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Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Poem for the Season

This poem speaks to me about the resilience of those who live outside the margins of a caring and compassionate society.

Thanks by W. S. Merwin from his 1988 collection, The Rain in the Trees. Merwin is one of America’s most prolific scribblers, with over 30 books of poetry, translation and prose under his belt. In 2010 the Library of Congress named Merwin the seventeenth United States Poet Laureate.


with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow for the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water looking out
in different directions.

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you
looking up from tables we are saying thank you
in a culture up to its chin in shame
living in the stench it has chosen we are saying thank you
over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the back door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks that use us we are saying thank you
with the crooks in office with the rich and fashionable
unchanged we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us like the earth
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is

~W. S. Merwin published over twenty books of poetry, including the recent collections The Shadow of Sirius which won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize; Present Company (Copper Canyon, 2007); Migration: New & Selected Poems (2005) which won the 2005 National Book Award; The Pupil (2002); The River Sound (1999), which was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year; Flower and Hand: Poems 1977-1983 (1997); The Vixen (1996); and Travels (1993), which received the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. He has also published nearly twenty books of translation, including Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (2004) and Dante’s Purgatorio, and numerous plays and books of prose.

Merwin’s honors include the Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry, the Bollingen Prize, a Ford Foundation grant, the Governor’s Award for Literature of the State of Hawaii, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the PEN Translation Prize, the Shelley Memorial Award, the Wallace Stevens Award, and a Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writers’ Award, and fellowships from The Academy of American Poets, the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Rockefeller Foundation. He is a former Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and has served as Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress. In 2010, Merwin was appointed the Library of Congress’s seventeenth Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry.(From

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Free Portraits for Those Who are Less Fortunate

Here is a wonderful idea! Click HERE to read more and see the image.

Photographers in Winnipeg are set to bring smiles to the faces of some of the city's less fortunate residents.

Help Portraits is a global movement that provides free professional portraits.

In the past, Winnipeg photographers associated with Help Portraits operated out of schools.

This year, they are setting up at Siloam Mission, Win Gardner Place and Agape Table.

Photographer Ian McCausland says it's a great way for families to create holiday memories.

"Especially when there's younger people and kids involved, I think there's important value to having the opportunity or occasion to recognize your family," McCausland said.

Now that is an idea rooted in compassion.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

A New Year's Reflection for Al Etmanski

Al Etmanski is Canada's godfather of social finance, social enterprise and innovation, especially in the realm of social care. As if he doesn't do enough for our country every day, each year at about this time, Al asks a number of his colleagues to reflect on a question. Last year, we all wrote about a trend or phenomenon we would like to see made more visible in 2011. This year, Al usurped a metaphor from Wayne Gretzky, our national ice hockey hero (who could always predict where the puck would be on the ice) and asked, "This year, what are you skating towards?" Here is my offering. I encourage everyone to subscribe to Al's blog and to read the full complement of responses to Al's question for 2012. They will be available to read early in the New Year.

What are you skating towards? Frankly, I have no idea. I am careening and I can’t quite see where the winds of change are taking me. Within the last four months, we have moved our family across the world, my husband retired from the diplomatic corps after thirty-seven years, and we helped our adult son relocate from the family home into a residence with nursing care. In my book and my blogs, I write about disability, care in the community and our aging population. Lucky that I have such rich material within my own four walls!

During the past few months, I described to a friend how I felt about the onslaught of change in my life - “it’s as if someone has removed all the floorboards from my house”, I said. “It’s like I am walking on just the narrow joists and all the time, I worry about falling”.

I know that others will write here about skating towards positive change, and I will be inspired. But I would like to talk about ‘defense’ and not ‘offense’, to use another hockey metaphor. A great defensive player also knows where the puck will be in order to stop a goal by the opposing team.

Over the last year, I have observed a pernicious trend, and in 2012, I will be skating defensively toward it. Thanks to information technology, I have many friends all over the world who are also parents of children with disabilities. One family, from Australia, I have known ‘virtually’ for many years - their son has developmental disabilities, is medically complex and has managed to survive over 77 hospitalizations in his 23 years of life. This year, the professional advisory committee at their hospital took a unilateral decision that there would be no more ICU hospitalizations or resuscitation measures because these would ‘not be in the best interest of the patient’ and furthermore, they would be ‘futile’. It was my guess that a meeting of hospital administrators had taken place that basically placed a cap on the public funds that one individual could or should consume in a lifetime - especially if that individual had development disabilities. This is a story that I am hearing more and more from families the world over.

In November of this year, Louise Kinross, the editor of "BLOOM”, the Holland Bloorview family magazine, attended a conference on medical ethics and disability at McGill. She reported that one neonatologist commented “There is a feeling among my colleagues – an unspoken and probably unconscious bias – between physical and mental disability. Sometimes neonatologists think if you're not perfect mentally, you're better off dead. But when it comes to physical disability, they will go a long way with interventions.” But also described at the McGill seminar was “The Disability Paradox” - that people with serious disabilities rate their lives as good or excellent while able-bodied people, particularly medical professionals, rate quality of life in people with disabilities as poor.

The elderly, especially those with dementia, are also in a risky situation. In the absence of a strong and vocal personal support network, those who are vulnerable and voiceless risk becoming expendable, especially in a climate of austerity. And I believe that negative attitudes toward those who are not employed or employable are growing.

The worth of giving and receiving care is my ‘defensive’ strategy. I believe that in Canada, we urgently need a public conversation about a national ethic of care. We need to pick apart the human value of those individuals with care needs and who will pay for their wellbeing. The moral, political and financial responsibilities of care must be delineated for the individual, the family and all levels of government. We must nurture and enable innovation and sustainable business models to operate in this sphere and we must do it now.

My hair is white and my son requires 24 hour nursing care. My mother turns 90 this year. Scratch the surface of Canadian society - my family is not that unusual. Careening toward the future is not a good way to score goals and win the game OR make public policy. We need an honest and public appraisal of our strengths and capabilities in the arena.

In my family, we rate our life as excellent. I want to make sure that we keep it that way, so in 2012 I'll be keeping my eye on the puck and designing my next defensive strategy.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Holding Hands from The Cradle to the Grave

In my neighbourhood, we have two community centres, Dovercourt Recreation Association and the Jewish Community Centre (JCC). Some years ago, I was a trustee on the board of Dovercourt, so I know that centre well. I wrote about it in my book, "The Four Walls of My Freedom", as an example of how neighbourhoods can be compassionate places. But lately, I've been taking dance classes at the JCC and I've been paying attention to the many things this community centre is doing right.

Both of these organizations have undertaken to support the mind, body, and health needs of their constituents from cradle to grave. How does that look in action? Dovercourt has a 'kinder care' or childcare playroom where the staff know every child and their parents by name. Newborns and their mothers can take Mum and Me exercise classes in the gym, then be cuddled by kinder care staff while their Mums share a coffee in the adjoining lounge area. Between the regular swimming lessons in the pool, there is post-stroke aqua and aqua arthritis. I used to bring Nicholas to the special swim times for people with disabilities if he was feeling a little more delicate than usual. Otherwise, I brought him to family swims along with his sister and we all splashed around with the neighbourhood kids. Of course, after swimming, the kinder care staff would set up a video for him to watch so I could grab a coffee or have a chat with friends.

In 1998, our community suffered the ravages of "The Great Ice Storm". A great swathe of eastern Canada and the United States lost power - tons of freezing rain crushed the entire electric grid of the region, including our neighbourhood. Dovercourt was a designated emergency shelter and many families camped there, thankful for the powerful generator which provided heat, light and hot meals. Because of my son Nicholas' health needs, we were allotted a hotel, but we hung out at Dovercourt during the day with our friends. Everyone pulled their weight to make it easier for those with young babies or those who needed extra help due to age or infirmity. Here is a newspaper photo of Nicholas with friends at Dovercourt during the Ice Storm!

The Jewish Community Centre takes its neighbourhood compassion very seriously. The Hillel Lodge long term care facility for seniors sits comfortably beside the main Soloway JCC where a preschool, pool, gym and fitness classes are located. In the evenings, classes on Jewish culture and cuisine are on offer and there is a library for browsing or research. Family services are next door in another building that houses social work and the administrative offices for Tamir, an agency that runs group homes for Jewish adults with disabilities. Everyone is welcome at the JCC, but all their programmes reflect a mindfulness that cultural identity is the heartbeat of their community.

Why do I love these two centres of neighbourhood compassion? They see families in the most holistic way possible. Helping people live happy, healthy lives from cradle to grave is an idea that I believe commands great respect. It's an idea that I will keep coming back to, as I post my thoughts on this blog between visiting my 90 year old mother in Montreal, helping my son settle into his new group home, going to fitness classes and enjoying my extended family which now includes two infants. Personally, I'm closer to the grave than the cradle, but I know one thing: we are ALL in this together.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Compassionate Neighbourhood: Unsentimental Angels

The Compassionate Neighbourhood: Unsentimental Angels: In life and death situations, sometimes there is a sense of dread and sometimes there is sense of destiny. On April 25, 1975, I was work...

Monday, November 7, 2011

Unsentimental Angels

In life and death situations, sometimes there is a sense of dread and sometimes there is sense of destiny.

On April 25, 1975, I was working alone at my part-time job at a Montreal jewelry shop. My father lay in a coma at the Montreal General Hospital three weeks after his third and catastrophic stroke. I was polishing the glass counter in the shop when I felt a wave of anxiety. Suddenly, I knew that I had to close the shop and go to my father. A young man pushed the door open and I said something like, “I’m sorry but the shop is closed. I have to go - I have an emergency.” The man offered to give me a lift - his car was parked just outside. I thanked him and on the way to the hospital, he told me that his father had passed away at the same hospital. I remember sitting beside my Dad that day, watching a black ball inside a glass jar rise and fall. It was his respirator. I noticed that there was even a setting called ‘sigh’. A couple of hours later, I was back at home when the phone rang. It was my mother - she was crying. “Why didn’t you tell me? Why didn’t you call to tell me?” The doctors hadn’t said anything to me, but they called my mother to let her know that my father had only about twenty minutes to live. She knew that I had been with Dad earlier and thought I just hadn’t bothered to relay the news. Later that day, my father died.

I am not sure if I believe in angels per se, but I have always thought there was something mystical about the day that my father died. I wonder about the man who came into the shop and drove me to the hospital. I wonder about my sudden need to leave the shop. Within the spectrum of kindness and helpfulness, this is the extreme.

As a final word on kindness, I want to share the story of another such encounter with extreme goodness.

Sam McEwan Steward is an old friend who offered to share her story. After living in the UK for a number of years with her family and expecting her second child, Sam moved back to Canada. This is her story:

Upon arrival back in Brantford, our original hometown, we got down to the business of settling in. An OBGYN was of utmost importance with my due date fast approaching, and I was happy to get an appointment later in the month. It was early October when we moved into our new home. Initially, we seemed to go unnoticed in the neighbourhood, but no worries - we were busy establishing our new lives and putting everything into its rightful place. Hallowe'en was a few weeks away and I was anxious to have my daughter participate. I always enjoyed being creative so handmade an adorable ladybug costume to mark the event.

October 30th was highlighted on the calendar. It was the date of my appointment, likely the last time I would see the doctor before the welcome delivery of our second child. There was a sharp chill in the air that evening; numbing, winter was on her way and making her icy presence known.

The next hours were a blur. I was in the grip of an unbearable pain. Later, I thought that my eyes had cried all the tears of a lifetime. Instead of making plans to contact the paper with the Birth Announcement of our child; a son, Dan was sent to a private room with a tattered and torn phone book to find a funeral director. Our son had passed away without ever taking a single breath. Yet, as a result of our son's passing, a friendship like no other was born. To this day, Dan does not know what attracted him to a particular funeral director, but to him the name stood out; called to him, I guess. It is strange how things happen, how they are meant to be. Our funeral director was in fact one of our new neighbours living directly across the street. Steve was there for us every painstaking step along the way; guiding, nurturing and even nudging a much needed chuckle or smile out of two grieving parents. Steve and Chris, his wife, would become cherished friends; our rocks, our shoulders to cry on. They helped us put one foot in front of the other, listened when they knew that was what was required, offered a helping hand, advice when that was needed. Acts of kindness were too many to mention. They are the Godparents of our three other children, they are our guardian angels, they were the answer to our prayers when friends from our past were nowhere to be found. I suspect those folks left us alone, not knowing what to say or what to do.

Bobbie Steward, our Angel in heaven would have been 25 years of age this Hallowe'en, Angel Blessings my sweet child.

These are two stories of being led by a kind person through a desperate time. I am not a sentimental person, but I do believe that there are times in life that require acceptance. Nothing good can come of analysing possible motives on the part of gentle, helpful people of the extreme variety. Perhaps this is when we can say "angel".