Wednesday, October 31, 2012

How to get lifesaving drugs to can help

I'm an enthusiastic supporter of a humanitarian bill currently moving through Parliament, Bill C-398, that I believe will ensure more affordable HIV/AIDS drugs (anti-retrovirals) get to where they are desperately needed in Africa. The bill actually seeks to streamline earlier CAMR (Canadian Access to Medicines Regime) legislation passed in Canada in 2004, which made it possible to produce inexpensive generic drugs in Canada (carefully monitored) to send to Africa. Well, that legislation was so complicated and cumbersome that only one shipment of drugs has been sent in 8 years!
Now we have the chance to pass a better bill that cuts the red tape and encourages the manufacture of drugs here that can go to help save lives in Africa...with no cost to Canadian taxpayers! What a difference this could make! So, I'm part of GRAN (the Grandmothers Advocacy Network), a group determined to see this bill through, and on November 1, 2012, we'll be rallying across Canada, on various hilltops, (at noon on the hill above Clover Point in Victoria) to send the message to Parliament Hill that we want Bill C-398 passed. You can write or email PM Stephen Harper, ( or your MP, and raise your voice too: Pass Bill C-398 and save lives!

Thursday, August 9, 2012

My friends the Sisters of St. Clare are celebrating!

I have friends in Duncan who are celebrating an unusual anniversary, the 100th anniversary of their  order of contemplative nuns, the Sisters of St. Clare (or Poor Clares) on Vancouver Island. It's also the 800th anniversary of the order itself...that's a lot of anniversaries!
The Poor Clares have been a part of my life for the last 19 years (and I consider that worth celebrating too!), ever since they called and asked if I would do a story on another event they planned. I accepted that challenge (a first for me to meet monastic nuns) with the proviso that I'd like to come and spend time with them and learn about their a "day in the life of" story on nuns in Canada in the 20th Century.
Little did I know that would be the start of a relationship that has impacted my life ever since...a friendship with a group of witty, funny, thoughtful, and perceptive women who happen to centre their lives on prayer and contemplation, but also feel a deep connection with the rest of the world, and hold us all in their prayers. In fact, you can make prayer requests now via email or on their website, by the way). Never say these women aren't up to date!
I find when I'm amongst the Sisters as a visitor in their sunny parlour, I feel a sense of comfort and ease I rarely find elsewhere. The commitment the women have made by choosing the monastic life is not an easy one, yet when you feel the sense of joy they emanate, you can begin to understand their decision.. The Sisters have become cherished friends (something I never expected to happen), and I envy their clarity of purpose and admire their devotion to the spiritual life. Their most recent  member of the group is Monique, a delightful woman of 43 who chose this life after losing her husband to fact, he helped her choose this monastery! Monique says that while the life she has chosen is difficult, "she's never been happier." She feels this is the "fit" she had longed for, and somehow, when you see her, you can sense that starting from her smile..
The Sisters will celebrate publicly on Saturday, August 11 at a Eucharistic Celebration at 10 a.m. at St. Andrew's Cathedarl, 740 View Street, Victoria, with a reception following at St. Patrick's Parish Hall. You can bet I'll be there.
(For more on the Sisters and the friendship we share, go also to the Times-Colonist's Spiritually Speaking blog at

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Spiritual Tourism and the NYNO

Machu Picchu at Dawn   Photo by Sean F. White
I love the fact that more and more people, especially us NYNOs (Not Young Not Old) are choosing spiritual tourism for our explorations of the world. I think of this type of journey as "deep travel" and it really means to travel with intention and openness, to sites that may be sacred or may transform you in some way, to listen and be attentive to your surroundings. to learn more about the sacred place you find yourself, maybe from the wisdom keepers in the local area. That is, to journey with intention AND attention. And that's the way I hope to  travel each time I leave for a trip or personal pilgrimage, but when you prepare for and plan for this journey, it can be even more meaningful.
At the NYNO stage of life, we often have the time, the money, and the health, coupled with the keen desire, to undertake this type of inner and outer journey, and that's confirmed by the fact that the vast majority of "pilgrims" worldwide are age 50 and up. Maybe it's also because, as writer Phil Cousineau explains it, we often need the added motivation of a life crisis or a time of transition and unknowing,  to push us onto and into a spiritual journey as we make big decisions and ask the big questions.
Djenne Mosque Photo by Sean F. White
I was wonderfully moved recently by Sean F. White's newest film Terra Sacra Time Lapses and Sean has very kindly allowed me to use some of his images here (Thank you again, Sean!), .so you'll see what I mean. He captured the "Sacred Lands" of our planet both creatively and movingly in the 6-minute film he created...and reminded me of the incredible beauty and sacredness of  our world.
I asked Sean what were some of the most memorable places on earth for him, and he mentioned Machu Picchu, the Pyramids and the supernatural energy of the Salar De Uyuni in Bolivia. He also said the only place in the world where he actually felt he wasn't even on Earth was Antarctica because of the massive ice world there. But he says the "most special place" he's ever been is Angel Falls in Venezuela, the world's tallest waterfall. He said it's "out of a dream world." Looking at the photo of Djenne Mosque, I become so fascinated that I've decided it should be on my bucket list too.
Do you have a favourite sacred place? It's the question I asked each person I interviewed for my book Havens in a Hectic World: Finding Sacred Places, and it's an endlessly fascinating question to me. And there are so many well-known and personal sacred sites around the world that you could start journeying to them today and keep going the rest of your life.
My very favourite book on this topic is Phil Cousineau's The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker's Guide to Making Travel Sacred, and I carried that book with me all the way to the top of Mt. Olympus in Greece...I simply couldn't bear to leave it behind....Look for it and I don't think you'll be disappointed.
There are now travel tour companies that specialize in spiritual tourism too...and the one here in BC is called Sacred Earth Journeys and is located in Burnaby. Not too coincidentally, I think, Phil is leading their next tour to Greece...small world.
Isla del Pescado, Bolivia   Photo by Sean F. White
I also talked to Wil Davis recently, an 84-year-old "explorer" who fulfilled a lifelong dream recently by returning to Palestine and Israel to walk the roads of the Bible and especially to see the Dead Sea scrolls, which were discovered when he was serving in the British Air Force in that area in 1947-48. Wil admitted to me that he's been a sort of "doubting Thomas" type all his life, never really believing the Bible stories, but at the same time anxious to have proof that might make him feel differently. When he took off on his spiritual journey this spring, he knew he wanted to spend time in the very area where the scrolls were discovered, seeing that cave in Qumran firsthand, walking the streets of Bethlehem, Jericho, Jerusalem, Jaffa and Tel Aviv, standing beside the Jordan River. After his transformative journey, Wil has joined a church and says he "believes the Bible so much more now." Being there, where it happened, was enough for him. Here's to sacred journeys for all of us.
Wil Davis with a replica of the Dead Sea scrolls

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Body Image and the NYNO Woman

 A full  25% of  NYNO women surveyed chose their "whole body" as the "part of the body they feel best about",  and love the fact they feel strong, are physically active, and continue to hike, ski, garden, play tennis, or take a daily walk. Many women also make sure they protect their skin with a hat, sunscreen, and moisturizer or practice meditation or yoga daily.

 Okay, so I was do NYNO (that is, Not Young Not Old) women in British Columbia feel about their body image at this point in life. What do they feel worst and best about? Would they consider cosmetic surgery? I surveyed my Focus Group of Women 40 and up, and was surprised (and pleased) with the findings. For example, 25% of women in the survey (of women mostly in their 50s and 60s) chose their face as their best body part, and another 25% chose their "whole body." I loved hearing this. Over 40% said they would not choose plastic surgery, but prefer to let nature take its course. Fifteen percent said they would  definitely consider plastic surgery and the largest group, 45%, said it would depend...with the most commonly mentioned procedure they would consider having done being eyelid surgery (which I've been told by an expert is a "simple procedure" provided you choose a surgeon who knows what he or she is doing!)
Another 20% of NYNO women chose their legs
as their "best" body part
The part of her body that most annoys the NYNO woman seemed to be, overwhelmingly, her thickening midriff, which one woman described as "a monster house on a small lot!"
Other parts women rail against included upper arms, and saggy skin, but a good 15%  chose "none," that is, NO disliked part, also a cause for celebration, in my mind. Additional "best" or favourite body parts included legs, hair, breasts, and skin.
Overall, NYNO women here in BC seem to be pretty darn content with their changing body image, and I think that's both reaffirming and healthy. Btw, talking to someone in the surgical field in New York, I was told that, after years of observation, she found that the plastic surgery with the biggest "happiness ever after" rate was breast reduction, which, literally, takes such a load off some women's shoulders (and backs). A plastic surgeon in Victoria told me it was abdominoplasty (that is, surgically removing excess skin, usually after big weight loss) that gave him as a surgeon the greatest satisfaction.
He also told me (which was eye opening to me) that he refuses to do 20-25% of the cosmetic procedures people ask him to perform, basically because he feels the result may not look right or it's not appropriate. That sort of honesty is what we should look for if and when any of us consider cosmetic surgery, in my book. In the meantime,
here's to the confident NYNO woman enjoying her active lifestyle in BC...and smiling all the way!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

A Piazza of Learning for young and old

102-year-old Lawrence Durelle, a former boxer, musician, and repairer of Stradivarius violins, among other things,
talking to the Sociology of Aging Class last year

I've stumbled upon a sampling of classes in BC where the young and old come together and learn from each other in a safe environment, and find the idea quite exciting. Most recently I heard about Mary Ann Murphy's Sociology of Aging  280 Class at UBC's Okanagan campus in Kelowna. Mary Ann recruits seniors for her class, giving about 20 talks a year to various seniors' groups, (and anyone over age 65 gets free tuition at UBC for most classes!) and the older people join the class of 20-somethings for a stimulating learning environment for all.  Storytelling is a fine art and the Gen X and Y-ers hear about WW11, concentration camps, the women's movement, work in the Dirty Thirty's, and the Holocaust, while the older set ask about tattoos, and how young families make ends meet. Great learning for all in our increasingly intergenerational society!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Can Mindfulness Meditation slow the onset of Dementia?

Dr. Colette Smart
 It seems to me that half the world (at least my world) is anxious to find ways to slow or avoid dementia, as we all march towards those "at risk" older years of our lives, or are concerned about our parents and others we care about who are already elderly.

So, it was with keen interest that I learned of Dr. Colette Smart's study at the University of Victoria focusing on the subject of dementia from a rather creative (at least in my mind!) point of view. Can applying the techniques of Mindfulness Meditation actually affect our brains as we age, and, hopefully, actually slow or halt possible dementia in the elderly? What a shocking premise....and it's exactly the hypothesis that Dr. Smart and her colleagues at UVic are examining in a study underway this spring of 2012.

I heard Dr. Smart speak on Mindfulness Meditation: A New Frontier in Dementia Prevention and Intervention at a UVic colloquium this spring and interviewed her later about her work as a neuropsychologist whose interest is in "self-regulation and cognitive rehabilitation" with a focus on applying contemplative (i.e. meditation) practice to facilitate brain recovery, or, in the case of dementia, to ward off decline. Her current study includes a control group of older adults who feel everything is functioning as usual in their brains and a second group who have self-identified as "cognitive complainers", i.e. those who feel they are "losing it" as far as remembering things, etc. and who may indeed be headed towards dementia.

Each group is divided in half and then exposed to either the techniques of mindfulness meditation (or learning how to pay attention to the present more completely and let go of certain anxieties) or to more traditional psychoeducation techniques (like studying the different types of memory and how to address decline in various areas). In a few months, when the study is completed, I'm anxious to hear the results! The participants have brain scans and other measurable markers (through tests, etc) done before and after the we'll hopefully learn if the meditation is effective, and really does result in new brain growth (through neuroplasticity). Pretty exciting stuff and can't wait to hear more in the future!
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Thursday, May 3, 2012

Learning about our plastic, trainable brains

I've only recently become aware of the concept of neuroplasticity, that is, the now scientifically-accepted principle that we can indeed change or train our brains throughout our lives, and target areas of weakness to respond to specific "exercises." Through careful application of various forms of brain training, we can develop, build up, or actually  "change" our brains.
Wow. What an idea....still too soon to see how it may apply precisely to conditions such as dementia, but one person who has been proving that this sort of brain exercise works for people (especially kids) with learning disabilities is educator Barbara Arrowsmith-Young. Barbara was born with profound "learning disabilities"and in her 20's discovered ways to work on her areas of weakness (for example, she could never tell time before she started training her brain to do so).

Barbara Arrowsmith-Young working with students on brain-building exercises that target weak areas of the brain
Now, 30-some years later, Barbara's Arrowsmith Program of exercises targeting 19 cognitive defects in various areas of the brain, is used in more than 30 school settings in North America, including her flagship Arrowsmith School in Toronto.
And the world will hear more about this with the release this month of Barbara's book The Woman Who Changed Her Brain, And Other Inspiring Stories of Pioneering Brain Transformation. I interviewed Barbara about her work and her book for my Not Young Not Old column
(it should be posted there by May 7, 2012) and was fascinated by the work she is doing, and the discoveries she's made along the way. Barbara's vision is for all school children to be assessed in the early years of their schooling, using tests she's developed, so they can get help then and not have to go through years of struggle and low self-esteem the way she did.
Barbara will be at the Fairmount Hotel in Vancouver at 7 p.m. on May 24, 2012 talking about her work and her doubt this will be a thought-provoking evening.