others have it so much worse. My wife Heather had Meniere’s Disease, also an ailment of the inner ear but so much worse. She dealt with this condition for at least eight years all the while teaching full classes of grade 7’s. The condition would sometimes lead to terrible attacks of nausea that would leave her world spinning for hours.

One of the reasons I am doing OK, is that I have the benefits of Heather’s experience. I am learning all sorts of tricks about how to navigate through my day and how to monitor my energy level.

It is one of the amazing things about teachers like Heather is their ability to cope with chronic conditions and still teach a group of students. Pretty amazing, really brave.

It is interesting to note how people react to invisible conditions. Many people have told me about their experiences with inner ear ailments. People talk about going for months without being able to keep their balance, a constant buzzing or fogginess in their heads. They also talk about recover which is really good to hear.

There is another group of people who unfortunately don’t get it. One person, once I explained what was going on said he thought I just had a cold. Some people, good friends have paid no attention to what is going on here. In one case, a former good friend was insulted when we cancelled a dinner because Heather was experiencing an inner ear attack. But let’s not focus on these folks.

There is a lot going on out there. We really don’t know what people are coping with and what people do every day to put up with a whole variety of conditions.

I think the only thing I would ask of people, especially friends is to take a few seconds to actually acknowledge when someone has been hit by a pretty debilitating condition. I am not asking for sympathy, just a few seconds of directed attention in the space of a busy day.

That’s not going to happen and writing about this doesn’t matter at least not to others, to me the writing matters.

What I love about my trainer is that he always takes me where I am. He is someone who has gone through battles I cannot even imagine and he thrives. He knows how hard it is for me to do a certain type of squat because today, for instance, my balance is not very good. But I do it and he is overjoyed. I am all over the place and my head is full of cotton, but I am doing my best stretches ever.

After the session I feel better, my head clears a bit. I am thankful for those who take the time to notice, my family, my trainer and a few of our friends.

This is a good reminder to try to be there for others. Try not to stay on your busy track and miss the moment to notice what is going on with another person. Take the time to get outside of your bubble, don’t move on too quickly.

New Beginnings, New Adventures

When we are young, life presents so many milestones

Sometimes a few weeks can utterly change the direction your life is taking. When this is happening, I think it is important to stop, reflect and write.

I have had a pretty significant writer’s block this summer. Although I was able to get two posts off about our incredible adventure during the Tour de Mont Blanc, I was missing some inspiration.

As you get older sometimes you have to create your own milestones. For us, that was the Tour du Mont Blanc this past summer

That has changed pretty significantly in the past week. I am learning and experiencing again and I am compelled to keep some record of what is happening in our lives.

First and most importantly our first-born Liam was just married. For four wonderfully hectic days, we celebrated the life and love of Liam and Claire with all their friends and family. Nothing can prepare you for such an occasion and I already know that words are failing me when I write about how such a life celebration can really swoop you up and carry you to a new enchanted place.

Then life presents new, wonderful moments – Liam and friends with Mairi before the wedding

As you get older, it is understandable to think that life’s milestones and adventures can become less frequent. You have had your first job, your first child, your first almost everything. But, there are new beginnings. Something as simple and at the same time grand as the marriage of a child can shake you to your foundations in a way that is beautiful.

What is the collection of life’s adventures and challenges that leads to the meeting of two young people who fall in love and make the commitment to share their lives together? Being an intimate witness to this new adventure is enough to take your breath away.

Now, it would have been easy to return to a settled quiet life – everyone returns to work or study and I get to go back to the quiet, retired life alongside a new physical training regime for our next climb. But that is not happening.

On one incredible day last week, I was offered two teaching opportunities at the Faculty of Education at the University of Ottawa. The same day, I was invited to take part in a 3-day training on how to design, write and assess three-dimensional units for science education in the United States.

None of this was expected, I was planning my escape from the cold and winds of another Eastern Ontario fall by trekking in Italy for six weeks. No more!

A rapid transformation of circumstances can really play with the mind! I now have to give up quiet retirement and look to a schedule this fall that looks almost full-time. I never really thought I would be in a situation like this again and while I do mourn the loss of a great trekking opportunity in Italy, the hills of Tuscany are not going anywhere and right now I am beginning to feel my batteries recharge for a really new and unexpected adventure.

I love teaching and I really love working with new teachers. This is what I will be doing.  Yes, I need to learn how to write a syllabus and plan on ways to teach Intermediate History to prospective teachers, but I am very happy to leave the quiet and set out again. Who knew?

This is what life is all about. When I am graced with a new opportunity I need to embrace it. Life is an on-going adventure. Either I am the active witness in the case of Liam’s beautiful wedding, or I am being thrown back into a dynamic teaching and learning situation.

Life can still be full of adventure

This blog is about to get much busier. When life takes a radical change learning happens that really should be accompanied by reflection. Things now are so new I really don’t know enough to reflect, but I think that will change pretty quickly.

I really enjoy writing when new things come up. I actually learn as I write. If you read this I hope there is something in here that helps you. Maybe my new students will find something useful here!

September dawns with wonderful memories and new adventures around every corner. Life is really good!

To Be a Pilgrim

Who would true valour see, Let him come hither
One here will constant be, Come wind, come weather.
There’s no discouragement
Shall make him once relent His first avowed intent,
To be a pilgrim

John Bunyan

Pilgrim – person who journeys to a sacred place; a traveller or wanderer.

Lightfoot Companion to the Via Francigena

symbol for the Via Francigena

Retirement is a funny thing. After decades of defining oneself by an occupation, the time comes where your definition needs to come from somewhere else. It is a different journey with fewer signposts.

After two and a half years, I think I am putting some of the pieces together. While there is work from time to time, retirement for me is becoming defined by the sojourn. This was not the plan, but it seems to resonate.

Two years ago I climbed to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro and entered the world of thin air and extreme trekking. Later, I travelled the old military roads of the Scottish Highlands with my daughter Colleen. The following year, on our first Climb for Kids trek, we climbed the sacred ground around Ausangate in Peru.

Colleen finds the Braveheart Car Park on the West Highland Way

My son Liam and I followed this up by walking the Pathway of the Gods in Amalfi. We also traced ancient Roman ruins at Pompeii and Rome. Very soon, our second Climb for Kids group will be trekking 170 km around Mont Blanc.

Liam and I starting another trek on the Amalfi Coast

Now I am starting to plan for my longest journey, part of the Via Francigena next October. We are also actively planning for Year III of Climb for Kids. The next trek will be an epic climb, but we won’t announce this one until the end of the summer.

I think what is happening here is that in my retirement I am becoming a pilgrim. There is an ‘avowed intent’ that is linking all of these walks. I think the most important intent is to connect or reconnect with people. On my treks in Scotland and Italy, I had the wonderful privilege of travelling first with my daughter Colleen then with my son Liam.

There is a true beauty in reconnecting with your adult children. We all change as we grow older and we all need to take the time to make sure our relationships stay vital and fresh. You can do this really well by walking and talking or sometimes just travelling in silence.

Climb for Kids is a wonderful experience for all sorts of reasons. I wrote about Year II last week and you can see that post here – Communities Move Mountains. This trek is about connecting too. Most importantly I get to travel and plan with my wonderful partner Heather Swail. We did our first high-altitude trek together last year in Peru and we experienced the beauty of the mountain together. After so many years together, it is still possible to learn things about your partner, especially when you are trekking under conditions of high physical stress.

Heather reaches the high pass at 5200 m with her buddy Beth

We have a great group this year and we will learn a great deal about each other as we travel around the highest mountain in Europe. Mountains take you to another place. They help you to hold others who travel with you in higher regard. They help you to gain a greater respect for yourself and for what you are able to do. The mountains truly make you a pilgrim.

There is a really good story that John Muir told about trekking. He never used the word hike and neither do I. He liked the word saunter because of its connection to an ancient practice.

Do you know the origin of that word ‘saunter?’ It’s a beautiful word. Away back in the Middle Ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going, they would reply, “A la sainte terre,’ ‘To the Holy Land.’ And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not ‘hike’ through them.

John Muir

A Parable of Sauntering

So this is my saunter. It is defining much of what I do these days, although until now I didn’t know if I had put this together. I still have to start writing about the Via Francigena and I will either soon or after the TMB. There is so much to learn and a world to saunter in. Each journey takes me to another holy land and I guess that makes me a pilgrim.

Acclimatization camp on Mt. Kilimanjaro

Speak out on Social Justice or Become Part of the Problem

Every day now in Ontario there is another cynical announcement about another cut to our social infrastructure. While this is happening, we are now learning that over 1 million species are facing extinction in the next few years unless we make significant changes to the way we live on this earth. There is little good news out there right now and we have to start paying more attention.

Every day I read the Twitter feed. I see the posts and reposts by Andrew Campbell and others and I am thankful for his courageous work. At the same time, I see prominent educators who continue to write as if nothing is changing.

To be honest, I don’t know what bothers me more.

People like Doug Ford are destructive. These people come and go. But what really matters is how all of us respond to the destructive people who have no idea on how to build and sustain a social infrastructure.

Another way to look at this could be how we see social justice. Is social justice important? Should we stand up for a just society or should we continue to write the same inane stuff?

Some people will not utter a peep because they feel that it might ruffle feathers. Could there possibly be a better time to speak out? If not now, when?

Justice is a really important concept. It is what built our democratic society. It is what protects the weak and the dispossessed. Those who have a voice have a responsibility to speak for those who suffer from the acts of the powerful.

Strong democracies are built upon strong voices. when these voices become timid democracy fails.

Now those who suffer will include any student in our public school system in Ontario. I am not exaggerating here. When the rich and the powerful make arbitrary decisions that lead to the suffering of others this is an injustice. If you don’t make any statement, do anything to counter this injustice you are complicit.

You probably won’t change what is going on right now in this province, but your voice matters because people read what you write.

Maybe you haven’t seen real injustice, but it exists. It is real and it is pervasive and if you don’t stand up to it you eventually will be consumed by it.

Take a look around. Don’t let educators who are making their voices heard stand alone. Injustice has been stopped before, greed, avarice, and ignorance do not have to win out.

My fear for Ontario is that we will all settle into the new normal. We will stay in our comfortable corners and hope things just get a little more normal. Too many of you are not saying enough and you need to reconsider your position.

How many times do we need to see injustice happen and do nothing? It is certainly worse in other places close to us – Latin America and increasingly the United States. We in Ontario have had it really good for a long time, but this time is coming to an end.

Yes, this is offensive to some and I am sorry for this. But I read the notices every day that more teachers are being laid off and I see many educators and academics write as if everything is OK.

Everything is not OK and sometimes social justice trumps whatever else you are writing about. Otherwise, unfortunately, you become part of the problem.

This morning while reading through Twitter I found this new article by Michael FullanWhy Pedagogy and Politics Must Partner. If you think this is all just me talking, read Fullan’s article.

Here is a quote from the article that I think is really important – pedagogy and politics are linked and really need to be now more than ever before:

One item of particular significance is the relentless increase of inequity. We have found that deep learning is good for all students but is particularly good for students who are disaffected. In this domain, the pedagogical and political pathways can combine as a particularly powerful combination. Deep learning students are needed as part of determining societal solutions. The combination of deep learning (the pedagogical pathway) and political action (the political pathway) may turn out to be the strongest force we have ever seen in the cause of social justice and high-quality education essential for the rest of the 21st century.

Measuring Retirement in Stories

When I retired from my last school, this building was barely started. Now I think it is the tallest building in the city, a soon-to-be-open condo high-rise in Little Italy.

We took part in a Jane Jacobs Walk in Ottawa this morning, one of sixty planned for this weekend. A pretty wonderful to start a weekend and expand one’s horizons.

After a long really dreadful winter here, it was very good to get out. Our guide was Luciano Pradal, a 77-year-old human repository of the cultural history of Little Italy. I remember Luciano from my time as principal at St. Anthony School. We were looking for ways to install new gardens to grow food at our school and Luciano came in to talk to me about what we might be able to put together.

This project never took off, but Luciano was a real treat to meet. He introduced me to his book, Chronicles of a Chestnut Lover and I learned more about this wonderful part of the city.

My time at St. Anthony’s was full of encounters like this one and taking part in this Jane’s Walk reminded me of the wonderful people I encountered while I worked here. Today, I took a picture of the tower because it is a good reminder of how much has happened since I left. Our son Liam gave me the title to go with the photo and it really fits.

This neighbourhood is full of great stories. Not only of its Italian past but also of its current immigrant population which now is mainly from Asia. It is also a very high-risk neighbourhood with many rooming houses and drop-in centres for the homeless. It is such a diverse setting for a Jane Jacobs Walk and it truly represents what a livable city can be. It is culturally diverse with a tradition of housing groups of new Canadians that find their collective grounding and move on.

Now with giant condo projects, one of the main threats to this neighbourhood is gentrification as it also has become one of the most fashionable parts of the city.

As a principal, I saw it as my role to get to know everything I could about this community. It was thrilling to work in such a rich and exciting part of the city and I really wanted our school to be an active part of the fabric of little Italy. If I miss anything about my teaching career, I miss this place.

The streets of Little Italy. New condos and derelict buildings waiting to turn a big profit.

There is something that can get lost once you retire. Your world can grow a little small. As a principal, I saw it as my role to get to know this area very well. Meetings with people like Luciano were opportunities to connect and learn where I was. Walking along Preston and Booth streets today was a good reminder.

You need – or maybe I should say – I need – to stay connected. I need to walk the streets and see how my city may be changing. Whole blocks of social housing have been demolished since I left the school. Acres of old federal buildings are about to be repurposed for mixed residential use. This could be a really cool development for Ottawa!

At the end of the walk, I made a point to visit the bust of Dante that sits across from my old school. This bust used to stand right next to the school. It now sits in a little piazza directly across from the church.


St. Anthony’s started out as Dante Academy and the church across from the school celebrated its 100 anniversary in 2013. We have seen wonderful old photos of celebratory masses and marches past the school and the church during religious festivals. The community has changed since these days but there are still Italian celebrations every year that include an old car show, a gala, a great bike race, and lots of other festivities.

Dante Academy class 1925

I remember recovering the memorial to students who fought in the Second World War that had been on loan to the local church. It now (I hope) still hangs in the main hall of the school, a testament to the long history of the two schools in the community.

It is amazing that a walk can stir up so many memories of the past and expectations for the future. After a long winter, we all need to get involved in some purposeful walking. Get out and see what is out there still. Take a morning or a whole day to extend yourself into the community we are all still a part of.

Learn and listen and don’t become small. Yes, I am retired and my world does seem a little small sometimes. But a walk with twenty people you don’t know but who share a love of the city is a good way to stretch into a new season, one where winter has finally retreated.

Luciano finishes the walk in front of St. Anthony’s Church

What Do You Say When Our Social Institutions Are Under Attack?

First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist
Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me

Pastor Martin Niemoller

There is little question that social institutions here in Ontario are under attack. As an educator, I am most aware of what is happening to schools in this province and especially, I am very concerned about the newer teachers, those without seniority whose jobs are disappearing. Every day brings another announcement of new surplus to board notices.

Like Doug Peterson, I really don’t like that term. Surplus sounds pretty non-commital. I think we should use lay-off as they do in other sectors. These mainly young people are losing their jobs – that is what is happening.

I am encouraged by Andrew Campbell. He is quietly doing a wonderful job through social media of cataloguing the lay-off notices and now the stories of teachers who are being laid off. I am encouraged by Doug Peterson, who is featuring some of the posts written supporting teachers and students each week. I am also encouraged by the teachers who are speaking out about being laid off. These are brave people who are putting a human face to a great injustice.

One of these teachers is Melissa Basta. I don’t know her, but I am really struck by the message she put out this week and encouraged that so many people have retweeted her post.

Andrew is collecting these stories and you can find them here.

This is where I am struggling. Over the past week, several educators have written me in private and one pretty publicly to tell me (or in one case lecture me) on why they can’t get political on this issue.

I am not judging them, but it does make me sad. Maybe it is because I spent so many years as an administrator trying my best to encourage and work with young educators, but I just can’t understand why many will not take a stand when the quality of education here in Ontario is under such a threat.

Not standing up against what is wrong is a slippery slope. This is why I have included the Martin Niemoller poem in this post. Niemoller was a pastor in Germany in the 1930s and he spent seven years in concentration camps for his opposition to Adolf Hitler.

He actually started out as an early supporter of the Nazis but gradually learned to see how absolutely evil their regime was. His poem shows his gradual evolution as an activist. It is a stark reminder that we all need to play a role to speak out against injustice.

Will speaking out make a difference this time? I am not sure. Andrew Campbell wrote that he questions if it will. It is much easier to display opposition these days through social media so the overall effect might not matter.

I hope this is not the case. I hope those who feel it is not their role change their minds. I hope people like Andrew Campbell, Doug Peterson, Peter Skillen, Julie Bolton,  Will Gourley and many others will continue to write and collect the stories that should be heard.

This is a gentle challenge for more educators to speak out. I am not doing this to put you on the spot and what you decide to do is obviously up to you. However, allowing any government to act with impunity especially when it comes to the institutions that gird our social fabric is dangerous.

Please don’t wait until there is no one left.