Monday, December 21, 2009

My New's Year's Resolution: To Love Fearlessly

I’ve been thinking a lot about my friend, Annette, lately. Annette was a passionate activist and academic who worked tirelessly with a variety of community and international organizations to end violence against women. When she died at the age of 36 from breast cancer, thousands of people around the world mourned her loss – not only because she was such a fierce advocate for women, but because, in doing that work, she demonstrated such an enormous capacity for love.

I first met Annette when we worked together for a feminist international development organization. Her passion, commitment, and optimism – particularly in light of the hard issues she tackled every day – were truly inspiring. But, as I got to know her better, I was struck by something else – how fearlessly and generously she loved – her family, her friends, her colleagues, the women on whose behalf she worked and total strangers who needed her help. She never shied away from expressing admiration, affection, generosity or compassion. She never wasted an opportunity to make a new friend. And her love was infectious because those who knew her were so often inspired to become more loving themselves.

In our society, we too often think of love as a commodity – something to be carefully measured and traded – as if we should only love those who love us back and to precisely the same degree. Though often spoken of, unconditional love is hard to come by.

But of course love isn’t a commodity, or at least it needn’t be. Love can transform us in profound ways. It calls upon us to be our best selves – generous, accepting, forgiving, patient and compassionate. At its best, love is offered with hope and optimism, and no expectation of reward.

Personally, I've not always loved the way I should have. Too often I’ve become angry or resentful when the people I cared for didn’t return my love in the ways I wanted them too. Worse, I’ve sometimes refused to express love in the first place – out of fear it would be rejected or misused, or that those I loved would ask more of me than I was prepared to give. More recently, I like to think I’ve gotten better at accepting the people I love for who they are, and at being compassionate and forgiving when they say or do things that hurt me. It seems to me that, whatever the response, just being able to love (when so many people can’t) is one of life’s great gifts.

Annette passed away at home on December 23, 1998. The last time I saw her was a few weeks before at an event held in honour entitled “A Celebration of Life”. When she arrived at the party (a bit late because she was so ill by that time), she wore a long, navy gown, with a hot pink boa around her neck, and she looked as beautiful and vivacious as ever. For the next two hours, she slowly circled the room talking with as many people as she could, expressing gratitude for the support she’d received during her illness and (I now realize) gently saying her goodbyes. The love in the room that night – hers for all of us, and ours for her – was palpable.

So – in honour of Annette – I’ll be thinking a lot about love this Christmas. And my New Year’s resolution is to try harder to follow her example – to love fearlessly, with optimism and hope and without expectation, and to be genuinely grateful for whatever love comes back to me.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Moments that take your breath away

I recently saw a quotation that resonated with me.

Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.
I had one of those moments this week.

Early Thursday morning, I awoke in an airless Toronto hotel room facing another long day of meetings. Feeling weary and unsettled, I pulled on my running gear and headed out into the cold, dark morning to explore the residential neighbourhood nearby. As day dawned, I found myself running along quiet streets lined with stately brick homes and carefully manicured lawns.

The fact that people actually live in such houses made my legs and spirits feel heavy. How could an economic system controlled (or at least greatly influenced) by people who can afford to own and maintain such homes respond in any meaningful way to the aspirations of people living in far less affluent parts of the country – let alone families living in even more dire circumstances in other parts of the world?

Suddenly, glancing westward as I ran across a bridge a few blocks from the hotel, I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of the early morning sun illuminating an urban forest cascading down the slopes of a ravine. Clouds of yellow, burgundy, gold, green and red foliage wove an intense tapestry of intricate shape and colour that literally took my breath away. And I was reminded that, no matter how hard we humans work to screw things up, there is something bigger – mother earth, the universe, God, whatever you choose to call it – with the power to create the kind of beauty that leaves me utterly breathless.

How can I possibly abandon hope for a better world in the face of that?

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Pondering the value and dangers of self-discipline

I often think that anything worthwhile I’ve achieved in my life, I’ve achieved mainly through self-discipline.

For example, while preparing to write law school exams, I did little besides study for months at a time and, as a result, graduated with first class honours. Similarly, in the face of ever increasing social pressure to buy stuff I don’t need, I’ve instead chosen to live more modestly than I need to, so that I walk more lightly on the planet and provide greater financial support to the people and organizations I care about.

Currently, the goals on which I’m most focussed are to run the Chicago marathon in a “personal best” time and to raise money for cancer research. If I achieve them, it will be because I’ve spent 5 months of my life closely adhering to the toughest training and fundraising program I’ve ever followed, sometimes to the detriment of other important aspects of my life.

In personal and professional relationships, too, I’ve come to believe that self-discipline is key. I genuinely believe that, ultimately, it is only I who determines how I will respond to any situation. No one else can make me feel or think or behave in a particular way. It’s up to me to decide how I want to respond, and then to exert the self-discipline needed to respond in that way – even when I am most tempted to do otherwise.

But then there are the dangers of self-discipline. Applied too rigidly, it can result in lost opportunities to savour life. Focussed on a goal, or on the effort to conform to expectations, I have sometimes concluded, quite wrongly, that there isn’t time to give my cats the attention they want, be with friends, gaze at the stars, go for a run, or admire a piece of artwork.

The truth is that life has very little meaning and joy for me if I am so self-disciplined – so distracted by thoughts of the goals I want to achieve, and the ways I should behave – that I no longer see, touch, smell, taste and feel this moment, and all the other individual moments that make up my life.

Given that, it seems to me the trick is to temper self-discipline with a loving and open-hearted approach to experiencing the world and interacting with others. Self-discipline makes it possible to achieve worthwhile things, and to behave in thoughtful and responsible ways. But I don’t want it to interfere (at least, too often) with my ability to taste delicious food, appreciate the beauty of nature, revel in a piece of music, feel the strength of my body as I run, or love other people – however incautiously. Beauty, joy and love are all far too precious to waste.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Rain, rain, go away

It's been a dreary summer weather-wise. To this point, I've been grateful for the cool, damp weather since I'm training to run a marathon in October and moderate temperatures make it a lot easier to run. But even I am beginning to tire of day after day after day of it. It's late July for goodness sake. By this time, it should be sweltering hot and humid in the nation's capital. Instead, we've only had one evening warm and dry enough to sit outside for supper, and the long range forecast is for more of the same.

Looking ahead to the upcoming long weekend, my husband and I were thinking about a romantic jaunt to Montreal for a day or two, but it seems ill-advised in light of the forecast. Probably best to stay close home and plan on visiting the National Gallery and/or taking in a concert at the Black Sheep Inn in Wakefield. If the sun surprises us and comes out for a few hours we can always hop on our bicycles for a long lazy ride along the river. So long as we promise ourselves we'll ignore all chores and home renovation projects for the duration, it can still be a restful and relaxing weekend.

There you are then. Weather gods, do what you may. We will find a way to enjoy the summer despite you.

Thursday, July 9, 2009


I’ve been thinking lately about the power and allure of wanting something – particularly something you can’t have. Why is it that, so often, the first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is want things? It seems a peculiar thing to do – particularly when those things are things I know I can’t have or – even more puzzling – would never choose to have.

A case in point: I woke up this morning wanting a pair of red patent sandals with 4 inch heels I saw in a shoe store yesterday. Now, I would never actually choose to buy such shoes because I know they're a ridiculous form of footwear that would be both impractical and painful to wear – no matter how tall and sexy they might make me feel for the first 10 minutes I had them on. In any case, I can think of a hundred better ways to spend my money. (A donation to the Stephen Lewis Foundation comes to mind, for example.) So why did I wake up wanting those damned shoes?

It seems to me that there is something in the wanting itself that's pleasurable. Certainly, there’s a thrill that comes with desiring something or someone you know you can’t have (an even more intense thrill, if you think maybe you can, but shouldn't). And, depending upon the vividness of your imagination, there is great pleasure in imagining that you have or are with the object of your desire. But, ultimately, in that moment when you have to stop daydreaming and get on with real life, wanting also leads to disappointment, frustration and pain.

Like many people, I try hard to live every day with integrity, compassion, generosity and a sense of personal responsibility. And I genuinely believe that I have the power to choose how I will respond to most of the potentially destructive or hurtful impulses I feel. I am after all a responsible adult. Nevertheless, there are times when I envy those who seem readier or more able to give in to wanting.

Perhaps, they aren’t greedier, more selfish, less disciplined or more irresponsible than me. Perhaps, they simply have greater confidence in the wisdom of their own hearts, more faith that the universe will sort it all out in the end, and more courage to do things that frighten them. The one thing I know for sure is that they aren’t left wondering where their wanting might have taken them.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Spring Run

Last weekend was glorious for running. Relatively warm (12 degrees Celsius) and overcast, with sunny breaks, and no wind to speak of. I started out unsure I had the energy to tackle the 14km training run I'd planned to help me prepare for an upcoming race. How wrong I was. The sights and sounds I experienced along the way were more than enough motivation.

Because it was somewhat cool, the park in which I started my run was unusually quiet, and I could almost imagine I was in the country alone. Buds painted tree branches with a soft green blush, but didn't hide the wildlife living in and on them. Every few feet, I caught another glimpse of squirrels and chipmunks scurrying to prepare for the arrival of their new pups. Most glorious of all, though, were the birds.

The first and most impressive fellow I stumbled upon was a pileated woodpecker. I didn't know such clownish characters inhabited my local woods but, apparently, they do. (In fact, another visited my backyard only this afternoon so I know I didn't dream him or her up.) The fellow I stumbled upon was almost as big as a crow. He (or she) was determinedly mining for insects in a fallen log just two feet or so off the path, and seemed completely oblivious to my presence. I didn't have a camera with me, but the bird I saw looked very much like the one pictured above.

Needless to say, I stopped and watched him or her for several minutes before running on. Now that my interest was peaked, I began paying attention and was pleased to note a variety of other birds cavorting in the bushes and trees along the trails. Of course, there were cardinals, chickadees and junkos (regulars at the feeder in our backyard), but I also spotted robins, red-winged blackbirds, a flock of black birds with shiny blue heads that I think were either grackles or a Brewer's blackbirds, a variety of sparrows, and what I'm pretty sure was a female downy woodpecker. Not a bad bit of birdwatching for a beginner, if I do say so myself.

By the time I arrived home, I was not only pleased with myself for having completed a substantial run, but grateful that running had offered me another incredible opportunity to appreciate the beauty of the world around me.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

It's here!

Spring at last! In a matter of days, we have gone from the depths of winter (with temperatures ranging as low as -20 degrees celsius with the wind chill) to 15 degrees and sunny today. It feels miraculous.

Even more miraculous are the plants in my garden. When a shovelled the last of an icey pile of snow from a flower bed in front of the house, I found iris leaves poking through the ground beneath it -- growing into the snowbank. Amazing! Needless to say, the discovery spurred me to shovel snow from the bed at the back of the house as well. And, again I was delighted -- this time to find the tender green shoots of daisies breaking the ground. How can plants imagine it's time to poke their heads up when the ground around them is still frozen and they are covered by more than a foot of snow? However they do it, I'm very grateful.

The forecasters are calling for rain tomorrow, but I don't mind. Today, has been a glorious gift!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Winter's End

I am so grateful winter is almost behind us. In the past few days, we had another cold blast but forecasters are predicting warmer temperatures for the weekend and I can hardly wait.

One evening last week it was actually warm enough to go for a run in shorts! It felt wonderful trotting along on dry pavement, no longer needing to monitor the placement of every step or run hunched against frigid winds.

And in the mornings, as I walk through my neighbourhood on my way to work, brilliant red cardinals, orange-breasted robins and cheerful chickadees call out to one another. At the sound, my heart, which has been lying like a frozen lump in my chest for months now, feels noticeably lighter and begins stirring gently. Perhaps, spring will bring hope and joy after all. Wouldn't that be nice?

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Long dark days

I find this the hardest time of year. The extreme cold and the long nights make me want to curl up in bed and sleep until spring. But this year I've been trying hard to find reasons to love -- or, at least, to like -- the winter.

For one thing, I like how quiet it is on my street, as neighbours trudge from cars to houses and close their doors behind them. Of course, when there's a major snowstorm all that changes as snowblowers are fired up and people yell greetings to one another between shovels full of snow and ice.

For another thing, when I finally venture out, I am amazed at how really beautiful winterscapes can be. Two days ago, as I was driving along the Ottawa River Parkway, I was struck breathless by the sight of frost coated trees shining in the sunlight against the steel grey sky.

I like running in the winter too -- at least, when it's not too cold. Snow covered streets and sidewalks are so much softer than concrete, and therefore easier on the legs. And stretching on our sundrenched front porch after a 7 or 8 kilometre run feels positively luxurious.

It's also easier to arrange times to get together with friends this time of year, when work and school and weather keep them closer to home and the long, dark evenings sitting by a roaring fire evoke thoughtful discussions of life, the universe and everything.

So, here's to winter, and its many gifts. Perhaps, I'll survive it after all...