Family Lines

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Month: September 2017

Surfing NS

Surf boards on the beach.

Ready to hit the waves!

I love surfing. It’s amazing. I am amazingly bad at it. However, that doesn’t stop me from heading out on the water. At the end of last month, my middle sister and I took a day to carve the waves in Nova Scotia. I was home from Alberta on vacation and my sister was home after a year of working in Iraq for Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF).

We made the two hour drive from the Annapolis Valley to Martinique Beach Provincial Park, where I had surfed about 10 years ago. It’s a nice and relatively isolated spit of sand west of Halifax. When my sister and I arrived at the beach, the expanse of Atlantic Ocean looked like a city parking lot – concrete grey. There were flecks of white froth as a strong wind churned the sea into rolling waves. Perfect for hanging ten.

Paddling out into the Atlantic.

Paddling out into the Atlantic.

Grey and white clouds matched the Atlantic. The month of August was almost up and the weather decided to be more like autumn. The beach was almost deserted when my sister and I put on our wetsuits. We picked up our boards and put our bare feet into the water. I shivered but it wasn’t because of the cool temperature of the water. I couldn’t wait to hit the waves.

While my sister had recently spent a few weeks surfing big waves in Sri Lanka, I hadn’t been in awhile. A long while. I waded deeper into the ocean with my board on my hip. Strong gusts tried to lift it away from me and set it on the water. The swell was around 2 ft. – easy for a back-to-beginner like me. I put my board in the water and started to paddle out to sea.

My sister catching a wave.

My sister catching a wave.

Smash! Salt water slammed me in the face. Smash! It happened again. But I loved it. I didn’t mind being hit by the ocean. I kept going. Moving farther from shore. I looked at the swell gliding towards me and I tried to gauge the wave. Should I go for it?

I turned my board around to face the shore. I paddled as fast as I could. I felt the crest of the wave start lifting me. I jumped up on the board. Then…

I’m falling into the dark green cave. I’m plummeting towards the bottom of the Atlantic. My body goes limp as the ocean sends me spinning along the sand. During the briny chaos, I cover my head with my arms as I’m pushed into the silt. I don’t know where my board is and don’t want to be whacked in the face. The Atlantic doesn’t care about my watery confusion and keeps me upside down. I’m suspended in the drink with no way of knowing which way is up and which way is down. I can’t breathe.

So I kick. Kick again. Kick at the water until it loosens its grip on me. I kick. Kick. Kick until I exchange smothering saltiness with clear air. I float on the skin of the Atlantic and heave oxygen into my lungs, replacing what I had lost.

Heading back to the surf shop. Kannon Beach.

Heading back to the surf shop. Kannon Beach.

What a rush.

I stand up, looking for my sister. There she is, riding a wave. Relaxed and poised. Until she too bails. We laugh and paddle out together. Waves smash us in the face and seagulls hovering over us laugh at our surfing abilities. Despite this, we don’t stop. We surf until our hands are red and our lips are blue from cold. That day, even though I didn’t catch many waves, I got to hang with my sister and catch up with her.

Swimming again

Mist rises in the cold air at the Queen Elizabeth outdoor pool.

Mist rises in the cold air at the Queen Elizabeth outdoor pool.

I used to be a competitive swimmer for Ryerson University. Swimming is great exercise and the water always feels like home to me. It’s because no matter where I am, pool water never changes. It’s always wet in South Korea, The Gambia, Fort Smith and Calgary. Since I just moved to Edmonton, I thought I’d head to something familiar in this unfamiliar place.

I decided to go to an outdoor pool. Even though it hasn’t been that warm here, the pool remained open up until yesterday. I walked to the pool in the cold rain and cursed myself for not wearing mittens (it really was that cold) or bringing a tuque for the stroll home. I started hemming and hawing about continuing.

“It’s raining and it’s cold,” I said to myself, “why are you doing this to yourself?”

Really, there was no argument. I knew why I was going. I wanted some exercise and I wanted to do something regular – routine, in a day that had started differently from the last seven years in Calgary. I wanted to focus on my breathing and stroke count and seeing if I could beat my 100 freestyle (four laps of a 25 metre pool) time from last month. I didn’t want to think about unpacking and what went where and what didn’t fit there. I wanted a break from new spaces and spots and streets with strange numbers.

Despite the icy rain, the gate to the pool was wide open. As I walked onto the deck, the chlorine struck my nostrils. I took a deep breath in. Ahhhh! (I liked it.) That strong chemical smell of the water never changes either. The wisps of fog swimming over the pool didn’t make it look inviting. I shivered in the mist and then picked up a flutter board.

I headed to the edge of the pool. There was someone in the lane already splashing up and down the 25 metres. I jumped in beside him and said hello when he surfaced for air at the end of the lane.

“Hi,” he said before disappearing under a wave.

I pulled on my googles. The water was warm on my skin. Not at all cold, like the air around me. I pushed off the wall and struck out for the other side. Something I’ve done over and over again in a few different places.

Firsts and forgets

Dr. Conley and I in Halifax.I love seeing people’s “first day of school” photos (especially those of my niece and nephew). While I was home in Nova Scotia last week, Acadia University students were moving into residence, some for the first time.

It has been more than 20 years since I was a student at Acadia, set on changing the world. I was going to be a foreign correspondent who would fly herself (in her own plane) to troubled regions and report the news. I would spread the word about terrible atrocities and make the world understand that it needed to help right away. I would force people to wake up and start caring. Yep, that was my plan.

I was reminded of these naïve aspirations a couple of weeks ago while visiting a professor / mentor in Halifax. Dr. Marshall Conley is a globetrotting human rights expert whom I first met when I was in his introductory political science class at Acadia. He also spearheaded a youth international internship program that paired volunteers under 30 with human rights non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as well as governments. In 1998, I was one of Dr. Conley’s interns.

After finishing my degree at Acadia and then the journalism program at Ryerson University in Toronto, I was sent to the African Centre for Democracy and Human Right Studies in The Gambia as a publications officer. During my recent trip back to Nova Scotia, Dr. Conley (I still can’t call him by his first name even though we’ve been friends for years) invited my husband and I to his lovely home for lunch. When we arrived, I saw he had set out a photograph of the 16 interns he had sent around the world the year I went to The Gambia.

I blinked at the picture of young adults lined up in two rows. I had always thought that I would never forget the people in my intern cohort but here I was, blanking. While I remembered their faces, I couldn’t remember many of their names. It worried me. If I let these fine details escape from my brain, how many other things am I forgetting?

Dr. Conley came over and once he said who each person was, a light bulb went on inside my head.

“Oh, yes,” my brain said. “I remember now.”

I do remember. I remember tidbits about each person too. I remember where they all went, one to Estonia, one to Paris, two to Bangladesh, two to The Gambia (one was me), etc. I remember the excitement we all had when we were about to take off to exotic and strange locations. I remember the nervousness of heading into the unknown. I also remember trying to find a mosquito net in Halifax long before Mountain Equipment Co-op was a thing. I remember booking my flight that took me from Nova Scotia, to Iceland, to London and then to Africa. (Björk was on my plane from Reykjavik to London. She wore a white butcher’s apron as a dress and flip-flops with socks. The whole ensemble looked uncomfortable.)

Miriama from theAfrican Centre for Democracy and Human Rights Studies.

Miriama from theAfrican Centre for Democracy and Human Rights Studies.

I remember thinking that this internship would lay the foundation for my career as a foreign correspondent. In Gambia, I would get experience in human rights, NGOs, politics and policy and be introduced to new ideas and ways of life. With all these tools and insight, I would jump to an exciting and fulfilling journalism career.

I did learn a lot about human rights and statecraft and met all sorts of people from all walks of life in The Gambia. I also learned how to barter (my roommate was better, though), how to find my way through sandy streets and that unripe mangos make a tasty mango crisp. All these lessons and moments added up to a truly life-changing experience. I was on my way to making my goal a reality.

Then the real world got in the way.

When I returned home from my many months aboard, I needed a job. I got one in Calgary working as a news writer for a television station. I didn’t like working in TV and three years later, I left to be a pilot. Flying my own plane was the second piece to my world reporting aspirations. However, 9/11 happened and people were afraid to fly and the demand for pilots dropped. I did get my private licence but didn’t go on any further. I got a job at Mount Allison University and somewhere throughout the years, my dreams of being the flying foreign correspondent drifted away like clouds I flew through in my Cessna.

I'm flying a Cessna over Acadia University.

I’m flying a Cessna over Acadia University.

Last week while looking at the picture of the interns, I realized I hadn’t thought about my first life goal in a long, long time. It wasn’t that I had forgotten about it, I just needed a reminder about that “first.” But that’s why it was a first, because life isn’t linear and lots of other goals came after it. I’d still like to say thanks to Dr. Conley for giving me a step up on my way to changing the world. Because we all have in some way. While attending a pan-African human rights conference in Gambia, someone said, “’If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito in the room.” (That quote has also been attributed to the Dalai Lama but I heard it attributed to an African proverb.) It’s true. We’re all making a difference.

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