Table of Contents

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

When One is All You've Got- #1Dress1Month

Growing up in Senegal, I knew that many of my friends only had one nice outfit...or one outfit at all. As a fashion lover since the age of about three, I would spend days or weeks planning what to wear to a party (a habit I haven't grown out of), and my Christmas and Birthday wish lists always included that one item I felt would complete my sartorial bliss. Meanwhile, some of my friends would wear the same shirt and pants to every party, and every Sunday at church.

I'm well aware of this disconnect between the life I have lived and that of so many of my friends. Some of those dearest to me have recounted memories of being picked on at school because they wore the same shirt every day. I remember that very thing happening in my Canadian public school to the children of families on social assistance.

As hurtful as being bullied for your appearance is, not having enough clothes gets even more painful when the weather changes, as it is changing now. It's this season that makes the difference between those who have, and those who don't, a fatal gap.

That's why, this month, I'm putting things into perspective for myself. For the entire month of November, I will wear one thrifted, little black dress. This dress:


As I go through the month, I'll be posting pictures of my black dress ensembles on social media, and raising awareness about how important warm clothes is for children in winter. Through my project, I hope to inspire those of use who are blessed with more than enough, to give the gift of warm clothes to kids in places where winter is bitterly cold, like Romania, through World Vision's gift catalogue.

For someone who loves the creativity and self-expression of getting dressed in the morning, you might think this is a sacrifice. But it's not. I get to choose from a myriad of accessories, sweaters, shoes, tights, and outerwear as the temperature drops. And, in choosing what piece I would wear for the month, I picked from about a dozen (mostly thrifted) dresses, including no less than four black dresses. This is an adventure- living without winter clothing in places like Romania isn't.

When I was 17, I visited Romania on a high school music tour. One day we drove through a little village on our way to a local tourist attraction. As we passed the houses, I caught a glimpse of a little girl standing in a doorway, very close to the road. She was bundled against the March chill, and on her head was a warm hat in the design of a strawberry.

The image of that little girl has stuck with me. As I go through the month, I'll be keeping her and her winter hat in mind as a symbol of what I want to achieve- that every little child we work with will have proper winter clothing this year. I'm hoping that's a dream that will catch on.

PS- See some of the looks I'll be taking inspiration from on my Pinterest board! To learn more about why I shop ethically (including the thrift store, where I bought my black dress), check out this post.




Sunday, July 3, 2016

The comfort of "stuff" (why I think minimalism goes too far)

I have a confession to make. As a Christian, I know that I am to store up “treasures in heaven”. As a social justice and environmental advocate, I try not to accumulate more than is necessary or good for myself, the earth, and others. And yet, sometimes there is such comfort in so much of my “stuff”.


It’s not the stuff itself that is comforting, but the meaning it holds, the story behind it, the joy that it brings me. In this era of “minimalism”, I find myself shirking from both the consumerism that drove me in my college days, and the stark list of rules set out by hardcore minimalists.


There are countless books, blogs and videos these days that shout the merits of getting rid of things, of clearing your home so you can clear your mental energies. And while I do think that making regular edits to pass on the things that I don’t need or use anymore is healthy, I don’t believe militant minimalism is inherently good. When stuff holds meaning for us, then we should hold onto it if we so choose.


It might be just “stuff”, but when I brew a pot of tea, just like my dad taught me and like my ancestors have done for generations before me, the vintage teacups I pour the amber liquid into make me smile. The one bequeathed to me by my grandmother, especially, brings an inexplicable peace and comfort to my heart. She isn’t with me anymore, but I can enjoy the things she enjoyed, and I cherish holding a tangible memory of her in my hands.



It might be just “stuff”, but the vintage pair of jeans I bought last weekend at the thrift store remind me of ones I used to wear as a kid. It has been a difficult few days, and the embroidered beading and 90s fit have brought a bit of childlike whimsy and a smile when I needed one so much.



It might be just “stuff”, but my engagement ring from my husband still dazzles me when it catches the light (and my eye) on the bus ride to work. It reminds me how carefully he planned it with the jewelry maker. It reminds me that all the difficulty of paperwork and 6000-km flights will be worth it to build a life together.




It might be just “stuff”, but the reclaimed wood table I eat and type on every day was built especially for me by dear uncle. It is the most beautiful piece of furniture I have ever seen, let alone owned, and losing it would be a great loss.



It might be just “stuff”, but hunting for new and vintage t shirts of the bands my husband loves is a way to process how much I miss him, and show him my love.


We can have joy without stuff- I know this to be true, having grown up in Senegal, West Africa amidst friends who own very little and still emanate a light and life that is breathtaking and infectious. But Senegal also taught me that “stuff” can be something that you can cling to as you work towards a better life.


When I was ten years old, my friends down the road lived in a structure made of corrugated metal and scrap wood. Despite the humble exterior, inside their parents kept a beautifully elaborate wooden bed and dresser set. The family would gather on the bed with pride, as they shared a beverage with a guest. They took good care of it, careful to preserve it so they would enjoy it for many years to come. A bed might be just “stuff”, but it was a point of pride and a beacon of what they were working towards.


It case be easy for those of us who can afford to rent or replace our furniture, our clothes, or even our homes with ease to preach on the evils of owning “stuff”. And yes, if I ever become a hoarder, build a den of couponed products I will never use, or shop far and above my means you can come and tell me about the evil of “stuff”. Until then, I will try to ensure that my purchases are meaningful, ethical, and under control.

I will also hold onto the leather bound copy of my favourite book from my parents, the thrifted white cotton dress I wore when I got married, and the vintage couch in my favourite colour that I consider one of my first adult purchases. They may be just “stuff”, but the memories and comfort they hold are worth more to me than a tidied up Instagram account or the coveted title of “minimalist”. My “stuff” holds a story I’d like to keep.


Wednesday, September 9, 2015

A Parable

A man was living in his parents’ house. His parents had died several years ago, leaving the man everything- a prosperous farm, a beautiful house with a wide porch, and a pristine river in the backyard.

While his parents had toiled first as labourers in another’s field, and then as young landowners with only the bare earth and their hands, the man had never wanted for anything. He had vague memories of his mother and father rising early to work the fields when he was very young, but since the age of five his family had been quite wealthy. His parents made wise investments, were honest people, and managed to operate a healthy business with several dozen employees.

The man was in charge of his parents’ company, but left most of the day to day business to his trusted executives to handle. He lived a life of relative ease with his wife and two children. During the summer he took his canoe out on the river, went fishing, and swam with his family. In the winter he enjoyed snowmobiling on the newest machines, and looked with pride on the snowmen his children made out front. He was glad to be able to provide a safe home for them. He and his family lacked for nothing, and seldom was there something they wanted that he refused.

One evening in late summer, as the cicadas were humming their last songs, the man and his family were just sitting down to dinner when there was a knock on the door. The man asked his son to say grace and rose to answer the call.

“Who could it be?” he wondered. “My employees and friends know that I don’t like to be disturbed at meal-time.”

When he opened the door, he was surprised to find his cousin standing on the doorstep with his wife and child. The trio looked quite bedraggled, and the wife was even bleeding from a gash on her head.

“My goodness!” said the man, “Whatever happened here?”

“We’ve been robbed,” said his cousin wearily. “A group of armed thieves came to my house pretending to be selling something. When I opened the door they pulled out guns and stormed inside. They locked us in a closet, took everything we owned of value, and then set fire to our house.”

The man was shocked that such a thing could happen in his area. “How did you escape?” he asked in wonder.

“Luckily I had a spare key on my keychain. When I heard the door close the last time, we escaped out the back and ran. But my wife tripped and hit her head on the way. I think she needs medical attention.”

“I’m truly sorry,” said the man.

“We feel terrible imposing,” said his cousin, his eyes cast down, “but could we stay with you a while? We have nowhere else to go.”

The man thought for a time. Having another family there imposing on his resources would be a nuisance. Not that he couldn’t afford it, but as the owner of the house, didn’t he have a right to all he had? Didn’t he deserve his peace and quiet?

He reached in his wallet and took out several bills, then handed them to his cousin.

“I’m afraid we’re full at the moment,” he said. “There just isn’t room. I’m sorry. I’m sure that will be enough to pay for an inn somewhere, or at least so you can stay with another neighbour.”

His cousin looked at him sadly. “Are you sure there isn’t space for us? We’ll work hard for you as soon as we’re able. Please, cousin. We are so tired, and my child has suffered so much fear. He needs a place to sleep tonight.”

“I’m sorry, I just can’t at the moment. But I truly wish you the best,” the man said with a cheerful air of finality. “Stay well.”

And he closed the door.

Image source unknown

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

My Personal Best

Sometimes ideas get under my skin, and they itch there until I puzzle them out.

There's one particular itch that I've been puzzling since high school. And I just can't seem to satisfy it.

The Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh was a shock to the system of consumers, but the story itself wasn't new. This fight to bring safer, more equitable working conditions to overseas employees of our consumer goods has been raging off and on since the 90s. As far as we know, other than leading to the creation of more ethical brands, not much has been achieved.

When I learned of the human rights abuses in Nike factories, I swore off Nike products at 14 years old. Gradually, more and more companies got added to the list. With the Rana collapse last year, that list made shopping at the mall (or Joe Fresh) basically impossible.

Instead, as much as I can, I try to shop ethically. It makes me smile when I can meet my needs while knowing that my money is being well spent. Whether it's buying used (which keeps the products out of the landfill and supports charity), fair trade (which offers higher wages for workers) or hand-made (which directly profits the creator), I try to make choices that help rather than harm.

But there are times when it's almost impossible to find an ethical option for a need. I try not to get bogged down by those. At other times the options are not ideal, and it's then that the itch starts to burn. I am forced to make a choice between the possibility that my purchase is funding questionable corporate activities, or going with the less desirable option, and supporting something good. For me, the conundrum usually leads to weeks or months of inaction before I can make a decision.

I'm in such a conundrum right now, over a pair of tennis shoes. The choice in this case is a questionable manufacturing process vs. a less appealing style with a higher price tag.

I was talking to my mom about the situation, and explaining how I hate that I feel guilty about so much of what I buy.

"You can't feel guilty about everything Meg," she said.

"I know...and I know I'm only one person, but if everyone continues to fund these companies, then they will never change."

"That's true. But everyone has to just do their best," she replied.

Right now, financially I'm not sure what my best is. The reality is that sometimes buying ethically costs- and I can't always afford it. Student loans for degrees in Social Justice and Peace are just the same as the ones for business degrees.

For my tennis shoes, this leads to other questions, like why is that style of sneaker so important to me? What does this say about my own personal, but also our cultural vanity? What does it say about me as a follower of Christ that I esteem such importance to the style and make of my footwear, when he commanded his disciples to spread his love with just one pair of sandals? Why can't I just be like Shane Claiborne and wear hemp and live communally?

I'm committed to doing my personal best, for the health of the planet and the people who live here. I just have to figure out what that is.



Sunday, May 10, 2015

21 years ago

I have always considered myself incredibly blessed. I have a family who loves me, friends around the world, a university education. But technically, until this year, I’ve lived under the poverty line for my entire adult life- all ten years of it.  

Realizing that shocks me. It shocks me because I’ve been living my dreams. Getting to love and tell the stories of people in other cultures has been such a privilege. Yes, it has cost me, but doesn’t everything of value? 

Only in the past two years have I realized how different my thinking is from most people’s. In Egypt, my friends were constantly shocked at the way I would turn down work that wasn’t meaningful, instead taking lower paying jobs I could believe in. They couldn’t understand my faith that if God led me on a path, He would sustain me. But He did. 

Now I earn a good salary working for an international charity. I have health benefits, a pension, and am actually being taxed for possibly the first time. Many of my coworkers take great comfort in the security of those benefits. When we’ve discussed missionaries, aid workers, and those who live in deliberate poverty for the sake of community, I’ve heard them say, “But how do they do that? What about their RRSPs?!”

I am free from the paralyzing fear of life without an RRSP (although it’s nice to have one now that I do) because of my parents. It’s Mother’s Day. Tomorrow, I turn 28, the same age my mom was when she moved to Senegal, West Africa.

She was 28. My mother was 28 when she and my father sold our house and almost everything in it to go serve a people she had only heard about. She was 28 when she took myself, at seven, and my little five-year-old sister by the hand and boarded a plane to the complete unknown. 

When they left, my mother had only travelled to the UK, and my father had never been outside North America. There were no internet travel guides, or Skype calls with people in the field. My parents believed that Senegal was where they needed to go, so they went. 

I always knew there was a difference between what I had and what my friends’ had- even some of the other missionary kids. But, mostly, those differences slipped off me like water across our cool tiled floor. With books, coloured pencils and imagination I could create any world I wanted to. Later, as a teenager at a private school in Toronto, those differences became pretty glaring. Even still, when I saw what went on behind the walls of my friends’ houses, I was glad for the family I had. 

We always had enough, because my parents believed that their primary mission was their family. But we were also never rich, because God had a calling on us that went beyond anything you could attach monetary value to. My parents’ love for the children of Senegal informed everything they did- from my mom’s organization of child sponsorship files, to my dad’s training of Senegalese teachers, to our family’s support for a single mother and her ailing child. It was infectious- so infectious, that I still have the disease, 21 years later. 

Living overseas changes you. The shiny trappings of wealth begin to look a little tainted, when you know the bleeding hands they came from. You can see the tinges of rust lurking in the corners of fancy cars, brand-new gilded mirrors. And the empty echo of a marble hall becomes a poor substitute for the hard-packed dirt floor of a Senegalese village church, trembling with the music, dancing and laughter of new friends who have always been your brothers and sisters.

I know that I am blessed, because I have caught the joy of those with much less than me. I owe that joy entirely to my parents. 


Happy Mother’s Day. 


Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Forget-me-not...

"Dear Lord, don't let Billy's memories remain anchors that he has to drag along. Turn them to treasures he can carry with him."

This prayer by a friend of Billy Sprague is one of the most profound things I have ever read in my life. It resonated with me when I read it as a teenager in Ragamuffin Prayers. I remembered moving back to Canada from Senegal at age 12, giving up my friends and my dreams of growing up on the edge of the Sahara, and I realized that I needed those memories to be treasures, not anchors that made me bitter.

Now I've moved back to Canada again, from the other edge of the Sahara. These days, it is becoming something of a mantra, and I pray it every single day. "God let my memories become treasures I can carry with me." Right now they feel like stones on my heart, crushing me with their weight. At other times they just remind me of the holes in my life where all the things and people I lost used to be.

I remember a day when I was 13, almost a year after we had moved back to Canada the first time. I was behind our rented house when I spotted a patch of delicate blue forget-me-nots. They seemed like a reminder to me to keep those I had left behind in my heart, but to make room for new relationships, no matter what the future held.

Since then, I've never tried to keep my distance from the people I write about, live among, and love. I've never been good at NOT becoming a part of the culture I'm in, at staying away from seeking out the beating heart of a city, even for my own emotional good. That's just not who I am.

I think that's why I burned out so fast. I had the privilege of speaking to Western University's International Reporting class for the third (fourth?) time last month. One of the things I talked about was the toll that being a journalist in a foreign country can take on you. I wrote about this in my last post, and it's one of the reasons why I am now back in Canada.

But being back in Canada brings its own challenges. I get really confused sometimes over basic everyday interactions, because they are so unlike what I've been used to for the past three years. Small stresses can overwhelm me because of the things hovering just below the surface.

Not many people talk about moving as a loss, but it very much is one. When a person dies, you take the time and space to mourn them. It's expected. But what about when what has died is your way of life, your connection to a community, and your relationships in the ways that you have known them? To me that is a different kind of loss than losing someone to death, but it goes just as deep. Life will never be the same, and that is something to mourn and heal from.

And those people I couldn't keep my distance from? I miss their smiles, their warmth, their presence so much that it is a constant ache. In the part of the Greater Toronto Area where I live, there is a large community of Egyptians. Every time I hear Arabic, I feel it pulling me like a magnet. The other day I finally got up the courage to ask a mother in Tim Horton's, "Are you from Egypt?" Of course, she was, and we spent a few moments talking about the areas of Cairo where we both had spent most of our time. She was utterly gracious and kind, and called me "dear", just like so many other Egyptian moms I've known. After she left, I felt like the veneer I had built up between myself and Egypt had shattered, and it left me broken too. My heart remembered, and I cried, right there in Canada's favourite coffee shop.

Someday, I know that I will be able to feel all the ways that the people and culture of North Africa enriched my being without breaking down. I'll be able to talk to the ones I love there without tears. There will always be that ache, but it will be the beautiful kind. I picture my treasure like a pearl- layers of wisdom, strength and grace built over the pain until it truly is a thing of beauty that I can take with me everywhere, because it is a part of me. But for now...

forget-me-not...



Friday, January 23, 2015

Stars in Our Crown

It's been a few months since I have posted anything. Part of that is my hectic schedule. Since September I have been working two jobs- teaching high school literature and editing for a local news website- and that has taken up most of my time. 

But the other reason is one I want to address in this post. For some time now I've been doing a lot of self-care, dealing with the aftereffects of being a foreign correspondent and living in a foreign culture. It's not often talked about, but journalists, aid workers and counsellors sometimes deal with what in some cases is called compassion fatigue...and in more serious cases "secondary post-traumatic stress disorder", or SPTSD. After hearing story after story of violence, abuse, and chaos, we can start to feel the effects of those stories in our own minds and bodies. Secondary post-traumatic stress disorder mimics many of the serious symptoms that regular PTSD brings- nightmares, depression, overreaction to situations that should not be deemed dangerous, trouble sleeping, and problems with relationships. If this is coupled with other stressful circumstances or personal trauma, the symptoms can be exacerbated. 

Part of my self care means that at certain points, I try not to read news about violence or human rights abuses other than those issues that I am currently writing on or editing. Of course, it often reaches me anyway, and if it is an issue of particular interest, I can't help tweeting or writing about it. Another outlet involves releasing stress through creative means. I write poetry, paint, and journal. Most of those things don't show up here, but today I wanted to share the most recent poem I wrote. 

A few weeks ago I got the news that a former colleague of mine at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in Tunis was reported to have been killed by the Islamic State in Libya. He was captured months back, and a news report on one of the terrorist websites had photos of him and another journalist, claiming they had been executed. 

Though I am far away in Egypt, the shockwaves of this hit me hard. Though I didn't know Sofiane Chourabi well, I saw him every week for the months I worked at IWPR, and the possibility that he was dead was difficult to handle. My best friend, who also worked at IWPR and is now with Human Rights Watch, has been able to give me the scattered updates she's received. The journalism community in Tunis was in a state of shock and sorrow, which quickly turned to anger when the Tunisian government failed to react quickly enough to ascertain the two journalists' wellbeing. 

When I heard the news, I immediately reached out to friends and family for their prayers and support. This is not the first time something like this has happened. My mother told me that news like this, "Makes your resume scary, in retrospect." To me, it means I was, and am, doing something that matters. But the conversation got me to thinking of how, as journalists, we often have the unhealthy practice of measuring our value in litres of blood, numbers of bullets and protests, and even, scarily enough, how many colleagues we've lost. Leonard Cohen once said that, "Poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash." These are the ashes of this experience so far. 

Stars in our crown
Another one dead
But he’s just one of many
And I didn’t even write about him today
There are so many more to cry about
No guts, no glory
So often the guts aren’t ours
But it’s our job to shout about them
And scramble for the green glory
That comes trickling like a polluted river
War sells
And don’t we have an obligation?
Some are more obligated than us
We call it bravery…or insanity
And their deaths rub off on us
Lending us a sheen of relevance
Experience
The brighter it glows, the more the river flows
That’s what they say
So we place them like stars in our crown
But first we have to pluck them
Out of our bleeding hearts
And stop up the holes with newsprint
The smaller injustices are bullet holes
Tiny pin dots of teargas from police
The boom of the explosions and shots
Abuse from the bystanders, a daily assault
(Because words are weapons, whispered or shouted or written)
The chants of protests in my head while I sleep
I take these out too,
This time from my mind
And pin them like sequins on a diadem
Leaving air rushing through my skull
And through the airwaves
What if there’s too much air?
What if there’s not enough newsprint?
What if I run out of heart, of skull?
What if, next time, it’s me?


My friend informed me that sources are now saying Sofiane is safe, "but we don't know yet." If you're the praying type, please continue to keep Sofiane and his family and friends in your prayers. You can also spread awareness of his captivity, in hopes that the Tunisian government will act to verify his whereabouts, on Twitter using the hashtag #FreeSofiane.

Sofiane speaking to a soldier in Tunisia (from his Facebook page)


If you are a journalist, aid worker or counsellor who is dealing with SPTSD (or PTSD for that matter), I encourage you to reach out for support. Find people you can talk to, and ways that you can express your pain, sorrow, guilt and anger. Without your mental and physical health, you can't help anyone. Take care of yourselves.