Friday, November 8, 2019

The Hardest Choice We've Ever Had to Make

Sometimes I share the happy news and sweep the hard stuff under the carpet, imagining you don't need or want to hear about it; sometimes I think I have to be real with you. My readers are a combination of friends, family, and strangers, and it's just weird. So today you get to read about my dog. And my heart is torn to pieces, so that's just the way it's going to be. A broken post. Today was the end of the hardest choice we've ever had to make.

We got Thuja because Markus' heart needed a dog. So we chose this one, the one who we found sleeping on her sister, who was curious about us; interesting and interested. He named her Thuja (two-ya), which is the Latin name for the family of trees that includes cedar. She was a Labrador Shepherd cross, and in the 16 months she lived with us, she grew enormous.

She reminded me of my first dog. I felt deeply loved and respected by our Thuja.
Thuja's first friend was our cat, Blackberry, who very purposefully taught her to play chase-the-cat and bravely instigated all sorts of  other fun games with her.
She loved Blackberry so much that she tried to share her favourite toy with her on a few occasions. The chewed, wet, slobbery Gordon was brought over to Blackberry and shoveled into her, as Blackberry sat patiently waiting for the disgusting thing to be removed again.

Gordon Lightfoot was Tali's toy horse from childhood, which he gifted to Thuja when we first brought her home. And Gordon was very dear to her. She loved to play what we called "soccer" with Gordon. Almost always with a blue ball, too. She kicked the ball with her own foot, and then held Gordon by the head and whacked it around with his legs.

Gordon didn't mind being whacked around. He was just a stuffed horse. And she cleaned his head and bum many times every day. So he was well looked after, even if he became very shabby and had a few surgeries.

Thuja was the smartest dog I've ever known. Yes, that really is Rhiannon teaching our puppy to draw. Our puppy wasn't just chewing the pen. Within one morning, Rhiannon taught Thuja to hold the pen properly in her mouth and drag it around the paper to make marks. Soon she could pick up a pen herself with the felt tip pointing down. She chose to hold her paws on the paper, herself, and once in a while she would look up and wait, and Rhiannon would exchange the pen in her mouth for one of a different colour. Then Thuja would draw again.

We have no idea what Thuja thought she was doing, but we have some drawings by our dog, now.
She could learn new skills like heeling, rolling over, fetch, drop the ball, and even drawing in just about three repetitions, but it took her many weeks to learn to let us hug her, or pick her up. She always growled when we picked her up, even from the moment we got her, and we didn't realize at the time that it was actually a sign of her deep and pervasive fear. As time went by, her fear-based aggression became more and more of a problem. We came to see that she was always on guard, always alert, and always ready to lunge or snap at whatever seemed out of place to her. This included everything from toddlers to seniors to other dogs, to us, even, when we didn't do what she wanted or expected.

She was terrified of many things. She never swam once in her life, even though she had webbed feet and was a member of a swimming family, including her dog-auntie, Kalea, who came to visit her every day and often tried to entice her for a swim in the pond.

Thuja loved Kalea, but she bit her so often and with such ferocity that Kalea, of her own choice, stopped coming to visit.

Thuja also had physical problems. She had allergies to all proteins other than fish, and at 10 months old broke and partially tore three ligaments in her knees, all at once while playing leisurely in the yard. She endured two surgeries in her short life, and each one made her more afraid. We took her to various trainers, including one of Vancouver's most highly regarded reactive dog specialists. He gave us many skills for working with our dominant aggressive dog, and we became much more confident about taking her out in public.

But the aggression continued to worsen - specifically the unpredictable aggression. After the very complex knee surgery and long recovery period, she needed to wear a muzzle to vet appointments, and became so dangerous that we were advised repeatedly to put our baby down, and/or buy liability insurance.

But we loved her. It's hard to reconcile the beautiful, thoughtful, loving friend who made our days feel so whole with the fearsome, shocking attacks that would happen periodically. During these incidents she didn't feel like the same dog, and as soon as they happened she was remorseful. After she snapped at people she loved, she would sulk for hours and sometimes days. I know that feeling. It's like the gut-wrenching guilt that hits me when I've yelled at my children and see them cringe. How could I fault her for something she regretted so deeply?

Sometimes we thought it was her intelligence that made her both so wonderful and so dangerous. Sometimes we wondered if her first few weeks had been traumatic for her, or if she had some kind of brain injury. We will never know. We did everything we could to keep her. We maxed our credit on veterinary and behavioural interventions. We lost friends and connection to our community in our efforts to help and keep this beloved member of our family, but when too many of our immediate family members were endangered by her, we had to concede that it was time to let her go. Finally, and with a really untellable amount of pain, we chose to put her down, and today we lost her.

Thuja is buried at the edge of the woods, deep in the ground with cedar boughs, her blue dinosaur, and Gordon. The children stayed home today, to say goodbye and help us dig, to lay the boughs on her and for Tali to tuck his old shabby Gordon up under Thuja's chin and between her limp paws, just where she liked him to be.

I'm writing this because I'm too sad to go to sleep. Today is still a day that I nuzzled my puppy's soft cheeks and felt her love for me. Today is still the day I heard her whimpering as we held her down and the last powerful sedative flooded her circulatory system. Today is still the day I told her I loved her and she gazed into my eyes with her own. Today is the last day I had this friend in my life. Tomorrow I have to begin the process of cleaning her hairs from the carpets, washing her many toys, and packing away what remains of her very short, traumatic, but loving life.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019


"Children are the most disrespected group of people in the world."

She turned her small face and looked at me intensely, maybe to see how I would react; maybe to be sure I heard her. She was one of a group of three teens who had just come through an installation about children's rights and left her comments behind. I hoped she felt respected by me as she walked out of the gallery.

And then it hit me: "Group of people." That's how we see them. We see them as separate from us until we judge them to be old, wise, or experienced enough to earn our respect - as adults. We determine their clothing, their food, their education and other activities, their freedom to come or go and quite often we even determine their friends and hobbies. They tell us their fears and hopes and great big plans and we pat them on the shoulders and ignore them; carry on with our lives. When do we look them in the face and ask them to tell us more? When do we ask their advice? When do we heed it?

I grew up and eventually returned to raise my kids on a small island. For longer than I've been alive, the teens from this island have boarded a ferry five or more days per week to attend school on the mainland. Unchaperoned. As a teen I got up at six-thirty, washed my hair under the tap, dressed, put on my makeup and left to walk to the ferry at seven. In the winter I arrived at the dock with my hair frozen like brown sticks around my face. Unlike some of the other girls, I did not push into the crowded washroom to fix it in the two tiny mirrors. I sat at the end of my age-group of kids, watching the same kids get beat up day after day, watching the animated conversation of some girls I wasn't friends with, picking at the Naugahyde seats and avoiding the splash of the food fights. I moved further down when people started bringing compost to throw.

Twenty minutes each way. Morning and afternoon. The ferry commute was a drag, and a shared ritual, and also the rocking, floating bridge between the confines of childhood and the expected freedom of adulthood. In the 80's we skipped school by going en masse to the mall first thing, then arriving at school before lunch to report that we were all late because the ferry was late. We sometimes argued about the ethics of how to accomplish this feat. We shared time every day, but we were individuals. We had different stories, different values, and different lives.

Our island also has a history of ferry exclusion. As a public-private entity, the ferry corporation has the right to ban people, and they have done so on various occasions that I remember. They banned a teenager in my grade for vandalism and mischief. He eventually took the ferry with a chaperone to attend school. They also banned our local petty criminal because the police thought it would do him good to get out of the community where he regularly slept in parked cars and picked drunken fights in public. It didn't help. Community members transported him back to the island in the trunks of their cars. My point is that these people, too, are individuals.

At various times we've had issues arise on the busiest ferry runs, like unidentified persons vandalizing the boat or flooding the toilets, and sometimes the first response is for the captain to make announcements to the teens. He tells them, as a group, to smarten up and behave themselves. He tells the adults on the next commuter run to rein in their children. Recently people in the community have been wondering aloud in public why teens (again, as a group) can't just behave themselves for twenty minutes at a time. Few, if any of us, know what the current transgression is, but we know it's been committed by teens. The captain has reportedly announced to our teens that if the unnamed incidents don't stop, the police will be involved and the surveillance footage will be reviewed. For me that crossed a line.

If criminal acts are being committed, it's perfectly reasonable to check surveillance footage and involve police. It's perfectly reasonable to expect people not to commit such acts, and to take steps to ensure that they stop. It is not, however, reasonable to reprimand, admonish, threaten and sometimes (as I have witnessed) deny service or civility to an entire group of people based on the premise that one or a few of them are suspected of having done something wrong.

When adults smoke on the ferry (which is wholly a no-smoking/no-vaping zone), they are asked to butt out. If they refuse, they are taken to the chief steward's office and spoken to, as individuals. I've seen this happen. I've stood at the chief steward's office while an adult smoker was being spoken to, and every effort was made to treat me with respect and provide me with service despite the fact that I, too, am an adult. The same can't be said for our teens' experience. Every teen is a suspect in some people's reasoning.

What do you think that does to a person? Imagine if every day you walked to work only to be eyed suspiciously at the door to the building, and every time a toilet overflowed, people called all the adults in the building together to reprimand them. How would you feel about using the toilet? Imagine if, when some person stole from the vending machine, they denied all adults access to the vending machines. Would you respect the people who judged you? Would you still care about upholding the values of your community if you weren't expected to uphold them anyway?

I'm responsible for denigrating teens as a group, too. When I was barely more than a teenager myself, a truck full of students from a nearby high school pulled up to my grandmother's lawn, dumped an assortment of fast food wrappers out the window, and drove off. A few years later, walking along our island road with my four-year-old son, we spied some litter in the ditch. He immediately shook his head and muttered grumpily, "ach... teenagers". I can't remember how I led him to that assumption, but I am certain I did. Now he's seventeen. He and his sister have somehow managed to get through a bunch of teenagehood without dumping their trash. Even more than navigating teen years myself, parenting teens has taught me to see them as individuals.

Teens are worthy of our attention as individuals. They are humans learning to be adults, and counting on our respect and exemplary modeling to help them navigate their surprising, sometimes frightening individual journeys. If we want them to see adults as individuals rather than a homogeneous, brooding group, we need to model to them how to do that. We need to see them, and we need to show them how seeing people is done well.

Some teens are children. They have an innocent wisdom not yet drawn out of them by the pressures of growing up. Some teens are also adults. They know their own minds and they know when they haven't done wrong. Some teens see us when we're wrong, and they know when we aren't hearing their voices. Some teens know when not to bother speaking up, because we've lumped them all into one disrespected group and we can't hear their individual cries. In fact, when teens report crimes committed by adults, they are often ignored.

It's time we look into the faces of the children and teens we pass and see them as simply humans. It's time we see them as individuals with wisdom, needs, values, and human rights. It's time we respect them.

*The handwritten statements accompanying this article were contributed by teens at a recent installation of a piece called "Building Blocks: What do you want the adults in your life to know and respect about you?"

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Ethical, Sustainable, Healthy Solutions for Halloween Fun

Tali and Rhiannon, 15 and 13, carving pumpkins together while I prepare our family's traditional roasted pumpkin seeds.
Here we are approaching Halloween again, and the stores are filled with cheap bags of candy, disposable plastic pumpkin-carving kits, cheap fall-apart costumes so our kids can wear the same thing their friends do, and all kinds of other commercialized junk to relieve us of our money painlessly. But as so many people say these days, cheap only means cheap for us - it also means somebody somewhere else is paying the price. If it's not the enslaved children in developing countries paying the price for our cheap chocolate, or the nameless, voiceless workers in factories producing costumes for western children while their own children languish in squalor, then it's our own children, in their own future, losing hope and life to a world destroyed by plastic and the "growth economy" that left us fallen.

Yeah it's bleak. And it's reality. So we can either fall into depression and carry on our miserable way, or we can change it. Here are my suggestions. These are mine, based on my own experiences, needs, and desires. But you'll have your own, and I hope you'll tell your friends about them, so that they too can be inspired to get creative and make Halloween (and every day) a beautiful, creative, hopeful one.

Tali (age 9) in his self-made astronaut costume.
Treats: There are lots of companies selling ethical chocolate, healthier candies, and little non-food trinkets to give out at Halloween. While these are certainly better than the over-packaged, slave-produced variety, they can be quite expensive. Some of my kids' favourite treats have been personal, given by neighbours who don't see many trick-or-treaters: giant fruits (a pineapple!!), special, fancy chocolates bought at our local artisan chocolatier, a pair of autumn gloves, and a horoscope forecast given by our neighbour who happens to be an astrologer.

I always love best when personal connection like this is possible, so I encourage more of us to get out and trick-or-treat locally. But I know that's not always possible, as kids want to get to the Halloween hot-spots with their friends. If you live in one of these hot-spots, or as we do, donate candy to your local hot-spot, there are still other options. These days there are so many kids who either can't eat candy for health reasons, or whose parents take the candy away in exchange for money, gifts, or fun activities, that it seems even more of a waste to buy these slave-produced crappy candies and then send them to the landfill. So how about something that is less likely to get thrown out? Fair-trade (or home-made) cotton friendship bracelets are still popular among some groups of kids. So are those little beaded safety-pins in some areas. Fun Halloween pencils or erasers are less likely to be thrown out, though often still made of plastic. And if we must go with candy, at least lets get something that's less packaged and fair-trade. It may take some extra shopping time to find our options, but I'm pretty sure it's worth it.

Costumes: This is a big one for me. I truly feel that all kids should be given supplies and creative freedom to create their own costumes, as soon as they're able to put on clothes. And these fabulous costumes need to be met with your admiration and good humour. For your entertainment, here is an ancient video of my then-two-year-old, who still hadn't figured out why I called him "you" but he should call himself "I". He was dressing up as the Dutch Sinterklaas, or (interchangeably) as "Uncle Ralph". Family members are of course the most natural thing for two year olds to choose to emulate!

Creativity is in sharp decline in our kids' culture, and we need to change this. Allowing kids to play with their clothing, including costuming, allows them to experiment with their identity, and this, along with encouragement and acceptance from teachers and parents, is of utmost importance in growing a healthy self-image. So instead of presenting our kids with the costume options from the local grocery or Halloween store, I suggest having a conversation over dinner about how we'd all dress up, and then how we can make those plans happen... using what we already have at our disposal, as much as possible. The process of figuring out how to create a costume ourselves is not only a creative opportunity, but also one for problem-solving, which we all know is an important skill. And fun! Recently during a family hike, our kids suggested my husband and I dress as Hagrid and Mme Maxime!! It was one of the funniest and most memorable outings we've had this month, due to the entertaining conversation. Now we just have to figure out how to make this happen.

Pumpkins: They're available for very little cash everywhere you go, as are the cheap little carving kits. Obviously I think growing our own pumpkins is awesome, not only because it gives our kids an understanding of how the pumpkins came to be, but also because it makes the whole experience so much more meaningful. I once managed to grow a pumpkin on my teeny tiny city balcony, but for some reason can't make a pumpkin plant grow in my big garden, these days, so I do recognise that growing-our-own isn't always an option. Still, if we're going to buy pumpkins, we can choose from good local farms, and (for our kids' sake) go pick our own pumpkins too. And for carving them, the best tools we've had are a regular kitchen paring knife (if the little plastic knife from the kit is sharp enough to cut the pumpkin, it's sharp enough to cut our kids' skin, too), a steel serving spoon (for scooping out), and an apple-corer and skewers for poking holes. Some of the greatest pumpkin carving experiences we've had have been communal - either with the family or with a group of friends. What a glorious thing to be elbow deep in pumpkin guts -- in community! ;-)

Happy Halloween, everybody. I'll be having our traditional Halloween pizza and then out gallivanting with my family... apparently including Hagrid.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

What Children Need Us to Know

Building Blocks:
What would you like the adults in your life to know and respect about you?
My current exhibit includes, as its central installation, this piece about children's rights. It's made of plastic clothing storage boxes, which I've covered in portraits of children, holding signs that state various answers to the question, What would you like the adults in your life to know and respect about you?

The children who contributed the answers for this sculpture range in age from 5 to 17, and the sculpture is interactive. Visitors to the installation are encouraged to put on white gloves and play with the cubes, rearranging again and again to make a vast assortment of different children.

The installation includes a small tray of black paper, where young visitors can write their own answers to the question. I've been hanging these answers around the installation as they appear.

These are the voices of our children - mostly anonymous children, and therefore everychild. These are the things that all children need us to know. They need us to shed our busy-ness, our righteousness and our preoccupations and hear their voices. And their voices keep coming. Let's be good listeners.