A Letter to My Sons: On Love and Hate

Dear Alexandre, Dear Sam,


This is my first Valentine’s Day away from you. The second away from Mommy – the first time was way back in 1998. I was living in Ghana at the time, and your mother sent me a Valentine’s Day package from home. The package wasn’t delivered to my apartment, so I had to pick it up at the central post office. People receiving packages had to open them for inspection in front of a postal worker. There was a lineup of people behind me, peeking over my shoulder to see what I got. I opened the box and showed the postal worker a CD, a letter, and a pair of red boxer shorts with little red and white hearts on it.


However embarrassing that situation was at the time (but everyone smiled), I knew I was a lucky man, and I am even luckier today. Prior to meeting your Mommy, Valentine’s Day, to put it simply, sucked. I never had a girlfriend on that day (reassuringly, most of my guy friends didn’t either), and any potential for having a girlfriend on or around that day was always promptly extinguished. I can freely provide you details in about 5 years.
All you need.
I am lucky because I have love from the two of you and Mommy that defines me, that strengthens me, supports me, gets me out of bed and brings me comfort even though I’m 9511 km away from you (more or less). It makes Valentine’s Day just another day as I sit here alone in my hotel room, happy.


There’s a saying that goes, “So much of what we know of love we learn at home.” I learned a lot from your grandmother and, in a very different way, from your Uncle John, and continue to learn from the two of you and Mommy. As I left you on Saturday, your emotions were bare, your silence painful, and your tears seared right through my heart. My trips away from you are much shorter than they were ten years ago, but somehow the goodbyes are sadder. I can only attribute that to a growing love.


Sitting here in my hotel room in Amman, it’s hard for me not to think of this day without remembering the struggles that so many people here in the Middle East and North Africa have faced over the past year. You know of the sweeping changes that took pace in Egypt, in Tunisia, in Libya. But one year ago today, February 14, protests began in the streets of Bahrain, where my friend Abdulhadi was jailed and sentenced to life in prison. He recently wrote a letter from jail talking about his situation. He is a strong man, someone who fights hard for the rights of others and has paid a high price for this. But he is loved, and that love manifests itself in the support that thousands of people from around the world have shown in pushing for his release, and the release of other prisoners.


Bahrain is not the only place where innocent people are being hurt because they are standing up for their rights. The situation in Syria is getting worse every day, with the president unwilling to give up power as his forces kill dozens of civilians every day. Tonight I spoke to my friend Amouri who lives in Syria and he says that all six of the UN schools that operate in the city of Homs have been closed now for three weeks because of the violence in the streets. It’s one thing for you to have a snow day and not go to school. Can you imagine not attending school because people are being killed in the streets?


If you think this makes no sense, you are right. I want you to always keep in mind that this is not right. Hatred will never be right. You might be confused right now about this kind of stupid behaviour, and as you get older, I’m sorry to say you might find out even stupider and more hurtful things that people do. If you’re like me, this will anger you. What I’ve learned over time is that anger is often unavoidable, but needs to be transformed. Without changing that anger, you won’t change anything. Your anger at other people’s stupidity needs to be channeled into passion and love that is tempered by reason, into a fierce enthusiasm to stop those who do wrong to others. Be a Superman, be a Batman – even SpongeBob stands up for what’s right. I want you to be yourself and to share, as much as you possibly can, what you know of love and learned from home. The world needs it.


Je t’aime Sam, je t’aime Alexandre.
Daddy

 

2012 – Suck it up and survive, or: reasons to be hopeful

I have never been one to make (and subsequently fail to live up to) any New Year’s resolutions. Although I would like to go to the gym often enough so that the cost of an average workout does not exceed the cost of a case of beer.
With a new year upon us I can best sum up my outlook as: The planet’s screwed but that shouldn’t prevent us from trying to save it, and thankfully some people are still trying to do this but more of us should get out there and do something. I know it isn’t catchy but it’ll have to do. As I reflect on the title of this blog, A Change Is Coming, I’m reminded that change (for the better) won’t happen on its own; people have to make it happen.
The end of the year is always an opportune time to reflect on the past and hope for a better future. This should happen every day, not only now, but I guess most of us are too busy. Plus if all we did was reflect on the past and hope for the future, we wouldn’t be doing anything in the present. So as the year comes to a close I’d like to take stock of things. I have every intention of making this a top 10, but we’ll see if I can manage at least five things.
Here’s what I want for 2012:

  1. As an ordinary person, I know can make a difference in this world on my own and with others, including huge numbers of strangers who are just as pissed off at how things are as I am. I should try harder to make a difference.

How this can happen: On my own, I could try to be an Internet sensation and make a YouTube video of me dancing with a penguin that would go viral and make me (or at least the penguin) popular for a week. This would make 1 million people feel good for about 30 seconds or the length of the video, but I can’t make a career out of it. So for the moment, and over the next year, I’ll try to make a difference on my own by blogging more about things related to human rights that bug me or interest me, that discourage me and enrage me or that give me hope for a better future. My Christmas wish list to Santa covered many of these issues: a Canadian government that selectively shuns human rights violations internationally while ignoring its own actions here, including its discrimination of First Nations communities; killings, detentions and arbitrary arrests in Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, and Egypt; African despots who have clung on to power for too long; discrimination and violence against the LGBTIQ community; and Obama reneging on campaign promises such as the closure of Guantanamo Bay. I’d add to that increasing sectarian violence worldwide, violence against women, trafficking and exploitation of children, internal conflicts around the world that kill thousands every year, violations against migrant workers and their families, human rights abuses by transnational corporations, and the shameful reality that we know we are destroying our planet but those in power are unwilling to make the right decisions for our own sake and for the lives of generations to come.

OK so I didn’t quite get to five things, only one, but I like to think of it as all inclusive.

Believing in human rights education
I believe we (collective “we” of planet Earth) can make our lives and the lives of others better by learning about human rights, so I am a firm believer in human rights education. For many people who lead a nice life and don’t need to worry about having their rights egregiously violated (like me), learning about rights is a destabilizing reality. You realize that so many others in this world do not have the same liberties and freedoms and ability to live a full life of dignity. Learning about human rights violations elsewhere leaves you feeling privileged/guilty/blessed with what you’ve got, and can also push you to act out of empathy and respect for others to help them live a life as full as yours. I specifically say empathy and respect rather than sympathy because the latter term relegates the dynamic of those who have and have not to one of pity and charity. Rights are not about charity; rights are basic obligations that states have for all of us to live equal in dignity and rights. I don’t want to help someone living in poverty because I feel sorry for them. I want to help them because it’s their right to live a better life, and we (collective “we” of planet Earth, but also “we” as in governments) have the ability to eradicate poverty and improve the lives of millions within our lifetimes.
Human rights education is just as essential, just as vital for those who live a life of dignity and equality as for those whose rights are violated. Everyone needs to know about human rights; human rights are not just a trendy topic in university classes, human rights education is not boring (at least it shouldn’t be); human rights education is unavoidable, it cannot be ignored. The events of the past year, in particular with the Arab Spring and worldwide Occupy Movement – are a clear indication that average citizens can rise up and demand their most basic rights – freedom, life, security, equality, and are ready to sacrifice their own freedom in order to achieve these rights for others. The courage of ordinary people defying guns, bullets and tanks in the streets of their hometowns to defy the oppressive despots leading their countries should be incentive enough for the rest of us to get off our collective asses and express our indignation at the failure of our political leaders.

The most impoverished are the strong ones
Worldwide, human rights violations affect those living in poverty the hardest. An estimated 1.7 billion people around the world are living in poverty – it’s an unavoidable statistic that affects everyone. I have seen, though never experienced, conditions of poverty in many parts of the world. However, the crap I see that shapes and defines people living in poverty is only a partial reality of their lives. Living in Africa for four years, I saw enough poverty to leave me incapable of facing it for the first two years in Malawi and give me a fair share of nightmares upon my return to Canada. But I also left wondering how so many people kept going with a strength I found remarkable. If there’s anything I want to learn from others less fortunate, it’s how they keep going with a strength of character to suck it up and survive. Whether through faith or will or courage or love or instinct or a mix of all that and more, the most awe-inspiring part of the human condition is found in places where living conditions are the most deplorable and those oppressed are being violated by others embodying the worst of human nature.

Hope
As I look forward to a new year, I remain conflicted as I was last year at this time: hopeful for a better future, but discouraged by the violence, poverty, human suffering and willful degradation of the planet. But the resolve of so many to stand up for their rights, to suck it up and survive and strive for a more hopeful future where their rights are respected, pushes me a little further towards the hopeful end of the scale. That’s enough to keep me going for another year. To all of you, a happy and prosperous New Year. A change is indeed coming.

Happy Mother’s Day: Why It’s Important to Listen to Your Mother Talk about Nothing

This Mother’s Day marks the fourth one where I will not hear my mother’s voice telling me I didn’t need to call her. I won’t hear her say on the other end of the phone, “Yes, Dear, I’m still kicking around,” and then proceed to fill me in on every detail of her life since we last spoke. I won’t hear her say, “You shouldn’t have, Dear,” like she used to when I arrived at her place with a two-dollar coffee and a donut. I won’t scrunch my face in mock anguish as she pulls me down to her level in order to give me a peck on the cheek. The visits to the cemetery are nowhere nearly as fun as sitting in her kitchen listening to her talk about, well, nothing much. But she did it with such enthusiasm.

There were many times I would sit in her kitchen listening to her tell her stories of her nasty neighbour or the lunch she had with the other “old ladies” (her terminology) or insights into the latest crime book she was reading. I freely admit that I tuned out more than once, my mind wandering elsewhere. She’d always bring me back to reality by asking me where my next trip was, and then I’d have to reassure her that my destination was not dangerous. As the years passed, she relied more and more on having me or my brother be there to listen to her. And listen we did, even though there were times when I really had no interest in hearing my mother talk about the type of salad dressing she tried at the restaurant.
I don’t think I’m that patient with everyone. But when it came to my mother, it was, quite simply, what I owed her. Her life – her only purpose, and it was quite clear – was to take care of me and my brother. Nothing else mattered. The word “sacrificed,” while often overused to amplify the self-importance of our choices in life, knows no truer meaning than through the life my mother led. Her personal happiness was not even an afterthought; her life was spent – completely spent – with the unique purpose of ensuring that my brother and I lived the best possible lives. The result of this selfless act was not lost on me, although I admit I did not fully appreciate what she did when I was younger. Hopefully I wasn’t too late in telling her how much I appreciated all that she did for me. Beyond the good manners (“Take your hat off in a restaurant”), the endless array of practical skills (riding a bike, no. Ironing and effectively using Saran Wrap, yes.), and the adherence to a strong set of morals and values (“Never go to bed mad at your mother”), I take from her the importance of respecting others, of treating everyone with dignity, and having the courage to love and to remain strong no matter how hard things get.

A few days before she passed away, she had lost her ability to say anything coherent, to move on her own, and to feed herself. There was, from all appearances, nothing left of the woman who cared for me. As I sat on the hospital bed feeding her, I could no longer hide my sorrow and let tears fall down my cheek. She struggled to grab her napkin. At first I didn’t know what she was doing, then realized she was bringing the napkin up to my cheek to wipe my tears away. The essence of what makes us human, what makes us caring, what makes us strong,can be seen no more clearly than by the love a mother has for her children.
Related post: My Mother’s Memory