Travel – and the worldview expansion it brings – is one of the greatest gifts we can give our children. I’m not talking about your standard ‘fly and flop’ resort vacation. That kind of travel only recharges the batteries. I’m talking about meaningful travel – the kind where you live like a local, collect experiences over things, allow your wandering heart to explore, face and conquer your fears, and generally suck out all the marrow of life.
The Greeks know a thing or two about sucking the marrow out of life. After all, the philosophy of hedonism was born in Greece, and centuries later, its people carry on the tradition of pursuing pleasure even as the Greek economy crumbles. Steeped in ancient history, blessed with natural beauty and a temperate climate, and brimming with adventure, Greece and its islands were a natural choice when I began planning a mother-daughter summer trip before McKenzie, my eldest, heads off to university in Halifax this fall.
We started the first leg of our 10-day Greek odyssey in the ancient city of Athens, a heady mix of history and edge. While my history-loving heart could have explored the riches of Athens for days, my daughters and I praised the gods that we had only a single day and night in the city. Athens was caught in the merciless grip of an oppressive heat wave when we arrived, with temperatures soaring to 46 °F (114 °F). There is no escaping a heat that suffocating.
I’d booked an Acropolis tour with Context Travel, an organization that employs Ph.D. and MA-level academics and researchers as guides for small group and private tours designed for the intellectually curious traveller in Europe, Asia, and North/South America. I’m very discriminating about tours – I’m not a snap-photo-and-move-on kind of traveller, and I detest rigid itineraries. I prefer deep travel, exploring on my own or with guides for whom their work is a calling, not a paycheque. This kind of tourism allows you to slow down, dig deeper, ask questions, and fully surrender to the experience.
To say that I was looking forward to sharing this unique experience with my girls would be an understatement. Unfortunately, the sun-scorched stones of the city’s crumbling ruins screamed a bit too loudly in protest that day, and our tour was cancelled before we’d landed at 9 am.
So we sweated our way to Athens’ historic centre – Plaka – a neighbourhood at the eastern side of the Acropolis, with labyrinthine streets dotted with homes and shops that tell a rich, patchwork tale of the city’s Turkish occupation and the Neoclassical period. Since we wanted to live like locals on our journey, I’d booked us flats through Airbnb in each of our stops – Athens, Santorini, and Mykonos.
As we waited for the keys to our flat, my girls discovered the delights of the frappe, a hallmark of outdoor Greek coffee culture. A frothy and heady blend of coffee, sugar, water, and ice, the frappe is the morning drink of choice for Greeks – especially in the summer months. It was ambrosia to my travel-weary 18-year-old and 13-year-old as we melted even in the shade of the café’s outdoor patio.
Finally, our home was ready for us. We dragged our suitcases up the winding stone stairs that led to a small blue gate, and our little cave flat carved into the cliffs at the base of the Acropolis hill. We stepped into the courtyard, and but for the modern bicycle nestled inside, might have thought we’d stepped back in time.This flat could not have been better situated. Step out and down the winding stone stairs, and you’re in the heart of Plaka, steps from Syntagma Square and the scenic Anafiotika neighbourhood. Walk up and to the left, and you’re on the uphill climb to the Acropolis.
Canadians are a hardy bunch, and there was no way we were going to let a heat wave oppress our thirst for ancient history. So soon after we settled and stopped for a quick bite at Paul (one of my favourite patisseries), we started our ascent to the Parthenon, perched on its rocky outcrop and presiding over the city as it has for millennia. Even from outside the gates, the Parthenon is a sight to behold. With the wind whistling through the ancient columns, my fanciful heart could almost hear the whispers of history. This ancient citadel and its monuments have survived for nearly 25 centuries through wars, explosions, bombardments, fires, earthquakes, sackings, interventions and alterations. I stood there, awestruck, in the birthplace of democracy, philosophy, theatre, and modern freedoms like expression and speech, with my imagination and curiosity burning bright as twin flames in the pit of my adventuring soul. My kids were a little less fanciful and a lot more heat-exhausted than I, so we soon clambered down to Monastiraki Square to plot our next move.
Hoping for a break from the heat, we headed to the rooftop patio at A for Athens. Alas, no fans or air conditioning, which meant that the icy cool liquids we poured into our bodies came right back out again as sweat. The panoramic views of the Parthenon and Athens more than made up for it.
No visit to Athens is complete without a stop at Melissinos – The Poet, sandalmaker to the stars since 1920, where you can have a custom-fitted pair of Athenian leather sandals expertly crafted for you while you wait. Jackie O, Sophia Loren, The Beatles, and Sarah Jessica Parker have all sat on the jumbled menagerie of mismatched chairs crammed into the tiny workshop tucked away at 2 Agias Theklas Street. We visited the family-run Melissinos on our only day in Athens, with this as our only consumer mission in Greece.
We felt a frisson of excitment, even jammed together with six other customers in the oppressive afternoon heat. While we sweatily awaited our turn, we glanced around the shop, all available surfaces covered with a dizzying array of handmade leather sandals, books, bags, art, photos, press clippings, and letters from the world’s glitterati. The craftsmanship, timeless designs, attention to detail, and personalized service are bar none. There are poor facsimiles of Melissinos’ designs throughout the Greek isles, but once you have the real thing, all others pale in comparison. For €45 a pair, these are a forever pair of sandals, and the experience makes them priceless.
After a sleepless overnight flight and a jam-packed day of exploring, McKenzie and Kaiya wanted nothing more than to relax in the air-conditioned oasis of our little flat. I’d pushed them fairly hard for our first day, and they’d rallied remarkably well, so I walked them back and headed out to explore our neighbourhood. I love wandering directionless in a foreign country. It’s one of my favourite ways to ease myself into the rhythm of local life. I walked for hours that afternoon, resisting several charming pleas from shopkeepers to peruse their wares, snapping photos, people watching, and drinking it all in like a fine wine to be savoured.
McKenzie’s Greek-born English teacher, Ms. Mitten (amazing name for a teacher, no?) had given her pages of recommendations for our stays in Athens, Santorini, and Mykonos, which we followed like a guidebook written by a friend. We wanted traditional meze for our first night in Greece, and decided to try Tzitzikas kai Mermigas, a taverna that uses the raw produce of the Greek countryside as the basis of its culinary philosophy. We feasted like Greek gods on tzatziki, Greek salad, dolmadakia, and pork, then headed next door to La Greche, a gelateria that combines traditional Italian ingredients with the flavours of Greece: Corinthian raisins, Cretan anthotiro, lemons from Argos, oranges from Lakonia and figs from Kalamata.
We had a 7 am flight to Santorini the next day, so we finally surrendered to jet lag and heat exhaustion, retiring to the flat we’d fallen in love with and fervently wished we’d had more time in. And so ended one epic day in one epic city.
Stay tuned for the next installment in my Mother-Daughter Greek Odysssey series, Leg 2: Santorini.
On our travels through the Omo Valley, we stopped for a quick stay in Jinka – a market town nestled in the hills north of the Tama Plains in southern Ethiopia that is home to 16 indigenous ethnic groups. After several arduous hours of rough road travel, most of our travel tribe wanted nothing more than to chill for the afternoon. But when our friend and guide Teddy asked us if we’d like to accompany him on an errand to Jinka’s prison, three of us quickly agreed – myself, Gabe, and Hope. How often does one have an opportunity to observe prison life in real life, much less in a third-world country?
I’ll admit to being slightly apprehensive. Ethiopia fills your heart, but it also has the power to break it. Ours did break that day. But more importantly, our eyes were opened to a need that we, for all our worldly travels, hadn’t considered. In Ethiopia, when a parent goes to jail, there’s often no family to take in the children, so the children go too.
At the time of our visit, Jinka’s prison was home to 97 prisoners – 47 of them female convicts who share a 24-bed space with 27 children, many of whom were born there. As we discovered, many of the women were incarcerated for murdering their abusive husbands, some of them pregnant at the time of their arrest.
The government funds rations (meals of injera 3x daily – no fruits or vegetables) to feed the prisoners, but does not provide extra to feed their children. The women must share their allotment – and their bed or floor space – with their children. There is no running water, and sanitary provisions are very poor. Nothing is provided for the children: no toys, education, medical care, beds, or clothes.
Once they reach the age of 14, the children are free to leave. At 14, boys are no longer allowed to stay with their mothers on the women’s side of the prison. But what chances does a child of 14 have in the outside world – a world they’ve likely never known – with no family, no money, and no education? It’s unfathomable to a Westerner, but in Ethiopia, staying in prison is often a more palatable choice over freedom. For children who have committed no crime.
That is a crime – a crime against humanity. One NGO, Morning Tears, is working to raise awareness with the Ethiopian government of its responsibility to the children of prisoners, to provide them with basic rights, and a fighting chance at a life. The key? Education. Teddy works with NGOs all over Ethiopia, including Morning Tears, and imagine1day, the Canadian organization we built our school in Gobele with. Morning Tears had sent him on a mission to deliver school supplies for the children in Jinka’s prison, which the NGO has supplied with a teacher. Now, Morning Tears is looking to build a school well away from prison grounds so the children can experience walking to school, and get a taste of the outside world; so they can be free for a portion of their day, and be equipped for a life of freedom past age 14.
When we entered the prison yard on the women’s side, I expected to see guarded expressions or even open hostility on the faces of the female prisoners, and broken spirits in the children. I braced myself for it. I tried to fix an open and friendly expression on my face, and not allow it to show the pity I was certain I would feel.
Perhaps that’s why the welcome we received hit me as hard as it did, leaving me breathless and speechless. Women and children came running from all over the yard, thrilled at the unexpected novelty of visitors – ferengi (foreigners) at that. One by one, they shook our hands, flashing us wide grins full of friendship and mischief. We took their photos, and the simple delight they took in seeing their own faces – many for the first time – brought smiles to ours. These women and children may not know physical freedom, but that yard was full of free spirits.
On the drive back, I stared out from the window of our truck at some spectacular scenery passing by without really seeing it. My mind was full of images from that life-altering experience and scattered thoughts that richocheted through it like bullets. I wrote down the facts that Teddy had shared with us, and some of my feelings so I could revisit them later. This blog post was already writing itself in a quiet corner of my mind.
In that dirt yard, I saw resilience. I saw strength. I saw a community of women looking out for one another, and for their children. Children who knew no other life beyond prison, but who were happy to be alive. It took the sharper edges off the hurt in my heart. And it made me resolve to share the story – and Morning Tears’ mission – with as many people as I can.
“Like we always say: you have the watch in the West…and we have the time.” – The Tao of Teddy
You have your two-bit tour guides. Then you have your average, run-of-the-mill travel guide. Sure, they know their stuff, but they do it by rote – and they don’t customize the experience to the group they’re traveling with. Some hold themselves apart from their groups, choosing not to interact, not to interfere, not to get too close.
Then you have the rarest breed of all – the fearless ones who enjoy getting their hands dirty. The ones who reach deep into the core of your tribe of travellers, and pull the very best out of each of you. The ones who see all, know all. The ones who are fully in command at all times, but know when to step aside and let you take the reigns because it will help you grow and enhance your experience.
Teddy Berhanu – our chief, our advisor, our problem-solver, our friend – is such a guide. We generally don’t use guides when we travel. Our tribe prefers to author our own experiences, and we keep our itineraries loose. The best experiences are found when you aren’t looking for them.
But Ethiopia is a difficult country to navigate without guides, so when we planned our first journey through the Omo Valley in 2014, we did our research. We stayed away from the large tour groups – we only wanted to travel with our tribe, and we wanted as much as possible to live like locals. Our research led us to Teddy and Acacia Tours.
“I am the backup camera in this truck. An organic one.” – The Tao of Teddy
I’ve documented much of our previous journey on this blog, but I didn’t write about our adventures in the Omo, or about Teddy and his crew – even though they’ve become family to us. I’ve come to realize that it’s because we needed to keep Teddy to ourselves for a couple of years – the experience was that transformative, and that personal. But now, with our second journey to Ethiopia complete, my typing fingers are itching to share Teddy with the world.
He’s equal parts Indiana Jones, Crocodile Dundee, Jack Sparrow, and Eddie Murphy in his prime. Charm. Strength. Charisma. Wit. Comedic timing. Swarthiness. Swagger. The ability to walk into a room, command it – read the mood, take the measure of the people in it – and always stay 10 steps ahead of everyone else. He does all of the worrying so that no one will have to, all of the planning so that every experience feels unplanned and organic. Until you truly get to know him, you’d think that nothing fazes him, because he deals with problems large and small with nary a wrinkle on his brow.
But there are several shades, layers, and moods of Teddy. He’s softer and more sensitive than he’d have people believe. One afternoon on our journey through the Omo Valley, Teddy took my husband Gabe and I to witness a Hamer tribe bull jumping ceremony. As part of the proceedings, tribeswomen cajole the maza (successful bull jumpers) to beat them with sticks. It’s a symbol of loyalty to the tribe, and a form of protection for the tribeswomen. Viewing the events through my Western lens, with my back rigid against a cliff wall in silent protest, I felt my cheeks heat up suddenly – a sure sign that hot and helpless tears were about to follow. Before the first one could spill over, Teddy was at my side, searching my face with worry on his. My husband was engrossed in the experience and didn’t notice. But Teddy talked me through it, even after I protested that I was okay, that I simply needed to trade that Western lens for a wider-angled one. No one else could have unravelled that complicated, tangled knot of conflicted emotion more swiftly or effectively.
Whenever we stopped somewhere, Teddy silently counted our small tribe of eight – he needed to know where we were and what we were doing at all times. I caught him doing this one day, and called him out for being a Mother Hen. I noticed that he hadn’t counted my husband, and pointed out that his whereabouts were currently unknown. In his usual quick-witted fashion, Teddy didn’t miss a beat, saying: “Oh, Gabe – you know, no one will take him. They will bring him back right away and say ‘I’m sorry – I made a mistake.’ So I don’t worry about Gabe.”
“If you know me, it’s enough.” – The Tao of Teddy
As we discovered, all you really need to tackle any adventure or solve any problem in Ethiopia is Teddy, his trusty Leatherman, and his dynamic crew of Lost Boys. He’s one of those rare spirits whose magnetism draws people into his orbit. It’s a bit like staring at the sun for a fraction too long – dazzling and blinding. On every street corner in Addis Ababa, in every remote town, tribal village, restaurant, lodge, or campground – even a prison in Jinka – the locals greeted Teddy like family. And so, we were treated as family too, wherever we went. With Teddy paving the way, we forged friendships, bridged divides, overcame language barriers, and sucked the marrow out of life.
Similar to my husband, Teddy is a hedonist in every sense of the word, living life with joy and abandon. And he’s never happier than when he is eating his favourite meal: tibs. If you’ve never had tibs – small cubes of beef, goat or lamb cooked with onions and pepper in the most savoury of spices – you haven’t truly lived. Teddy ate tibs at almost every meal, saying: “In Ethiopia, you don’t know when you will get your next meat. So when you get it, attack.” And attack we did – to the point of meat sweats.
“Am I vegetarian? Tsk. No, I always eat meat – to make the driving safer. There are too many animals on the road.” – The Tao of Teddy
Though it didn’t happen often – Teddy likes to take the road less travelled by – we periodically encountered other tour groups during our travels. And we saw the difference in their experience versus ours. In some tribal villages, we saw tour guides sitting in the parking lot, leaving their groups to their own devices. And we saw how the tribesmen and women patently ignored them when they weren’t taking photos for 5 Ethiopian Birr a piece. In contrast, we were invited into huts for coffee, offered opportunities to shoot AK-47s, played games of frisbee, given gifts of jewelry, and generally greeted as friends, not ferengi (foreigners). Some of that has to do with the kind of travellers we are. But it’s mostly Teddy.
One afternoon, we stopped for lunch at a lodge where a large group of Spanish tourists was seated near us. Teddy overheard some of them trying to figure out how Teddy and his crew were related to us. We were all seated together in a jumbled pile – trying bits and pieces from one another’s platters of tibs, injera, and shiro; talking and laughing. But for the colour of our skin, it would be tough for an outsider to tell traveller from local, because we were a tribe by that point.
The Spanish group couldn’t understand how or why we were sharing a meal with our guides. Teddy heard the haughtiness in their tones and their out loud musings. And he couldn’t understand it. Neither could we. Tourists go home with some souvenirs and a camera full of photos. We left Ethiopia with a large piece of hearts behind, a family in our guides, and minds full of deep, transformative experiences.
Teddy, we can’t thank you enough for showing us your Ethiopia. We love it almost as deeply as you do, and not nearly as much as we love you.
In Teddy We Trust.
And though she be but little, She is fierce. – William Shakespeare
My mother-in-law Sharyn Mandel was a fierce and fiery force in this world. A passionate educator, her life’s purpose was teaching. She had a particular interest in developing the minds of young girls, and fostering their independent spirits.
Upon her passing, we discovered that she intended for us to make her often-talked-about dream of founding a school in a developing country a reality. And two years ago, we did just that. Before we partnered with imagine1day, Gobele – a remote village of 2,000 that doesn’t show up on maps – had a one-room stick schoolhouse with 159 boys and only 60 girls. With no desks and no chairs, the students huddled on dirt floors, using their laps to take notes with penmanship that would make Western educators cringe.
When we attended the inauguration of the new Gobele Sharyn Primary School in October 2014, it boasted an administrative office, classrooms, a playground, and latrines. The latter is key to ensuring the continued education of young girls. Most rural schools in Ethiopia do not have latrines, which means that girls’ education often ceases with the onset of menstruation.
The 450-student school we came to think of as ours reached capacity shortly following its inauguration. So, in 2015, we focused our efforts on fundraising for an expansion. Enter another fiery, independent woman – the late Jalynn Bennett. The mother of our dear friend Sam, Jalynn was a powerhouse Canadian businesswoman, a breaker of glass ceilings, a passionate philanthropist, and something of a teacher herself. During his leadership run for the federal Progressive Conservative Party in 1983, she gave David Crombie tutorials on finance and the economy. He described her as a teacher who “wore her intellect and quality lightly and with grace. Her style was to engage you and listen to what you had to say.”
When Jalynn passed away suddenly in January 2015 at 71, she passed the torch of her philanthropic endeavours to her three children. Sam generously donated half of the funds we needed to increase the capacity of Gobele Sharyn Primary School from 450 to 700 students.
Of course, our school needed more than bricks and mortar. We learned that school supplies are often in short supply in Gobele. Enter Sophia Scott, daughter of our tribe sister Hope, my husband Gabe’s goddaughter, and the granddaughter of Sharyn’s heart. Sophia was inspired by her mother’s photos of our last journey to Ethiopia, and Hope decided it was something seven-year-old Sophia should experience for herself. Sophia wanted to do her part to support our school, so she sold fresh lemonade and organic dog biscuits that she’d baked herself with love. A rare spirit with a big heart and a winning smile, few could resist Sophia’s magnetic pull. She raised more than $350 and proudly lugged her hard-earned school supplies with her all the way to Ethiopia from Toronto.
When she shyly presented the elders of the community with the supplies, they marvelled at her moxie, her ingenuity, and her drive to give those who have less the same opportunities to learn that she enjoys. Touched and inspired, they bestowed upon her an Ethiopian name – Gomachieftu, “the happy one.”
In two short years, so much has changed for girls and women in the small village of Gobele. Girls enrolment has increased from 60 to 182, closing the gender gap (boys enrolment sits at 302). 101 adult students attend literacy classes, 91 of them women. The community has shown a significant attitudinal change towards the value of education, and the adults are now encouraging their children to attend school. Gobele has also become a hotbed for women’s rights, with signs around the grounds boldly making the community’s stance on several issues known.
With Gabe and Sam as the lone males of our small travel tribe of eight, the females among us – myself, Hope, Sophia, Sam’s wife Jennifer, and Gabe’s cousins Kristine and Gillian – felt something that our two feminist men could only sense. It was the unspoken pull of sisterhood, a rumbling from deep within the core of Mother Earth herself. That low hum of power coursed within and between us. It made me want to roar. It made me, in the words of Walt Whitman, want to “sound my barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the world.”
Our benefactors, Sharyn and Jalynn, would be proud of the work that’s been done in their names in Gobele. We, their hands on the ground, were proud to have known and loved these two fierce women who have blazed a trail all the way to Ethiopia so more women can light their candles in their fire.
As the sun sets on the final day of 2015, I’ve been quietly reflecting on a year that can only be described as an emotional roller coaster. When I was a kid, I loved roller coasters with an unholy glee. For me, nothing beat that adrenaline-pumping, terror-inducing, breathtaking thrill of being thrown for a loop on the squeaky tracks of a man-made monster.
About six months after my eldest daughter was born, I went to an amusement park with friends, eager to conquer the coasters of my youth and whatever new torturous options were on offer that year. I did not count on the thrills of the past being replaced by abject terror. For the first time ever, I was truly afraid during every nanosecond I was on that ride. Gone were the raised arms, the open eyes, and laughing into the face of the person beside me. That coaster-loving girl was long gone. Instead of leaning in to the dips and turns with the abandon of youth, I resisted with the caution of adulthood. My heart pounded, my breath caught in my chest, and tremors of fear chased rippling waves of anxiety through my veins with each gravity-defying twist. I haven’t been on a roller coaster since.
Then came 2015. The year started off innocuous enough. I’d been having some health issues I attributed to a potential parasitic infection I thought I picked up in Africa the previous October. Test after test showed nothing. Then one weekend, I started bleeding profusely while making a bowel movement. That led to more tests, and a scheduled colonoscopy. With so many people close to me dying from, battling or being diagnosed with cancer, you can imagine the thoughts that were running on an endless loop, roller-coaster style, through my mind.
At nearly the same time, our dog Samson was diagnosed with a carcinoma that required a delicate, hours-long surgery followed by several rounds of chemo. My heart was broken. That dog was my best friend, and I felt as though he’d been handed a death sentence. I misjudged the size of the fight in my very large dog, but couldn’t see that at the time. My fear for him, for myself, and for Gabe was so great that it was a palpable thing.
Then, a week before Valentine’s Day, Gabe announced that our relationship was no longer working for him, and I moved upstairs with my two children, where I would spend three long months in purgatory before moving out. In the midst of this, a close personal friend of ours, Steve Martin, passed away. We knew he had cancer, and that this time he had chosen not to fight it, but we both thought he had more time. He had been due to fly up and spend the first half of March with us. The loss – one more tie that bound me to Gabe severed – was a devastating blow. I had to grieve alone as Gabe stonewalled me.
Then came the untold horrors of colonoscopy prep. I won’t go into gory detail, but suffice it to say I think that putrid liquid they force upon you should be used in biochemical warfare – slip it into the enemy’s water supply and invade while they’re otherwise disposed. As I was heading in for the procedure, I received a call from my landlord telling me that my new place wouldn’t be ready for April 1, but May 1. That meant one more month in purgatory.
Throughout all of this, I made intermittent appearances in court with my ex-husband for my child support claim. Like police officers, judges make me feel insanely nervous, and incomprehensibly guilty. I suppose it’s the power they have over your personal freedoms. In the days leading up to an appearance, I’d shake uncontrollably, and my heart would pound so hard and so fast that it felt as though it would explode. Even though I was well supported by my lawyer, and even the judge, I couldn’t tamp down on the anxiety. That’s how much I detest conflict.
All the unabating stress and anxiety caused me to develop a bacterial infection that required some heavy antibiotics; the kind they give to alcoholics to dry them out. As I was headed out for a hedonistic weekend in Vegas with friends, I decided to start the antibiotics upon my return. Good thing, too, because I had a major allergic reaction that caused a large, raised, red, and intensely itchy rash on my face. I thought it rather matched the wretchedness I felt within.
By this point, the twists and turns of my life were almost comical. In the fleeting moments where I had enough breathing room to look at it impartially, I could see that the trials I was facing – heartbreaking as some of them were – were not insurmountable, on their own or altogether. But when you’re alone in a small rowboat in the middle of the ocean being tossed around by a maelstrom, it feels like you don’t even have a second to catch your breath before the next tidal wave crashes over you, threatening to crush you.
It took me a while to realize one simple thing: that life is a roller coaster, and as long as we live, we’re strapped in for the ride. We can’t fully control the careening, the spins, the loops, the climbs, or the falls. What we can control is our experience of the ride. That was my biggest lesson of the year.
So, what did I do next? I opened my eyes. I leaned in to the dips and turns instead of resisting them. I realized that the ride wasn’t going to stop, so I shouldn’t either. I learned that when I closed my eyes softly (instead of tightly with fear), and drew on the strength within me, I could find balance and peace even in the chaos. And when I opened them again, I found myself raising my arms at the next turn. I found my own happiness, and before long I found myself engaged to Gabe, my partner on life’s roller coaster.
So when the next dip came – the death of our dog Samson – it didn’t throw me for a loop. Because I was no longer just along for the ride, I had become one with the coaster. Fear was no longer my passenger, even when Grief joined the party.
I’m not sure what 2016 will bring. I am sure that whatever comes my way, I can handle it. Because in 2015, I found my voice, my groove, my grit, my balance, and my love – on equal footing. I’m not one for New Year’s Resolutions – or the public sharing of them. Real change comes from within, from promises made to yourself, not from things you speak out loud on the last night of the year. And yet, in honour of the year that was, I do make one promise to myself, and publicly: To get my ass to an amusement park in 2016 and conquer a coaster. After the year I’ve been through, no Leviathan could get the better of me.
See that one dude in the image below? That’s going to be me. Who wants to join me for the ride? All you have to do is raise your hand.
Today, I have had one word on my mind: Freedom. One word, so many definitions. So many feelings it evokes. So many types of freedom.
Our most celebrated is political freedom. As Canadians, we live in a country that has been free for so long that our freedom seldom registers in our consciousness. It just is. There are times when the gravitas of our freedom teases the edges of our consciousness, mostly when headlines punctuating a loss of freedom in other countries scream at us to remember how fortunate we are.
As citizens of a free country, we also have personal freedoms that will be protected and upheld as long as we abide by the laws of our country, and some that remain even if we don’t.
Of course, incarceration isn’t the only way to feel a loss of freedom in a free country. We deny ourselves freedom through fear, by allowing the expectations – of society, of strangers, of those closest to us, of ourselves – to clamp down on our minds and hearts like shackles.
In July 2006, I took a terrifying step to reclaim a freedom I’d lost in being married to a man I didn’t – and couldn’t – love the way a woman should love her husband. I left him. After years of feeling the weight of a thousand chains dragging me down into hopelessness and a deep depression, I had a taste of freedom. I celebrated with an abandon that still has the power to bring a blush to my cheeks.
But for the next nine years, one thing – beyond our two children – bound us: We were still legally married. Since I never thought to remarry, that chain didn’t chafe. Earlier this year, after Gabe and I temporarily broke up, I was searching for a way to find myself again. I took back my maiden name on all of my identification. I reclaimed myself. There was great freedom in that.
But one chain remained. And it started to rankle. After Gabe proposed to me in Israel this summer, I knew I wanted to break free of even the paper bonds of my former marriage. Even if Gabe and I never officially marry, I wanted to be free in every way to love him. Today, my divorce is final – after nine long years. I thought that I would exult and luxuriate in the freedom of it. What I am is completely at peace. What that tells me is that while I have ties of commitment to a man I love, I am free in every way. Now that is something to exult in.
Our position as the sentient beings atop the Animal Kingdom food chain leads many humans to mistakenly believe that we are an enlightened and superior species. I’ve always subscribed to the Buddhist notion that sentient beings are characteristically unenlightened, and believe that we have a lot to learn about life from our animal friends, who are closer to Nirvana than the very best of us.
My dog Samson, who would have been 11 in human years today, was a curmudgeon. In the first three years of his life, he was beaten, starved, and trained to kill – until my partner Gabe rescued him, and he was given a new life as the world’s most pampered dog-who-thought-he-was-human. Eight years later, on the day before his 11th birthday, Gabe and I shared the heartrending experience of easing Samson to his rest after discovering he had a bleeding tumour in his abdomen. In the end, I can say unequivocally that it was Samson who rescued us. In the end, that dog taught me more than any human has – or could.
As I reflect on his short but incredible journey, here’s what I’ve learned about a life well lived from my inimitable, irreplaceable best friend, Samson McDog:
It’s better to say ‘I love you’ without words
Words deceive. Lucky for us, animals don’t truly understand the spoken language of humans. But they are fluent in tone and body language, and can read us with far greater accuracy than we can one another. They are also amazing non-verbal communicators. As humans, we place a lot of value on saying I love you. We need the words, and often will ignore negative actions as long as those words are being said regularly. My dog told me he loved me every single day – with soul-deep gazes into my eyes, exuberant licks on any visible and readily available skin, head bumps, nuzzles, and bone-deep sighs of contentment during lazy couch sessions curled up next to one another.
Live for the moment – and in the moment
Dogs don’t waste time dwelling on the past. Samson never spent days agonizing over that time he had an accident on the laundry room floor, or reliving that time he ate an entire lasagne and experienced gastronomic distress of epic proportions. He never lost sleep over the many territorial disputes he had with our younger dog Angus, or plotted revenge against me for the time (or two) that I forgot I’d put him in the side yard to pee and he had to bark his head off for me to let him back in. Why do dogs forgive and forget? Not because they’re less evolved than us, but because they live in the moment. Dogs deal with their emotions in the moment, and then let it go. Because they know there are more moments to enjoy, and they don’t want to miss out on them. I’m still working on this one.
Never let your happiness be tied to someone else
When Gabe and I temporarily broke up earlier this year, Samson and Angus stood as sentries and silent support. I held tight to them as I cried out an ocean of tears into the scruffs of their necks. I told them things I couldn’t bring myself to tell anyone. The words themselves were inconsequential; it was only the out loud uttering of them that mattered. I didn’t have to hold back with them for fear of judgement or concern. At its scream-and-punch-the-crap-out-of-a-pillow worst, my grief made them whine in empathy laced with fear. But for the most part, my emotions didn’t affect them. They greeted me each day with the same maniacal level of love and enthusiasm they always had. They enjoyed being with me even when I couldn’t stand myself. Because their happiness wasn’t tied to me. My dogs taught me how to be happy, without words and by sterling example.
Go after what you want in life – it’s the chase that counts
All dogs are relentless in their pursuit of what they want – be it a treat, a back scratch, or a squirrel they have no hope in hell of catching. But Samson was more indefatigable than most. His laser focus as he sharked around the dinner table, stalked the treat jar, or repeatedly stuck his rump in my face for a scratch was something to behold. Even when his constant vigilance didn’t pay off, he seemed to truly enjoy the pursuit. Dogs get that life’s a journey, and they spend the entire ride enjoying the feel of the wind on their grinning, tongue-lolling faces.
Listen to your instinct
You’ll never convince me that dogs aren’t conscious beings with fully developed emotions, but they do run on instinct. There was a time when we humans did too. We still have that ability, housed deep in the hippocampus – something marketing guru Seth Godin refers to as the lizard brain. While Godin would have us ignore the voice of the lizard brain to break through fear and caution and make room for creative thinking, there are times we should heed the evolutionary advice we come equipped with. My dog knew when to listen to his gut – and when to get crafty.
Greet the people you love with unbridled joy
When you were in his presence for a stretch of time, Samson doled out his love in measured doses – not dissimilar to the way Gabe and I doled out dog treats. Except when you left, and returned again. Then, you’d get a hackle-raising, tail-wagging, jumping-in-circles welcome worthy of a multi-platinum rock star returning to his hometown. Imagine if your human loved ones greeted you this way every time you came home. Once you got past wondering if they’d lost their ever-loving minds, how would it make you feel? Like a rock star.
Do not go gentle into that good night – rage, rage against the dying of the light
I’ve never met a creature – human or animal – tougher or more resilient than Samson. In his relatively short life, he endured countless surgeries, barely batted an eye during the most rigorous of vet exams, and never had to shoulder the shame of a post-procedure cone because he never licked his wounds. He just bore the pain and got on with living. When he was diagnosed with a carcinoma this past February and had to have a delicate, hours-long surgery that most dogs wouldn’t have made it through, he fought like a demon, gathered his strength, and rebounded. His will to live never flagged through several rounds of chemo. Even at the end, he rallied and raged against the dying of the light.
You more than earned your stripes, Samson McDog. Thank you for being my best friend and teacher. I’m not sure what lies on the other side of this life, but I hope that your Nirvana includes finally catching that damned squirrel you’ve been chasing in your dreams all these years. Until we meet again, my friend.
From my current vantage point, it’s difficult to fathom that just under six months ago, I was at my most unhappy. Still reeling from my dog’s cancer diagnosis, I found myself ensnared in my own health scare, which included the untold horrors of a colonoscopy. In the midst of this, the man who just a handful of days ago proposed to me announced that our relationship was no longer working for him. I moved upstairs to the spare bedroom in the house we shared, where I would spend nearly three months in purgatory before moving into my own apartment with my children. I had committed the Cardinal Sin of Relationships: I had made my partner responsible for my happiness, and I was paying the ultimate price.
To say that I was wild with grief would be a massive understatement. I felt as though I was drowning in a madly swirling sea of sorrow – no lifeboat, choking and sputtering with roaring riptides of panic crashing over me, an undertow of despair sucking my energy and threatening to drag me under. I couldn’t turn to the one person who had been my port in the storm since the day we met. So I searched for something – anything – to anchor myself, to help me regain my equilibrium and sense of self. I found it in the #100HappyDays Challenge, a social experiment and daily microjournal of the things that make us happy.
On the other side of the challenge that inspired positive change and personal growth in my life, here’s what I’ve learned about finding your own happiness:
Own your emotions. Never let them own you.
I’ve always been the kind of person who picks themselves up after being knocked down. I had exquisite control over my emotions; the byproduct of my greatest fear in life – losing control. Except I had never really dealt with past griefs. I simply tamped down on them and internalized them. Locked deep inside, they had weighed me down ever since. As I turned 41 in the midst of my greatest emotional trial, I finally realized that fear and despair are twin gargoyles guarding the gateway to soul-deep happiness – you can’t pass through without facing them. For the first time in my life, I allowed myself to simply sit with my feelings. It wasn’t comfortable. It wasn’t pretty. It was ugly, raw, and real. In facing the maelstrom of my emotions, I released their hold on me; the first step on my journey to healing and happiness.
I grew a lot in the first few years of my relationship with Gabe. He saw me for who I was, and who I could be, and he challenged me to become my best self. When our relationship ended, I realized that to truly become my best self, I needed to reconnect with and challenge myself. That journey of self-discovery took me out of my comfort zone to places I’d never been. It took me to a women’s sweat lodge ceremony, where I stripped down and sweated it out, both literally and figuratively. It took me to restorative yoga, where I learned to quiet my mind and listen to my body. It took me to talk therapy, where I examined and resolved long-buried feelings. It took me to a reiki session, where I connected with my own energy, and made a connection that kindled a friendship. It even took me on a trip to Vegas, where I learned there’s nothing good friends and a lost weekend full of hedonism can’t cure.
Humans have a lot to learn about comfort – and the keys to happiness – from animals.
Words deceive. Lucky for us, animals don’t truly understand the spoken language of humans. But they are fluent in tone and body language, and can read us with far greater accuracy than we can one another. When someone we love is hurting, we feel helpless, so we attempt to soothe with words or solve with logic. But grief is beyond both words and logic. During the period I now jokingly refer to as The Lost Months, my two dogs stood as sentries and silent support. I held tight to them as I cried out an ocean of tears into the scruffs of their necks. I told them things I couldn’t bring myself to tell anyone. The words themselves were inconsequential; it was only the out loud uttering of them that mattered. I didn’t have to hold back with them for fear of judgement or concern. At its scream-and-punch-the-crap-out-of-a-pillow worst, my grief made them whine in empathy laced with fear. But for the most part, my emotions didn’t affect them. They greeted me each day with the same maniacal level of love and enthusiasm they always had. They enjoyed being with me even when I couldn’t stand myself. Because their happiness wasn’t tied to me. My dogs taught me how to be happy, without words and by sterling example.
The first several days in my #100HappyDays challenge were difficult. I found that going to sleep and waking up in a bed I had never shared with Gabe but had with his mother when she was sick were the worst parts of my day, so I started there. At night, as I lay wakeful with worry and woe, I’d replay my day in my mind, looking for bright spots and moments of happiness, and deciding what the next day’s #100HappyDays post would capture. In the morning, as reality came crashing in again, I’d select a photo and write my post. It forced me to think happy thoughts in the most challenging moments of my day. After a while, I found myself looking forward to each day’s post. I thanked people who inspire and influence me. I remembered to take pleasure in the small stuff. I acknowledged the moments and experiences that transformed me. In the final stretch, I was too busy experiencing happy moments to document them daily, so I made my own posting rules and suspended time. I made myself responsible for my own happiness. It led me back to myself, and eventually, led Gabe back to me.
Happiness isn’t always a choice that is immediately available to us in our darkest times. But in the words of JK Rowling and her fictional wizard Dumbledore, “happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.”
Last year, on the morning of my 40th birthday, I woke up in a beautiful bed at Langdon Hall next to the man I love. This year, on the morning of my 41st birthday, I woke up in the spare bed, in the house of the man I love – both of which I can no longer call mine. What a difference a year makes.
Even so, many of the realizations I came to a year ago remain true today. At 41, I fit into my own stretched skin with a comfort and confidence I never possessed at 20. And I still wouldn’t trade my current reality for that of my 20-year-old self – or her misguided dreams of the future.
At 20, 25, 30, or even 35, the heartache I’m working through now would have knocked me over with the force of a tsunami. Today, I honour it, acknowledge it, own it – but it doesn’t own me. After much introspection, I’ve come to realize why. I’ve lived, laughed, loved, strived, struggled, and conquered far more than any of my younger selves could ever have imagined. At 41, I don’t doubt my attractiveness, my talents, my value, or myself. I know exactly who I am, and what I offered in four years of the most important relationship of my life.
Ironically, I have Gabe to thank – at least in part – for that. He was the first man to look past the shallow mask I wore to protect my heart; the first to demand to see the real me. He saw both the woman I was, and the woman I could be – and he challenged me to become more than I was. He celebrated and supported me; and in many ways, still does.
More poignantly, I have myself to thank – because I did the work. I’m still doing the work. I love the woman I am today. I am infinitely proud of her. I am far less hard on her than I used to be. That’s because at 41, I know that the most important relationship of my life is the one I have with myself.
On the morning of my 40th birthday, I made a conscious choice to be happy. It’s a choice I didn’t know was available to me on the morning I turned 20. It’s a choice that isn’t fully available to me now as I work my way through the labyrinthine sorrow of loss. But on the morning I turned 41, I made a conscious choice to be happy with myself. And that will make all the difference.
Life’s most meaningful journeys are less about where you’re travelling to, but why, with whom – and sometimes, for whom. Before I tell the incredible story that explains why eight intrepid travellers came to Africa on a journey of the heart, I need to tell you about an incomparable woman named Sharyn Mandel so that you understand, a little, the person behind our shared purpose. This video from our charitable partner imagine1day tells a piece of the tale, but no story is complete without a prologue.
The first time I met the woman who would become one of my closest friends and personal hero, every fibre of my being was racked with nerves. This was Gabe’s mother. This was Gabe’s Jewish mother. This was Gabe’s Jewish, former teacher mother. As a natural introvert, authority figures make me twitchy – and she initially made me twitchier than most.
She had a way of looking at you – with her patented raised-eyebrows, straight-mouthed, sideways glance – that not only made you feel like a guilty child, but also instantly cut through all the bullshit. The first time she turned that laser stare on me, I felt my insides liquefy. But she also cracked through my polite, try-to-be-perfect-for-my-boyfriend’s-mother façade. She demanded to see the real me with that look. And in that moment, I found a kindred spirit, a friend for life, a second mother and a trusted mentor.
That was Sharyn at her core – authentic, no filter, suffer-no-fools real. She continually shocked me with her always candid, often crass, hold-nothing-back way of speaking. She was a rare mix of earth mother and spitfire. From the very start, I was awestruck – and more than a little in love. Once, when Gabe and I picked her up to take her to brunch, we were surprised to notice she’d put bright pink streaks in her hair. All I could think was: Woman, you seriously rock. As long as I’ve known her, the question “Can I please be you when I grow up?” has run on a loop in my mind. Still does today.
She was a teacher, heart and soul. In our lifetime, some of us are lucky enough to encounter a teacher who goes beyond the educational side of teaching to teach us about life. That was the kind of teacher Sharyn was. To her, it was more than a profession, more than a post-retirement hobby. It was a calling, and her life’s purpose. Teaching was Sharyn’s way of contributing to the world, and her greatest legacy.
Sharyn Mandel was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer on July 17, 2013, and though she only lived a short seven weeks following that, she stoically continued with her life’s purpose, tutoring her students from her bedside. Sometimes cancer – the ugly enormity of it, and the pain it brings – snuffs out the light in a person. It eats away at who they are as it ravages the body. Not so with Sharyn. She was true to herself, to the essence of who she was, until the very end – no apologies. Now that is strength. That is spirit. That is authenticity. She was the strongest and bravest woman I’ve ever known – someone who smiled, joked and laughed through the pain, even when it cost her.
Still, it was only after her death that we were to learn the true depth of her character and spirit.
She had always talked about her dream to build a school in a developing country, where girls in particular would benefit from education. Until reading her will, we didn’t know that she fully intended to have us help make her dream a reality. The details of how or exactly where the school would be built were left up to her sons, so we began exploring options, sifting through what felt like countless charitable organizations to find one that understood Sharyn and her mission.
Enter imagine1day. We shortlisted three organizations to provide us with proposals, and from the start, Executive Director Sapna Dayal and her team understood Sharyn’s story and actively listened to help us develop a highly personalized plan that would carry out Sharyn’s final wish. She was very clear about two things – that the school be in an area where the educational opportunities would benefit girls and that literacy be a focus of the curriculum. imagine1day chose Gobele, a village of just under 2,000 people, located in the district of Meda Welabu in southern Ethiopia. We learned that girls’ education in the district is limited by economic factors, distance, and traditional gender roles.
Barely a year after engaging imagine1day, we found ourselves in Ethiopia, where the adventures I’ve documented on this blog made us a tribe, a family. Our visit to the school that has become Sharyn’s namesake changed us irrevocably, in ways that we are still exploring – collectively and individually.
We began our two-day journey from Addis Ababa to Robe to Gobele on October 19, hearts and minds full of the dazzling images burned into them during our exploration of the Danakil Depression, and bemoaning more long, arduous hours squeezed into Land Rovers, and careening wildly over rough terrain. I’ve said before that Ethiopia is a country of contrasts. Whereas the Danakil was as dry and crackled as an ancient tomb uncovered, the roads to Robe and Gobele gave us some of the most lush, spectacular, surreal vistas we’d ever seen outside of a screensaver.
Still, nothing could have prepared us for the soul-deep well of emotion that spilled over inside each of us as we rounded the corner where a community of 2,000 people waited, singing “Welcome, welcome, how are you? Welcome, welcome, we love you!” As soon as we stepped out of the Land Rovers, we were absorbed into the crowd, countless hands reaching out to touch us in passing, in awe, and in friendship. It was raw, and it was powerful. We barely had a moment to swallow the raw emotion we felt at seeing the temporary school sign bearing Sharyn’s name before we were swept along with the crowd onto school grounds.
In that moment, all of the hard work and planning we’d invested for months on paper finally became an overwhelmingly beautiful, human reality. From the moment we arrived until the moment the entire community danced us out, we were treated like royalty. This, we thought, is how the kings of old must have felt after returning from war, victorious, to their kingdoms. We, and the imagine1day crew, were ceremoniously dressed in traditional regional garb and paraded individually before a wildly cheering crowd before being presented with regional delicacies.
We heard community elders explain just what the school meant for their village. We heard from a young mother in Grade 4 with a baby strapped to her back, who told us how inspired she was by Sharyn’s story before reading us a poem she hoped would inspire other married women with children to return to school. We toured the original school block (small classrooms made of mud, wood and straw) and the vastly improved new classrooms, faculty office, and latrines. We heard from teachers and students who shared their curriculum and future dreams of becoming doctors, teachers, engineers, and police officers. We watched with pride as Gabe, his brother Mike and Uncle Bryan laid the corner stone. We planted avocado trees to ensure that both minds and bellies will continue to be fed at Sharyn Gobele Primary School, and Bryan humbly asked the elders if we could take a bit of earth from Gobele to bring to Sharyn’s grave in Toronto’s Mount Pleasant Cemetery to complete the circle.
I will never again doubt that one person has the power to change the world. Sharyn inspired those she taught throughout her many years as an educator. She scrimped and saved throughout her career to fund her dream of a namesake school in a part of the world she’d never been to, so her work would continue after her passing. Action is inspiration’s twin. She inspired her family and friends to become her hands and heart in making that dream a reality. She inspired the community of Gobele, the people of which now have an opportunity to make their dreams become a reality.
Now, you have an opportunity to be part of Sharyn’s legacy. So much has been accomplished, but there is still much to be done. The adults of the community have been inspired by their children to educate themselves, and as awareness grows in Gobele, so too will the need for capacity-building. Our 450-student school is almost at capacity. To learn more about our fundraising plans to meet the evolving needs of the school and community we all see as ours now, visit our project page on the imagine1day website.