Up Close and Very Personal

In my line of work, writing freelance magazine articles, I speak to a whole lot of different people. And some of them are vulnerable.

Sure, there are the polished experts – Canada’s go-to spokespersons on this, or the country’s foremost researchers in that. There are even the B-list celebrities (A-listers are out of my reach) whose very living depends entirely on media attention.

But lots of times, I interview ordinary people who have survived difficult, even devastating, life experiences. I’ve talked with women who’ve tragically lost their unborn babies. I’ve spoken to parents whose children have mysterious, unbidden, possibly life-threatening medical conditions. I’ve had conversations with men and women who have been depressed, even suicidal. I’ve questioned people who have endured other hardships large and small that have impacted on their day-to-day lives in profound and lasting ways.

At the end of the day, when a writer is switching off her computer monitor and powering down, she might ask herself: What’s in it for them? Why do these people open themselves up, at times ripping apart metaphorical stitches, to expose their pain to the world?

I know the reason. It’s because they’re convinced they can make a difference. They can show other people they’re not alone. They can give advice, so important and precious, advice that can only come from someone who has walked the same path. They can do their part to lessen the pain for the next person.

I know for certain this is why they do it. Why else would someone who is not a pathological egomaniac reveal such personal details to hundreds of thousands of readers?

And yet I was reminded of it again last week, when I interviewed a woman who had survived a potentially lethal disease. While we talked, she cried a little. But she was candid and honest and answered every one of my questions.

Afterwards, she admitted she had considered whether or not to go ahead with the interview. She’s generally a private individual, she told me. This isn’t like her, to tell her story to a national magazine. But she knew it was the right thing to do.

“If it helps even one person,” she said, “it’s worth sharing what I went through.”

You know what? Her decision may save a life. Or multiple lives. I am constantly humbled by the generosity of the women and men I speak to. It’s no wonder I love my job. I get to see the compassion of the human spirit – truly, up close and very personal.

ButterflyDamaged

We don’t get through everything unscathed, but we can leave a trail for the next person.

Ugly is the New Nice

Perhaps we can’t count on Sami the cat to win a feline beauty pageant anytime soon. But if there were a contest for inner beauty, Sami would surely wear the crown. At least Sami’s owners, roommates Jay Telegdi and Peter Fortna, are convinced of it.

Sami, an unsightly Persian cat with a malformed tear duct, puffy face and crooked teeth, was originally rescued from Romania, where he was unwanted. Since he arrived to live in Canada, though, people everywhere have felt compelled to cuddle him. As Jay says in a news story, “The cat really does have a heart of gold, and it is super-sweet, affectionate and unique in many ways.”

That’s why the roommates were inspired to design a T-shirt printed with Sami’s monstrous mug, along with a note prompting people to “Be Kind.” They’re supporting a fundraiser for people from war-torn Aleppo by giving away Sami shirts to the first 200 donors. (Want yours? Get instructions here.)

Jay, Peter – and presumably Sami, too – all feel some kinship toward the displaced Syrians. That’s because they themselves are from Fort McMurray, Alberta, and were forced out of their home during last year’s sweeping wildfires. The house was eventually destroyed. Before that, in 2013, they were evacuated from the Calgary floods.

The experiences opened their eyes, and prompted them to find a way to help others.

“For better or for worse, Sami does look kind of ridiculous, whether in person or on a T-shirt,” Peter told a CBC reporter. “But he’s also very lovable, and just reminds people to be kind.”

samiuglycat

Sami, if you’re reading this: I don’t actually think you’re all that hideous. There’s a certain nobility to your one-of-a-kind looks. (Photo courtesy of Jay Telegdi and Peter Fortna)

Optimism May Save Your Life

More and more research has been showing that people who are optimistic – those of us who generally expect good things to happen in our lives – may have a reduced risk of certain health problems, like heart disease.

Psychologists at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health have now released a new study that gives us even more to feel positive about. They found that women who are the most optimistic are least likely to die – from any cause.

Optimism seems to steer us towards a more wholesome lifestyle. And when problems do crop up, optimism helps us manage them in a healthier way: more workouts, fewer benders.

The best part is, you can make yourself optimistic. In earlier research, it’s been shown that just by concentrating on a positive outcome, or jotting down a few notes about what that would look like – I will nail that job interview, I will have a super-awesome time when my in-laws visit – you can heighten your own optimism.

Naturally, doing good deeds will also turn up your happy dial. Not only will you get a helper’s high, thanks to that inevitable rush of endorphins, but we predict you’ll also have a brighter outlook on life. How can you not feel optimistic when your act of kindness has directly resulted in more research for leukemia, or a warm meal for a homeless person?

And now we know that you could be lengthening your life at the same time.

Super-awesome.

smilingolderwoman

This woman is feeling extremely optimistic that she’ll get the new Louise Vuitton stilettos she wanted for her 95th birthday. (Photo by Robson Oliveira/FreeImages.com)

St. Valentine Did Good Deeds

Today’s history lesson, folks, addresses the obscure origins of Valentine’s Day. I know these days you can ask Siri anything, but she might sass you, and we promise we won’t.

It appears there may actually have been more than one man in centuries past who had the name Valentine and ended up sainted in Christian tradition. The most likely contestant for the inspiration behind our modern-day holiday was a priest who,  around 270 A.D., refused to stop performing marriages for young couples.

Apparently, the Roman emperor at the time wanted all the eligible young bachelors to remain single so they wouldn’t be wimpy soldiers. He reckoned it’s hard to carry out a military offensive when you’re worried about getting killed in battle and leaving behind a family. Distracting!

So Emperor Claudius II, also known as Claudius the Cruel, signed the third-century equivalent of an executive order, banning marriages between young couples.

Valentine didn’t believe in thwarting young romance. So he continued to sneak around pronouncing people husband and wife. Good deeds in the name of love.

According to legend, the emperor had Valentine jailed and eventually executed. Not a pleasant finish, but it’s likely what led to February 14 being designated St. Valentine’s Day by the presiding pope in late-fifth century. Eventually, St. Valentine’s Day also became a day linked to love, and by the 1400s, people started celebrating the holiday by writing cheesy notes to their precious other halves.

The rest is history. No, wait, that part was history.

Is there someone you love? In honour of St. Valentine, such a great guy, be sure to reach out to the object of your affection. Take comfort in knowing no Roman emperor will divide you.

Happy Valentine’s Day. Love makes the world go ’round.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Photo by Hannah Chapman / Freeimages.com

All in the Family

You know that satisfying moment in Clue when you find out it was Colonel Mustard in the billiard room with the candlestick? When the mystery that has been dogging the players throughout the entire board game is finally cleared up? For Florence Heene of Belgium, her whole life has been a sort of game of Clue. And last week she finally solved the mystery.

It was Herbert Hellyer, in Ghent, with Florence’s mother.

Florence knows now that she is the daughter of Herbert Hellyer. But for the first 71 years of her life, she had no idea who her dad was. All she knew was that he was a Canadian soldier who’d been temporarily stationed in Ghent, Belgium, during World War II. She thought his first name was Herbert. Her mother got married to someone else when Florence was a baby, and in fact Florence didn’t even know the man raising her wasn’t her biological father until she found the marriage certificate and did the math.

Her mom was unwilling to tell her much. But Florence always yearned to know the truth about her roots.

This past January, she decided to spread the word as far as she could using social media, posting a couple of photos on Facebook along with what little information she had about her birth father. “It is my greatest wish to find out more about Herbert, my biological father: is he still alive or how and when did he die?” she wrote (in Flemish). “Do I have any other (half) brothers or sisters?”

As she was to discover, she has several.

After media picked up the story and circulated the photos worldwide, Herbert’s great-granddaughter in Canada recognized him. She found the matching photo in her mom’s stash of old pictures, and knew without a doubt it was the one-and-same Herbert.

The two families have now been in touch. Herbert, now deceased, had five other children besides Florence, and three of them are still alive. There are also other descendants, and they’ve been completely thrilled to hear about their newfound relative, and exchange messages with her. “It’s amazing, truly amazing,” a granddaughter told CBC news. “We hope to get to meet Florence some day… and try to give her as much information as we can, and welcome her into our family.”

Florence herself posted a note of thanks of Facebook, indicating that she’d received hundreds of messages from folks trying to help. She calls them all “lovely people.”

“We’re very excited. We’re all very happy,” says the granddaughter.

herbert

Herbert sent this photo to his Canadian kids while serving overseas, writing on it: “Love from Daddy, XXXXXX.” (Facebook Photo)

Help, and Hope

Just when you think humanity is headed down a deep hole in the ground, some anonymous angel comes along, and hands a remote northern community an enormous wad of cash to save the lives of their children.

Earlier this month, media reported that two beautiful 12-year-old girls in Wapekeka First Nation, Ontario, had taken their own lives. The young people here are at extreme risk for suicide, and the community had already submitted a request to Health Canada to fund urgently-needed mental health services. Specifically, they’d asked for 376,706.

At the time, they were told the money wasn’t immediately available – it had all been allocated to other projects. Their file would remain active while the government figured out how to fund it.

While the community waited, these two children died.

Emergency government support is now promised. But in the meantime, an unidentified soul has stepped forward with $30,000 in hand, and an I.O.U. for the rest of the almost $380,000 that’s needed.

The money won’t bring back Jolynn or Chantel, but hopefully it comes in time to save dozens of other young people. Help and healing can start.

Humanity to the rescue.

hibiscus

Only Sometimes Inspiring

I’m a fan of the TV show Speechless. The fact is, I was hooked from the pilot episode. This is probably the first time I’ve been treated to a prime-time sitcom that tells the truth about family life with a disability. When I say “telling the truth,” I don’t mean hiring able-bodied actors to pretend they know what it’s like (chances are, they don’t) to be blind or have a speech disorder or use a wheelchair, and exploiting stereotypes that further marginalize a group of people. (Here’s me giving you the side-eye, Glee creators.)

In one recent episode of Speechless, JJ – the character with a disability who is played by an actual actor with a disability – complains about “inspiration porn.” When another character asks what that means, JJ’s TV brother pipes up: “It’s a portrayal of people with disabilities as one-dimensional saints who only exist to warm the hearts and open the minds of able-bodied people.” That may sound preachy, but it’s made funny because it’s delivered in a sardonic tone by a teenager who has this dictionary definition of inspiration porn so well-rehearsed that he manages to explain it in six seconds flat. In other words, this TV family (and, by extension, everyone in audienceland living with a disability) has confronted it a bazillion times before.

Does that mean people with disabilities can never be inspiring? No. All it means is that they shouldn’t be portrayed as heroes simply because they took a breath today, and then another one and then another one after that. In my view, people are inspiring when they do or say amazing things in front of people who do not do or say those things. It’s not amazing, for example, that someone went to school today or chaired a business meeting or put on pants. Why put him or her on a pedestal just for living a normal life?

This weekend, I saw actual inspiration. I was at a disability-themed trade show filled with displays of wheelchair accessories and sports equipment and modified vans. Naturally, there were heaps of individuals with disabilities in the building. So it wasn’t unexpected to overhear a conversation between two of them while I washed my hands in the ladies’ room.

Both women were wheelchair users. Both were beautiful, stylishly dressed and with impeccable make-up. One was in her 30s, however, while the other was only about 20 and with her mom. From the way they spoke, it was clear that the younger woman was fairly new at disability. And it didn’t take long to realize that the older one was taking the time to educate and encourage her. “You can’t dwell on it, you have to go on with living your life,” the older one (who we’ll call Mentor) said. “That’s so true,” said Protégé, nodding vigorously. “Don’t limit yourself,” Mentor said. “Oh, I like that one,” Protégé’s mom piped up.

The women were all smiles, clearly delighted to be having this conversation. And why not? Mentor was taking the opportunity to make a difference. We all know how great that feels. Protégé was getting the chance to chat up a role model. Maybe she hadn’t, yet, been able to meet that many of them.

Mentor was inspiring. Protégé was inspired.

And that, in my opinion, is how inspiration works.

shakinghands

Photo by Photokanok / FreeDigitalPhotos.net