Tuesday, 24 February 2015

February 25

Christmas cactus part 2


After a long day of travel, we all arrived home late last night. I was on a slightly earlier flight than the rest. After an amazingly good night’s sleep, I awoke and made my way to the kitchen for coffee. I immediately looked on the window sill to see if the plant I talked about at the beginning of my trip had bloomed. The blooms were bigger, but haven’t actually bloomed yet. But on another Christmas cactus, one that I had forgotten I even had because it is part of a collection of tropical plants I bought a couple of years ago and is often hidden amongst the other plants, there were full flowers. It took me a while to understand what I was looking at. There I was looking for something in one place, and it was actually happening in a much bigger way somewhere else.

It’s often the case in my trips to Corrymeela. What I think might happen often doesn’t, and I am often surprised by new learnings, insights and experiences. And, most often, it takes a while to appreciate and process everything. One of the things I am vigilant about on these trips is encouraging folks to apply their learnings to their own contexts – at school, at their workplaces, in Canada generally. How does what we learn about the peace process in Northern Ireland affect how we personally respond to conflict in our own lives? I am no different.

This time, my own learnings may help me understand several situations in my own context that involve conflict, but also wildly different narratives. When we went to Derry for the day, we had the benefit of hearing not only Owen’s perspective as a Catholic who grew up in the area, but also Paul’s perspective, the son of a Protestant British soldier who grew up in Belfast. Both had very different narratives of key historical events such as Bloody Sunday. But because of their deep affection and respect for each other, they were able to speak about their different perspectives in a way that opened up conversation and gave us a real view into the ongoing dialogue that is taking place in many parts of the country.

It was the same when we met with Alistair Little and Gerry Foster on Wednesday morning. Alistair, a loyalist, and Gerry, a nationalist, both former paramilitaries and prisoners, not only told their own stories, but embellished each other’s with jokes, jabs and comments that only true friends would tolerate. They work not only with people in their own country, but internationally, in countries such as Israel and Palestine, Afganistan, and South Africa. Those kinds of friendships take much time, great effort and no small amount of risk and trust. A worthy model for examination for sure.

We all went out to O’Connor’s for a drink on Thursday night. Jacqueline had the picture taken below of her and Siobhan, and then announced to everyone that I had “photo bombed” the shot. Now, I’ve never knowingly photo bombed anything, but it sure does look like it. Despite the worried expression on my face, I was happy to be there. It was great to see everyone enjoying each other’s company – many of whom didn’t know each other before last October. Sometimes I get so caught up in creating the space for others to learn, I forget that I need to be open to the learning as well. And it takes two blooming cactii to remind me that the insights come unexpectedly, surprisingly, and all in their own time.


Sunday, 22 February 2015


Passing Paul around the room

Throughout the week Paul sometimes led us in exercises by Brazilian director and dramatist Augusto Boal, who believed that theatre should be a force for radical change. Throughout my times at Corrymeela and in work with others in the social change movement over the years I have been exposed to many activities attributed to Boal. They are not only fun, but often thought provoking and a catalyst to deeper reflection.

We began our last morning at Corrymeela “passing Paul around the room” … with “Paul” as an imaginary large ball. Fast, slow, loud, soft. It helped lighten the mood of heaviness from the deep sharing the night before, and also helped us create a new circle with everyone fully present and ready to begin again.

It’s often a challenge to imagine how those who have had an intense, perhaps even transformative experience together can even imagine going back into their “normal” lives and translating the experience to those at home. This has been a concern for every group I have taken to Corrymeela, and in fact every intense learning experience I have had at Tatamagouche Centre in Nova Scotia. How do we take our experiences back into the world? Often there is a huge disconnect between what folks think we have experienced, and the reality.

Paul helped the group begin the task of integration by asking folks to write a postcard about their week. Just the highlights. You can’t get much on a postcard. People seemed to appreciate the exercise. After a closing sharing circle and expressions of gratitude all around, it was over. Lunch. Then Peter, who does many things at Corrymeela, including driving the Corrymeela bus, once again performed a small miracle by getting all of our luggage, plus us, into the bus, and we were off to Belfast, then Dublin.

And, we were lucky enough to get the Corrymeela wave. Not every group gets one – it depends on what time you leave, which way you go (up or down the hill) and how many folks are around to run like mad from the parking lot to the edge of the cliff to wave goodbye. Kendra took the shot below – a bit grainy but you get the idea. Also, a shot of the whole group before we got on the bus, including Paul, and our volunteers AJ from Phoenix in the U.S. and Juan from Columbia.


Feb. 19

Carla’s Underworld

Underworld is the factory in the fictional long running British series Coronation Street. It’s not just a place where mostly women (and Sean!) make label knockoff fancy undergarments. It’s a place of encounter, conflict, support, gossip, and sometimes even tragedy.

I thought of Underworld when we were in Derry on Thursday listening to two amazing women, Catherine Cooke and Maureen Hetherington speak about their work in the peace process. Catherine is the coordinator of the Foyle Women’s Information Network, an information network for community based women’s centres, group’s, individuals and organisations. FWIN, which was established in 1994, works closely with local women’s organisations and develops relationships with women’s organisations regionally, nationally and internationally. (http://fwin.org.uk) Maureen is Coordinator of The Junction, a Centre set up by community relations practitioners in March 2000 to consolidate and strengthen community relations work. The Centre provides a space for activities that feed into the development of relationships, better understanding and mutual respect locally, regionally, nationally and internationally.(http://www.thejunction-ni.org)


I had specifically asked Paul to see if he could set up some conversations with women working in the peace process, as most of the folks we had heard from so far had been men. Catherine and Maureen were a delight to my feminist heart. Catherine began with the powerful statement that “Women were being written out of the peace process.” She said that women are not encouraged to take up positions in public life, and at the present rate it will take 65 years to get to 40% representation in the political process. Maureen stated that the abuse of women is still prevalent in Northern Ireland, and talked of the challenges of trying to break down 4,000 years of patriarchy. It was then that they talked about the shirt factories, one of the main industries in Derry/Londonderry in a previous time. It was a place where people gathered to form community. They spoke of the lack of opportunities for that to happen now. That’s when I thought of Carla’s Underworld in Coronation Street.


Granted, perhaps we don’t want to go back to some of the deplorable working conditions in factories of previous eras, but the loss of a place where people from different backgrounds gather together to form community and find support despite their differences is certainly one that I have observed in Canada.


Owen Donnelly from the Peace and Reconciliation Group in Derry/Londonderry (http://www.peaceprg.co.uk) gave us a tour of the walls and took the group into the Bogside, site of the Bloody Sunday Massacre in 1972. He then took us to the Peace Bridge. He told us some facts about the bridge, a cycle and footbridge across the River Foyle. It opened in 2011, and was built to improve relations between the largely unionist 'Waterside' with the largely nationalist 'Cityside', and cost 14 million pounds to build. He said that while he and Paul might not usually support the spending of large sums of money on buildings instead of people, the fact that well over 90% of the city use the bridge is an example of infrastructure spending that can be a good thing, and can bring two communities together.


We then walked the bridge, which ends on the Waterside at an old British barracks used for interrogation and torture and is now a cultural centre. Paul asked us to reflect on the symbolism of the transformation of that building, and also asked us to think about what needed to be bridged in Canada, Nova Scotia, Halifax, and Dalhousie University.


Below … a picture of an old shirt factory (the big horizontal red building in the top right); the group with Owen in front of the Peace Bridge, the Peace Bridge from the other side, and part of our evening reflection as we “sculpted” images from our day in Derry/Londonderry/Stroke City.



Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Day 4
Photo Journalism

It has been a whirlwind since we arrived yesterday at 3 pm. When I commented to Siobhan and Bridget that I didn't think I could post much but pictures tonight, Siobhan said "that's photo journalism." So be it.

Here's the group moments after we arrived beginning the site tour.

and a bit later, with our long term volunteers AJ and Juan ...

and the evening team building games, Helium Hoop and the Lego Game

and today, some intense conversations with Paul Hutchinson, former Corrymeela Centre Director, (during which a bombing in a shoe shop was re-enacted ...) and Sean Pettis, Corrymeela Schools Worker.

and thanks to Lisa McMahon,  a complete stranger who came up to me on Saturday at St. George's Market and said "I'm supposed to take 6 pictures of interesting strangers ... do you mind if I take your picture?" I never have pictures of myself on the blog, so here's one I can live with! Thanks Lisa!

Monday, 16 February 2015

Day 3

The Appetizer

One of the down sides of writing a blog is the pressure to write something every day when folks at home might be expecting news. I only write this blog when I travel to Northern Ireland, which turns out to be way more times than I ever imagined. This is my sixth trip back to Belfast and Corrymeela since I spent 3 months at Corrymeela while on sabbatical in the summer of 2011. With the participants of this trip, I will have brought a total of 45 people to Corrymeela since February 2013. That feels kind of mind-boggling to me.


This year, Corrymeela asked that we come up at the beginning of the week, instead of starting on the weekend as we did last year. That meant that we had the weekend in Belfast to explore and begin to put some content and context to the learning. It’s been a whirlwind since Saturday, which is why I haven’t had the chance to post another blog entry. We began Saturday morning with the Hop On Hop Off city tour of Belfast. I have said before that I don’t know any other way than this to get an overview of the city and the big brush stroke of its history. I do know some of the scripted lines by heart now … like about the Titanic … “anyone from here will tell you that she was fine when she left here, maybe you should ask the English Captain, the Swedish Navigator or the Canadian iceberg what happened …” or about the Belfast Giants ice hockey team that is composed of Canadian, American and Russian players. But it gives folks who haven’t been here a first taste, and also gets their curiosity peaked. Saturday afternoon was spent poking around City Centre and a few gift shops before buying some food to take back to Farset to go with the pizza we planned to order while watching a movie together.


We began Sunday at the St. George’s Market – a visual and literal feast of friendly people, amazing food, and interesting local crafts. After that we broke up into several small groups according to interests. Some went to the Ulster Museum and a walk around the Botanic Gardens. Some went on a “Black Taxi Tour” – a hosted tour around the murals, memorials and remembrances of the period known as the Troubles. Then we all met up at the Crumlin Road Jail for a tour. That was something I had not done before, and although I can’t really say I enjoyed the tour, it was both provocative and disturbing, and certainly provided much to reflect upon in our nightly check-in.


This morning, some have gone to Belfast Castle for a hike around the grounds, some have gone on part two of the taxi tour, one has gone to The Titanic Museum, one is visiting a university, and a couple of us are catching up on work … like me.


This afternoon, it’s off to Corrymeela. If Belfast was the appetizer, then Corrymeela is the meat and potatoes. I love to see the look on people’s faces when we turn corner and come down the hill and see the panoramic view of the beach with Rathlin Island, Fairhead, and perhaps even Scotland in the distance. It’s still breathtaking to me … and I love to see people experience it the first time. Once again, on our arrival we will be delivered into the hands of the many staff, volunteers, and resource people at Corrymeela for four days of learning and community sharing. Anticipation and excitement is high!




Friday, 13 February 2015

Zygo Cactus

February 13, 2015
Zygo Cactus

I don’t like it when people give me plants. I mean, I appreciate it and all. I know that it’s a very nice gesture. But the thing is, more often than not they die after they are in my care, and I go through all kinds of guilt feelings about how I didn’t take care of it properly. And then I go into all kinds of wonderings and imaginations about the symbolism of what that means for the relationship between me and the person that gave me the plant. It’s just all too much. I’d just rather avoid the whole exercise. But, when someone does give me a plant, I smile and pretend I’m truly thrilled. But inside, I’m shaking in my boots about yet another one biting the dust.

This is a picture of a Zygo Cactus, otherwise known as a Christmas Cactus. It was given to me in early November, 2013, by the students at the Atlantic School of Theology for leading a workshop during an afternoon of workshops. I didn’t think I did a very good job leading the workshop, but to be fair it was an hour after I had just found out that I had to have major surgery within 6 weeks for possible uterine cancer. I was, I felt, slightly distracted and unfocussed. I didn’t stay for the rest of the afternoon, but hurried away to process my news. Nevertheless, when I went to my office the next day, a faculty member had left the plant and a lovely thank you card for me.

I knew that the plant was supposed to bloom at some point, but it hasn’t since I’ve owned it. I wasn't too worried about it - I was glad that I managed to keep it alive this long. Imagine my surprise when I went to water it yesterday morning, one of the many things on my “to do” list before leaving on the latest student Dialogue for Peace trip, and I saw three buds about to bloom. I’ll try not to read too much into it, but it did feel like a wonderful sign of hope and possibility as we begin our journey.

The third Dalhousie Northern Ireland Dialogue for Peace study trip officially began yesterday. After months of planning, team building, and fundraising it’s finally happening. On January 1, it seemed a likely scenario that the trip might not happen because we wouldn’t meet our fundraising goal of $24,000. However, after many bake sales, bottle drives, a coffee house and auction sale, and generous donations from friends, relatives, and several departments within Dalhousie, we made our target.

Sadly, one of our participants had to back out this week because of medical reasons – she will be missed by the rest of us, and we will hold her in our hearts as we carry on without her. We are excited to be realizing our dream – Corrymeela here we come! But first, Toronto to Dublin, Dublin to Belfast, and the weekend exploring Belfast and its history.

Last year at this time I was filled with gratitude at the very fact that after major surgery in December my doctors gave me the all clear to travel with the group. That was a trip that nearly didn't happen as well.

It's a funny old world. From a crazy notion to take a sabbatical during the summer of 2011 at the Corrymeela Peace and Reconciliation Centre has sprung a project that has seen over 40 students and other interested folks travel to this beautiful part of the world to learn about their hard work at peace and reconciliation, and how those learnings might be applied in their own contexts.

Signs of hope and possibility indeed. We’ll see what blooms on our journey!