Poverty sucks

I saw it in a tweet. An invitation to experience poverty, even if it is only in a simulation online.

I took it. The challenge. I clicked on SPENT, an online simulation of living life in the poverty zone.

Poverty sucks.

There’s no way to win at life, get ahead, to make the ‘ethical’ choice when the decisions you have to make always come back down to — will I have enough money to pay the rent, buy food to feed my children, pay their school fees, pay insurance.

At one point in the game, while driving my children to school, I hit an icy patch and my car slid into a parked car causing damage. I had a choice. Stop. Try to find the owner. Leave a note. Get the kids to school and be late for work. OR. Leave the scene and hope no one saw me. Except my kids of course. They were watching from the back seat. Tracking every move I took. Learning from every decision I made.

Sure, in real life, I wouldn’t drive away. I would be accountable.

But in real life, I have more than $326 left in the bank to take me to the end of the month 20 long days away. I earn more than $9.00 an hour.

In real life, I have resources.

In SPENT, I lasted 11 days before I hit bottom. I wonder what happened to my kids?

What about you? Can you win at poverty?

You can find out for yourself by taking the test, playing the game of poverty called SPENT.

It was part of my making a difference yesterday. To do something to stretch myself out of my comfort zone, to experience something beyond my frame of reference and then to share my experience. Yesterday, after playing SPENT, I tweeted on my experience. Today I’m writing about it. And I’m looking at ways to get involved in reducing poverty in Alberta.

The other part of making a difference was to meet my once a week commitment to not drive my car and not spend money for a day (at least not real money). Ellie, the wonder pooch, had to settle for a walk in the neighbourhood and I spent time focussing on things I needed to do around the house. I did some tasks that have needed doing for quite sometime. I have a sparkling clean office and a stack of packages and cards to mail out.

Taking care of  myself makes a difference in my world. Taking care of tasks that have been lingering around, waiting for me to ‘get to them’, makes a difference in my attitude, my outlook and my energy. And with my attitude all sparkling clean and refreshed today, I’m ready to take on the world outside my window. I’m ready to get busy making a difference.

Expect the Unexpected


He is walking towards us at the park where Ellie, my golden retriever, and I walk. It is quiet. Not many people out on this blustery January afternoon, even though the weather is uncharacteristically warm. I am conscious of Ellie’s tendency to want to greet everyone we pass and so I shorten her leash and hold on tightly.

As I have made a commitment to greet everyone we pass on the trail, I smile as we approach each other and say, “Hello.”

I’m not expecting much of a response. He doesn’t look like he’s in the mood for greetings of the Ellie kind so I am surprised when he stops and says hello back and asks if he can say hello to Ellie who is straining at her leash.

I smile and let her bound over to him. At 11, Ellie doesn’t know she’s a senior citizen. She leans into his legs, squirms and groans and makes noises as if to say, “Oh thank you thank you. No one ever pays attention to little ole’ me.”

Ellie is a con artist.

The man laughs, takes off his gloves and rubs her haunches. Ellie is in heaven.

“She loves people,” I tell him.

“I can tell,” he says and then he bends down and looks her in the face and rubs her ears. He looks up at me. “I used to have a retriever. She wasn’t as big as this one. I had to let her go last July.”  And he rubs Ellie’s head some more.

She has become uncharacteristically quiet, as if she knows exactly what is needed without my having to remind her to calm down. “It was hard. My wife passed away just before that. Been married 48 years. Kids are all moved away.” And he stands up and looks at me and says, “Not many people stop to say hello out here.”

He places one hand on Ellie’s head as if in benediction. “Thank you,” he says before walking away.

And I don’t know if he’s talking to Ellie or me or his pet who is no longer here or his wife who passed away.

And it doesn’t matter. In our encounter I am reminded. Expect the unexpected. There’s always an opportunity to stop and make a difference, even when you least expect it.

Doing the hard

It began with the effortless. Have coffee with a young man, Des, who inspired by my TEDxCalgary talk in November, wanted to chat about volunteering and making a difference. Chatting with Des I felt awed by his commitment to volunteering, and to creating opportunities to raise funds for the charities he supports. And, I came away with a great idea for my daughters and I to make a difference together (more on that at another date!)

Meeting with Des I was reminded — giving is receiving

An hour of my time and one green tea latte later and I came away excited about how powerful we are as human beings to create positive change in the world.

The hard didn’t come until later. A conversation with a cohort lead to confirmation of comments someone else is making that cast a negative light on something I was involved with. I was hurt. Angry. Saddened. Confused. And when I’m confused, my victim’s voice gets active… What’s in it for them to attempt to disparage me? Why do they…? Why can’t they…? In my victim’s place I put my focus on ‘them’ and take it off where it belongs — on what I’m doing, thinking, saying.

I had an option. Let those thoughts eat away at my peace of mind. Let myself become embroiled in, ‘how could they’, ‘well I never’, “wait ’til I get even’ thinking, or breathe deeply and consciously focus my thinking on creating what I want more of in this world — peace, harmony, love, joy.

It wasn’t easy. I wanted to lash out. To stamp my feet and scream about the injustice, not to mention wrongness, of what is being said. But, to do that would undermine my integrity. It would create disharmony  in my world, and thus, send out ripples of discord to the world around me.

And I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to create shockwaves of unease. I want to create ripples of kindness.

And so I did the only thing I knew I could to make a difference within me. I meditated and held this  situation in healing light.

What others do is never about me. What I do is about me. And I cannot do my best when I am focused on what other’s are doing. I can only do my best when I focus on me and accept, my best is good enough.

Fighting fire with fire only engulfs me in the flames. Healing torched ground takes tender loving care and so, I opted to cast light on the darkness, to shed love on the pain. I feel better when I put my energy on creating a world of difference within me. A difference that I intend to let ripple out in waves of kindness as I move through my day.

Making a difference isn’t about what I do. It’s about the choices I make to create a world of difference in and around me. And sometimes, that requires my letting go of the easy and doing ‘the hard’.



Begin with turning up

It was a full house last night at the Joe Dutton Theatre for the live recording of The Eviction of Stuart Block, a radio play written and created by people experiencing homelessness and people who are working to make a difference in the homeless sector. Created by This is My City for this years High Performance Rodeo, The Eviction of Stuart Block tells the storied history of a three storey former rooming house in Calgary’s downtown core that now sits empty, awaiting demolition.

The cast was primarily actors from the homeless shelter where I worked for almost six years until I resigned at the end of 2011. A motley crew of troubadours, actors, writers, misfits, down and outs and up and comers as Col Cseke, co-director of the piece called them in his introduction. And everyone laughed and for the next hour and a half, everyone was enchanted. Seriously enthralled by this motley crew who brought the real life comings and goings, joys and traumas of a rooming house’s slide from inner city influence into skid row dereliction to life on the stage.

It was a moving, touching and compelling evening for me (and everyone there). As Max, one of the actors said to me after the play, “There will always be a bit of you up there on the stage Louise. This would never have come to be without you.”

I was touched by his words. Touched by the grace of this man whom I first met sitting on the second floor of the shelter painting by himself at a table, surrounded by the chaos and hubbub of the busy day area of the shelter. “Why don’t you come up and paint with us on the sixth floor?” I asked him almost everyday for a month after starting the arts program. “It’s much quieter up there and the view is awesome.” (and the view of the Bow River and the valley to the north of the shelter is awesome!) And eventually, Max did come and join the group that met every Thursday evening in the multi-purpose room. And eventually, he opened up to his creative urges to explore more, to give more of himself to not only his art but also to creating music at the shelter and in the community. And in his sharing, songs have been written, a singing group formed and performances shared all over the city.

In May 2006 when I began working at the shelter, I started an arts program which, over the years, evolved into full spectrum arts-oriented programming that encompassed all the arts from visual to theatrical to musical and written/spoken word. Over the years, the Possibilities Project, as it became known, created opportunities for clients, volunteers, staff and the community to connect in ways beyond the traditional “Let me help you” model prevalent throughout the homeless service sector. The Possibilities Project made it possible for people to connect on the common ground of creative expression — no matter the medium, no matter their address.

I had a lot of ‘me’ invested in the Possibilities Project and no longer being involved, I felt the sadness and the pull of separation anxiety when I arrived at the theatre last night. And then I walked in as the DI Singers (the singing group Max continues to sing with that co-director of the play, Onalea Gilbertson started in 2009) began to perform their pre-show concert. The performers waved and smiled when they saw me and I waved and smiled back. I sat in the front row (a place I never sit) and became immersed in their performance.

It was a night of magic and wonder. Of witnessing the human spirit in flight. It was a moment to let go of regret and savour the wonder of what happens when an idea takes wings on the spirit of  human beings celebrating their magnificence.

I was touched by Max’s words to me last night. Touched and awed by the splendor of the people on that stage. And, I was humbled. Years ago I created a space for people to explore their creative yearnings. Today, they are still exploring those yearnings, still expressing their creative impulses and still creating special moments for all of us to witness and experience and enjoy.

As my friend Rachael said after the performance, “You made a difference by turning up tonight, Louise. It was important for everyone on that stage that you be here.”

I am blessed. I didn’t have to ‘do’ anything to make a difference. All I had to do was turn up and be part of the magic.

It’s all any of us have to do. To make a difference begin with turning up. Turn up and let the magic happen.

And here’s a great article by Stephen Hunt in the Calgary Herald about the play. Homeless build show from century-old building. 

How I am in this world

The day started out with ‘easy’.

My friend Dave who needed help getting boxes the day before and then didn’t need help, did need help. Mission accomplished. I drove him to the north end of the city. We picked up boxes and padding and tape and all things packing. I drove him back home and I picked up a bunch of plants.

Giving is receiving.

I gave of my time and Dave gave me some beautiful plants in return.

It was later that the ‘make a difference’ broadened into a global perspective.

Every Wednesday night I join a group for meditation. The purpose is, as Dal our guide calls it, ‘to be of service in the world’. To join our focus with others who are focusing their energy on ‘more of what we want’ in the world. Love. Light. Healing. Peace. Joy.

Sitting in the meditation circle, surrounded by people who were sharing their selves in the encounter, I felt connected to the energy of each of us there, and to the power of each of us to create change in our world.

Through meditation, I let go of my ego’s need to be in control, and fall into that place of surrender where I become One in Love with the world around me. I become who I am in this world where Love overcomes evil, Light illuminates darkness.  Harmony dispels discord. And Joy transcends sorrow.

It is, ultimately, the purpose of this blog. To spend a year consciously focused on being the difference I want to see in the world. Being that difference must begin within me. It must begin with my thinking, my conscious acts that say — I am part of this world. This world is part of me. We are all connected. And what I do, say, think, how I act, how I am in this world makes a difference.



Be Flexible

When I awoke yesterday I didn’t know what the day had in store. It was my first, official, day of ‘not working at the shelter’ that wasn’t ‘holiday time’.

My thought was to make a difference to the environment by not driving my car and not spending any money.

And then, my friend Dave called. “What’s on your agenda today?” I asked him.

“I’ve got to pick up boxes.”  He’s moving to Winnipeg at the end of the month and is in the throes of packing.

“Do you need a ride?” I asked. He lives downtown and has not seen the need for a car in years.

He did and I agreed to pick him up later in the day after I’d finished off a writing piece I’m doing for a company in Vancouver.

I quickly rethought my notion of not driving for the day — helping a friend trumps environmental footprint. Except, he called me back a few hours later to inform me he’d found a website that will deliver the boxes, the next day. No need to drive.

Good thing. Because in the process of going through the mail, I found the notice with the renewal form for my driver’s licence. It had expired on my birthday! Dec 9. I kinda had to go and get it renewed before I drove people around, don’t you think? And I kinda needed my daughter to drive me to the Registry Office to do it (how sweet is that? She gets to make a difference too!) No sense taunting the gods of roadfarers, or the police, driving on an expired licence. For some reason, in my mind, there’s a difference between knowingly driving on an expired licence and accidentally doing so.

No licence meant it was a good day to save the planet. Not a good day to go out and about. And while I would miss dropping in on the rehearsal of a group of clients from the homeless shelter who were preparing for their world-premiere of a radio play they’d written as a collective, which I had also planned on doing, I definitely didn’t need to risk getting a ticket.

Back to Plan A.

Make a difference to the planet today.

Make a difference in someone’s life tomorrow. And even better – go to the dress rehearsal of the play too!

Another lesson learned — when making a difference, be flexible. You never know what life will deliver up.

Being present

I thought it would be easy, this making a difference. And while doing things to make a difference is easy, I am finding myself challenged to stay in the consciousness of being present at all times, watching for opportunities to present themselves, so that I can effortlessly turn up and make a difference with grace.

There are moments when ‘the difference’ appears without any prompting. Standing on the deck at the ferry terminal in Nanaimo, watching the ship roll into the dock, I see a mother and father and their two sons. All decked out in Canuck hockey jersey’s, the mother is taking a photo of her boys against the backdrop of the harbour.

“Would you like a photo of all of you?” I ask.

And she smiles gratefully, shows me how to operate the camera and moves back to join her family for the photo. It was the same with the trio of women on the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery later that afternoon when Alexis and I were leaving the gallery. “Would you like a photo together?” I asked and they gratefully accepted.

And the panhandler sitting on the sidewalk. It was easy to give him coins, just as it was easy to drop a $5 bill into the open guitar case of a busker. Making the decision to give to people on the street is a simple case of deciding to share what coin I have.

But, what of all those other times I didn’t notice? That’s where I find myself challenged in this process. Those chunks of time where I am moving through my day on auto-pilot, not really connecting to the world around me.

I notice it in other’s eyes as well. Walking along the street, intent on getting to where they’re going, they pass me by, engaged in some other mission than being right there where they’re at, looking for opportunities to be the difference they want to see in the world.

It is not the ‘making a difference’ that is the challenge. It’s the being present, being in the moment that eludes me as I catch myself drifting away, sealing myself off from the world passing me by, moving through my day by rote.

Yes, it is in being present that I must be different.

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