Wednesday, June 9, 2010


On a mid-June evening the last thing I expect in Toronto is to find myself wearing two layers of wool with a wool shawl wrapped on top for extra warmth. But that's how it is here right now: damp and chilly.

The gardens are all happy, lush green and growing, the flowers slowed right down after their race through the heat of late May, so that they are now lasting weeks rather than a few days. I am delighted to have time to enjoy the old-variety rose out front for example, that blooms and is over usually within a week. This year it's lingering. (Someone gave me the plant long ago, and now I don't remember its name and am left to just enjoy it for whatever time it deigns to bloom, once only, in June).

A number of friends seem to be heading out in the next couple of weeks, travelling on various errands, to places far away, from China to northern Scotland. I'll miss them, as I suppose they miss me when it's my turn to leave the city and go elsewhere. The shifting patterns we are privileged to live with, as we move around, and our friends and family too, mean that each day is very different and the circumstances we find ourselves in shift every day or week...

This morning I read (in the NYTimes online) an excerpt from Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn's forthcoming book about women and development, and the urgent need to further women's lot by investing in education and health for those in the poorest parts of the world. It is impossible to imagine those women's lives. Kristoff mentions enslavement and poor health and hard work as the essential truths about their lives, and all those are almost impossible for the privileged educated women in the first world to imagine. But even more remote is those women's powerlessness, the fact that they don't have any sense of having choices or hope for any different lot in life.

Once our imaginations are bounded or constrained, whether by totalitarian government or by the restrictions of poverty or by social or cultural or familial barriers to freedom of thought, we are not only unfree, we are actually stunted and deformed. All of us lose when one of us is thus restricted. We lose that person's potential for creative action and full social participation.

And so as I think about the fact that each day brings news of friends or family travelling here or there, or starting up creative or business projects, or changing jobs or ambitions, I know that my world is light years from the life of a woman without education or choices who just tries to get through each day with dignity.

What can I do for her apart from trying to empathise? Pity is useless, and demeaning besides. Sending money to a large organisation is a lottery. Learning about and discussing issues of women's health and education, as Kristoff does, seems useful. And discovering which local grassroots women-run organisations are working to enhnce women's autonomy in the least-advantaged parts of the world, and sending donations there, is a positive constructive avenue.

Why not just appreciate what we have and not worry about women elsewhere? Well it goes back to the fact that we are all diminished by the suffering and loss of any of us. None of this is about condescension, "see how much better I am than you"-style, but instead is an acknowledgement that some women are, by an accident of birth, living with freedom of choice and access to education, while others are deprived of those rights.

Is it the rain and cold that are sending me to these serious reflections? Perhaps. It's also a year since Dom graduated with his BA. That means that it's Convocation time again here at the University of Toronto.

Every morning as I jog slowly past Convocation Hall, I see people arriving, all dressed up and some carrying bouquets of flowers. They are there to cheer on their sons and daughters and siblings who have earned the right to graduate, some of them the first in their families to do so. It's a glowing crowd, joyful. The graduates, in their black gowns and dress shoes, try to look solemn and sedate, but they too are bouyant on their graduation day.

Every year there's convocation in June, and every year I get a little teary thinking about all that effort and all that pride, all that joy at the sight of young people moving into adulthood with confidence that they can make choices and take a strong hand in shaping their own lives.


Adrienne & Stuart said...

I think often of the "accidents of birth" that have shaped my and my husband's lives: our first daughter's death from a failed forceps delivery, and our subsequent adoption (10 weeks after she died) of twin girls from one of the poorest provinces in China. The worst of medical mishaps made room for two particular girls to enter our life of privilege and opportunity. It remains a daily journey to reconcile the greatest of losses with the greatest of joys. While we find no respite from the grief, we console ourselves with the knowledge that our beloved Chinese daughters now have the chance to change the world to the fullest of their potential; and that, as a family, we will grow in knowledge and love of their culture and country of origin. Though we will never fully understand our accidents of birth, we regularly raise a glass and twin cheers for international adoption which not only saved us from despair but brought us unimaginable joy. Here's to opportunity for women, however it happens!

naomi said...

sending you love and thoughts, Adrienne. Thanks so much for your comment.
I'm looking forward to meeting those dynamite twins of your someday soon.

Adrienne & Stuart said...

Hi Naomi,
Our door is always open ... I know you would love our girls, and we have another little spitfire, an almost-2-year-old boy, from Viet Nam. To keep things really wild, I am lying here on forced bedrest at 28 weeks gestation, awaiting the birth of our fifth child (fourth living). I understand if you choose to rethink a visit any time in the next 10 or so years...