Saturday, February 28, 2009

My beloved community

Last night was a peak experience for me.

It was Pacific Gardens Cohousing Community's monthly potluck. This time I had offered to share the story of my childhood in Swaziland and how that had sent me on a quest for true community in Canada.

The cohousing community said they thought that would be a great idea. They suggested that we refer to it as an African-themed evening, and tell our non-cohousing friends about it. Consequently more people than usual showed up, and we quickly doubled up the number of tables and chairs that we'd set up in the Unitarian Church, which we rent for these occasions.

Susana provided sarongs for people to drape over their Canadian clothes, so as to add to the atmosphere. During dinner we had African music playing in the background.

After supper I told the story of a Swazi hunter whom I had known during my childhood. The loss of the habitat in which he had led his traditional lifestyle, the destruction of his society and culture, and his personal disintegration when my father replaced the natural bush with a sugar cane plantation seemed to me to be representative of the damage that globalization did to Swaziland.

During my midlife crisis I had come to long for the community spirit that I'd witnessed amongst the Swazi people during my early childhood, while their world still had been intact. This had sent me on a search that ultimately had led me to Pacific Gardens Cohousing Community.

Later several people expressed appreciation, and told me that they really "got" what I'd shared.

A key element of the evening was that a local teacher of African dance, Esther, and a band of drummers, led by Voodoo Dave, attended. When my story was finished, I handed things over to Dave and his crew. They led the audience through a couple of African songs. To the band's surprise, several of us already knew the songs, and indeed introduced different harmonies, as they were part of our repertoire at Everybody Sings on Thursday mornings.

The band then transitioned us into West African dancing, led by Esther. The potluck participants were great sports. The majority of them joined in the dancing. We dancers ranged in age from a university student through to a 79-year-old woman who is an energetic as people half her age.

I remember looking at the roomful of dancers and sarongs. Owing to the drum music that was providing the rhythm, Esther's teaching, and the participants' willingness to give it a try, everyone was moving in beautiful unison. It was community in action. It was a group of Canadians who, in a few minutes, had morphed into Africans. I mean they actually replicated that ability that a group of African people has to act as one body. You know how a school of fish is swimming in one direction and suddenly the whole school of fish changes direction in unison? Like that.

I knew I had been the catalyst by suggesting the theme, giving my talk, and persuading Voodoo Dave to join us. But, from that point onwards, other people had taken over. Norah gave me a ride to the church, as the route would have been long to walk if I'd been carrying a pot of stew. She also lent us her tape recorder for the background music during supper. Dave brought Esther and the other drummers. The potluck participants brought the dishes that turned into a delicious feast. The audience listened attentively to my story and, when they were invited to dance, jumped in with both feet. For the evening to turn into the magical event that it was, it needed everyone's contribution.

At various times, different members of our community take leadership roles. We're like geese who take it in turns to fly in front and then fall back into the slipstream for a more relaxed flight. If we confine the discussion just to potlucks, last month Andy Sibbald gave a presentation about his life in Canada's Far North. (Ironically, there are many parallels between Andy's experience and mine. He too witnessed loss of meaning and purpose amongst former hunters.) For next month's potluck, we're thinking of holding a Mexican fiesta, with Roz at the helm.

Anyway, back to that moment when I looked around the room at my fellow dancers, saw them totally "into" it, knew that I was one of them, and felt one with them ....... Words do not exist that could convey the profundity of that moment for me.

We are scheduled to move into our cohousing complex this coming spring. If our cohousing calendar is punctuated by occasions like this -- and I fully expect it will be -- the joy of living there will be off the charts.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Sometimes ignorance is bliss

In reading the website of a cohousing community in the United States a few moments ago, I stumbled on their gun policy. My jaw dropped.

At Pacific Gardens Cohousing Community we don't have a gun policy.

May it ever remain thus.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Plight of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories

My maternal grandfather was Jewish. My great grandfather, grandfather, mother and uncle survived the Holocaust because my grandmother's Catholic family members hid them. But several of our Jewish family members perished.

As someone whose family members died in the Nazi Holocaust, one of the ironies I face is that the tables have turned. Today, the plight of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories shares many elements with the plight of Jews in the Axis countries during the 1930s and 1940s.

Since I saw The Boy in the Striped Pajamas on Sunday night, I have been mulling over its implications.

As I said in my previous post, I didn't care so much about the story's plausibility vis a vis the topic that it nominally addressed, namely, the WW II concentration camps. I was more interested in the message that the movie might carry for me ... where I am ... today.

I felt when I got home from the movie that I was being called upon to acknowledge my empathy for the Palestinian people more openly. Previously I had hesitated to do that because I had feared it would make me look like a flake.

But that's what authoritarian forces do. I saw it up close in apartheid-era South Africa, and I have seen it in several instances since. If you cause what they perceive to be trouble for them, they ignore you. If that doesn't silence you, they ridicule you. The fear of being discredited is enough to stop many people in their tracks. If you keep on speaking out, however, and if you are effective, the harassment escalates. In post-9/11 North America, there have been veiled threats, like the possibility of ending up on a No Fly list or worse.

In the case of some elements of the Israeli government, Israel's political allies abroad and much of the mainstream media in the West, issues deliberately are conflated so that critics of Israel's actions are portrayed as anti-Semitic.

My little gesture after returning from the movie -- my current equivalent of serving tea to the white electrician and his black assistant in two identical china cups and saucers -- was to join the B'Tselem group on Facebook. B'Tselem is a human rights advocacy organization in Israel.

Naming a situation that is inconsistent with my values just feels like the right thing to do.

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas shook me. It was part of the Fringe Flicks series here in Nanaimo, and I saw it last night. It's the story of an eight-year-old German boy, the son of a concentration camp commander, who befriends a boy of his own age on the other side of the fence.

The criticism I'd heard in advance was that the plot was implausible. It was said that it would have been impossible for a child in those circumstances to have passed an apple to a child on the other side of the fence. I resolved to check out the movie and decide for myself.

I came away not giving a rat's patootie about the credibility of the plot. I still am not convinced that something like that could have happened, but ....... who cares?!?!?!?

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." I would extend his quotation to an insistence on credibility in a historical novel.

I have lived in a situation that, although it was not as intense as WW II Germany, shared many similarities with it and at times felt frightening to me. That situation was apartheid-era South Africa.

I can attest that the movie accurately depicted many of the dilemmas that a person in a situation like that experiences. For example, the protagonist's mother mainly coped with the presence of a camp inmate who worked in their house and garden by ignoring him. But, when he had performed a kindness for her son, you saw her struggling to decide how to respond. She ended up saying, "Thank you," but did so without looking at him.

I was reminded of a similar moment that I experienced in South Africa. When I was newly married, I needed to call an electrician to fix something in our house. The electrician who turned up was white. The job reservation laws that excluded black people from the skilled trades made sure of that. But, walking behind the electrician, carrying a ladder and a tool box, was the ubiquitous black assistant.

After they'd been working for a while, I asked the electrician if he would like some tea, and he said that would be lovely.

If I'd been a typical white woman, I would have gone into the kitchen and asked my maid to make tea for the workmen. However, I had chosen not to have domestic help, so I made the tea myself.

I also had decided not to acquire a set of boys' plates. They were tin plates and tin mugs in which to serve food and drink to black people. Their name was derived from the fact that white South Africans referred to black men as boys and black women as girls.

I carried a tray with two china cups and saucers into the room in which the electrician and his helper were working. The electrician was up on the ladder. He looked down at the tray. He didn't say a word, but I thought his eyes were going to pop out of their sockets. It seemed to be all he could do to keep his balance on the ladder.

Just as the camp commandant in the movie struggled to curb his wife as the implications of his work started to dawn on her, my husband started to hear complaints in our small town that his wife was out of control. He asked me very politely if I would try to contain my behaviour, as his job on the mine would become untenable if I carried on unchecked.

My gestures of defiance were so feeble. I was too scared to stand up to apartheid to any significant extent. Yet the system demanded such unwavering loyalty that even my puny resistance would have been perceived as a threat, and I would have found myself in hot water sooner or later.

Luckily we managed to emigrate to Canada before things got out of hand.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The joy of transition

Yesterday a friend, who is a firm believer in it, raised the topic of Peak Oil. You probably are aware of the concept of Peak Oil but, just in case you are not, some people foresee a precipitous decline in the supply of cheap energy and a catastrophic collapse of western-style civilization.

My friend's reference to Peak Oil reminded me of the period, a few years ago, in which I became aware of the possibility of energy descent. Back then, I felt confused.

Some scientists were publishing credible data that supported the hypothesis that we were heading for mayhem. On the Internet I even read about people who had prepared for Peak Oil by creating rural bunkers stocked with guns and ammunition.

Yet some technically savvy people were telling me that humankind would invent a solution and the perceived threat would evaporate.

For a while I spun my wheels, not knowing what to do. I sure as heck didn't want to resort to firearms. My attitude was that, if survival came down to that, I would yell, "Stop the world. I want to get off!"

But, in the meantime, there was something else going on in my life that had no obvious connection with Peak Oil. It was the fact that I felt so darned lonely in the suburbs of a large-ish city. It was my longing for community that attracted me to cohousing.

Although protection of the environment and preparation for Peak Oil were not my primary motivations for buying into Pacific Gardens Cohousing Community, the founders of our project ensured that it would incorporate the following features that leading environmental experts talk about again and again:

  • Space for growing food.

  • A location that allows residents to access local amenities on foot.

  • A multi-family residential building with a single exterior skin that minimizes energy loss.

    I increasingly have come to value these elements of our project.

    The friend who mentioned Peak Oil told me about a British website called Transition Culture. After our walk, I went to the Internet and looked for it. I found it interesting. The site was created by Rob Hopkins, a practitioner of permaculture. One of the things that he does is assist communities in designing action plans for energy descent. Apparently there are over forty Transition Towns in the United Kingdom.

    In looking around the site, I felt that we at Pacific Gardens Cohousing Community already had implemented many of its recommendations.

    My experience also is that making the transition is fun. At least that is what it has been like for me. It has not felt to me like deprivation.

    If I could convey only one message to the residents of my previous suburb, which I found sterile, it is the level of joy I have experienced since I've joined a cohousing community and started living a more environmentally friendly lifestyle.

    Now I'm off to Esther's West African dance class, with Voodoo Dave playing the drums. I'll be getting there on foot, of course. :-)
  • Wednesday, February 18, 2009

    My meeting minutes will launch my 4-year-old neighbour

    Rosa sat so Martin could walk; Martin walked so Obama could run; Obama is running so our children can fly!

    Those were the words of a 19-year old single mother, as reported in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on November 2, 2008.

    I learned of those words in an e-mail that my fellow coho, Susana, forwarded to us owners of Pacific Gardens Cohousing Community this morning.

    They captured my imagination, and invigorated my efforts. Right at this moment, my "efforts" involve typing the minutes of some cohousing meetings.

    I tell you, there are moments at which I envy the Swazi people amongst whom I grew up, because they didn't know how to read and write. At those times I view literacy as a double edged sword.

    But of course writing is an enormously useful tool. It enables you and me to communicate, regardless of your location and regardless of the time at which you access this blog post.

    In the context of cohousing, minutes of meetings enable us to gain traction and move forward. We are juggling a lot of balls. Minutes help us to recall our decisions and our commitments.

    The quotation about Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr and Barack Obama refers to the courage they exhibited in breaking through social, political and economic barriers.

    Taking minutes of meetings does not require that kind of guts. Yet it's part of the slog that's needed to get a project off the ground.

    When the housekeeping aspects of our cohousing development feel boring to me, all I need to do is to think of the four-year-old boy who will be my upstairs neighbour. I am helping to create the village that will wrap him in love.

    It is my firm conviction that he will be able to soar to heights that would have been impossible had we not been here for him.

    So, little guy, for your sake, it's back to those minutes.

    Tuesday, February 17, 2009

    To a friend's house the way is never long.

    To a friend's house the way is never long.

    That was a poster that my friend, Mary, had in her kitchen in Calgary. Whenever I was in her house and saw the poster, I reflected on the truth of it. She and I lived at opposite ends of Calgary, but visiting her never felt like a chore. It didn't even feel onerous later, when a visit to her involved that protracted trans-Pacific flight from Melbourne.

    I’ve just been wondering why I don't notice the "work" involved in visiting a beloved friend. The answer, for me, is that the reward far exceeds the effort.

    In the world of financial investments, this is called ROI (return on investment). I have witnessed this principle again and again in the context of cohousing.

    Last night, half a dozen or so members of my community had a difficult discussion. It took a long time for them to work through their issue, and it required tremendous patience. Each person listened, suspended judgement, and parked his/her ego off to one side. Tree Bressen, who facilitated a workshop for us last autumn, refers to this as being of service to the group.

    After a lengthy and demanding conversation, my fellow cohos got through their dark tunnel and back into the light.

    In one sense, it took a lot of effort for me even to witness this interaction. Yet, in another sense, I thought nothing of it. It doesn’t occur to me to count the cost, because the rewards of the entire enterprise so far outstrip any exertion that I put into it.

    Community definitely is one of those phenomena of which it can be said that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The ROI that I have received from it is beyond measure.

    I also happen to believe that, if anything will enable us humans to meet our challenges, it will be community, which I view as just another word for love.

    Monday, February 16, 2009

    My Goldilocks church

    Yesterday I found the church in Nanaimo that felt just right to me. That is saying something. My favourite cathedral is nature. A church has to feel pretty special if it's going to lure me indoors when I could be walking outside.

    On and off, since I'd arrived in Nanaimo, I'd tried a few different churches. Then, when I was at a social function on Friday night, someone praised St Andrews United Church, and I decided to try it on Sunday.

    After just one visit, I knew this was it.

    Ironically, I'd already been in the adjacent church hall. That is where my Everybody Sings group gets together on Thursday mornings. But, for some reason, it had not occurred to me before this to attend a service at St Andy's.

    Another irony is that the other churches that I'd tried all had been further afield. Now that I no longer have a vehicle, any one of those other churches would involve a much longer walk, a bicycle ride or a bus ride. St Andrews, on the other hand, is within easy walking distance of home.

    What a walk it is too. All the way, there are glimpses of the water, nearby islands and, behind them, snow capped mountains.

    Oh ....... my ....... goodness .......

    Sunday, February 15, 2009


    When I lived in Melbourne, white people used the term "walkabout" quite frequently. For example, when I phoned my friend, Jean, her husband, Piet, answered and said, "She's gone walkabout." All he meant was that she was away on some unspecified errand, and he didn't know exactly when to expect her back.

    But, while I was in Australia , I learned that Aboriginal people attached a more significant meaning to "walkabout." To them, dropping everything and "going walkabout" meant answering a call to go on a spiritual quest.

    I don't know exactly what Aboriginal people do when they go walkabout. I gather they go into the bush for a while, re-establish their connection with nature, and feel spiritually replenished. I dare say the experience is unique to each person who undertakes it.

    Today it occurred to me that the ultimate joy would be to feel as if I had gone walkabout (in the Aboriginal sense of the word), but without having to leave home to access that experience.

    Then I reflected on the life that I had created in Nanaimo, with people in and out of my cohousing community, and realized that that was exactly what I had accomplished!

    Oh ....... my ....... goodness .......

    Friday, February 13, 2009

    Tribal Dancing

    Last night Fierce Light by Velcrow Ripper was screened at Vancouver Island University. Notwithstanding the fact that I was fascinated by the topic, I decided to get the Coles Notes version from several of my fellow cohos who, I knew, were attending.

    Instead I went to a tribal dancing session at which Voodoo Dave, amongst others, was drumming. Oh my goodness, what fun that was! Just what the doctor ordered.

    I'll be back for more.

    Wednesday, February 11, 2009

    The stone stops here

    For much of my life, I have been a rolling stone. I have lived in ten places, in five countries, on three continents.

    Because I did not have a geographical anchor, I used to get a sense of identity from my circle of family, friends and acquaintances around the world. I used to feel that being known by that group of people was what confirmed my existence. I had a low grade fear of dropping off their radar screens. I used to put effort into staying in touch with them, sending Christmas letters and that sort of thing.

    That changed when I followed my bliss and moved to Nanaimo, British Columbia last autumn. Although I had never lived on Vancouver Island, relocating here felt to me like arriving home. Since I have settled on the island, it has felt insignificant to me whether or not there are people around the planet who know me.

    I put this down to the fact that I am basking in the warm glow of a friendly and caring community whose ethos is compatible with my values. I am referring of course to Pacific Gardens Cohousing Community, which constitutes my home base in Nanaimo.

    Ironically, at the very time at which I no longer needed them, I received a cascade of e-mails and Facebook messages from former classmates from my Johannesburg high school. These developments had been triggered by a classmate who had done some detective work and had found out where many of us lived. In most cases it had been forty years since we’d been in contact with each other.

    It has been tremendous fun for us to catch up. Happily, I will be able to see some of them in the United Kingdom and South Africa when I travel to my mother’s eightieth birthday celebration in Swaziland later this year. We’ve also discovered that a handful of us live on the west coast of North American, all the way from Vancouver down to Los Angeles. This contingent is planning a mini reunion in Vancouver.

    I may have confused you when I said that I didn’t need my former classmates and yet was enjoying hooking up with them. Well, yes, that’s exactly what feels so delightful. It is cool to communicate with friends from a former life. Yet, because I really do have a life, I don’t need them. I hope for their sakes that they can say the same.

    Monday, February 9, 2009

    Living the dream 24/7

    Last night I returned home from an awesome visit to Calgary, where I had lived for a cumulated total of 27 years prior to moving to Nanaimo, British Columbia in September 2008.

    I saw my two sons, who are in their twenties, and a handful of long standing friends. It was lovely to catch up with them all. It was a special treat to spend some time with my older son, whom I had last seen in September. (My younger son, in contrast, had visited me in Nanaimo just the previous weekend.)

    But the very best part of the trip was the sense of resolution that my ex husband and I achieved.

    When we'd separated in August 2008, exactly a month short of our 35th wedding anniversary, we had been determined to be civilized about it. We definitely wanted to avoid what I would describe as a divorce from hell, which was a phenomenon we'd witnessed a couple of times amongst our friends.

    We both were extremely polite. My husband was kind enough to help me pack the belongings that I wanted to ship to Nanaimo.

    He really went above and beyond the call of duty when he gave me his water colour painting of our sons. It portrays them on a lakeside vacation in BC's Okanagan Valley at the ages of approximately eight and five. I was very touched by that gesture.

    Nonetheless, the courtesy between my husband and me was stilted.

    The strain in our politeness haunted me as I got increasingly involved in consensus decision making, compassionate communication and conflict resolution both inside and outside of my cohousing community in Nanaimo.

    I felt like a fake, because I did not believe I had achieved a state of peace in all areas of my life. I really wanted to walk my talk. As long as I was feeling so guarded and defensive in my very few communications with my ex husband, it did not feel to me as if I was living up to the standards that I claimed.

    Then a few things happened. I had planned to visit Calgary for Christmas, but extreme weather had prevented me from doing so. After that, I still wanted to see my sons. That wish partly was fulfilled when my younger son visited Nanaimo, but I also wanted to see my older son.

    Then a friend passed away, and I wanted to attend his memorial service in Calgary. I timed my trip to coincide with the planned memorial service. For complicated reasons, the date of the service was changed. As it turned out, I did not manage to attend it. But when I committed to the trip, it was one of my motivations.

    Finally, I wanted to sell my vehicle, my ex husband offered to buy it, and I offered to deliver it to Calgary. I discussed that in my previous blog post entitled, "Molly's Farewell Tour."

    As I headed to Calgary, I dreaded interacting with my ex husband. He later shared that he too had been nervous about my visit.

    But, once we saw each other, our fears melted away. We discussed many issues, we gained clarity on a lot of points, we reminisced, we laughed and we cried.

    We confirmed our original decision to separate. We agreed that, in some fundamentally important areas, our values were sharply different. We had very distinct ideas about the ways in which we wanted to spend our remaining time on this planet.

    We felt that, as long as we had been in more of a "survival mode," our busyness had masked our disagreements. But, once our kids had left home and we had had more spare time on our hands, our differences had become more apparent.

    By the time of my visit to Calgary, my ex husband and I had had a five-month break, and we weren't driving each other bonkers any more. We both were cheerful and relaxed. We got to see each other in a favourable light again. Each of us thought, "Wow, you really are a nice person."

    That radically changed the atmosphere in which we parted this time around. We felt goodwill towards each other. When my ex husband dropped me off at Calgary Airport late yesterday afternoon, he gave me a card in which he had written a beautiful message wishing me the very best for the future.

    The sense of closure that I now have is indescribable.

    Thursday, February 5, 2009

    Molly's Farewell Tour

    I am on a visit to Calgary, Alberta.

    Although I had snow tires and and tire chains, I lucked into a window of glorious weather for my winter drive. Over two days, I drove amongst snow-covered mountains, on good roads, through light traffic, in brilliant sunshine. Life doesn't get much better than that.

    I was reminded, once again, of my failure to find the ugly route from Vancouver to Calgary (or vice versa). That statement tends to puzzle my friends. They ask, "Why would you want to do that?"

    My joke stems from the several requests for travel advice that I've received from overseas family members and friends when they've been preparing for trips to Western Canada. They ask, "Should I take this highway or that highway?" I say, "Throw a dart at a map, and choose the route on which the dart lands."

    No, I don't really leave them dangling without any more information. I do share with them what I consider to be the advantages of each route. But I also tell them that, after three decades, I have discovered it's impossible to design a bad itinerary in British Columbia and Western Alberta.

    Anyway, that stunning drive was a high note on which to end my relationship with my vehicle, which I had named Molly. My ex husband is buying Molly from me. We are about to leave for the registry office, where I will transfer ownership to him.

    After visiting with my ex husband, our two adult sons, and a handful of long standing Calgary friends, I will fly back home to Nanaimo, British Columbia on Sunday evening. That will be the start of my car-free lifestyle.

    Part of me is going, "Eek!" But mostly I am excited at the prospect of reducing my annual carbon emissions by 1.2 tonnes and discovering how resourceful I can be in implementing this change to my lifestyle.

    I will be walking, catching the bus, riding a bicycle, car-pooling with friends, and joining a car sharing club called the Co-operative Auto Network for those occasional trips and errands that really do require a car.

    Yes, I'm sure there will be a few frustrating moments. For example, about ten days ago I set out to walk a route that I had planned from my map of Nanaimo. A street that the map showed and that I intended to take wasn't there in real life. Aaaaaaargh! That necessitated a time consuming detour.

    Friends later told me that maps of Nanaimo show streets that are planned, not necessarily streets that exist. What's up with that?!? Grrrrrrr!

    Yes, a little glitch in Paradise. But onwards and upwards, eh?

    Sunday, February 1, 2009

    My beloved son in whom I am well pleased

    This past weekend, one of my sons visited Nanaimo from Calgary. We had a terrific time together, and I enjoyed showing him my world. He loved this area, and said he could totally understand why I had moved here and why I had bought into a cohousing community.

    Spending time in his company is a real treat for me. For a second I thought, "Wouldn't it be fun to live in the same place, so we could see more of each other?" But it was just a fleeting idea. The answer was a resounding, "No."

    For his masters degree in a subject about which he is passionate, he needs to be exactly where he is. For my personal growth and for my exploration of cohousing, to which I am so ardently committed, I need to be exactly where I am. We love each other enough to give each other that space.

    But chatting with that young adult, who is not just a family member but now a friend on an equal footing, was a most agreeable experience.