Saturday, November 21, 2015


I know that I cannot express my thoughts on the attacks in Paris one week ago more eloquently than many who have already spoken.  How much more simply and honestly can fear be expressed and then reconciled than in the conversation between Angel Le and his son?  How much more determination and grief can be conveyed than in the letter to ISIS of Antoine Leiris, who lost his wife at Bataclan?   Still, I am compelled to go on record.

Like the rest of the world, I have been appalled and grief-stricken.  What could ever spur any human being to execute scores of innocent people defies any explanation I can find.  Religious zeal, feigned or real, cannot account for it.  Nor can idealogical indoctrination explain acts that display the worst in humanity.  Left with incomprehension, I am trying to sift through the commentaires as well as the emotions, the values, the information and the misinformation shrouded therein.  Responses fall into three categories.

On one front, I hear aggression.  More violence.  French President François Hollande says France is at war.  His words remind me of the “war on terror” George W. Bush declared after the 9/11 attacks of 2001.  Fourteen years later, that war continues.   

In response to terrorist acts like the murders in Paris,  some individuals have opted to circle the wagons.  If suicide bombers killed Parisians, some conclude, then Syrian refugees are suspect, and immigration needs to be curtailed, if not stopped altogether.  Thirty-one American states will refuse refuge to Syrians.  Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall has called on Prime Minister Trudeau to “suspend your current plan to bring 25 000 Syrian refugees to Canada by the end of the year” and indicates that “Saskatchewan will be fully supportive of any delays in resettling Syrian refugees in order to ensure appropriate screening and security checks.”    Yet, two of the attackers are from Belgium, three from France, and one is a French resident of Belgium.   One may be a Syrian—a Syrian passport, yet to be authenticated,  was found next to his body.    The association of Syrians with terrorists contributes to xenophobia, however unwittingly.    In Canada, a mosque was set afire in Peterborough, and a Muslim woman attacked in Toronto.   Aggression elicits aggression in an infinite cycle of violence.

In contrast, rather than fear, I see courage and hope.  Parisians continue to frequent sidewalk cafés, and gather in public places.  A father tells his son that peace prevails:  terrorists might have guns, but others have flowers and candles.  In Regina, seventy-five people demonstrate in front of the Saskatchewan legislature in support of Syrian refugees.  A couple scales down their wedding so they can help strangers.   Calgary mayor Nenshi says the city is ready to accept up to 2 300 refugees.   Community and religious organizations moblilize to welcome groups of refugees in their midst.  These people refuse to allow the violence of deranged individuals to compromise their own values and ideals.  They refuse to become what they despise.    They realize that self-imposed restrictions on their way of life and their view of the world as a result of terror play right into the hands of ISIS, as Adam Taylor of the Washington Post writes in his column.  Like Antoine Leiris, they refuse to give ISIS that satisfaction.

Just yesterday, in a novel and lucid analysis on “Q”, Samira Ouadi, a Parisian social scientist, expressed her own views on terrorism.  She is particularly focused on the common traits of jihadists.  Not Islam, she says, nor culture.  Youth, she emphasizes.  The jidhadists are all young, very young.  The question, she says, is this:  “What are we doing to our youth so that a part of it feels that, to express its identity, it has to go that far?”   Disaffected youth, she suggests, neglected by their own societies, seek a future in terrorist groups.  Jihad is the new drug culture.

Out of all these sometimes disparate thoughts, a few things are clear.  I, too, must act.  So far, I have allowed my work as a teacher and my investment in my children to carry my duty to society.  Now, though, as a retired person, I must do more.  What can “more” look like?

·      Continue to invest in people:    youth, people in my own community facing challenges, and the refugee from abroad. 

·      Speak out.  Provide a perspective, share information, point out fallacies, remind myself and others of essential truths as I perceive them, whether  people agree or not.

·      Stay the course.  Choose trust tempered with awareness, not naiveté.  Be kind.  Be inclusive.  Stick to my travel plans.  Refuse to become hateful, or vengeful, or suspicious as a result of actions whose purpose is exactly to make me hateful, vengeful, and suspicious, and to use examples of that hate, vengeance and suspicion as evidence to support horror.

I have a voice.  I have time.  I have abilities.  To be on record, my actions must complement my words. 

Thursday, November 5, 2015

I can’t tell anymore whether I’m at a concert or a play.  Drinks in hand and clustered around round tables dispersed through the auditorium, the audience is rapt.  I, too, am spellbound.  Ken Lavigne’s sonorous tenor voice captivates me.

The voice certainly works its magic through mellow and tender renditions of “Loch Lomond” or “Bring Him Home.”  It forges a bond with the audience just as much, however,  through sincere and dramatic accounts of challenges and epic moments in the singer’s career, accents and modulation included.  The music might make time stand still, but the stories create the relationship that freezes the moment.

Narrative has power.  Examples abound. 

·      After his election as Liberal leader in 2012, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau listens to the stories of Canadians from coast to coast to coast, in church basements, living rooms, and small halls.  The sense of the country’s pulse the stories of Canadians give him serve him well in the campaign.

·      Students tell a vice-principal how much they value the early morning pre-class conversation time they have with their teacher.

·      The father of a teen hockey star lost to a drug overdose retells the story to as many groups of adolescents as he can manage.

·      Siblings of a suicide victim  share their healing process with grieving families who can benefit from the experience of others.

·      A First Nations Elder teaches with stories of his own life and that of his people. 

·      An aspiring quarterback seeks out the stories of his star mentor, stories that might be his own one day.

·      A refugee recounts his harrowing flight from Eritrea at age seventeen.    Sent away with his brother by a mother fearful for her sons’ lives, he journeyed through Sudan and Libya before arriving in Canada.  Although the events occurred thirty years ago, the protection and welcome he came to know here in Saskatchewan still move him to tears.

·      First Nations men, hands in their pockets, meet the gaze of the folk in their small audience. Intent and matter-of-fact, they share the story of their imprisonment and their resolve to redirect their lives.

·      At a social justice conference, a speaker reminds his audience that the core of social justice is making time to listen to people’s stories.   And, really, why would it not be?  The act of listening tells another that he/she matters.

So what is it about stories that gives them such power?

Stories console.  They remind us that others have trod the path we are on, that they emphathize, and that we can benefit from their experience.

Stories affirm, and on many levels.  That someone will take the time to listen to our story recognizes our worth as persons.  We matter.    In our own listening, we affirm them as persons.   They matter.  In addition, their stories can be a mirror of our own experiences as well as a window into worlds we might never otherwise know as intimately or at all. 

Stories teach.  They honour the ability of people to draw their own conclusions.  They honour the dignity of the individual.

Stories heal.  Their subtlety is balm for soul.   The listener finds community.  For the teller, the experience, like that of Samuel Tayler Coleridger’s mariner, is cathartic :

Forthwith this frame of mine was wrenched
With a woful agony,
Which forced me to begin my tale;
And then it left me free.

The confession restores the soul.

Stories build relationships.   When they recount experiences, people offer each other the most precious possessions they have—their time and their selves.  The more personal the anecdote, the more intimate and lasting the bond, especially in the case of a confidence safeguarded.   

It should come as no surprise, then, that a singer’s storytelling talents would captivate an audience as much as the music.  For both the storyteller and the listener, stories mesmerize and heal.