Thursday, August 17, 2017

Lessons I learned in Ukraine

For most people, living in Ukraine is not an easy life.

As such, many Ukrainians are not happy people.

I struggled with this as, in my profession, it is my goal to always be polite and courteous and kind (as I can be) even when things are awful.  When people come to me their lives are not going well, so it is my goal not to make people's days worse because I'm having a rough day.

That is not always how it was in Ukraine.

Keep in mind, I do not know Ukrainian or Russian.  I can count to 13 in Russian.  I know "hello", "goodbye", "thank you", "please", and "excuse me". I can say "milk", "apple", and "latte". (Hint: it's latte) But, other than that, I am useless.  Without Google Translate on my phone, I would not have survived.

My view from a coffee shop of the bustle below

Many people in shops that I went into were kind and patient and encouraging. But there were some people...

I struggled with those people.

One Apteka worker in particular was awful.  She would harrumph and roll her eyes.  She would mutter and bang her hand on the counter.  She treated me as though I was the stupidest human ever to be in her way.  There were others who were similar (although there were  more that were entirely lovely humans) but this dark haired horrible woman was the worst.

After 3 weeks of dealing with people like this worker, I learned two things:

    It is hard to not understand a damn thing that is going on around you.  To be incredibly smart and capable in your own country but to be a raging moron in a different language is incredibly frustrating and disheartening.

    We have so many new people coming to our countries.  Some will know a bit of the local language.  Some will know none of it.  No matter what, they are likely overwhelmed and exhausted trying to constantly translate things in their heads all day long. Because, for newcomers, nothing is like home and everything is hard.

    It does not take much to be kind to someone. Be kind.


    In Ukraine, things there are often harder than they need to be.  Every day is the same.  People get up, travel a long ways to go to work, work very hard, make very little, do it for a huge part of the day, travel a long way home, make supper, and then go to bed.  Then, they do it again the next day.

    People might say, yeah we do that here too, but it is so much easier for us.  We have conveniences they do not. Our systems (while flawed) are not so deeply messed up that everything takes 10x longer to get anything done.

    For me, after 3 weeks of struggling EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. to do what needed to be done and then doing again the next day, I was grumpy as hell too.  It taught me to be a little more understanding of people who might not have had a lot of extra f*cks to give when they were dealing with me. 
I am grateful for the lessons Ukraine taught me.  The hardness of the Ukrainian life experience humbled me.  The kindness people showed uplifted me. The beauty of the land inspired me.

But God knows, I was ready to go home.

Past excerpts from Ukraine

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

I spent a year in Ukraine one month: Part 2

As part of dealing with the stress of this summer, I have decided to write about it.  

Part 1 of the story is here and the story of how I locked myself and my sister in the bathroom is here

View from the top floor of the hospital in Dnipro

I had to start this post with a beautiful picture to remind myself that Ukraine is a lovely country with some really good people.  Many of the people I adore are in Ukraine, from Ukraine, and fight for Ukraine.  But this month in Ukraine, for me, was very difficult and so I found it hard to separate the stressful from the good at times. 

When we made it to the hospital to see Dad for the first time, I was instantly transported to the last month of my mother's life.  My big ol' lumbering Dad did not look the same.  He had hoses and pic lines and monitors all over the place.  He breathed the rattling sound of the very, very ill.  He was lucid-ish when he was awake but slept at the drop of a hat for hours and hours.  He was uncomfortable and ill. 

The hospital ward (ICU for sepsis patients) reminded me of an old building from the 40s.  At our church camp, we have old airforce barracks made of concrete with ad hoc wiring and cracking walls, so in some ways, the building was reassuring and yet not so much because I know what mould and scary things live in them.  Most of the nurses were kind, but spoke no English, and were very busy with the other urgent care patients (most of whom were Ukrainian soldiers from the front line). 

It was days before we knew if Dad was going to survive. We had connected my brother by phone so he could talk to Dad (my brother has health issues himself, so we refused to let him travel because one of our family members in Ukrainian hospital at a time was enough).  When my youngest sister left to go back to London, we wondered if she would get to see Dad again.  

Until then, we settled into helping provide care for Dad.

Ukrainian hospital is very different from Canadian hospital.  While I thought I understood, there was no way I could until I was there.  I thank God for Tanya who helped us learn the system and walked us through so much.  She explained that all supplies had to be provided by the family.  The nurses were there to deal with the wounds and the medication, but family did all the rest. 

Each day, we had lists of items to purchase including: gloves, syringes, bandages, medications, etc.  These items were often written on a scrap piece of paper we would take to the pharmacy (Apteka in Ukraine).  We would trundle off to collect things, going from store to store in order to get everything on the list.  It never ceased to amaze me that I could get multiple bottles of morphine by just handing a scrap piece of paper to a technician.  

Tanya spent each morning with Dad and then left the hospital to run errands around the city and buy things Dad would need.  She worked from 6 a.m. every morning until well after 9 p.m. every night. My sisters and I spent the afternoon with Dad.  One of us running errands while the other two visited with him, fed him yogurt, held his water cup, and held his hand.  The only thing that helped any of us get some sleep was that, while Dad was in ICU, we were not allowed in the building after 8pm. 

After 5 days, Dad was moved to the surgical unit.  He had to have another operation in the days to come, so he would wait on the unit to free up an ICU bed as he had improved enough. 

The ward upstairs was quite nice in a lot of ways.  The common spaces had beautiful marble (or what looked like it to me) tiles on the walls and floors and dark wood accents.  There were more nurses, but there were also many more patients.  In fact, there were 4 patients to a room.  The beds were tucked up end to end so that two were along each wall with a narrow path up the middle.  There was no air conditioner, no fan, and it was 30+ degrees Celcius many days. 

It was also at the top of 5 very long flights of stairs with no elevator for anyone who wasn't old, needing extra help, or in a wheelchair.  

For me, that might have been the worst part.  I often had to count the stairs in units of 10 with a "you can do it" in between.

Me and exercise are not good friends.  Me and stairs?? We aren't even on speaking terms. 

But let me tell you, we spent a lot of time together.

*** to be continued ***

Monday, August 14, 2017

I spent a year in Ukraine one month: Part 1

A few days into July, I received a call from my father.  Normally a loud and forceful kind of guy, this time he sounded groggy, elderly, and in pain.

Dad explained he had a stomach attack of some kind and was in hospital in a city a few hours from where he stays in Ukraine.  He said not to worry too much, but that I should tell my siblings (including the brother he had just talked to and forgot to mention this to!!).  He said he would have his wife, Tanya, call me with more details when she could.

My siblings and I have always dreaded the day when we would get a call that something had gone wrong with Dad on the other side of the world.

After my mom died, Dad remarried Tanya.  Tanya is a powerhouse of a woman and just what Dad needed.  This was over a decade ago and they have since lived their lives straddling Ukraine and Canada.  Dad speaks limited Russian and even more limited Ukrainian and it is only because of his wife's tenacity and dedication to learning English that they have communicated at all.

They really are the cutest.

Once the siblings had been informed, we all just waited.

We didn't panic.  Dad's had stomach issues for a long time and we aren't the type to overreact for his health issues.  The closest sibling to my father is my youngest sister who lives in London, England.  She is only a 3 hour flight away (fixed because she says I'm crazy to think it was 8 hours), but, of course, she has a busy life as a teacher librarian in a large school that doesn't have "summer" break until August.  We figured it would fine, but if needed someone could make the trip.

We may have under-reacted on this one.

Two days later, Tanya called.  She isn't one to cry, so I knew it was serious.  Dad had surgery and wasn't doing well.  Tanya asked us to come as soon as possible.  We agreed someone would be there right away.

Of course, it wasn't that simple.

My middle sister was done with her semester (a professor of English) and I had just completed mine (taking my Masters in Social Work).  However, she had just flown to England where she was presenting at a conference.  She would be there for a few days, carry on to do research at the British library (the only place she can research a specific topic she is working on) and then would head to Boston to speak at another conference.  Getting her there meant cancelling trips and moving tickets and cancelling speaking and still getting the paper for someone else to present on her behalf.   We arranged to meet each other in London in 2 days and I made my plans.

I got the call that morning around 8am from Tanya.  I talked to The Guy about it and we looked at flights.  We couldn't find anything reasonable so decided I would fly to London and my sister's travel agent would make arrangements while I was in the air.  (Shout out to Amanda at Marlin Travel in Saskatoon.  She is awesome!)

We booked my one way ticket to London at 1015am.  I was packed by 10:45 a.m., went to the bank at 11:15 a.m., and was in the airport by 12:00 p.m.

I landed in London at 10:30 a.m. and met both sisters.  After supper, we got back on the train to catch our flight to Ukraine.  By 9:00 a.m. (Ukraine time) we landed.

Less than 36 hours from the time I bought my first ticket, we were in Ukraine.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Trapped in Ukraine (a mini story)

I am in the process of writing the story of our time in Ukraine and Dad's illness.  It is taking me some time to process, so I thought I would publish this in the meantime.


The first few hours in Ukraine did not go very well.

We needed to freshen up after our flights before we made it to see Dad.  It had been 36 hours in the same clothes and we all needed a moment.  We went to the hostel where Dad's wife and daughter-in-law, Leina, were staying.  I had to wash my face and hands while my sister was showering, so I snuck in to the bathroom behind her and closed the door behind me.

It stuck.


True to form, we had been in Ukraine for less than 2 hours and some how I had trapped us in the bathroom of a hostel.

We tried to pry the door open.  We pulled, we banged, we cursed.  We got a hold of our sister-in-law and tried to communicate that we were stuck.

However, she does not speak English and we do not speak Russian or Ukrainian.

We had no phones for translations or help.

We had no way out.

I was sure I had been able to communicate with our SiL and she was going to get help.  I was content to wait while my sister got more and more agitated.  She attempted to climb the 3/4 wall to no avail.

Finally, our SiL realized we were not just taking an inordinate amount of time to get dressed and came to rescue us.

With a kick that would make a SWAT team member proud, Leina opened the door.

Leina promptly told the story to every one we saw after that and we all laughed ourselves sick.

Welcome to Ukraine.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

When I jumped on the meditation bandwagon

I am a fairly high-strung person.

I look calm and collected, but inside my head I am freaking the @#*& out.

I come by it honestly.  My mother was this kind of person too.  It was said she could put her head on one chair and her feet on another without sagging in the middle.

I resemble that remark.

My shoulders are never relaxed.  My jaw is always clenched.  My head is always aching.


My mind never stops considering the options of disaster and woe that lay ahead of me.  I go over every conversation that didn't go as planned, every thing I wish I had done differently, and every thing that I might have to do or say in the coming months.

It makes sleeping rather difficult.

Actually, it also makes being awake rather difficult as I can get so ramped up that my resting heart rate is 100 on a regular basis.

When the "mindfulness" trend started many years ago, people started telling me about it.  It was presented as a perfect solution to settle my disquieted mind and really focus on the present.

Pardon me while I hurl.

Truthfully, the first few times I tried mindful meditation, it filled me with such uncontrollable rage I had to stop right then.  It didn't get better for a long time.

Then I started yoga.


Everyone who knows me, knows I'm a huge yoga fan (you have to check out Yoga with Adriene, she is the greatest!).  I have taken classes in a picturesque brick room with the city bustling beneath me while I settle into the mat and am at peace for the first time in a long time.  I have taken busy active yoga with a crammed room of 50 other people while the sweat pours down my face.  I have settled into a nice mix of both in my living room while I get ready for the day.

Finally, I understood what meditation is about.  But I had to learn it while DOING something.

Once I had that, I realized I could move into exploring what meditation could do beyond the mat.

I started listening to a guided meditation on on my iPhone.  I found I didn't hate the voice of the woman so I could sit through it without being all ragey.  This is an important first step.

Second step was working my way up from 2 to 10 and finally 25 minutes.

Just sitting and being is really hard when you're a doer and a worrier.  It feels weird.


I'm not solved.  I still have anxiety filled nights of insomnia, but they are fewer than they were.  I still have rock hard shoulder and neck muscles (and not the kind that are enviable) but I have ways to work them out.

Now, I try and do yoga three times a week and I do nightly meditation to fall asleep.

I'm still awake at 4 in the morning, but I am taking deep breaths while I am.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Drowning in academic hopelessness

Why I thought taking a short 8 week class (during May and June) would be a good idea, I will never know.  I'm working full time.  I have contract work on the side.  I volunteer.  I have a family, friends, my niece (who likely thinks I no longer exist), and responsibilities.

I wanted this class.  It combines all the things I want to do with my degree and my career.  Canadian social policy, critical Indigenous thinking, and domestic violence intervention.

In 8 weeks.

What was I thinking?

Each week, I have slogged through hundreds and hundreds of pages of reading, cramming my mind full of information and new ways of thinking.  Learning the things I should have known and expanding on some that I did.

What have I learned most?

The Canadian government has been A-HOLES to Indigenous people.  For hundreds and hundreds of years.

I always knew this on some level.  I was taught about Residential Schools and treaties and oppressive government workers and systems (Thanks, Mrs. Gellner!).  I watched mini-series and read books and listened to adults talk.  My heart ached as a child for the people who I thought were so lovely that nothing bad should ever have happened to them.

But I didn't actually know the bad.  Not all of it.  Not even most of it.  After all, I was only a kid and they try not to scar you that early.

Now I am in a quagmire of despair and pain and confusion.  Not only has the Canadian government been horrible, but the profession that I love has been an instrument of further oppression and pain and condescension.  How can I, with my trusty Human Justice and Social Work degrees and great plans to "help people", continue on?

How am I going to write a paper for this class now that everything seems hopeless?

I mean, the Government over the last 50+ years has issued study after study, commission after commission, paper after paper.  It has spent thousands (though cumulatively now likely millions and millions) of dollars "studying the problem" and getting recommendations.

Hundreds and hundreds of recommendations.  All saying almost entirely the same thing.

They are all saying and/or have all said, "Hey Canada, you're a dick to the Indigenous people. Here's how you can be better."

But guess what?


Okay, that may be a little over-generalizing, but it's not far from the truth.  The Canadian government gets these great recommendations - ones that will make a real difference - and then they (it?) decide they don't want to do most of them.  Then the government puts a couple of paltry recommendations into place and are shocked - SHOCKED - when things aren't fixed.

What?? How are you not all better now?

Here are the main things I've learned (or relearned):

  1. Many of those who signed treaties and moved to reserves did so because the White people killed all the game in the area and people were starving.  The government made it a policy to ONLY FEED THE PEOPLE WHO SIGNED AND MOVED.  And, at that, they only fed them every other day to make sure they remained compliant. (Clearing the Plains, 2013)
  2. The government worried that Indigenous people being self-sufficient would mean they would interfere with Canadian settlements and so made sure they were not allowed to or able to do any work. (Clearing the Plains, 2013)
  3. The government decided who actually belonged to Indigenous culture. Can you imagine if the government got to decide who was allowed to go to your church or come to your family reunions or live on your street? (The Indian Act, 1885)
  4. Then, if someone did not comply with the government rules of who was Indigenous (i.e.: marrying "your own kind" or living on the reserves) the government made them sign their rights away. (Accounting for Genocide, 2004)
  5. Children were taken away from their parents as young as 3 -5 years old and did not see their family for up to 8 or more years.  These children were put in schools and not allowed to talk to their own siblings. (The Circle Game,  2006)
  6. Children were beaten and raped and killed and starved by religious groups "educating" them.  Anyone who spoke out against what was happening was fired or transferred. (The Circle Game,  2006)
  7. Full self-government was encouraged in a report in the 1960s, but Indigenous people were not even allowed to run their own farms until 1990s. (Hawthorn Report, 1966)
  8. There was a commission that encouraged special status and full self-government and instead the government planned to delete all status and have severely micromanaged involvement in government. (Hawthorn Report, 1966; The White Paper, 1969)
  9. Children en masse were removed from reserves in the 60s and given to White families.  In some cases, up to 90% of children on the reserve were removed from their families.  (The 60s Scoop)
  10. Indigenous women are at risk of violence at least 3 times that of any other woman in Canada. They are 5 times more likely to die.  And!! More often by the hand of strangers than other women.  (Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women)
There is more.  SO MUCH MORE.  I am exhausted by it all.  Now I have 18 days to write a paper about domestic violence and social policy. 

Every time I think I have a research question, my mind comes up with some reason there is NO POINT TO ANY OF THIS.  My mind has a completely valid point. 

My question is this: how, after all that has happened, can I make a difference in the lives of anyone who is suffering not only from domestic violence, but also societal violence, racism, sexism, poverty, addictions, trauma, and a country who regularly makes the WORST decisions for you and your communities?

How can you help one thing without addressing all the other inequalities?  The answer is that you can't.

Here is the problem.

Our government, past and present and likely future (and the people who voted them in), do not want to address all of the inequalities.  Instead, they implement limited recourse with limited funds and then blame the individual for something that has been centuries in the making.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

TryPod: my "must-listen" podcasts

A couple of years ago I was looking for a new way to learn.  I needed to expand my knowledge, my mind, and my experiences, all from the comfort of my own home.  Books are great, yes, but I have made it a policy never to read anything that will teach me things on purpose*.

I also needed something I could do while walking, driving, and knitting.

Enter the podcast -- a short radio-type downloadable episode (**see technical definition below!)

My sisters and numerous other friends had been listening to podcasts for years by this point, but I am woefully behind the times.  I mean, I still haven't fully figured out Snapchat.

Now, I am so entrenched in the podcast world, I often start my sentences with, "I was listening to this thing yesterday..."  It has given me endless pieces of useless facts.

And you thought I had too many already!

I decided to share my favourites in hope I can spark someone else to expand their world.

The Way I Heard It

Host: Mike Rowe

I have watched Mike Rowe on Dirty Jobs and listened to him narrate The Deadliest Catch.  I liked his sense of humour and his calming voice.  So, when I found out there was a short podcast (usually 10 minutes max) where he tells you a clever story in a way you've never heard it before, I had to sign up.

You listen to his stories with rapt curiosity and then, at the end, he reveals the name of the person he is talking about.  It is clever and mind-blowing and I learn all sorts of things.

My favourite episodes are: The one where a songwriter bases his most famous song off the Morse Code for "dead" and the one of the most feared sniper in WWII.

History Chicks

Hosts: Beckett Graham and Susan Vollenweider

This was the first podcast I binged listened.

Friends and family will attest that for months, I talked of nothing else but these two women and the women they discussed.  I learned so much!

Listening, I really felt like I was sitting back with a glass of wine chatting with two friends about their fascination with amazing women of history.  Their tag line says it all for me: "Any resemblance to a boring old history lesson is purely coincidental."

My favourite episodes are so many I can hardly write them all down.  But I loved the one about Hatshepsut, the Egyptian Queen who decided she was a King; Molly Brown, the powerhouse woman who survived the Titanic sinking; and Dorothy Parker (Part I and Part II).  There are so many more, you will not be disappointed.  They even did a series on all the women who have run for President of the USA.


Creators: Phoebe Judge (also the host) and Lauren Spohrer

I fell in love with two things about Criminal right off the bat: the soothing voice of host, Phoebe, and the completely different take on stories of crime.

In a world that is all about sensationalizing crime and the glamour or horror behind it, Criminal is thoughtfully done and respectful of the people involved as perpetrators and as victims.  It is the story of how crime occurs and the people it effects.

As for favourite episodes?  There's the one about a couple who put a Buddha in an empty lot to discourage garbage dumping and ended up turning around their neighbourhood.  There's the story of the police dog, Talon, who had to retire. For a third, there is a story about a woman who spent years searching for the bodies of two children she had never met.

It's not always easy to listen to, but there hasn't been a thing I've heard that wasn't fascinating and didn't change the way I see the world, so I think that's a pretty good thing.

Girls Girls

Hosts: Brittany Gibbons and Meredith Soleau

Warning: THIS IS NOT FOR THE FAINT OF HEART.  You will hear more cuss words and talk about sex things than you will ever need to hear in your life.

However.  If you ever want to hold your stomach and laugh so hard you pee a little, these are the girls for you.  They will talk about anything and everything with such openness you will forget to be shocked... and then you'll remember again.

As for favourite episodes, I don't think there is one that hasn't made me laugh so hard I snorted.  Sometimes, listening to Meredith's reaction to things has me wheezing in pain and laughter.

Again, this is not for my nice aunties or conservative friends.  If you listen and are horrified at the fact this is one of my favourite things on earth, I will just stare at you until you go away.

Episodes I love: We're all mad here -- the one about mental illness.  Panty Sniffers -- the one about people who sell their dirty underwear (honestly, I died at this one. I still laugh thinking about it.) Alternative sex facts -- the one where they discuss sex. (That's every episode).

They have more. Some I get weepy, some I am touched, and some I am so happy that someone is talking about things no one will talk about.  I like them a lot.

Now, this is a small list of the podcasts I must listen to as soon as they hit the internet.  Maybe I will share some more I love later on.  Maybe not. But here is a start for you.

You can listen to them on their webpages or you can subscribe to them via an app on your phone.  I started out using Podcast (the iPhone app) and now am happy with Overcast.  Check them out.  You won't regret it.

*Sadly, taking my Masters has done away with this policy.
** "Podcasts are similar to radio programs, but they are audio files. Listeners can play them at their convenience, using devices that have become more common than portable broadcast receivers." (Source)