Tawanda

Ten years ago, my wife, R, and I lived in Harare, Zimbabwe. During our two years there, the country faced considerable economic and political challenges. While we never suffered, we were not immune to the ongoing shortages of food, medical supplies, water and electricity. More significantly, we lived alongside Zimbabweans who faced these challenges without our privileged access to extra income or resources.

Tawanda was one of my favourite people in Zimbabwe. Although only four, he would often show up at our home to visit. He mostly spoke Shona, so spending time with him helped me to learn the language as we worked in the garden together or watched movies on my laptop. Tawanda means “we are many” in Shona, signifying that he was the fifth and youngest child in his family.

Soon after we arrived in Zimbabwe, Tawanda’s family invited us to their home for supper. While the offal (cow intestines) was a bit of a departure from our usual dinner fare, we appreciated the opportunity to spend time with the family. R kept scraping her offal onto my plate, which made her look like a doting wife instead of just a picky eater. Over the next two years, we developed a close relationship with this wonderful family.

When R was five months pregnant with K, our first child, we returned to Canada. It was not easy to leave our Zimbabwean friends, particularly as it was a difficult time in the country due to increasing political violence. During K’s birth, both he and his mother required emergency medical attention, so I’m grateful we were in Canada and had access to exceptional health care. K’s middle name is Tinashe, which means “God is with us” in Shona.

About a year after we’d moved back to Toronto, we received terrible news from Zimbabwe. Tawanda had woken up with stomach pains. Without easy and quick access to qualified medical professionals, Tawanda’s family could do little to help him. A few hours later, he passed away. Despite the shortness of his life, Tawanda had brought so much joy to his family and friends. For those of us who knew and loved him, we felt an immense emptiness in our hearts. A void not easily filled or understood.

While I cherish the many health benefits my family can access in Canada, I’m saddened that there are so many children in the world like Tawanda who die young, often for lack of access to basic medical attention or the resources to pay for it.

When B, our second child, was born six years ago, we gave him the middle name of Tawanda in honour of this gentle and joyful young Zimbabwean whom he will never meet but his parents will never forget.

Tawanda. We are many.

Standard

The Other Woman

I remember the day I lost my Nana to another woman. I was visiting her apartment with my parents, and she kept going in and out of her bedroom, becoming more and more agitated as though she’d lost something important.

“Can I help, Nana?” I asked. As we sat on the edge of her bed, she told me about a woman in her building who was imitating her every move, even putting on the same clothes as her just to torment her.

“I tell her to go away,” said Nana, “but she just stares back at me. I don’t know how to stop her.”

I squeezed her hand, trying to comfort her like she’d done for me countless times. It was then that I looked up and saw her wardrobe mirror covered with cardboard.

Standard

Names (and the Role of Memory)

My wife, R, can remember the names of the other children who were in her kindergarten class 35 years ago. She can do the same with most of her teachers and former classmates from Grades 1-12 and also from her undergraduate and graduate courses. However, sometimes she forgets the key details from books she read just a few weeks ago or movies that she’s already watched.

I can only remember the name of one teacher from public school (I’ll blog about why another time) and none from high school or university. I also can’t recall the names of my former classmates, even though I played with many of them on sports teams. I’m embarrassed to admit that sometimes I even forget (albeit temporarily) the names of the people I work with regularly in my office. However, when I was in school, I could easily memorize the information from my school text books, sometimes word for word. And while I struggle tremendously with names, I usually remember people’s faces and the conversations we’ve had, even if they happened many years earlier.

In social settings, the ability to remember names is viewed as a positive attribute. I don’t believe the same is true for memorizing conversations. Perhaps I’m easily forgettable, but sometimes I meet a person who doesn’t seem to recognize me but I can easily recall a conversation we had years earlier. It would likely just freak them out if I took a moment to outline the details of our previous discussion. Although, I suppose it’s quite possible that they’re just pretending not to remember me.

At work, I occasionally let people tell me the same news or information a second or third time, even though I know exactly what they’re going to say. I suppose that’s weird, but this lets me shift my attention away from their words and focus instead on their expressions and body language, which I’m not always good at interpreting.

Standard

The Violinist

The house directly across the street from us was recently renovated so that multiple rooms could be rented out to university students. The young person residing in one of the top-floor rooms is a violinist. I know this because the violinist enjoys practising in the evening with the window open.

I don’t think the violin is in tune.

Standard

Fears

When I was younger I used to joke that I was only afraid of three things: clowns, needles, and country music. Now that I’m older and wiser, I’m still terrified of clowns, as every sane person should be. However, I’m no longer scared of needles, thanks to receiving a multitude of them before moving to Zimbabwe, and I’ve also developed an appreciation for some forms of country music, mostly because I went through a Johnny Cash phase in my early 30’s and more recently binge-watched three seasons of Nashville with my wife.

The unfunny thing about my fears is that I have many more than three. Without spending too much time thinking about them, I can easily make a lengthy list, such as:

  • Dying before my kids are old enough to take care of themselves
  • Dedicating too much of my daily life (and vacations) to my work and my phone
  • Wondering when people will realize I’m inherently lazy and inefficient
  • Messing up my kids with inadequate parenting skills
  • My shyness being interpreted as arrogance
  • Having to network in a room full of strangers
  • My crazy puppy racing out the door and getting hit by a car
  • Not investing enough into my older son’s social and academic development
  • Realizing that I’m a sell-out who got a desk job instead of writing a novel
  • Squandering my resources instead of giving more to people in need
  • Not being suitably qualified to find a new job or career opportunity
  • Staying in the same job because I lack the courage to try something else
  • Becoming seriously ill or losing my mobility
  • Cutting open my hands while washing the dishes
  • No longer being useful or valued in my professional life
  • Participating in a system that marginalizes or devalues others
  • Moving into a greater leadership role … and not moving into a greater leadership role
  • Being fake and insincere around others and with myself
  • Caring too much about things that don’t truly matter
  • Admitting to my constant struggle to believe in God
  • Embracing too much public transparency and vulnerability

But mostly I’m afraid of getting into my car one night and discovering there’s a clown in the back seat.

Standard

Strengths

Ever since K started kindergarten, R and I have attended annual spring meetings with the school leadership team to discuss K’s academic progress and to align on a plan for the coming year. In the past, we’ve generally received negative reports that focused on his social inhibition and his challenges keeping up with the curriculum. Tears have been shed at these meetings.

This year, however, is different. We’ve witnessed incredible academic and social development in K over the course of Grade 3, and today’s meeting with the school team was infused with hope and positive feedback. This is primarily due to K’s teacher, Ms R. Instead of focusing on K’s weaknesses, Ms R recognized early on in the school year that K possesses strong math and reading skills. Knowing that it’s tough for K to initiate conversations, she utilized his strengths by having him help others with math problems and partnering as a reading buddy. While K still needs help with abstract questions and concepts, and he’s not able to draw much of anything (much like his father), he’s progressing well with the key academic disciplines, his social skills are improving, and he even participated on the cross country team.

At this point, my biggest concern is that my son’s math skills are already more advanced than mine. I’m embarrassed to admit that I couldn’t understand some of his homework the other day. At least I won’t be one of those parents who always complete their children’s homework for them.

Today I’ve been challenged to think about how I can better utilize strengths and assets instead of focusing on needs and weaknesses. This is applicable to me as I engage with others at work as a supervisor and at home as a husband and father. It’s also an important lesson to employ internally as I reflect on how I view, value and speak to myself.

Standard

Home

I returned home this evening from Newfoundland. R and the boys were out when I arrived, but I was welcomed by Shadow, our Bichon Frise puppy. Shadow was so excited to see me that he jumped all around the kitchen and piddled on the floor. Being reminded that I’m his favourite human was worth the hassle of cleaning up his mess. I’ve never been much of a dog person, but I’m definitely a fan of this one.

When R and the boys came home, they, too, were thrilled to see me. Thankfully this wasn’t as messy of a greeting. Although I enjoyed the past few days in St. John’s, it was great to be all together again. I have more travel scheduled over the next few weeks, so I’m already dreading the additional time I’ll be away from my family.

This year I’m trying to focus more on gratitude. It’s easy to obsess over my fears and failings, so it’s helpful to intentionally take a few minutes each day to reflect on the many good things in my life. Today I’m grateful for a wonderful family, a lovable but poorly trained puppy, and a safe and welcoming place to call home.

Standard

Why?

I woke up early this morning so that I could run on the trails around Signal Hill before I needed to start work. Halfway through my run, I stopped my watch and sat silently on the rocks with a beautiful view of the Atlantic Ocean.

Today, someone else woke up in Toronto with an ugly view of the world and decided to drive a van into innocent people walking on the sidewalk, killing at least nine of them and injuring many more.

Why? What is this ugliness? Does it exist in everyone (and in me)? Where does it come from? How do we remain focused on what is beautiful and good?

Standard

Lost

“The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.”—Robert Frost

When you’re lost in the woods, you look forward to seeing a road or a marked trail or a small cottage with an inviting light shining through its windows. What’s not comforting is coming across a large and uninviting tent in the middle of nowhere when you’ve been bushwacking off the trail for many minutes. It’s even more disconcerting when there’s a large axe propped up just outside the dark entrance to the tent. I’d be too scared to live out there in the dark, so I figured only someone scary enough not to be scared out there must be living in the tent. I ran quickly through the woods until I eventually found my way back to an actual trail. And yes, I kept looking over my shoulder to see if anyone was chasing me.

I’m in St. John’s for work, so I’d taken the opportunity to go for a short adventure on the East Coast Trail. My plan was to take a taxi to the Cape Spear Lighthouse and then run along the trail back to the city. The trail from Cape Spear to Blackhead was easy to follow with the Atlantic Ocean just off to my right. I didn’t run too fast as I wanted to enjoy the beautiful scenery and I stopped many times to take photos. I probably hiked more than I ran. It was on the next trail section from Blackhead to Fort Amherst that I ran into some navigational challenges.

When I arrived at Freshwater Bay halfway through, I didn’t realize that I needed to cross over the formation of large rocks that stretched from one side of the bay to the other. Instead, I ran up an old fire road only to find the path completely flooded out a few minutes later. Then I ran back down to the water and found another trail that turned out to be a “trail in progress.” It didn’t take long until I wasn’t on any trail at all and just scrambling through the woods in circles.

It was at this point that I got a bit worried, especially when I came upon the tent … and then came upon the tent a second time. While the first 80 minutes of my trail run had seemed perfect as I travelled close to the ocean, now that I was disoriented in the woods with evening approaching, I began to wonder whether this beautiful place would become my resting place.

Before I left Toronto I’d prepared a running backpack that contained two emergency blankets, a whistle, a flashlight and some food. But in the busyness of the weekend with my family, I’d forgotten to put the pack in my suitcase before flying this morning to St. John’s.

Thankfully I found my way back to the trail and returned safely to the city, but I could have easily broken my leg or ankle and been stuck outside by myself overnight. The crazy thing is that it’s an easy trail to navigate except for that one specific section I managed to screw up. Regardless, since I was running this route for the first time, I should have been better prepared, particularly as a husband and father. There’s no excuse not to carry some basic safety items with me when hiking or running in the woods, especially if I’m travelling by myself in an area with no cell phone reception.

What I found most interesting about this experience is how quickly I transitioned from feeling invincible to vulnerable. I suppose this is similar to other situations in my life when the paths I’m following suddenly change. Perhaps I need to pack a bigger bag?

Standard

Labels

Stranger: “Excuse me, I see your son is flapping his arms. Does he have autism?”

Me: “He’s actually quite happy and excited at the moment. I hope you’ve found something to be happy about today as well.”

I may be overreacting, but I’m starting to get annoyed when people ask whether someone has autism. The way I see it, our social identity is generally based on how others view us and the labels they assign to us. So when we refer to a “child with autism,” this can lead others to regard autism as something bad that happens to people or that afflicts them, such as an illness or disease, and also suggests that it’s something that can be cured or fixed.

If you don’t believe this happens, take a look at this feature from CBS News: https://www.cbsnews.com/pictures/autism-9-warning-signs-every-parent-should-know/. Actually, don’t even click on the link. It’s horrible. These are the first two sentences: “Parents fear autism, and rightly so. The mysterious brain disorder devastates a child’s ability to speak and interact with others.”

I find this so, so, so, so offensive.

Given that autism is a neurological difference, it’s not something that can be taken away or healed. As such, there is no such thing as a “child with autism,” but instead an autistic child. It’s not something you have, but something you are. When I read media reports such as the CBS feature referenced above, I get quite frustrated as I think they only contribute further to the exclusion and objectification of autistic people.

Although the use of “autistic” still contributes to identity, the meaning is subject to change. This emphasis recognizes that language not only shapes how we view the world, but also constructs it for us. Just as our cultural understanding of blackness or femininity changes continually, so, too, can our understanding of autism adapt over time. The signifier “autistic” can also contribute to the self-identity of autistic people, as autism is part of who they are as opposed to something they have.

As someone who is neurotypical (I think), I obviously can’t speak for autistic people, but I do want to ensure I love and value my son for who he is without trying to turn him into someone he isn’t. As my friend Rhonda noted the other week, it’s time we move away from autism awareness and embrace autism acceptance instead.

Standard