Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Just Show Up is Under Construction

I'm handing over the reins of Just Show Up to an exceptionally talented crew at Ideal-Way.

Please, if you have a moment, we would appreciate your ideas, comments, or suggestions on what to include in future entries.

Thank you, all, for taking the time to visit Just Show Up. I've enjoyed the whole blogging experience - especially the wonderful conversations I've had with you, the reader! - and I'm grateful that we have a dedicated group of people who are eager to wield a paintbrush, scalpel, and carving tool. I can't wait to see the refurbished Just Show Up!

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Brain Power

The other day, my husband and I decided to play hooky. It was a perfect day - a robin's egg blue sky, with faint smudges of cloud - the kind of day that makes it easy to be grateful. As we chatted, reminiscing about the first time we met, it struck me that except for a couple of times in my life, I have always possessed the power of speech. Speaking has always been as effortless as breathing, and I was suddenly filled with a deep gratitude for this gift.

Well, no doubt my epiphany was partly the result of reading 'My Stroke of Insight', by Jill Bolte Taylor, a moving account of one woman's journey into a "world between worlds." In the space of four hours, the author was unable to speak, read, write or recall any of her life. As Taylor said, her stroke essentially left her severely mentally ill, without the ability to articulate her thoughts or feelings to the outside world.

A few months ago, I watched a video about Carly, a severely autistic and developmentally delayed teenage girl, who up until a couple of years ago was unable to communicate with the rest of the world. Unable to speak, she took matters into her own hands, and slowly began to type her thoughts into a computer. The computer was a portal into a world where communication is possible. For a girl who had never uttered a word in her life, this was freeing.

Carly revealed to the world how it feels to be autistic. For the first time, Carly was no longer being talked at - she was taking the reins and sharing her story. Carly's father expressed gratitude that they were able to provide a means for her to not only speak, but communicate with others. Until then, no one around her knew how she felt about anything. Why she habitually hits herself, or makes odd noises, for example. Her family members were desperate to get a glimpse into Carly's interior world. Typing slowly, she revealed how she wanted to be treated, and explained that "it's hard because no one understands me." The computer became her voice and the message she sent was simple: Never give up.

Last Sunday, I thought of Carly as I watched 'Brain Power,' a segment on 60 Minutes. At 40, Scott Makler was diagnosed with ALS. Unlike Carly, Scott is unable to type, but just like her, he is unable to speak. Now, believe me, I know as much about neuroscience as I do football (read, next to nothing). So I couldn't quite wrap my mind around the sight of a man seated in front of a computer, wearing a cap studded with white circles, eerily reminiscent of 'Brainstorm'.

Scott Makler's brain was directly connected to the computer, and the white circles (electrodes) picked up faint electrical signals from his brain and relayed them to the computer. The computer flashed random letters on a screen, and Scott concentrated on each letter, finally creating whole sentences. The computer revealed Scott Makler's thoughts, allowing him to once again communicate with those around him. His wife said, "he's happier now." This new technology has given him back his independence.

It begs a question: What could this new technology mean for an intellectually, as well as physically disabled person? It saved Scott Makler's life, literally. Before having his brain hooked up to a computer, Scott had made a decision. He would never use a ventilator to help him breathe. Now that he is able to go to work, and communicate his needs, wants, and dreams to his family, he is on a ventilator. "I can communicate with them now," was his answer when asked why he changed his mind.

As an autistic adult wrote in his blog, This Way of Life, "speaking isn't what is important - communication is. Besides the differences in the actual mechanics of speech, there are also the problems I have communicating my desires and needs. It is very, very difficult for me to ask a simple question such as, "Can you turn down the TV?" I might be near meltdown, due in part to a loud TV, but I can't actually communicate a need that I have. This is why developing communication is so much more important than developing speech."

Perhaps my gratitude for the ability to speak should also encompass all of the technology-based tools that exist at this time. For as Carly and Scott Makler observed, it's all about staying connected with those around you, by whatever means are available.

Watch CBS Videos Online

Sunday, November 2, 2008

So You Want to Be an Actor?

Kaleidoscope Theatre (taken from here)

Acting is one of the most competitive industries in the world. If you are developmentally disabled, and putting on plays for family and friends just doesn't cut it, then how would you go about making your dream a reality? Last week's post got me thinking about the type of person who simply won't take no for an answer. Diane Dupuy, founder of Famous PEOPLE Players, believes that everyone has a creative core within them just waiting to be mined. In 1974, she was determined to share her dream with the rest of the world. For six months, she battled against naysayers, who repeatedly told her, "You simply don't understand that they are not capable of doing the kind of work you describe."

Daniel Day Lewis said, "The thing about performance, even if it's only an illusion, is that it is a celebration of the fact that we do contain within ourselves infinite possibilities."

Gail Williamson, the Executive Director of the Down Syndrome Association of Los Angeles, spends her downtime fighting for the rights of performers with Down syndrome and other disabilities. "You can't take 'no' as the final answer," Williamson said. And so, she set out to create an online service to locate talent with developmental disabilities. The Down Syndrome in Arts & Media Website "connect casting directors with actors, but event planners will be able to find public speakers and entertainers, set decorators will be able to find visual artists with unique one of a kind art, and publishers will be able to find poets and writers, all who have DS or other developmental disabilities."

Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts is working to increase awareness and "enhance opportunities for people behind the scenes as well, such as all the talented disabled writers, directors, editors, etc. whose talents often go unrecognized." One member said, "It's ambitious, but it's shocking we aren't better represented in today's world."

But if your heart is set on being on the other side of the footlights, there are avenues open for developing your gift. DramaWay, an organization based in Toronto, Ontario, provides innovative drama programs for those with special needs. Danielle Strnad, founder of DramaWay, was inspired to create a place where people of all abilities are encouraged to explore their creative potential. "Using dramatic techniques, participants are led down the paths of discovery. Participants are given the opportunity to engage in drama and other art forms." DramaWay helps aspiring actors to explore the process of creation, for it is the creative journey, itself, that leads to personal growth. They "believe that drama allows everyone the opportunity to connect with others in their community, and to learn about themselves while doing so." Workshops and structured sessions are offered, all in the name of improving social skills, increasing self-confidence, and enhancing communication.

In the U.K., The Kaleidoscope Theatre was founded almost 30 years ago, the first theatre company of its kind. The founders "have a passion for theatre, because they believe in high standards of performance and in quality of life and, above all, because they have a love and high regard for one another." Most of the performers have Down syndrome.

All but five of 41 cast members of Jerry's Habima Theatre, in Atlanta, Georgia, have developmental disabilities. One of the actors in this year's show said, "It's challenging every day to do things. But this shows people with disabilities 'you can do it.' " Don't take no for an answer.

For more information, go to:

Theatre companies:

Wild Swan Theatre

Performing arts organizations:

The Centre for the Arts in Human Development, Faculty of Fine Arts of Concordia University
Heart and Halo Talent
Performers with Disabilities

In the News:

Down Syndrome and the Acting Gene, BellaOnline
Film with Down syndrome cast tweaks taboos - “What Is It?"
‘Rising Stars’, L.A. Times

Drama Therapy:

Dramatherapy Network

Friday, October 24, 2008

Famous PEOPLE Players

Famous PEOPLE Players founder Diane Dupuy. (Image copyright Famous PEOPLE Players)

Every year, it's the same thing. I start my Christmas shopping early, usually right after the kids make their way back to school. I do this for the same reason most early-bird shoppers are pounding the pavement, or rather the floors, of every mall in a 100-mile radius, right after Labour Day. There's a veritable smorgasbord of the choicest merchandise, coupled with the heady pleasure of shopping without the nail-biting anxiety of being stampeded on the way to the checkout counter.

Over the next few months, I spend countless hours second-guessing my choices, finding fault with almost every item. Miraculously, this year, I managed to avoid all that nonsense, and was amazed that perfectly acceptable gifts fell like manna from the sky. There's only one person standing in the way of my victory dance. My mother. She has told me more than once that the last thing an 80-year-old woman needs is more stuff. So, forsaking the usual trek to the mall, I went online, instead. My mother has a passion for live theatre. Why not give her the gift of a night out on the town? I reasoned.

After pouring over dozens of websites, I finally spotted the perfect gift: The Famous PEOPLE Players Dine and Dream Theatre. I've never had the pleasure of sitting in a darkened theatre to watch a black light puppet show, and neither has my mother, I'm certain. My curiosity piqued, I began to excavate the world of FPP. (One of my first finds was a blog that included a reference to "this video about Famous PEOPLE Players, arguably Canada's most successful puppetry troupe.") My knowledge of FPP was sketchy, at best. Thanks to Special People, a Canadian TV-movie I saw over 20 years ago, I do know that a young social worker (Diane Dupuy) had a Big Dream. Armed with little more than drive and ambition, her mission was to create something that would scream to the world, "Our lives have meaning and we can do anything!"

A unique black light theatre was born, providing the perfect backdrop to "integrate the developmentally challenged into society by toughening and strengthening our people to prepare them for the outside world." Dupuy was on fire to create a non-profit organization which would employ people with physical and mental disabilities. "Those individuals share duties in dining room management, arts administration, and theatrical and visual arts performances."

More than simply providing employment for the developmentally disabled, Dupuy set out to "promote, educate, and train them for the Famous PEOPLE Players dinner theatre and instill in the hearts and minds of everyone that dreams can come true when you believe in yourself." Dupuy was a force to be reckoned with, and although faced with tremendous pressure to give up on her dream, she forged ahead.

She walked the walk, and in her motivational speeches, she encourages all of us to "Dare to Dream, Reach for Excellence, and Believe in Yourself." For Dupuy, these are not just empty words, but a call to take action against indifference, intolerance, and resistance to change.

Famous PEOPLE Players is living proof that there are no limits to our creative reach, our dreams have no boundaries, and anything is possible if you dare to think outside the box.

We all have the potential to work magic in the lives of others, but we need to work as a team. "If you want to make a stand, help others make a stand, and if you want to reach your goal, help others reach their goal. Consider yourself and treat others accordingly." Confucius.

Famous PEOPLE Players would have remained a pipe dream had it not been for Dupuy's belief that the larger community is deprived of immeasurable gifts when the intellectually disabled are excluded from it.

It's based not too far from me, in Toronto, Ontario, and tours around the world. Christmas is right around the corner, as my kids never fail to remind me. For now, I can put my feet up on the coffee table and relax. On Christmas Day, my mother will not be opening yet another dust collector destined for the crawlspace. Instead, she'll be looking forward to a trip downtown, where she and I will sit in a darkened theatre watching a premier black light theatre company light up the room.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

One Person at a Time

"Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings." Nelson Mandela

Every now and again, I pull out my clay jar. I've been working on it for most of my life, and I suspect it'll never be done. I started it when I was a child. Since then, my jar has undergone many changes. Thanks to many hours of painstaking, backbreaking work, my clay jar has morphed from a tiny lumpen mass of brown goop to a breathtaking vision of loveliness.

I've shaped, molded, and finally perfected my jar. Or at least, my vision of it is clear and unobstructed. Now, as I stand back and survey my creation, my fingers get itchy again. Scratching the surface isn't good enough. I need to get into the corners and scour deep within it. After all, this is my Dream Jar Secret Hiding Place. Kind of like the jars you keep in your kitchen that hide money or important documents. Only, this jar contains my Big Dream.

In an earlier post, I talked about my penchant for performing in front of my bedroom mirror. But, like my imaginary tiny lump of clay, the dream of being a stage performer was really the first blush of a much grander fantasy. When it comes right down to it, all of us just want to do something of substance. We want to make a difference in the world.

Well, today is Blog Action Day - a day when over 7,000 bloggers will unite to "stand up against poverty," so to speak. It's an initiative to "change the conversation." To change the tired voice within that whispers in one's ear, "Me? What can one person possibly do to change the world?"

On October 17-19, 2008, Stand Up Against Poverty - International Day for the Eradication of Poverty will be in full swing. "This year, the main focus of Stand Up is Take Action, to ensure governments worldwide hear our demands to end poverty and inequality. Last year, more than 76,000 Canadians took part in more than 500 Stand Up events across the country. They were part of a mobilization against poverty that had more than 43 million participants worldwide."

I read that "a number of surveys have found that children at the lower end of the socio-economic scale had poorer health and developmental outcomes than children in the middle, and that children at the top of the socio-economic scale had better results still." In developing countries, "98% of children with disabilities receive no education, and 26 million people with an intellectual disability live on less than $1 a day."

Sometimes our knee-jerk reaction is to pull back in horror. "It's too big...too pervasive...so what in the world will it matter if one person performs one action?" I can hear my own voice whimpering in the dark, the covers pulled over my head.

"Simplify, simplify," said Thoreau. "One step, one action, today, is all it takes!" What is the one step, one action, I could begin putting into motion? If I have a passion for children - specifically special needs children - but I'm overwhelmed, confused, frozen in place by too much information, maybe I could join an organization that's focused on helping to change attitudes, to educate, and positively improve, mainstream social attitudes. Group lobbying, or sending out e-mails, faxes, letters to the government. Give blood, or organize a free lunch/food distribution. Many organizations have campaigns that focus on making poverty history. The Stand Up Against Poverty website has a list of "actions/activities aimed at development/welfare; petitions and communications/popular education; and mass action/popular mobilization/dissent."

As for me, my clay jar is only half full, I realize. I still have a long way to go, and time is running out. Today, though, I can take one step. It's time to "take action to end poverty and inequality, one person, one step, one heart, at a time."

(See also Poverty in Canada: The New Reality Facing Canadians
Dawn Ontario Disabled Women's Network Ontario
Grow Up Free from Poverty

This post is a part of Blog Action Day '08 - Poverty

Friday, October 3, 2008

Dare to Live a Life of Adventure

I can remember biting my nails down to the stubs when my 15-year-old daughter went on a mountain climbing expedition in British Columbia, scaling frighteningly high peaks with other equally hardy members of Outward Bound. My nails got a little bit shorter when she later battled the Dumoine River on a whitewater canoe trip. And then again when she eschewed skiing in favour of snowboarding. On moguls. At night. I guess I should be grateful bungee jumping "from the skid of a helicopter into the gaping maw of a bubbling active volcano" isn't on her 'Top 30 Things to Do Before You Hit the Big 3-0' list.

Of course, I want my grown children to know one thing: life is meant to be an adventure, not an endurance test, or a game of mere survival. So one part of me is thrilled when they dare to seize the moment, inviting risk, change, and possible failure into their lives. This is every mother's nightmare, and yet every mother's dream for her children.

Over the years, I tried not to discourage my kids' desire to push the envelope, even when my motherly instincts were on high alert, and all I wanted to do was go back in time, back to a time when they were never out of my sight. But children who choose to colour outside the lines often show a greater than average amount of creativity, imagination, and courage. So, more often than not, I lifted my chin, threw back my shoulders, and learned to applaud their walks on the wild side. Besides, ever-so slightly dangerous sports were a perfect outlet for the adventure-seeking streak in them.

There is now an unprecedented array of activities for thrill seekers - and for people with disabilities, there are plenty of opportunities for experiencing high-challenge sports. According to AccesSport America, whether it's soccer, or skiing, water sports, such as "windsurfing, kayaking, rowing/sculling, outrigger canoeing, surfing, water-skiing, or kite sailing, or rock/wall climbing, tennis, and cycling, the aim is to create higher function and fitness for children and adults of all disabilities through high-challenge sports. Programs are designed to promote each person's highest physical and athletic potential while cultivating social and emotional well-being. They seek to create a community where differences are diminished, blurred and often erased."

As I watched a news report about a ski program for children with Down syndrome, autism, etc., and read about a man with Asperger's who swam across Lake Ontario, and the three men with autism that scaled Wales' highest mountain, it got me thinking about what it takes to climb a mountain, battle raging rapids, or windsurf across the water at full speed.

Aside from the joy and sense of accomplishment they derive from mastering a new skill, adventure seekers of all abilities experience the high of constantly pushing beyond one's supposed limitations. They are living their lives with gusto, and doing it from the heart. Sure, it's a cliche that life is not a dress rehearsal. This is the main event, etc. But people of all abilities just want to be included in this joyride called life. Life is short. So, as for me, I'm kicking up my heels, strapping on my skiis, and paddling through thrilling rapids. Yeee-ha!

Friday, September 26, 2008

Horse Therapy

I can count the number of times I've been on a horse. Truth be told, I've never been on one. A few years ago, my youngest daughter took horseback riding lessons. I stayed as close as I dared while she rode the horse picked out for her, but I was never tempted to scale the mighty mountain of a horse.

Even as a child, when I crouched under my bedcovers and read Black Beauty into the night, or years later, as I breathlessly watched Robert Redford effortlessly work his magic in The Horse Whisperer, I was determined that "East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet."

My daughter, thankfully, had no such reservations about hopping up on one of these magnificent beasts. As I tiptoed around them, she learned everything she could about the care and feeding of horses. She cleaned their hooves, spent countless hours brushing them down, and in no time at all, she was able to prepare a horse for riding in a matter of minutes.

I stood in awe as she even managed to win a battle of wills with one particularly rebellious stallion. In the end, they became fast friends. This shouldn't have come as a surprise. The horse is a social animal, forming strong bonds with members of its herd. As I stood at a safe distance, it became obvious, too, that horses possess almost a sixth sense, picking up on subtle social cues. If my daughter was feeling 'blue,' her new best friend dropped his rebel-without-a-cause routine and became gentler with her.

As a result, her self-esteem increased dramatically during the years she spent with him. She grew into a confident woman, devoid of body image issues, and always eager to climb another mountain.

I found it interesting, therefore, to read that "riding horses can help the disabled physically, by strengthening muscle tone and learning balance. But, riding also increases self-confidence and awareness of one's body, according to those involved in horse therapy programs." Hippotherapy (the word 'hippotherapy' comes from the Greek 'hippos,' meaning horse and 'therapy,' meaning care. Thus, hippotherapy is the utilization of the horse for therapeutic purposes rather than equestrian goals. Source: The Canadian Therapeutic Riding Association) "may also affect psychological, cognitive, behavioural and communication functions for clients of all ages. Clients who may benefit from hippotherapy can have a variety of diagnoses: examples include cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, developmental delay, traumatic brain injury, stroke, autism, and learning or language disabilities."

In combination with other therapeutic treatments, such as music or art therapy, service dogs, occupational therapy, intense early intervention (Applied Behaviour Analysis), speech therapy, and physical therapy, just to name a few, horse therapy can sometimes achieve amazing results.

My daughter asked me recently if I'd be interested in taking riding lessons with her. Maybe it's time to befriend my own Black Beauty, and take a page from others who have benefited from the deep connection they've forged with horses. Time to get off my high horse, for who knows, maybe this will be another golden opportunity for another mother-daughter bonding experience.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Art as Healer

Neil MacDonald

I have a confession to make. I still get a kick out of getting down and dirty with anything resembling goopyness. Whether it's Playdo, cookie dough, or good old-fashioned mud from the garden, I'm in heaven. Not that my creative urges are expressed through the medium of art - my inner editor continues to slink in the room whenever it sniffs out a primal urge to throw paint on canvas - but there's something...well, fun about letting go of my daily to-do list and allowing the kid in me to play.

My daughter and I took a beginner's art class together last year. We chose to do this because as grownups, neither one of us had dared to bare our souls on paper via the paintbrush. But there's something exhilarating about throwing on an old shirt and letting the paint fly. (Literally. I went through three of my best pants before finally realizing paint is like a heat-seeking missile homing in on 'dry-clean only' fabric.)

It turned out to be not only a wonderful mother-daughter bonding experience, but a golden opportunity to recapture a little of our childhoods. In short, we had fun. After we were able to escort our Inner Saboteurs out the door, we relaxed and let go of the outcome. It didn't matter that we didn't create works of art fit to hang in the National Gallery of Canada. We felt an immediate sense of fulfillment, and a desire to try more new things.

In the same way, art therapy is a healing, creative process for the intellectually disabled. According to the Ontario Art Therapy Association, "art is the tool for communication, self-examination and healing. As well, the creative act, in itself, can be healing." To immerse oneself in the creative process is to open a portal to another world, where it is easier to express one's feelings. It's a safe place, and just as music therapy is used to increase self-esteem, communication skills, and social interaction, art therapy is another tool used by a skilled therapist to encourage the intellectually disabled to explore their inner world.

"Some remarkable art has come from people with autism of all levels. They can communicate fluently what is hard for them to put into words." (See Daniel Muller and Adrian Tarpey, for example.)

Ideal-Way.ca announced their 1st Annual Art Contest last week, for any persons with an intellectual disability living in Ontario. As I read that "judging by the Awards Panel will be chaired by Andrew Hamilton, Canadian landscape painter," I imagined what it would feel like to give the Inner Editor the heave-ho and submit one's work to the scrutiny of others. Exciting, exhilarating, powerful, I thought.

By encouraging the intellectually disabled to explore their creativity through art, and therefore giving them a place to heal and grow, we are giving them an opportunity to dare to dream.

For more information on art therapy, go to: The Canadian Art Therapy Association
Art Therapy in Canada
Re-Visioning Therapeutic Services
Art Therapy & Autism
Autism Teaching Tools
Kerry's Place Autism Services
Art Now for Autism

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Music is the Key

My brother fell in love when he was only ten years old. In fact, it was love at first sight. The moment he set eyes on his Christmas gift that year, there was no looking back. His first guitar opened up a whole new world for him, and he would play for hours, lost in another world. Nothing much has changed. He still locks himself in his room and enters a world where unspeakable joy threads its way through his fingers and into the strings of his guitar. Nothing else can lift him from the doldrums like an hour spent strumming on his handmade acoustic guitar. It was, and still is, a place to go when he needs to fill his tank. But it's more than that: music feeds his soul, nourishes every part of him, and when he dips his hand in the well of creative exploration, his spirit expands and lets in more light.

Of course, he would wave away my poetic ramblings. "It just makes me feel good, that's all, pure and simple," he would say.

For one breathless moment, there are no need for words, no expectations, either from the outer world or himself, and when he's on stage, he experiences a deeper connection with others.

It should come as no surprise, then, that his son, Christian, is a gifted drummer. Already, at eight years old, he has knocked the socks off of older, more experienced drummers. "How did he learn to play like that?" they ask. His father merely shakes his head and says, "I don't know, he just picked up the sticks one day, and away he went!"

Christian has autism, and according to the Autism Canada Foundation, "it has been noted time and again that autistic children evidence unusual sensitivities to music. Some have perfect pitch, while many have been noted to play instruments with exceptional musicality."

Which begs the question: Why is music therapy so effective in unlocking doors that have hitherto been closed within a developmentally, emotionally, or physically challenged person? Well, "music unlocks abilities" within a person. A trained music therapist will carefully assess the person and determine his or her particular needs and strengths. By creating a safe environment, where words are unnecessary, improvisation is encouraged, and creativity is given room to flourish, amazing things unfold. A nonverbal child speaks for the first time, or makes eye contact, for example.

Who benefits from music therapy? For those with acquired brain injury, autism, and other developmental disabilities, music can give them permission to explore their creativity, and an open space to communicate and interact with others.

"Music can heal. It can do more than ease the pain. It can throw a lifeline to kids who can't be reached in any other way." Paul McCartney

To learn more about music therapy, check out the Canadian Association for Music Therapy (CAMT Conference 2009, A Song for Everyone: The Voice of Music Therapy, May 7-9, 2009); Canadian Music Therapy Trust Fund; the Laurier Centre for Music Therapy Research; and OnWellness.info.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

The Magic of Dogs

I woke up this morning with a bad taste in my mouth. The familiar aftertaste of a recurring dream that won't leave me alone. It has dogged me all my life, pardon the pun. I'm back in school, lost in a maze of institutional-grey hallways. I enter a classroom, only to realize that an exam is underway. Of course, I haven't prepared for it, and since I had skipped most of the classes, I don't stand a chance of passing what amounts to a matter of life and death.

I'm aware that this dream is as common as hen's teeth, shared by most of the population of the world, but still...it's my dream, filled as it is with the anxiety of not measuring up, of failing at something critical to one's survival. And I'd really rather not revisit those agonizing moments spent staring out of countless windows and dreaming I'm on the other side of them.

No doubt this dream was pulled from my dream repository because it's the first week of school. As I lay in bed, the covers pulled up to my chin, a memory flooded back, complete with all the sights and sounds I'd managed to store away...deep in the coffers where all bad memories molder. I'm standing in the schoolyard, outside the kindergarten class, holding onto my mother's hand. It's the first day of school, the first day I'd ever been away from my mother's comforting presence. I'm rooted to the spot, my brand spanking new Mary Janes and pastel green Sunday best dress not providing the usual solace.

I stare fixedly at the door, as if waiting for the train to make its way down the tracks at High Noon. An odd cage-like area attached to the classroom reminds me of the neighbour's dog pen. I want my mom to go in with me, but since that's clearly not in the cards, I settle for Blackie, our gangling black Labrador retriever. I imagine him fitting his paw through my arm and escorting me into the classroom, like a gentleman from a bygone era escorting a lady in to dinner.

It would have been nice, as the class sat on the floor in a semicircle, to lean into Blackie, allowing him to take the weight of my anxiety. I knew enough not to ask. Dogs weren't allowed anywhere, least of all in the hallowed halls of a public school.

Later, as I read of the families battling for the rights of their autistic children, I thought of how Blackie could have helped me over the initial hurdle of the dreaded first day, and how service dogs are able to ease children with autism into potentially stressful situations, relieving their fears and providing a safe harbour.

My golden retriever nudges me with his nose as I sit at the keyboard. I should have named him Nana, like the Newfoundland dog in Peter Pan, for he fills all the requirements of a nurse. I can see why golden retrievers are a popular choice for dog services such as Autism Dog Services and National Service Dogs. The dogs undergo rigorous training, and at the end of the day, are more than a companion for children with autism and other special needs. The dogs have a calming effect, and allow the children to connect with people. Some children become more verbal, sleep through the night for the first time in years, and, more importantly, achieve a sense of belonging. The dogs are an endless font of unconditional love, a safe haven in a world that is not always accepting of who you are.

Call it 'magic', if you like, but the fact remains: service dogs help to "build bridges...a pathway to inclusion for persons with intellectual disability", through a mysterious connection with their charges.

They clearly have a powerful impact on the lives of thousands of children. Even as some school boards are banning service dogs from school premises, there are stories of dogs accompanying families on trips to the grocery store, and one dog went along for the ride when a family visited Disney World.

A little magic goes a long way. So for the sake of those children who find it easier to navigate through life with a Nana by their side, let's open all the doors in our communities. Bob Dylan said it best: "The slow one now will later be fast...and the first one now will later be last. For the times they are a-changin'."

Friday, August 29, 2008

I Have a Voice

One of my favourite things to do is sit on the deck and read a good book. I can't get enough of books, sometimes juggling two or three at a time. A murder mystery is in my car (it's unthinkable to sit in a waiting room without the latest P.D. James tome to distract me from an impending dreaded root canal); my old standby, Pride and Prejudice, graces my end table in the bedroom, and dozens more are scattered throughout various rooms in our house.

Books have always been a comforting presence in my life, as well as a pleasurable way to pass the time. Oh, let's face it, some women experience the 'thrill of the hunt' when shopping for shoes, or bling. I get the same tingles all over my body when I enter a bookstore or a library.

Thankfully, I've been blessed with opportunities to sit down with other book addicts and spend countless hours mulling over the good, the bad, and the just plain ugly in every great opus.

Imagine my excitement, then, when I read that a book club was developed exclusively for the intellectually disabled? According to Newsday, "five years ago, with the help of like-minded advocates and the Port Washington Public Library, (a mother of a Down syndrome man) formed Books for Dessert, a book club - thought to be the only one of its kind on Long Island - for adults with intellectual disabilities."

"People have always assumed that people like Jamie don't really have opinions on anything remotely complex," said his mother, Nancy Comer. "They're just expected to work and be happy."

Another book club was created in Ohio, called the Next Chapter Book Club. It was "founded in 2002 at Ohio State University's Nisonger Center and now has more than 100 chapters across the country (the U.S.)," said program director Tom Fish."

Hmmm, that's all well and good for those who are lucky enough to reside in areas close to these book clubs, but what about those people who live in the boonies, or for that matter, don't happen to live in the United States?

The more I read about this wonderful opportunity, the more I itched to create the same thing, here, in Canada. I reflected on how book clubs allow the participants to create a social network, and as Fish said, "even though people with intellectual disabilities are living with greater frequency in their community, that doesn't mean they're part of the community."

After Googling everything under the sun, I finally struck gold. "Seek and ye shall find," as my mother drilled into us as children. The Down Syndrome Research Foundation (DSRF) recently announced they're bringing the Next Chapter Book Club to Canada, albeit British Columbia. However, after checking out the contact list on the Chapter Book Club site, I found a contact name in Erie County, Ontario. Eureka!

I liked the site. It's warm, friendly, and doesn't talk down to the reader. And I liked the fact that "unlike any other book club, the Next Chapter Book Club provides adolescents and adults with intellectual disabilities the opportunity to read and learn to read, talk about books, and make friends in a fun, community setting. Next Chapter Book Clubs meet weekly in local bookstores and cafes to read and discuss books of their choosing. NCBC members range from those who read well to those who do not read at all."

If your local town or city doesn't have a book club, why not start up your own club? Adapted classics are available at every bookstore, or can be purchased online. As one member said, "I like coming here because I like to read history...and I like this group. I'm alive, and I feel great being here."

It doesn't have to be a book club, of course. How about an art club, or a crafts club? The list is endless. Let's just open the gates of our communities, and invite the intellectually disabled in. Give them a place where their voices can be heard. Because they have a lot to say. We're just not listening.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Power of Words

Yesterday I grabbed our local paper and headed out to the backyard. Splashed across the front page was a report of the discovery of a giant hogweed in our area. I held my breath as I read of the potential harm it can inflict on those who come in contact with it.

Apparently, "severe burns can usually result in blistering and painful dermatitis. Blisters can develop into purplish or blackened scars, sometimes up to 48 hours after exposure. In some cases...eye contact can lead to temporary or possibly permanent blindness." Gulp...

We are cautioned to wear protective gear when gardening. It's an invasive weed, taking no prisoners, and will take over your garden if you're not vigilant. Uproot it at the first sign of its presence.

I dropped the paper and spent the next couple of hours in an extensive reconnaissance tour of our garden. Who knows, this giant hogweed could be lurking in the shadows, supposedly minding its own business. But, a la Day of the Triffids, it could be plotting a hostile takeover of our lovely garden. Visions of mutant hogweeds systematically cutting a swath through our community danced in my head.

Weeds are stealthy, sometimes taking on the look of the surrounding flora. I know better, though. They may masquerade as another member of the flower family, but they are poisonous plants, slowly choking the life out of a thriving garden. Just as a gardener will create diversity in a garden, in order to encourage a flourishing plant community, so she will uproot noxious uninvited guests.

Maybe I just need to understand where the weeds are coming from. After all, it's possible they don't mean any harm. In fact, it's possible my sense of humour needs a drastic retuning - a complete overhaul, perhaps? - and if I can see the funny side of their presence in my garden, we'll all get along much better. The weeds will take pity on its flowering neighbours, and therefore decide to play fair.

No, on second thought, even if they're unaware of the damage they're inflicting on the community, we know better. It's best to uproot them, and in their place plant something that will only have a positive effect on the environment.

Like the damage to a child's self-esteem when he hears the r-word repeatedly used against him. I read in a blog that "research featured in Harvard Mental Health Letter and published in The American Journal of Psychiatry looked at the damage that hostile words, and or yelling, can have on a child. They found "words are weapons that can cause lasting wounds..."

So it behooves us to protect our children from the negative, hostile elements in their lives, and plant them in a positive, loving, and supportive environment.

"Words have great power to heal or hurt." The Special Olympics reminds us "our choice of language frames how we think about others. It is time to respect and value people with intellectual disabilities. It is time to accept and welcome them as our friends and neighbours. Change the conversation...Stop using the r-word."

Instead, plant a different word in the community: Respect.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Don't Fence Me In

My neighbour just put up a fence. I'm a little sorry to see it, though. Every morning, I would sit at the kitchen table, coffee cup in hand, while deer, wild turkeys, and other wildlife strolled, unimpeded, through the neighbourhood. For the first time in years, the binoculars and camera weren't gathering dust on a closet shelf.

But I need to be realistic: cattle will soon share this land, and I see the value of keeping them safely penned in, while keeping out unwanted visitors, such as our overly inquisitive Golden Retriever. The cattle will have plenty of room to roam, and I won't have to spend many nail-biting hours fretting over the garden we've been carefully cultivating all summer.

Besides, our neighbour went to a lot of trouble to make the fence aesthetically pleasing, not just functional.

But what about the fences we erect to keep people effectively locked out of our communities? There are plenty of subtle, and not so subtle, ways of keeping 'unwanted visitors' out of the mainstream pool. Like perpetuating negative stereotypes of groups of people, for example.

I was reading an entry from Barriers, Bridges and Books, an excellent blog on disability advocacy and cultural change. For the last couple of weeks, the author has been discussing the importance of the disability community coming together as a whole, with one voice, in response to a "movie coming out this August called Tropic Thunder that bandies the R-word all over the place and describes the experience of having an intellectual disability as being "moronic, stupid, dumb and imbecilic.""

We've come a long way, baby, but in 2008, a big-budget comedy is still attempting to keep the intellectually disabled 'in their place'.

But what, exactly, is that place?

As the author pointed out, "An actor does NOT have to accept stupidity, being a total imbecile, etc. from themselves to portray someone with a cognitive disability. This is NOT what it is like to have a disability."

Someone once said, "The walls we build around us to keep out the sadness also keep out the joy." But isn't there a happy medium? Don't we need boundaries, both within ourselves as well as in society?

Boundaries are necessary, but they shouldn't be used to fence people in. Particularly when the people are being treated like cattle and systematically herded into a no-man's land of ridicule, indifference, and social isolation.


Saturday, August 9, 2008

Stand Tall

Neil MacDonald (see Neil's poem, Voices of War, in 'A Place for Poets')


My husband's voice rang out in the forest, and everyone scattered to the four winds. The giant tree creaked and groaned in protest. The tree was dead, but perversely, I wanted to step forward and take the weight of it in my arms. Catch it before it could hit the ground and disappear forever. It was a fine old tree, and I didn't want to say goodbye to it.

I closed my eyes and turned away, tensed for a resounding crash to split the air around us. Instead, silence filled the space where we waited.

A crowd of us gathered around the tree. The top half wasn't lying on the ground. It had opted, instead, to take its place alongside its original home. It was as if someone had snapped the tree in half, and like me, couldn't bear to part them.

Like an old married couple, the two halves of the tree stand almost knitted together. One rooted in its surroundings; the other one a symbol of perseverance and steadfastness.

Against all odds - including storms that have swept away larger and mightier trees - this tree simply would not acknowledge defeat.

Now that the long-awaited Beijing 2008 Olympic Games are underway, I'm reminded of what it takes to stand tall in the face of storms. To know who you are, stand up for your beliefs, and persevere even when the odds are decidedly against you.

As I read about four Special Olympics athletes from East Asia who were selected as Olympic torchbearers, the true story about a Special Olympics athlete's road to gold came to mind.

In "Spirit, Courage & Resolve, A Special Olympics Athlete's Road To Gold", Tom Lambke wrote about his son's journey from his birth in 1981 - the moment he "knew that our beautiful boy had Down syndrome and that our lives were about to change forever" - to the podium at the 2003 International Special Olympics in Dublin, Ireland.

Throughout Bryan's life, friends and family have seen only ability in his disability. Standing together, they look only to the future, accept Bryan for who he is, and "work with him lovingly."

I visit my twin trees, from time to time. Just like Bryan Lambke, his peers, and all the people who stand solidly beside them, they are symbols of standing tall in the face of life's challenges, and persevering even when storms threaten to take them down.

When the greater community stands shoulder-to-shoulder, with one unified voice, a seismic shift in the collective consciousness will occur, changing forever how people view those who've been labeled 'different'.

For information on Down syndrome, consider reading Bryan and Tom Lambke's "I Just Am: A Story of Down Syndrome Awareness and Tolerance."

Friday, August 1, 2008

Dare to Dream

Robert Hajjar, Founder of IDEAL-WAY.ca, and Michael 'Pinball' Clemons, CFL Legend and Toronto Argonauts CEO.

"All of our dreams can come true if we have the courage to pursue them." Walt Disney

"All the world's a stage." William Shakespeare

When I was four or five years old, I would escape to the sanctuary of my bedroom to sing my heart out. I would stand before the large mirror that hung over my bureau, spread my arms wide, and take a deep breath.

The stage was set, my audience silent as a tomb, waiting with bated breath for me to enter the stage. I hung back in the wings, tentative at first, and just when the tension was almost too much to bear, I'd open my mouth and sing for all the world to hear.

It was always the same. I didn't need props, or costumes, or even other people. My dream to sing and dance would play out, and I was both the audience and the player.

At the end of every performance, the audience would rise in unison, and thundering applause would fill the room. It was a spontaneous, enthusiastic response to my evident gift for life on the stage, and I knew, for a brief moment, what it was to live out my dreams.

The adrenaline rush of placing my gifts and passions in the bowl of the world's hands was extraordinary.

Like most childhood dreams, it didn't last long. After years of playing to packed houses, I eventually grew bored with it. It was a silly game, pointless, and anyway, I had better things to do with my time, I told myself.

The dream was buried, along with many other dreams and wishes, sealed away in a time capsule deep within me.

As I was driving back from a friend's home the other day, I hummed along to a song from around that time. Mama Cass crooned "Dream a Little Dream of Me." It's a romantic song, full of longing, but I couldn't help but think the title applies to most of us.

As children, we're certain that our dreams can take us anywhere. There are no physical limits on our flights of fancy, and sometimes they travel where we dare not go.

But somewhere along the line, we take our larger-than-life dreams and whittle them down to something more bite size. Our dream to perform on the stage becomes a talent for telling a darned good joke at a cocktail party. Our stripped-down dreams are tucked somewhere far away, into a distant place where we can no longer hear their siren songs. The delirious feelings of 'soaring on wings of eagles', climbing the highest peaks, or exploring the deepest chasms, are deemed unrealistic.

We dream a little dream of me. And then there are those people who use their dreams as stepping-stones on paths to rich and rewarding lives. Raymond Hu, Bernadette Resha, and Michael Johnson. Sujeet Desai and Chris Burke, to name a few. Artists, musicians, and actors, who have placed no limits on their creativity, gifts and passions, because they aren't content to stand in the wings. What they accomplished took courage, readiness, willingness, and a deep desire to share their gifts with the rest of us.

They have something else in common: they all have Down syndrome. Dare to dream, they tell us with their gifts.

If I take up their clarion call, and give permission to myself to step out of the wings and into the center of the stage, why can't I do the same for others?

While I'm in the process of encouraging myself to dream big, I can step away from the center of the stage and applaud my fellow players.

If you're interested in viewing a video of Down syndrome children and adults who have dared to dream big, click here.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Choose Joy, by Jennifer Lee

Robert Hajjar with Addie Daabous

This morning I spent two hours in traffic. My morning routine varies every day, depending on whether I want to have a quick breakfast, sleep an extra 10 minutes, or maybe even take an extra-long shower. Regardless of my nighttime pledge to leave the house earlier, I always end up leaving 20 minutes later than I had originally planned. Instead of a one-hour commute to work, the inevitable wall of traffic creates a time-consuming, stressful drive.

The instant I see the line of stationary cars snaking along the highway, I begin my second daily routine: I begin complaining to myself. Throughout the day, I seem to find a great number of things to complain about, whether it is a difficult customer at work, or even a cup of coffee that has gone cold. This will usually last until I fall asleep at night.

Yesterday I was speaking with a friend of mine, when she suddenly exclaimed, "You're always so cheerful and positive!" I was stunned, as I have lived my whole life with a habitual mental list of grievances. She made me realize that I speak and think positively about everyone around me, but reserve mostly negative thoughts in regard to my own life.

It is human nature to take life for granted, and it is easy to fall into a pattern of negative thinking. I have been given wonderful gifts in my life, which I am grateful for, and which should be reflected in my daily thoughts.

This brought to mind my friend, Rob Hajjar, who has Down syndrome, yet constantly exudes happiness and warmth. He doesn't waste time with negativity, but chooses, instead, to revel in life's gifts. It wouldn't occur to him to complain about any aspect of his life.

For the first time, I made an effort to remain in a constant state of joy, eliminating negative thoughts whenever they sprang to mind. The commute became a chance to spend some time with myself, rather than a source of frustration.

I know that my "inner saboteur" will wait patiently for me to show up so it can whisper self-defeating words in my ear. But a few small changes have already made me experience what Rob must feel every day: a sense of contentment and appreciation for life.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Lonely World, by Patrice Slama

The following entry was written by Patrice Slama, a board member of Ideal-Way.ca.

As a mother of an intellectually challenged child, my heart can't help but feel the loneliness felt by her. When it came to making really good friendships, it just didn't seem to happen for her. It took them, in my opinion, too long to admit she had a learning problem, and then from there she was shoved from one school to the next. Sure there were a few of the friends she met that were shoved around just like herself that she still has contact with today, but nobody she can call up when she's feeling down and lonely. When people catch on that she is different, they tend not to include her in a lot of things. I think people need to be educated on all that these individuals have to offer.

The contact I have had with special needs individuals has blown me away and given me a new heart to want to do all that I can for them. They are the most loving, nonjudgmental group of individuals you could ever hope to meet. I have truly found my passion in life and will continue to do whatever I am able to do to help them feel included and deserving in this world. More activities in our communities need to be set up that include these wonderful people, and complement their lives. Let's help them enjoy life and include them in all that we do.

You will be changed if you are ever lucky enough to spend time with these folks. They are more talented than you think and deserve the recognition for their efforts. Reach out your hand and give someone who doesn't have all that you have a chance to feel love and acceptance. The smile you put on their faces will be worth a million bucks.

Friday, July 11, 2008

What Is Autism?

Last night I had one of those deer-in-the-headlights moments that happen every now and again. Usually in the dead of night. I dig down deep, like probing a painful tooth with my tongue, and allow the full weight of the bad moment to descend on me. And then the blessed relief when I realize that it could never happen.

I flew out the door, loaded down with books, papers, water bottle, and car keys, congratulating myself on remembering to return books I had borrowed. It was a potluck dinner/writers' meeting, and I was leaving right on time. Minutes from the hostess's house, it hit me.

The bag containing a couscous salad, veggie tray, nacho chips, salsa, and a delectably warm-right-out-of-the-oven baguette - enough food to feed the entire neighbourhood - was slumbering in my mother's fridge. I had spent the day with her, and in my haste to arrive at the party at 6:00 p.m. on the dot, I had inadvertently forgotten to bring along my contribution.

Quelle horreur! It was too late now. I was already five minutes late, thanks to rush hour traffic. As it turned out, the other guests were gracious, and I even managed to laugh along when someone pointed out the distinct lack of food at our soiree.

It wasn't really the end of the world, of course. No one was offended (except for my wounded pride), no one felt marginalized, and I was able to leave the party still feeling like I was important to these people. As if I deserved to be there, a part of their little community.

This morning I read a newspaper account of a mom who took her family, including her autistic daughter, to a Smitty's Restaurant, and was asked to leave because her autistic child was making too much noise.

For a moment I could feel what every person in that family must have experienced. It was a mere flash, like a lightning bolt to the heart, but...well, that familiar 3:00 a.m. anxiety washed through me.

Those moments in life when you are made to feel smaller than everyone around you, that you don't count, and really it would be more convenient if you weren't there at all. Every child has felt it when they're the last one picked for a team, or the proverbial wallflower, standing at the edge of a dance, feeling ignored and unwanted.

Every member of that family was made to feel smaller than the other patrons in the restaurant.

As if they didn't really count.

In the end, Smitty's stepped up to the plate. An apology was given to the Seymour family on behalf of Smitty's Canada. An emergency staff meeting was scheduled for all Edmonton restaurants, and the restaurant has promised to give sensitivity training to staff members.

"Smitty's Canada also said it would like to work with the Autism Canada Foundation to spearhead a fundraiser for the cause," according to the newspaper account.

This whole sorry episode only serves to reinforce the need "to educate, and positively improve mainstream social attitudes."

"She has to live her life, too, it's a balancing act, it really is," her mom said. "You just get tired of the discrimination, you do. I think our world is ready for this. Racism, sexism is no longer acceptable. I think special needs people need to be accepted too."

Yes, indeed. After all, doesn't everyone want to feel Included, Deserving, Equal, Appreciated, and Loved?

To learn more about Sarah Seymour's organization, All Kids Have Special Needs, click here.

Thank you, Sarah, for creating a wonderful video, entitled "What is Autism?"

Saturday, July 5, 2008

What Kind of World Do I Want?

We recently moved to the country. Now, when we throw open our windows every morning, we're greeted by a symphony of birdsong.

Robins, bluejays, rose-breasted grosbeaks, orioles, and some I have yet to name, use our property as their personal playground. We weren't content to catch fleeting glimpses of birds as they soared past our windows and landed somewhere in a tangle of tree limbs, however. We wanted quality time with our friendly new neighbours, who after all seemed to be happy we were sharing their space.

Before you can say it-seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time, bird feeders of different shapes and sizes were dangling from our hastily constructed bird feeder swingset. They swayed gently in the breeze, weighed down with a bounty of sunflower seeds.

I couldn't wait to see who would pop in and sample our wares.

Over the next few days the odd bluejay visited our brand spanking new food bars, but no one else felt the need to swing by the new eatery.

I would love to say we're bird-watching neophytes, but that would be a bald-faced lie. In fact, over the last few years, we've invested a considerable amount of time researching everything there is to know about bird feeders.

In short, we knew better. Any bird watcher worth his salt knows you need to provide a wide array of tempting treats, based on the types of birds that visit your property. If we had slowed down and taken the time to look at the needs and wants of our friends, we would have laid out a smorgasbord of various seeds, such as millet, safflower, and niger, with just a pinch of nectar thrown in.

If you're new to your neighbourhood and want a deeper connection with those around you, try inviting them into your home. Create a warm welcoming atmosphere, and listen to their stories. Find out what makes them tick. Think along the lines of Robert Fulghum's All I Really Need to Know I Learned In Kindergarten. You'd be surprised how easy it is to reach out and create a deeper connection with your neighbour. It just takes a little effort.

Speaking of reaching out to others, click here to view Five For Fighting's video, which stresses that "we are all connected to one another through our actions. Each person has the ability to make a difference."

Friday, June 27, 2008

What Am I Missing?

Last night the skies opened up and drenched our garden. Afterwards, the sun poked its face through a ribbon of cloud, giving me permission to venture outside. I walked round the front yard, admiring the various shapes and colours of the plants. Droplets of water clung to the leaves and settled in the petals of the flowers.

Weeds had seemingly sprouted everywhere during the downpour. I plucked away tendrils of vines that slithered through the garden and snaked up the bodies of plants in their battle for takeover. I was caught up in my mission to supply much needed breathing space for our flowers and didn't notice that my husband had joined me.

He stood back and surveyed the front yard.

"Did you see the strawberries?" he asked.

Strawberries?...Tufts of gnarled grass lay at his feet. I bent down and took a closer look. Nestled amongst the tangled grass was a treasure trove of tiny rubies glinting in the sun, each one the size of my baby fingernail. I closed my eyes and popped a couple in my mouth. They burst open on my tongue, barely there but more flavourful than the larger strawberries I'm used to seeing in the supermarkets.

When I opened my eyes, my husband was waving his arms in the air.

He pointed in the general direction of the pond and mouthed the words, "Did you see the fish?"

Fish?...I was still basking in the wonder of bright red jewels sliding down my throat.

I didn't see it at first. The surface of the water was teeming with a life of its own, and a large display of purple wildflowers waved in the breeze next to it.

A large bass suddenly appeared out of nowhere, gliding swiftly past me in its silent world just under the surface of the water. I watched him for a few minutes, then he disappeared into the hidden depths of the pond.

I was grateful for the gifts of these gems hidden just beneath the surface of life. But I couldn't help but wonder what I would have missed if I'd been alone. In my quest to vanquish our weed population, I had forgotten to remain present to the beauty of all life that surrounds me.

Sometimes we need to stand back, survey the larger community, and be willing to look beneath the surface. There's an entire world of opportunities and experiences just lying in wait for you.

Friday, June 20, 2008

I'm In Here

I was staring sightlessly at a blank page this morning, when I was startled out of my reverie by a shrill squeak. For a wild moment, I thought that a bird had somehow infiltrated my office. My sanctuary, the place I retreat to, the room at the other end of the house that's reserved only for me, and where everything falls away.

I value the time spent here, for after filling my cup with the peace and contentment that comes with quiet time, I am a better person for it. I don't need to be pampered with various spa treatments, but I do need to be alone, from time to time. To soak up the silence contained within these four walls so I can take the gift of inner peace and allow it to flow out to others.

The chirping grew more insistent, a call to step away from myself and attend to someone's else's needs. I whirled round and came face-to-face with a bird. Well, not quite face-to-face - a pane of glass separated us from one another.

I stepped closer to my visitor - a rather daring visitor who didn't seem to appreciate my need for alone time - and looked him over from head to toe. He craned his neck, peering in at the darkened room, but his view was clouded.

This was obviously a planned trip, for he had taken great care to dress for the occasion. Brilliant red tie, crisp white shirt, and black jacket. (I later learned that he was a Rose-breasted Grosbeak.) After craning his neck a few times, he suddenly reared up, wings spread wide, and flung himself against a wall of glass. He stumbled back, but somehow remained on the windowsill. Smoothing down his lapel, my gentleman caller took a last lingering look, shrugged his shoulders, and flew off.

It's always a frustrating experience for anyone. We all share the need to connect with others, be part of a community, to belong. But we've all been in that dark place. Standing on the sidelines, peering in at a party in full swing, and just wanting to connect with those around us. Yet somehow we're left with the feeling that we're standing on the outside looking in.

As I watched a video the other day that calls us to listen with our hearts to those who often feel like they're beating their wings against a solid wall, I wondered how I could start being a better listener. Well, I could begin by stepping outside of my comfort zone, opening my doors wide to those who just want us to "see the world through their eyes for just a moment in time."

For a look at an anthem for autism, check out

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Am I My Brother's Keeper?

Now that I spend so much of my time at the computer, I'm in danger of missing the gifts that arrive on my doorstep almost every day. Yesterday, I was rewarded for stepping away from the busyness of my life.

Nursing a cup of coffee and staring dreamily out the kitchen window - my computer snoring softly in the next room - I became aware of clucking in the distance.

A group of wild turkeys were strolling through my neighbour's backyard. I watched in fascination as the females kept their heads down and concentrated on finding tidbits in the grass. The males formed a phalanx of protective armour behind them, keeping an eye out for marauding predators, while at the same time ensuring that the females didn't lose their way.

I quickly laid my coffee cup down and took up the binoculars. The head tom fanned his tail, from time to time, a casual flexing of his muscles that kept the younger jakes in line. Never once did the males let down their guard, and never once did the females feel the need to cast a furtive glance towards the forest.

They continued on their leisurely walk, the females pecking at the ground, and the males on high alert. It all looked....well, so effortless. I could almost imagine the females mincing across the yard, parasols held aloft, their long, flowing dresses brushing against the tall grass...the males with walking sticks, jingling coins in their pockets, and gallantly throwing down their cloaks over puddles.

I wondered what it would be like to have such a presence in my life. To move through my day, a squandron of angels in my corner. To be honest, as a modern woman, I'm not entirely comfortable with that image.

But I am comfortable with the urge to protect: doesn't every mother feel it, even when her children have outgrown the need for her protective arms around them?

This leads me to another question: is it an imperative to extend this primal urge to the larger community?

As the birds disappeared round the corner of our house, I felt a new resolution stirring within me. Are you your brother's keeper? whispered in my ear. I had a choice. I could put down my binoculars, and join hands with others. Or, instead, in this day of voyeurism taken to new heights, I could choose to read about others through news blogs, sighing over those who are largely ignored in our society. Wishing I could do more, but reassured by the knowledge that I'm only one woman.

Don't get me wrong. I have done my fair share of merely observing the plight of others. But maybe it's time to flex my own muscles, remind myself that I am not an island. I may be only one woman, but there are others who are willing to join hands with me, creating a safety net for those in need of one.

And in so doing, by willing to step away from the distractions in my world, I can open my heart to the gifts that are right there in front of me. For, as L'Arche reminds us in their video, What Makes a Community?, when we are supportive of one another, we all benefit from the gifts present in each one of us.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

A Simple Act of Love

Last night I sat on my deck and watched the sky play a game of cat and mouse with me. I wanted to be in a comfortable state of mind, so I had taken some pillows from our living room and heaped them in a corner of our deck.

My sketchpad lay open, and I stared down at the stark white page. I am not an artist, but my fingers itched to translate the beauty of the sky into a visual feast on paper.

Scrolls of cerulean blue, magenta, and deep ochre painted the canvas above me. Maybe the colours would leap to life under my paintbrush if I concentrated long and hard enough. I bent over my sketchpad, engrossed in getting the colours just right.

How much easier it would be if I didn't need a paintbrush...I imagined the colours magically falling from the sky and coming to rest on my page. Suddenly, the paintbrush came alive in my hand, and I didn't look up until I felt the classic 'aha' moment. That moment when a little voice in the creative hub room whispers, You got it, baby...

But while I had been struggling to capture the moment, the sky had shape shifted into something else entirely.

By the time I had painstakingly created something that could safely be tacked to the storage-shed wall, the sun had dipped behind a bank of trees.

The sun was gone, but it was a warm night. It held the kind of darkness that is strangely comforting. I was reluctant to leave my nest of pillows, so I waited for the darker, nighttime orb to take its place in the sky.

A faint breeze moved across the backyard, gently riffling its fingers through the trees, and through my hair. The moon was smudged over by layers of gauzy cloud, and I basked in the stillness of the night. Inside the circle of the moon was a network of lacy webs, like the Spirograph patterns I loved to create as a child.

The artistry took my breath away. Maybe the play of light was creating something out of nothing, but whatever the case, I was enjoying the show.

It struck me that the moon didn't choose to reveal breathtaking beauty. It didn't labour in front of the mirror, for hours at a time, intent on showing itself to maximum effect.

It simply showed up. Like a simple act of love. It arrives without any fanfare, and asks nothing of us.

My thoughts strayed to my friend, and fellow board member of Ideal-Way, Robert Hajjar. Before the birth of Ideal-Way, Robert sat down with his Aunt Ad and Uncle Don. He took a plain wooden box from under his bed, and emptied it. Nickels, dimes, and quarters spilled helter-skelter across the smooth expanse of his bedspread. Together, they counted the coins out loud.

Robert sat back and held his breath. His entire life savings, held out in the palm of his hand, for the sake of others.

He figured it would be in the thousands. But the amount didn't matter. He just knew, in his gut, that what he was doing was right. God had told him that his Aunt Ad was the perfect person to start up a company for people just like him. And he would be the first donor.

As the last coin was deposited in the box, Ad held up her hand.

"Attention, everyone! The final amount is...drum roll, please...Sixty-two dollars and five cents!"

That was the beginning. The first donation to Ideal-Way. I wasn't there. I didn't see the tears in Ad's eyes, or Don turn away and cough sharply. I can only imagine Rob's gentle smile as he handed over the wooden box to his Aunt Ad.

"Do what God told me to tell you. Start something for people like me. Make their lives better...because they can't do it for themselves," Rob said.

As I sat on my deck, watching the sky transform from one glorious vision to another, it prompted me to think that I don't need to work so hard to get things 'just right.'

Maybe it's time to leave the sketchpad at home, and just show up. Follow the lead of a Down syndrome man who didn't struggle for one second with his decision to give everything away.

Rob is a reminder to shine your light into every corner of your world. And don't be afraid to offer whatever gifts you have. The beauty contained in a simple act of love will transform every life around you.

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