"When good karma dawns, the wall of doubt is torn down." ~ Sri Guru Ganth Sahib (this is difficult to explain; google it).

If I didn't believe in Karma before this process began (which I did), I certainly would have been forced to afterwards. To me, not a lot of other explanations outside of karma make sense, but I'm sure - to others - there might be a more concrete interpretation of these events.

Last April I was able to attend the 90-minute webinar with MSF, which comprised of an overview of the organization, the recruitment process, and practical information about what it is like to work for them, what to expect, etc. The information was terrifically exciting but defeating at the same time. The biggest, most relevant piece of information was that MSF only accepts about 20% of all applications made to work for them. That's not a lot of people (if basic math is not simple for you, that's an 80% rejection rate). MSF relies heavily on what's called national staff, which are individuals from the area receiving support who are trained by MSF staff to be able to keep services sustainable once MSF pulls out. International staff, which is what I would be, make up a small portion of the overall staff pool and generally spend 60% of their time training national staff and 40% of their time in direct intervention with the people using MSF's services. This was not a problem for me, as I am very comfortable presenting and teaching and have a lot of experience doing so. It actually seemed like a nice balance between working front line and working as an educator.

The second biggest, most relevant piece of information was around the stringent recruitment criteria, some of which I met with my current education and experience. A heavy emphasis was placed upon having previous experience working and travelling outside of Canada/USA, as well as speaking French (and other languages that may be considered applicable). This was an issue. Although my last name is French and my father is Acadian French, I do not speak French outside of statements helpful to find a bathroom or engage in a simple greeting. As for the travel/work experience, well, that's what MSF was going to be for me. I had no idea there would be an expectation of accomplishing that before starting with MSF; although, upon reflection, it made perfect sense. Basically, MSF needs to know that, as an applicant, you know yourself well enough (through experience) to know: whether you can live in harsh conditions, face situations daily that are traumatic in nature, take a huge step outside of your comfort zone, and walk away (for a year) from everything you know and love, without poking your eyes out with a sharp stick. They are not going to invest time and money into you without knowing that you can manage all of that, plus more. MSF exists in some pretty conflict filled areas where staff are only allowed to travel between the compound and their place of work for months at a time because it is not safe to venture outside of that very small box. And, you cannot know if you can manage this without experiencing it first; you simply cannot know. You can think you know, but, you don't really know....you know?

At first, this information made me think my dream (which I had finally decided to act upon) was out of my reach; this was a huge bummer. From the research I had done, I knew that volun-tourism was booming in places like Africa and that organizations were making lots of money offering volunteer opportunities to tourists in combination with an African tourist experience. The cost of joining some of these projects totaled somewhere around $6000 and that did not count your air fare (which, as you can imagine, is expensive) and only provided you with six weeks of travelling/volunteering. I knew I could not afford something like this to gain the experience needed to become part of MSF. That was not going to happen.

Two days after attending the webinar (the day after my 33rd birthday), I was walking through the parking lot of my agency in the afternoon, when I ran into my colleagues husband, Ron. My colleague, a clinician, and her family are some of the most interesting people I know, as they are adventurers, environmentalists, and activists. They have two sons between them, both in their early to mid 20's, who are some of the coolest, most socially conscious kids I know. I am constantly asking her how she managed to raise such great kids, such great men and her answers are always wonderful. I wish she had been my mom. As I stopped to talk to Ron and he asked me what I've been up to, I found myself describing the MSF webinar and the obstacles I was now facing in accomplishing my dream. He listened to me and then responded by noting that his oldest son had just returned from working on a project in Mudete, Kenya (Western Kenya), a project that he had been working with himself for quite some time. He suggested that I come over for dinner sometime so that he and his son could tell me more about it, in the event I would like to become involved. I asked him how much this would cost, to volunteer for this particular organization, and he said that it wouldn't cost anything outside of the plane ticket and a small amount of cash needed to buy necessities. Now, that sounded interesting.

It didn't take long for the dinner to be organized and I ended up going over to their place about two weeks after the conversation in the parking lot happened. Over some wine, salmon and yummy dessert, the dialogue revolved around Africa and Kenya, tribal wars, aid projects, and specifics around the organization Ron and his son had worked with. As it turned out, Ron was working on a documentary that featured the small Fairview School in Mudete, Kenya, where orphaned children - many with HIV - attended classes. Their stories were captivating and I was able to view pictures and videos of their adventures in Africa and, as the discussion progressed, Ron introduced me to another organization that he had visited in Limuru, Kenya - about 20 miles outside Nairobi. As far as he knew, there was little to no cost to volunteer with them either and he could connect me to the appropriate people at either organization. All it took was watching a 10 minute informational video about the organization in Limuru and I knew that's where I wanted to go. Watching that video sparked something deep inside me that, since then, has not diminished.

So, I made another decision...Limuru, Kenya. Full steam ahead.

Neighbours (Part II)

"The problem is not that there are problems. The problem is expecting otherwise and thinking that having problems is a problem." ~ Theodore Rubin (American Psychiatrist & Author)

One of the distinct problems to solving this problem was a language barrier as my downstairs neighbours speak Spanish and know very little English. Although I tried to communicate with them about the noise, it was always a very broken conversation that I knew wasn't being fully understood. At one point, I actually attempted to write them a short note in Spanish (thanks Google translate) that I left outside their door - only to find it thrown down the hallway later in the day. Apparently, my attempt at communicating with them in their own language was offensive. Yeah, that was offensive - and their flying monkey children were not? I appreciated the fact that they were new to the country and, as a social worker, considered the fact that I did not know where they were living before and what might have been an acceptable noise level in their previous environment. I also encouraged the landlord to get a translator to make communication with them more successful, thinking that we could explain what would be acceptable noise in our small apartment environment. Another resounding NO came from that request. So, then it started. The all-out noise war where I sunk to levels I never thought possible.

I started thinking about classical conditioning, you know, the Pavlov’s Dogs theory. My thought was: could I condition my downstairs neighbours to understand that, when they reached a certain level of noise level, I would be putting on my music extremely loud to encourage them to shut the hell up. Could they take that cue and respond accordingly. No is the short answer. No they could not. However, what was successful in this experiment was my overwhelming feelings of revenge when I would do this exercise, which eventually creeped into more than my music being up extremely loud. It came to involve what I termed “stompy dancing” to go along with the stompy beats of my blaring techno. It all went to hell the day that they pounded back on the ceiling, in retort to the overall stompiness going on above. I honestly wish that I could have taken my blood pressure at that exact moment because I had to be nearing a critical level of “going to lose my mind-ness.” I was lucky that I had a friend over, who cleverly stepped between me and my apartment door as I attempted to go downstairs to do hell only knows what. I might add that I did not reach this point for about a year, meaning I had been living with the incessant noise (that often times rattled the pictures on my walls) for quite some time. Not that this excuses my would-have-been murderous rampage, but it does provide some context.

My landlords, a 75 year old Italian man and his two useless, grown sons, had been hearing about these problems for awhile. Of course, they weren’t doing anything about, but, they were well aware of the situation. Earlier in the year, I had already dealt with the fact that they had let some crackhead looking guy move into the building across the way, who stole my brand new winter tires out of my garage. May be dealing with one issue per year was their limit. This went on for 16 months in total.

I could have moved, yes, I am well aware of this fact. I could have moved from the only home I had built in a decade, where life had been so quietly awesome for so long. But, I felt this sense of entitlement (which I know is not good), a sense that I had done the right thing in inquiring as to whether or not they rented to people with children, in attempting to approach my neighbours – in English and bad Spanish, in encouraging my landlords to get a translator. I had done things right. I pay my rent on time, every time. I keep my crack-partment clean. I never have more than 2 people over at a time because I am kind of a weirdo and like my place/space to just be mine. I am friendly, cordial, and steadily employed. I present no issues, what so ever, as a tenant.

Eventually, the kicker was that I finally got one of the sons (the one I like the most because the 75 year old father is a bastard and the other son creeps me out) to attempt to talk to the family downstairs again. He called me after he met with them to tell me that they had complaints about me, so “now what was he supposed to do.” Again, a blood pressure monitor would have been nothing less than interesting. I told him that I could guarantee that they had complaints about me, that I had turned into a lunatic from having to manage the situation for so long. I told him about my stompy parties and other generally poor behaviour and, frankly, I think he was more surprised at my honestly regarding the situation than my behaviour. And then, I did something that I could not control....something I hate. I started to cry, out of pure frustration, on the phone. Damnit. I hate that. Who would have known that this was to be a turning point in the situation?

Although the “old man” is a bastard, he has always had a soft spot for me. I am a good tenant, which he respects and despite the fact that I have broken the “no dog” rule (which drives him insane, but he can’t do anything about it because of Buffy’s Law), he genuinely likes me. When the son told him about my honesty and my tears, the old man apparently performed some magical miracle with the downstairs neighbours. A couple months later, when I asked him what he had done, he said in his thick Italian accent that he told them that he was going to “kick their asses out immediately” if they did not stop the noise. May be he was scary (although I can’t picture it) or threatening or who the hell knows. All I know is that things changed after that. Things got better, things got quieter.

Honestly, during the first couple months of the quiet, I thought the two parents murdered the children as I did not hear them at all. I’m still not convinced that they didn’t bring them to grandparents or other relatives to live for awhile because it was deafeningly quiet (although, not too quiet, just deafeningly quiet in comparison to the last year and a half). My home is finally my home again, and you know what...I think I’ll stay for awhile.

Neighbours (Part I)

"A book may be compared to your neighbour: if it be good, it cannot last too long; if bad, you cannot get rid of it too early." ~ Rupert Brooke (Poet)

Let's chat about my downstairs neighbours, as they are an endless source of entertainment and irritation. I have been renting at my current place for over 3 years now. When I moved in, the place was a dump and was commonly referred to as my "crack-partment." With the help of some good friends, I've done a lot of work here over the past few years to be able to call this place my home. I haven't had a lot of homes, despite my tendency to move all over the place, causing me to have many different dwellings over the years. I certainly haven't had many places that I felt were my home. Rather, they were just places I was renting. For a period of time, I didn't even decorate these dwellings, as I knew I would likely not be there long. Part of this was a function of being a student and attending 3 different universities in 3 different cities (3 different provinces to be more accurate). But, this started long before university.

Although I won't get into the entire story because it is long - albeit interesting - my tendency to apartment jump started at a young age. At age 15, or somewhere around there, I became what I now know is called "a runner" (meaning I ran away from home a lot, sometimes for substantial periods of time). When I was 15, I contextualized my behaviour as "leaving" because my parents were assholes. I wasn't running away, I was leaving, and there was a distinct difference between these two things in my mind. Now, working as a clinician in children's mental health, I understand I was "a runner" because I work with runners every day. Regardless, at 15 I started running/leaving, which eventually transitioned into moving in with friends around 16 - 17, who were also colossal idiots like myself. Basically, we rented an apartment until we could no longer afford it, got kicked out, and rented another one. At times, we would have 6-8 teenagers living in one place (ranging from 16 - 20). Our phone would be cut off, the power would be cut off, there was no food, it was dirty - idiots. We felt that we had good reasons, as we could no longer tolerate living in our actual homes with our families because we were so "misunderstood." In reality, most of our parents weren't doing an awesome job with us; however, we were a pretty difficult group to reign in. We didn't have it that bad.

Over the span of, let's say age 16 to 22, I think I moved around 19 times. At 22, I moved in with a then-boyfriend and lived in one place for almost 4 years before moving away to go to school. Since moving away, I've moved another 5 times, including where I am presently living at. My guess - around 24 times since the age of 16, and that's not counting couch-surfing and living at a very "rustic" cabin with no electricity, water, heat or plumbing for an extended amount of time when I was 17-ish. All this to say:  I haven't had many homes, rather, I've had a lot of places. So, when I moved into my place now and decided to make it into my home, it was a significant decision.

The first year here was bliss. It was quiet, despite the fact that the insulation was terrible and that only 2x10's separated me from my downstairs neighbour, who was a single professional woman. I loved it here. Close to work, close to everything else I needed, and quiet. Perfecto. I didn't even care that it was a crack-partment, that my fridge and stove were horrendous, that the finish was off the tub, that the stove was so dirty my buddy had to take it apart to clean it, or that I kept injuring my brand new car trying to park in the impossible parking structure. Did not care. Until that woman moved out and the new neighbours moved in, that is. Then, the caring started.

Prior to living at this place, I lived in another apartment that I considered to be fairly "fancy." Now, it likely wouldn't be considered "fancy" to anyone else, but, it was a definite step up from what I typically lived in. It was a traumatizing experience, as my next door neighbours were literally insane. INSANE. They were a very young couple that consisted of the girlfriend who hated the boyfriend and the boyfriend who was obsessed with the girlfriend. At one point I had to sleep in my living room on the pull out for months because they apparently thought it was reasonable to yell and scream at each other at 1am. It was awesome. Needless to say, I appreciated that quiet and calm atmosphere where I presently live A LOT.

After living here in bliss between May 2008 to September 2009, the new neighbours from hell descended upon my wonderful, quiet apartment complex like the flying monkeys in the Wizard of Oz. There was/is 4 of them: a mother, father, and two small children. When they first moved in, the kids were around 3 and 5, and although there was only two children, the noise that came from below equated to what a herd of elephants might sound like while tearing through a small china shop. I had never EVER heard anything like this before and I lived in some pretty interesting situations. When I first came to look at my crack-partment, I asked the landlord very specific questions around the people he rented to, including as to whether he rented to people with children. The answer was a resounding NO. Hmm, funny, that went straight out the window when the apartment downstairs sat unrented for a period of time. Regardless, here I was living with a virtual zoo below me; however, it was worse than a zoo because, at least at a zoo you can pay your stupid admission and leave. It was like I moved into the zoo.

At one point, I made up a funny game to see if I could guess what they were actually doing downstairs that would create the level of noise I was being exposed to 24 hours a day. Some guesses included: the parents are successfully throwing the children at high velocity towards the walls, the children are throwing bowling balls threw the walls, the children have beds on wheels that they ride through the apartment like a surf board, the children are pyromaniacs who are making dynamite and testing it, the children are ripping up the flooring to install an ice skating rink, the children are shooting b.b.'s at the ceiling. The guesses were endless and fairly amusing. Nothing explained what I was hearing through the 2x10's separating me from the flying monkeys. It was insanity. My landlords were doing nothing about it, despite my constant complaints, and at one point I actually worried that it would be easier to kick me out (the complainer) than it would the downstairs neighbours who were a family with small children. But really, who allows their children behave that way??

Beep Beep, Glare Glare

"Not a shred of evidence exists in favor of the idea that life is serious." ~ Brendan Gill (American Author & Preservationist)

This week has been tough for me for a myriad of reasons I won't get into here. Sometimes, I pull through tough times without incident; however, this week, I almost ran over a person and, outside of this, almost caused a major accident.....all in one day.

Shockingly, I am an excellent driver. No accidents, tickets, infractions in years. Insurance is low. No seeming cause for alarm when I hit the road in the morning. My car is sensible. Oh, and I live about 3 minutes from my workplace...so really, how much can go wrong in that little amount of time? There are two people in my city this week who would answer that with, A LOT.

The first person I almost killed was walking in a cross walk, at the appropriate time to be walking through a cross walk - when the hand was solid and white instead of flashing or solid red. I literally did not see her, which apparently makes me blind because she was clearly in plain view. She didn't even look scared to be almost plowed over by my Honda; she looked pissed. And then I got the glare. The "if I glare at you hard enough, you will feel badly about almost running me over" glare. I didn't need the glare, I already felt badly about almost killing her, which I demonstrated by mouthing the words I'm sorry over and over to her through my wind shield.

The second incident, later in the day, took place amidst this fucking construction madness that has been going on for the last 3 months that consumes my entire 3 - 4 minute drive to work - turning it into a 20 minute drive to work, which is clearly unacceptable. It's a catastrophe, this construction, as they keep switching the lanes you can be in (which is 1) so just when you know what you are doing, you become confused again. And none of the provided signage directs you in any meaningful sort of way so people are constantly cutting each off  accidentally. Anyway, there I was, driving along, checking my blind spot constantly - and probably more vigorously than I would have been otherwise due to the incident earlier in the day - and what I should have undeniably seen was some dude driving a black Mazda something or other, quickly approaching on my right side. I saw nothing, despite the fact that I was looking directly at him and his car, which was barreling towards mine because I drove through the confusingly placed yield sign. He had to slam on his breaks, I found myself at the receiving end of that exact same glare, and then immediately afterwards found myself profusely mouthing I'm sorry all over again. I was glad when other cars managed to pull in between us so that I didn't have to suffer the wrath of the glare all the way back to my workplace.


"Just trust yourself, then you will know how to live." ~ Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe (German Writer, Physicist, Biologist)

Let’s chat a little more about that momentum I was speaking about during my last post.....
Developing a relationship with yourself is assumedly one of the more challenging journey’s in human existence, as I believe this is often the relationship that is left neglected and starving in the corner. Learning to trust yourself after years of indifference...well, that's a little more difficult. Here's how I view this process:
Inside of each of us lives a small child that represents the truest form of our being. This inner child has a lot of power, as they are the keepers of our happiest and most terrifying moments and experiences. And, they never forget. If you love yourself in the healthiest of ways, pay attention to this little person inside, and nurture yourself above all others, it is my opinion that this little person generally remains content and docile. However, when you neglect that child, when you forget to love yourself and compromise all that you are and depend on others for primary nurturing, that inner child often will raise their voice to shout for attention. In essence, that little person doesn't trust that you will take care of him or her and, therefore, when you attempt to make change that is unfamiliar, he or she freaks out like a kid in Wal-Mart when the newest, shiniest plastic toy isn't purchased for them. The inner child is temperamental.
Unfortunately, my inner child has experienced the latter category for a very long time. It has been my tendency to silence her when she is screaming for attention, rather than nurturing her, me, us. Through my meetings with Jenny, this process has begun and it has been extremely difficult. When applied to my dreams of going to Africa, my inner child was doubtful at best. She consistently told me self-defeating messages that lead me to distrust myself and my abilities. She convinced me that, due to the neglect I had imposed on myself over the years, I did not possess the strength and fortitude to take care of myself under such strenuous circumstances as travelling and working in Africa. I mean, let's be honest, you really need to have things "under wraps" to take on an adventure such as this and, to me, that meant having my spiritual, emotional and physical health in tip-top shape.
If you have read any of my previous posts, you will know that I have been struggling with my spirituality since I was a child. I need to continue writing those posts, as my journey with that continues. I have made enough progress to now understand that I cannot continue to neglect this aspect of my life, as I am continuously searching. My emotional health - well, that's what Jenny was for. And, upon making all of the above discoveries, I was super happy to know that I had someone competent guiding me along the rough terrain in front of me. I had been neglecting my physical health for ages in terms of my eating and exercise habits and I was constantly feeling under the weather, fatigued, and experienced headaches and lethargy. Basically, I was a mess in all of the areas I felt needed significant attention. Out of them all, I felt the most secure in the progress I was making with Jenny, in looking after my emotional health; however, the other two were seriously lacking.
It takes a lot of energy, this self-discovery business. It’s worth it; don’t get me wrong, but exhausting. And expensive (in my case). Although this is getting a little ahead of ourselves, I will say that over time, the expenses associated with this journey – the therapy sessions, the visits to the Osteopath, the classes on meditation, the complete change in diet – have tallied quite the ongoing total. It’s worth it. Every single day, it’s worth it. And, over time, you just get used to being broke. To say that I have done all of this, all with the goal of getting to Africa, is accurate and astounding. To say that it is out of character for me to engage myself on this level over an extended period of time is a gross understatement. But, I have. And I plan on continuing to do so for a lifetime – or at least until I get to Africa. My inner child is quieter these days; although she is not yet still (hence the meditation classes).
It’s a work in progress.
As mentioned in my last post, 7 months ago, I made the decision that I was going to Africa. That switch-flipping I was talking about....it was what lead to all of the movement described above. As my head became clearer, I started investigating what would be involved with getting on with MSF. Although I had read a lot about the organization, I had not actually explored the practical aspects of working with them. As I reviewed their extensive criteria and application process, I was surprised by how many aspects I fulfilled with my education and experience. I would qualify for a para-medical staff position as a social worker, particularly given my experience working with kids who have suffered trauma. I was surprised to find out that MSF offered a monthly salary and, although it isn’t a large amount, it is far larger than I had imagined. As a Canadian, working for MSF would pay me $1700/month and all of my expenses (from the time I left my home until the time I returned) would be covered. That would allow me to keep up with my student loan payments while away, which was my main concern. The contracts ranged from 9-12 months for field staff, with mandatory breaks and holidays along the way. I imagine MSF doesn’t want you poking your eyes out with a sharp stick after working for months at a time in the most demanding and taxing circumstances out there. Breaks are good. The website (provided in a previous post) was extremely comprehensive and user-friendly; however, I did not feel that I could get all of the necessary information that I needed from it. Karma kicked in and, next thing I knew, a free 90 minute webinar was being offered in a month’s time that I could easily register for. And I did. And that’s when it all really began.

Money Well Spent

"You have brains in your head and feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You're on your own and you know what you know. And you are the one who'll decide where to go." ~Dr. Seuss

We're finally getting closer to the point in this story where it will reach real time....but, we have a little bit further to go before we get there. After reading all these books, I began to wish that I could just place my head on top of a book and just extract all the information it contained directly into my brain. I had merely scratched the surface of what I wanted and needed to know and it was impossible (for me) to keep, for example, all the tribal wars straight. As I moved through this process I began to reflect on the idea that I was engaging in a lot of research for something that was simply a dream.
A brilliant man once told me, every good therapist has their own therapist. He also told me that, every good social worker is always one step away from being fired and I can honestly say that I live by both. This post is to talk about the former who we shall refer to as 'Jenny' (which is a name that I love, for no apparent reason other than a possible loose association to the movie Forrest Gump). Jenny and I began working together close to a year ago and she wasn't my first crack at the therapy-show. I have a tendency to make up names for my therapists that fit their personalities, such as Doctor Question Mark and Dr. Geeky Pat (he reminded me of a geeky version of my old friend Pat). Doctor ? was a fucking quack....we'll leave it at that. Jenny has always been Jenny, no fancy made up name for her.
Initially, I sought Jenny's services because I was being triggered by a kid at work that I was engaging in therapy, which was distressing for me professionally and personally. Counter-transference is not a good thing. Interestingly enough, we only talked about that particular problem for a few sessions and then we got down to the real work. I identify this period as being the beginning of the journey that lead me to where I presently am in my life, which is at a distinctly different (and happier) place. As Jenny and I worked through tough topics and experiences, my valuable dollars being spent on therapy were put to work as I refused to engage in this fairly expensive process without doing what was necessary. Apparently, I am a "good client," as I continually do my "homework," which is a nice way of saying I do the work required to re-wire my brain to think, see and understand things a little differently. Not an easy task, if you ask me.
Our main focus became - the primary focus of almost all therapeutic relationships - working through issues related to my family of origin (which is fancy way of saying immediate family). This was interesting and difficult, as my relationship with my family has often been coloured by tension, unease and what I perceive as non-acceptance over the years. We're a great bunch, my clan, but we have our issues. These conversations transitioned into work around my relational style with other significant people in my life, which then - somehow - transitioned into fulfilling one's dreams by being true to oneself. I guess the connection was exploring the most important relationship of my life - my relationship with myself. Money well spent. I guess it was around month three when I expressed my desire to travel to Africa to Jenny, although I cannot remember the exact context of the entire conversation. Her words of wisdom were shockingly simple: well, why couldn't you go to Africa? For the first time in a long time, my contrived arguments were drastically weaker in strength. The arguments revolved around finances and time off work and an ignorance about what opportunities were actually out there to support my dream in coming into fruition. In a moment, I realized that all the books I read, although rich in information and beautifully narrated, really did not give me any information about actually going somewhere to do something. I was basically and acutely dense about how to pull that off, regardless of my new level of social consciousness. No wonder I didn't think that I could go to Africa.
I hate this metaphor but, it is appropriate here: it was like a switch flipped in my head and everything changed. And, now - seven months later - the switch still hasn't turned off. Jenny has been integral in this process, as she created a space wherein my inner momentum could be recognized. She has continued helping me along my way by encouraging me to keep that momentum moving forward instead of sucking me backwards like a vacuum. It seems like every new personal discovery since that time has somehow nicely fit in with the transition of my dream into a goal into the foreseeable future. Oh Jenny, how valued you are by me. I often wish the boundaries of our professional relationship could bend just a little bit to include wine in our conversations and exclude a bill at the end of the hour.
"So, tallyho; it's forward I go. Where I'll land, I finally know. It's onto Africa, my dream from long ago. Where I might see a lion, giraffe, or a hippo.  Fuck it, let's do it - that's my new motto." ~ Me.