Category Archives: Courage

Suffering

Tonight, I will meditate and pray for all of the people on this planet suffering. A dear friend of mine reminded me many years ago after I returned from trekking in Nepal, shocked by the extreme poverty I witnessed…small children begging just for a pen, shoeless in the hills…”suffering is relative”. I thought then: surely not! But twenty years have taught me that suffering is relative and the feeling is one and of the same.

If we are cut, we all bleed. If we are fearful, our bodies all go into a state of stress. Some of us escape its effects better than others. If someone we care about dies, the grief response is natural and even if we do not know the people, if we come to learn of their stories and those people’s stories remind us of our commonalities…what if it had been my loved one? it could have been us? this is my town…my city…we feel at one with that person, that predicament. This is empathy and, as painful as it is to have sometimes, it is the best part of us. It is what makes us undeniably powerful as humans.

As a friend said many years ago, in response to a moment of war on this planet, when innocents died, this planet needs more humility. Yes, we need a swift and firm response to the forces of unconscionable evil in human beings who have lost touch with anything good. But I know at the heart of me, we must soul search deeply now and do more than pay lip service to the idea of standing together. I love most of what you see on the media about Manchester today: people being kind to one another…people being reflective…people crossing barriers to learn that homeless people ARE human. Two panhandling men were there and helped when the bomb blew up. The stories just get to me. One cradled an elderly woman as she died. And he wrapped a girl who lost her legs in a t-shirt. The sheer weight of these stories must press down on us all as we really take in the scope of this madness.

But already the backlash has snuck in, and the Muslims of South Manchester and others who had nothing to do with this are under attack by some, it seems, and now we have fear facing fear. Violence or the threat of it and defacement of property because people cannot or will not find the words. Words, words, words. Precious words. People need to rise to the occasion to find the words to talk through those fears and to move through their differences. Because this is the work of healing and that work, for obvious reasons, is neverending and requires much more than words though they are hugely important.

I can’t help but think of the cholera outbreak in Yemen, the lack of electricity in Syria, the hangings of gay people in Iran, the persecution of the Baha’i in Iran, the still missing girls kidnapped by Boko Haram, the sex slaves and enslaved workers as well as the unsolved murders of indigenous women in Canada who went missing after being picked up on a certain stretch of highways.

I also cannot help but think of a friend who told me this week she may be battling Lupus or kidney disease, a former student who ended at 10-year relationship with a man she thought would marry her, a friend who has these past few years gone off the radar and who will not respond any longer to my emails because coping with her life up close is all she can handle…people in her world are dying or fighting for their lives…I’m missing her and she has long been one of my best friends, but we ALL cope in different ways, so I’ve let go of my expectations and I quietly support from a distance…and I think of my noble friend battling multiple myeloma. Cancer is a scourge. I think of a friend battling to get a kid through school and of my parents’ (and my) unsettled feelings about aging. I think of a friend who just lost a medical-legal case against a corporation in America and what that will mean for her now. On Facebook many tragedies are revealed. I am so aware of the information overload. But we dip in and out and read and switch off, talk or just observe. But if you’ve read this far, then you know we are connected.

Many years ago, I read that to live is to suffer. It is a key Buddhist principle I’ve never forgotten and never will. What we do with that suffering is up to us. Buddhism prescribes the idea of Right Speech, Right Action. Other faiths offer beautiful prescriptions for healing. At this point in my life, I feel a hunger to know how it is we can heal this world. Saying that, I know and we all know, we can only heal ourselves and tackle this on a scale within our reach. It may be that reach is one person at a time. Maybe with words over the internet that reach is to a few hundred or thousands.

We must find a way to heal ourselves inwardly, I think. For everything follows from that. It is why I am such a fan of dialogue. As a therapist I once saw in Canada said to me after I was suffering some PTSD from being in a war zone (Lebanon in 2006) and also from a few too many encounters with bigoted parents of my students in the Middle East and equally bigoted American songwriters (in a forum online) who truly did my head in with their hatred of Arabs and Muslims en masse (it can be tiring waging a war of minds and pussyfooting around assholes), “You need a safe place to talk for it is through talking that we make meaning.” At the time I was seeking answers about why the hatred on this planet. Why the self loathing made manifest in this manner?

I was seeking an interfaith answer to my questions. She told me to look at groups like Women in Black…Muslim and Jewish women who protest publicly in silence for peace. But they gather in closed quarters to share their pain. I never sought out this group in Edmonton. It was enough somehow to realize I just needed a safe place to talk and be heard…to make sense of my thoughts at the time.

So, I’m a big fan of words and I’m a big fan of the therapeutic effects of talking and examining these stories of our lives. I devour the news and, yet, know we – I – must take care with what I put in my brain. While I seem to be almost alone in grieving or feeling the sadness of Manchester at school – no one discusses this story, bizarrely, though the other Mancunian in the high school was also watching the vigil during his prep today and then could find no words to talk about it – I have learned silence and meditation are equally potent. Meditation. Prayer. Contemplation. Whatever works. And that’s how I’m going to end my day.

Returning to the silence. Sitting in the present moment. Trusting all forces in the UK and universe to take care of this…terrorist business. Trusting you all to take care of each other. Trusting the strength of the will for peace and harmony to lock arms with wise action so that better days come again soon.

Ask for help. Watch what happens.

It’s interesting. Building a business. Teaching students. There’s an illusion that we should present ourselves as the experts, as if we know it all, or people will not have faith in us.

But then there is another school of thought that recognises we are all on a learning curve, and asking for help is, in fact, an act of bravery. 

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I’ve waffled back and forth between these two views, and suddenly had an epiphany. It was a moment of truth that came after watching a friend die this summer.

:'(

Life’s too short. 

Let me explain. Continue reading Ask for help. Watch what happens.

A Former Student Inspires – Here’s What Youth Can Do

What do you do when you want to shout to the rooftop, no, to the heavens that a former student has now climbed to the upper reaches of the earth’s atmosphere…okay, so I exaggerate…to Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa, with a group of friends and set a record? A week ago, she was nervously expressing last thoughts about this journey and the desire to fulfil a goal for the charity she represents, Reach Out to Asia in Qatar. Now she’s become one of the first Qatari women to climb the popular, but nonetheless challenging, Kilimanjaro.

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First Qatari women to summit Kilimanjaro, 2014: http://instagram.com/p/uGadtxQeuk/ – Photo Dana Al-Anzy, Istagram

Note: it’s a collective win. I like that. No one has shouted out: “Hey, everyone! I’m the first.” No. Implied in those words Qatari women is the we did it together chic. I love that. There are many lessons I could teach my current students based on my experiences with those young people I have taught or worked with the past.

I met Dana Al Anzy three years ago when she engaged a colleague in a pie throw – whipped cream in the face – charitable project to raise money for one good cause or another. She whipped the entire student body into a frenzy, too, at Qatar Academy where the students and staff gathered around for a good laugh and fun after Dana announced the main reason for this mayhem: to raise money for a charity.

I ran a community and service program for two years before embarking on a new adventure in the UK. Qatar Academy is the highest ranking school in Qatar, and part of the illustrious Qatar Foundation, a think tank – home of several world-class universities and well over 100 enterprises – dedicated to science and research, education and community development. I rave on about Qatar Foundation because it is rave-worthy. The young people there shared their unique blend of similarities and differences to other young people I have met and taught worldwide. The truth is, learning difficulties are real for most of us. We’re all loved and potentially disliked by someone. Life has its twists and turns and requires a certain amount of diplomacy that I enjoyed watching at play in Qatar. I enjoy a good political scene. Dana Al-Anzy was a student leader who had an important role to play in our school, and she became the leader of the Model United Nations Amnesty International group. This required diplomacy. And this girl had it and had the passion for human rights that drives possibly everything she does today. The culmination of our efforts that year resulted in two peace doves being released to symbolize the group’s commitment to peace in the rising swells of war in the region. And now Dana has climbed Kilimanjaro to raise money for the rebuilding of Palestinian homes. Think globally and act locally. This is a truism that makes sense for us all. We’ve moved ahead now out of my classroom to the world…this young woman speaks my language: watch.

She talks of having a dream and of our need to watch the way in which we view the world. I think she’s so cool. I believe she is destined for leadership. And I imagine it is only a matter of time before she achieves her goal as a Qatari national. So, I’ve got to share her with my world, here, there, wherever you be. Watch this girl. She’s already making inroads with the First Lady of Qatar’s youth delegation to the United Nations.

If there is one thing I wish, I wish that my disenfranchised (some of them…I teach in tough areas) and far less privileged students in England could see themselves in her, for we all have the potential to be great instead of bricking up our real selves for an illusion of popularity, or because we ‘can’t be bovvered’. We can all be bothered to make a contribution, and to make a difference where there is need. This is regardless of our circumstances. (I’ve seen amazing feats in the UK, too, of course.) This young woman reminds us: simply choose your cause and go for it.

Tawakkol Karman – How I met this Nobel Peace Laureate at TEDx Salford

I bought my ticket as soon as I read that this Arab woman – a Nobel Peace Prize winner – would be speaking at TEDx Salford 2014. This was the woman who started a revolution in Yemen, the ONE country in the Arabian peninsula that I have always wanted to visit (my colleagues made it and have great photos of the qat-chewing men in the streets…hmmmm…while I was probably off gallavanting somewhere else or hanging about in Saudi writing during my breaks…it’s a hard life, choosing *where next* to go on holiday when you’ve got four months of paid annual leave). Sigh. I’ve seen much of the Middle East – Lebanon, Syria, Oman, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates – and travelled over 24 countries worldwide, to date. But Yemen got away from me.

It was never quite the time, never quite ‘safe’ enough to go to Yemen when I wanted to. If my father was (and he was, initially) going to disown me for going to Saudi (it terrified him, until he realised I was safe, I had close friends both Saudi and among the expatriates; and I could bring home 18 carat gold and great adventure stories), well, the proposition of my going to Yemen would cinch that fact. I was told by my Saudi friends: don’t even think it right now. Al Qaeda had just bombed the American naval ship docked in Senaa.

I even examined the option of teaching in Yemen in 2010 and decided against it when the Canadian principal of an international school tried to recruit me and revealed upon questioning that he and his wife were leaving (no-brainer: not the time to go to Yemen). There is another part of me that has lived in the Middle East so long with the so-called risks and dangers, and I was in Qatar when the Arab winds of revolution swept across the region and my Saudi friends in middle class government jobs saw their salaries increased dramatically (to keep the peace), I could imagine that Yemen is likely reasonably safe if you stick to the tried and true…tourist hotels, the main souqs and no gallavanting around the best parts…villages outside of Senaa. Even to see Old Senaa would be a treasure. For me, it would.

But now it is less safe than ever, or so it seems, from so far away, from England where I now reside. My feet no longer dust the dunes of Arabia, and I no longer work in Saudi, or Qatar (I left Doha and the illustrious think tank, the Qatar Foundation, in 2012). I don’t have my finger on the pulse of the land…directly. I follow through my friends and former students who are scattered across the region, and they are my proxy. How I miss it. How I sometimes feel crazy when people could care less about the issues that burn holes in my heart. Syria. Palestine. Yemen. Egypt. All of it.

But my love for Arabia came back to me with the arrival of this woman, this incredible woman, Tawakkol Karman, when she walked onto the TEDx Salford stage at The Lowry and spoke yesterday.

She spoke eloquently of her struggle and triumph with the Yemeni youth to bring on the ‘rose revolution’ of Yemen, toppling the president…because she had a big idea, a big dream. And that dream is justice, human rights, for the women and men and the children of Yemen, and for us all.

My heart was in my mouth as I speechlessly and breathlessly watched and listened to this woman talk with her hands, as Arabs do. I understand intimately because I have lived among Arabs, specifically the Gulf Arabs, and some of my best friends today are Saudis, one of whom has a mother who came from Yemen. I’m not supposed to know that. But I do. I know she came as a young bride to marry a Saudi, but that’s another story. I know the ways in which Arabs feel things so passionately, they must express those sentiments with their hands, forcefully. I know the strength of those hands, and the love of those hands. I know the ‘hanan’ and deep tenderness and compassion of Arab women in particular. They are known for this. I also know they are rock steady; they have nerves of steel and we women in the West can learn from them and what they have suffered and still endure today. I have written songs about the wisdom of Arab women. I felt Tawakkol Karman’s passion. My heart yearned for the Middle East, a place I have lived for 13 years, in peace, in deep peace and harmony.

So, of course, I ran down the aisle, pushing politely past people who had no idea what I was feeling or where I was going. I found her, at the bottom of the Lowry Theatre, greeted her with my best Arabic, delighted in her warm and sincere character as I gave her my album Bakhoor a compilation of my own struggles and journeys through the Middle East, pre and post 9/11. She told me she loved the photos on the cover – my many photos taken over many years travelling – and told me that a man had made a song with her words. It’s not hard to see why. Listen…

You see, the story is all hers, Tawakkol Karman’s. I share it with you via the Nobel Peace Prize ceremonies. Today, the power of this woman steals my attention from everything else I have ‘on’. I called a Saudi friend who told me Tawakkol has recently lost her home in Yemen to the rebels who would love to topple her for promoting peace among the Sunni and the Shia…and among men and women…among people of all faiths and people who have none.

The power of this woman and her faith in a better world to come leave me humbled and heart full. She may be Mother Yemen, and maybe the Mother of Us All.

And worth watching…the entire 2011 Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony and acceptance speech of Tawakkol and the two other women who shared the honour with her.

Courage to Love

Yesterday, I sat in an assembly for Year 9 students. The school where I teach has decided to institute something called a ‘Culture for Learning’. The first step is to have the ‘Courage to Learn in Silence’. I like it. Twenty minutes of silent, independent thinking and effort – with teacher assistance nearby, as needed. Students find it hard. But they have been told to expect this in every class, every day. They’re improving, day by day. It reminds me of something…

This arrived on my Facebook page today. I love it. The courage to learn. The courage to kiss…and hug. Way to develop a ‘Culture for Love’. 

Do you need courage to love?