The lithe old lady inside me

Part 2 of my guest posts on fitness at Fit is a Feminist Issue

Confronting my own xenophobia

This is hard to write.

Paris. Lebanon. The refugee crisis. Syria. The fight over the woman wearing the niqab in the Canadian citizenship ceremony. Parents in Thorncliffe removing their students from public school because they don’t want their kids exposed to “homosexual indoctrination.” A Muslim woman attacked in North York on Monday, the mosque in Peterborough burned on Sunday. All of comes together for me, a tangled dark ball of questions and pressure cooker for us to figure out how to talk and interpret the world in a new, complex way.

I’m one of those people reacting to the Paris attacks on FB and in my conversations by emphasizing openness, compassion, not reacting with violence. I sent some money for the rebuilding of the Peterborough mosque, have already contributed to two grassroots groups sponsoring Syrian refugees. Talk with my friend Joanna about how she wants to send “their” Syrian family a message that simply says “we still love you.” Respond with tears to my colleague Shaheen’s eloquent message that she doesn’t have to attest to being “not that kind of Muslim” because we already know who she is. Forward links about how refugees are screened, how the situation in Syria was created. Pass on Pema Chodron’s words:

“When I think about the tragedies in Paris and in Lebanon and in fact in many places in the world, It seems to me that’s it’s very clear that the cause is hatred. Therefore I feel for people that are committed to waking up and being of benefit to others, the key is for us is to not nurture hatred in our hearts. It may seem beyond many of us to feel compassion for the perpetrators, but probably the most important thing is for us to not add any more aggression to the planet, but to add as much open kindness and open heartedness as we can.”

I have a clear position, post-Paris: violence begets more violence; intolerance creates more fear and division. I want us to stay open. I have been working deeply into a loving kindness meditation practice in the last year, exploring the edges of my own compassion. I know what “kind of person I am” in this situation, who I want to be.

And yet.

This is the hard part.

This makes me really confront my own racism, my own xenophobia.

A few weeks ago, I was one of the people triggered by the niqab/citizenship ceremony issue. I ranted about it to Danny in the car, then found myself bringing up the topic just so I could rant more about it at a dinner party.

Here is the narrative: I respond with a kind of reactive fury to the niqab issue because it represents oppression to me. I get angry when I see women wearing full robes and niqab on Parliament Street. Bringing a symbol of oppression into a citizenship ceremony in a country that is supposed to have a value of acceptance and openness seemed elementally wrong to me. The parents in Thorncliffe hurling homophobic epithets at Kathleen Wynne, removing their kids from public school, are largely newcomers. A few years ago, I encountered a parade of Chinese Christians protesting same sex marriage and squealed with fury. I have a fundamental, visceral reaction to the notion that people might “come to my country” and “try” to invert the rights I have fought hard for. The notion that “tolerance” opens up intolerance of ME enrages and upsets me. I want the woman talking about the niqab in her citizenship ceremony to make the point that her religious freedom is in the same spectrum as my freedom to be queer. When she doesn’t, I shut down.

No, I don’t shut down. My ability to process, to be open, shuts down. My reactivity, tightness, fear ramps up. What sociologists call “othering” starts up — seeing other groups of people as so different from us that they stop being human.

I have good people in my world. I flushed that poor dinner party into a swirl of my uneasy emotions, but they listened hard, asked questions, gave thoughtful responses. Talked about what it means to be a newcomer, the kind of fear and tiny communities where meaning is made because it’s the only space you know. The fear of losing your children, your culture, to things you don’t understand. At the end of the dinner party rant, someone said simply “it sounds like you’re afraid of losing what you’ve worked hard for. Thank you for telling us you’re afraid.”

A response of real compassion. And it flicked me into shame at seeing myself, where I was letting fear swallow “who I believe myself to be” at my best. Made me think differently about what I was saying, the assumptions I was making. The way I’d attributed beliefs to whole groups of people, refused to hear women’s own voices about their own experience. Made me listen to what they are really saying about the choices they make, how their spirituality means something different to each person. The lessons I thought I’d learned about treating groups as monolithic, not individual humans, a long time ago.

Paris brought this back. It’s easy to be outraged, to advocate for supporting the refugees in abstract, understanding how Syria got created, send $25 to the mosque in Peterborough. Nod sadly at someone else’s pain. But it’s more important for me to be honest with myself, to understand that I am one of those with kneejerk responses, to look at my own xenophobia, to understand my own fears.

I studied dialogic communications. I started my PhD after being inspired by a Jewish woman trying to create dialogue groups between Palestinian and Israeli women. I understand how to facilitate conversations between diametrically, intractably opposed groups by helping them find grey. And I see that when my own fears rise up, I can become as blind, as tiny, as aggressive as any of the responses I’m tut tutting at now about Paris.

It’s hard work to really reach across lines when it’s fear of losing your identity, what you hold dearest, feels threatened. This is the lesson for me.

A refusal to not mourn

Source: A refusal to not mourn

Beautiful post by my friend Joanna about Paris.


I did a guest post at Fit is a Feminist Issue.

When you travel alone

When you travel alone and you didn’t sleep at all on the sardine can overnight flight, you ask the man at your hotel for a fish restaurant close by. You may need to close out the new city and sleep after lunch.

It’s up three sets of stairs, a perfect terrace in the shadow of the Blue Mosque, blue water you vaguely (incorrectly) think of as the Bosphorus to the right. You are the only one there. You watch a woman tending to her pots of red flowers on the rooftop across.


You talk to the waiter, a sad eyed Syrian man. “Our home is gone, my family is gone.” He explains the history but you can’t quite follow. He looks for any wisp of connection. “Why are you traveling alone?” He knows a woman from Uganda, she visited Istanbul and came to the restaurant every day. He talks to her on the WhatsApp. Surely you must work for the same organization. 

“I cannot learn another language… I have four now. I need to go to an English country.” He had a shop at home. Perhaps you can hire him. He hovers wistfully when you gently say it’s not that kind of organization. He brings you eggplant, a special dorado with arugula and tomato. Perfect. Shockingly expensive when the bill arrives, double any other meal you have in Istanbul.


You thank him, promise to come back, knowing you won’t. His need more than you can bear right now, full after being Auntie for ten days in Uganda.

You shake the owner’s hand, give Mohammed’s a tighter moment. He clasps your shoulder close as you descend the stairs.

A day.

We woke, bleary, mosquito nets pushed aside but sleep still draped around us. I tapped ground coffee from starbux into my triadventure mug, and added milk I brought in a tetra pack from home. On my 8th visit, I know what I need.

Steph and I spent an hour in the office of the Probation Officer, the man in charge of children’s welfare in the district. I barely noticed the cartoon like poster admonishing people against child sacrifice behind Mr. Sowati. The first time I saw it, I gawped. Now it weaves in.

“The Rwenzoris feel like home, don’t they?” Steph and I looked quietly at the green hills, the red roads.

We went in with worry, knowing that now that we are an official NGO in Uganda, we have a whole new maze to walk through. The Ministry of Gender doesn’t approve of orphanages, wants to push children to their villages, force parents to take up their responsibilities. We understand that, and have never called ourselves an orphanage. They need to protect children, want us to send away the older kids, take in more local children.

“Do people abandon their children in pit latrines in Canada?” asked Mr Sowati, forcefully. Making the point that some people in Uganda are terrible, that something has to change.

“Sometimes in firehalls,” offered steph.

“But PIT latrines?” he asked.

We were quiet.

Getting through the conversation was like watching the weaver birds on the hotel grounds carefully build the fragile nests that dangle from the trees, like Christmas ornaments. One thread at a time, carefully, contrary to nature.

In the end, he understood that the Niki kids have always had connection to their home villages, that they each belong somewhere, know what it means to dig and slash and plant. They know who they are and spend six weeks at Christmas with their families. We are not merely housing them, we have active programming when they are at the house between school terms. “You should help them plan for being donors themselves when they are adults,” he said. “We agree.” Success.

Then to the vet, to help the poor skinny mama dog, some prolapsed pink oozy flesh coming out of her vagina. Kicking her puppies away because she’s starving. Steph slid in the fresh black mud. “It’s okay, I did too,” laughed the vet.

Like Ugandans, we assumed the vet would wait patiently while we did errands on the way back. Two thwarted ATM visits, six shops to find minutes for my phone, a bag of milk for the puppies.

Innocent held the dog while the vet injected her with “anti-puppy” (depo provera for dogs?), prescribed de-wormer, anti-bacterial spray for her wound, tick wash. We persuaded Good to feed her twice a day.

Then writing job descriptions and letters of appointment (2 of the 18 tasks we have to do to satisfy the Ministry of Gender), more coffee, then a feat of engineering to hang the triad banner. Photos of the kids.

kiisa triad

Meeting with two of the community project groups, updates, planning, suggestions, inspiration. Moments of immense gratitude for what’s being created before our eyes.

team 1 triad banner

Lunch, plain spaghetti with tomato soup, basically. Avocado. Sleepy haze, broken fan in the hotel.


Boys’ meeting. Career planning, something each of them is proud of over the past year. Expectations, hope. Pringles and soda.

boy meeting 3

Meetings with three of the boys one on one, who need specific guidance. Bargaining. “”You’re far too bright to have this trouble. You have two terms left. We’ll send you to the better school. But you have to promise you’ll focus.” “I will… but really, I want to play football. I am so talented.” An hour with Kagame, talking about songwriting. Not posting barechested photos on facebook.

Staggering toward the house, sleepy, it’s dark. The girls waylay me. Auntie, come dance! I dance two songs, slide into the house, talk to Tina and Gabriel about job descriptions.

Filthy, sticky, I turn on the tap at the hotel. No water. A mystery. The dinner of every night: tilapia, rice, vegetables, avocado.

Bed, filthy.


beth dancing 2

Beth, dancing.