Thursday, 26 November 2015

Peggy Su

In November 2012, my friend Peggy Su celebrated her long-awaited status as a new Canadian citizen. Two months later, her whole world fell apart. On the morning of her 33rd birthday, she was diagnosed with an advanced glioblastoma, an aggressive and deadly form of brain cancer.
Peggy Su
Peggy had no family in Canada. She had very little money. And when she was at her sickest during chemotherapy, her slum landlord evicted her so he could renovate and jack up the rent. Worst of all, Peggy’s illness prevented her from doing her job--as an esthetician in a Toronto salon.  Like all of Peggy's loyal clients, I was shocked that someone so young and so dedicated to lighting up the lives of others could suddenly be facing such darkness in her own life. 
It’s hard to imagine a more desperate situation. But soon after Peggy's diagnosis it started to become clear that this young immigrant who appeared to have so little, had, in fact, built a community and support system, simply by being who she is.  After her diagnosis, a number of her clients rallied together, to accompany her to doctor's appointments, MRI's and chemo treatments.  Another client offered to teach Peggy to swim-- something she'd wanted to learn for years.  I joined a couple of others to help move Peggy's belongings to a new apartment.  In the months that followed, Peggy and I would meet for lunch and go for walks. We'd talk about life in Canada and back in Guangdong Province in southern China. I've spent time in that region as a journalist, which gave me a reference point for our conversations about the village where she grew up, and how much she wanted to help her aging parents and her older brother who also had been diagnosed with cancer.  Every time we got together, I was struck by Peggy's rock-solid determination and courage.
Her Chinese name is Juan Su. When she arrived in Canada in 2005 she immediately gave herself a name that she felt was better suited to her new home: Peggy Su. That choice perfectly reflects her sense of humour and whimsy, and her innate ability to cross cultural barriers. “I called myself after a famous song! she declares gleefully. “So people have to smile when they think of me. And they also never forget my name!”
Many things about Peggy Su are unforgettable. Her pedicure treatments have a cult following. She's deeply curious. She wants to learn about my life and the lives of her other clients, and Canada. Her questions are probing and often amusing.  If a man tells a woman she is short, is it an insult?  Why do some girls spend all of their money on designer purses?
She’s bossy too! She dispenses a stream of advice while my feet soak in suds: Don’t work so hard! Take time for yourself! Life is short! It’s hard not to listen up. Especially for those who know Peggy’s story.
Peggy's tumour has not disappeared, but it has receded.  She's back to working part-time as an esthetician, continuing to make meaningful connections and linking communities by simply being herself. The result is remarkable, and so much more than most people believed possible at the time of her diagnosis.  
On one level, Peggy’s story is deeply individual and deeply personal.  On another level, it is a Canadian story.  A story about finding home.  

Thursday, 19 November 2015

The True Meaning of "Linked In"

My LinkedIn homepage says I'm "connected" to 356 other people. Some are colleagues. Some are casual acquaintances. Some are people I don't even know, because I failed to screen properly before hitting the "accept" button. Truth is-- I don't really think about those 356 people at all.  And hitting the "accept" button certainly doesn't make me feel any more "connected" with them than I was before.

Except on July 14, 2015. That's when I spotted the invite from my uncle Bendt. He lives in a small town in Jutland, Denmark.  He is 89 years old.  He had personalized his invitation with a modest little message: Det er ellers ikke for en dÃ¥rlig uddannet gammel pensionist som mig.  
Translation:  This really isn't something for a poorly-educated old pensioner like me.

Uncle Bendt
Some invitations linger for days or weeks in my inbox.  But this time I instantly hit "reply" and told Bendt how delighted I was to see his invite. He is one of my favourite people in the whole world.  His message really made me think... He's more knowledgeable, more interesting and far more important to me than the illustrious and educated professionals I'm "connected" with.

Bendt's been married to my mother's sister, my Auntie Erna, for more than sixty years.  He was a conductor on the Danish railroad for most of his working life.  He and Erna are serious bridge players and in their younger years, travelled Europe to compete in tournaments. They stay closer to home these days-- in the house where I visited them as a child. My Danish home.

On my most recent visit to Bendt and Erna's place in 2012, Bendt was as sharp as ever, and still played a mean game of Scrabble!

Bendt's LinkedIn invitation says a lot about him. He never stops learning, even when it involves new technology that might intimidate people half his age.  His modesty and understated manner do not disguise the fact that he's fiercely intelligent and one of the most innately curious people I've ever met. When I visited Denmark as a child, Bendt almost always knew the answers to my endless stream of questions, whether it was about a particular type of sandpiper on a North Sea beach, or the entire history of the 900-year-old Ribe Cathedral, one of the area's main attractions.  If he didn't know an answer he would head to the bookcase-- his personal resource library-- and search until he found the answer.  These days, he's just as likely to say "Google It!" to the delight of his grand-kids and great-grand-kids.

During one of my trips to Europe back in my student-days, I planned to spend a couple of days hanging out and partying in Copenhagen-- on the other side of the country from where Bendt lives.  Bendt asked if I might like to spend one of those days at examining Andy Warhol's works at Louisiana, a famous gallery near  Copenhagen.  To be truthful, I was much more excited about the prospect of examining live specimens at Copenhagen pubs.  But Bendt's enthusiasm got to me. He took the train to Copenhagen, the two us met up, and we spent most magical day at Louisiana.  I learned a little bit about pop art culture that day.  And a whole lot more about what really matters in life.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

The Mountain

The best thing about going back to the place where I grew up is that nobody can find me unless they really try.  There is no Internet, no cell phone service, and it's a hundred kilometres from any town that anyone has heard of.  You can fly over the property in an airplane, soaring across the Selkirk mountain range in southeastern British Columbia, and not see any sign of human existence for more than half an hour.  I love this place.  Six acres of wilderness that's almost as wild today as it was when my family moved there in the early 1970s.   

We did manage to tame it a little bit. Dad created our own electricity with a Pelton wheel and 1000 feet of pipe, harnessing one of the streams that tumbles down the mountainside. Mom tilled the clay soil, mixed in a lot of goat dung and created several gardens that have thrived for decades during the short growing season.   Today, there's a verdant front yard full of clematis and rose bushes where there used to be thistles and rock.

But many other things remain untamed.   Grizzly bears and black bears still wander across the property from spring until hibernation time.   On winter nights, coyotes still perform their eerie vocalizations outside the bedroom window.   Five meters of snow continue to fall between November and March, turning the wood-frame house into an igloo-like tunnel.  Like clockwork, the sun disappears behind the mountains in the second week of December every year, and emerges again in the first week of February.   And the only communication is still an old-fashioned landline.

As a journalist and television producer I have travelled to some of the remotest corners of the planet and have encountered very few places that feel as technologically remote as my childhood home.  Many of my friends are in media, and based in big cities around the world.   For those who visit, it takes time to adjust to life on the mountain.  Some of them don't adjust.   "So there's really no way to get a signal here?" a colleague asks with no small amount of irritation.  Sure there is, if you want to spend thousands of dollars hooking up a big satellite dish near the top of the tallest cedar tree at the top of the property.   And we've considered it, if only to make it easier to work from the mountain.   But so far, we've decided against it because we know it will change everything irrevocably, and we aren't ready to give up the delights of disconnectedness-- a rare place where the outside world, and its expectations of instant responses, can be put on 'pause'.

The BC government has promised that every resident of the province, no matter where they live, will soon have access to the Internet.  It seems to be a reasonable promise in one of the world's wealthiest countries.   And I'll admit that life on the mountain will be easier once I'm able to connect more readily to my city-based work.  (I'll even be able to post blogs!)  But I also know that letting the world in with a single click will irrevocably change what I love most about life on the mountain.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Finding Home: My Odyssey

I love this city. It’s where I launched my career, where I met my husband, where I bought my first house.  I have lived here more than half my life.  But does that mean Toronto is home?

Or is home the place I grew up, deep in the mountains in the southeastern interior of British Columbia? Where I went to high school. Where I returned every summer during university. Where my mother still lives. Where I spend time as often as is logistically and financially feasible.

My official home address is in one of the most densely populated and diverse neighbourhoods in Canada’s largest city. The home of my youth is two plane-rides away, in a part of BC that defines the word “remote." The closest airport is Castlegar, known to the flying public as Cancel-gar, because it’s surrounded by mountains and frequently socked in by thick clouds.   
Slocan Lake, British Columbia

When the weather’s right, the plane descends though a narrow valley, through scenery that takes your breath away. From there, there's still a two-hour drive up the Slocan valley to the family homestead.  In good weather, it takes twelve hours to get from one home to the other.  In bad weather it can take up to four days. My husband has often reminded me that it takes him much less time to get to England to see his family than it does for me to get from point A to point B within Canada.  I’ve taken perverse pride in the fact that getting home is such hard work.  Somehow, it makes it feel more special.

But that is not how I feel today. I’m sitting on a Greyhound bus, after two days of impenetrable fog cancelled all flights out of Castlegar airport. Five hours on the bus, then a plane ride from Kelowna to Vancouver, followed by a cross-country red-eye flight to Toronto.  Right now, I’m envying friends whose home is all in one place—or at least, have their family within a one-day drive.  At times like this, my life feels fractured and complicated-- my disparate and far-apart worlds seem hard to juggle and reconcile.   

On the Bus
All these hours on the bus give me time to think. It’s making me ponder what “home” really means.  Is it where we live as adults? Is where we grew up?  Is it the place with the most poignant memories?   If the definition of home can be so conflicted for me, a first-generation Canadian, what must it be like for recent refugees and immigrants?  Is this conflict more common in a country like Canada, where so many of us are newcomers in one way or another?

These days, I'm wondering whether my split-home issues may, in fact, be full-blown multiple-home disorder.  A Danish cousin emailed me recently, saying, "Denmark is your home, even though you have never actually lived here."

A bit of context:  My dad’s eldest sister recently died in Denmark. Like most of my extended family, my Auntie Gerda lived near the North Sea on the windswept coast of Jutland.  I only saw her ten times in my life.  But when Gerda died, I wrote her eulogy in Toronto, even though she had 11 other Danish nieces and nephews living nearby.

My cousin’s email referred to the fact that my Canadian family had tighter bonds with Auntie Gerda than those who remained in Denmark. That's because my parents never lost touch, and always made the effort to bridge the distance with letters, Christmas parcels, phone calls, and a few precious pilgrimages back to the "old country."

My cousin is right. Denmark is home too.  My ancestral home.   Her observation underscores the fact that home is about so much more than residing in a physical place. 

Multiple homes expand our horizons-- make us more versatile and adaptable.  I believe it has made me a better journalist and story-teller.  And it has helped me begin to understand what it means for so many Canadians, who have uprooted their lives in other parts of the world to make this country home. 

I know it’s a privilege to have so many homes in my life.   But it’s also the manifestation of a restless soul, and a need to explore the true meaning of this deceptively simple word. The odyssey begins.