Canada ‘Dream’ Tour


It was a dream: a pipe dream some may have thought… a far off mirage that wasn’t in my ‘work plan’ I thought, but a dream none the less: to get twenty-five at-risk youth from Kingston, Jamaica to Canada in order to perform at Jamaica Independence Day Celebrations and tour three cities in two provinces to sell out crowds and well…sound good.*

[*Side Note: I don’t volunteer for an auditioned orchestra in a grand amphitheater: the NYOJ is a non-profit organization that accepts anyone who wants to join. It’s a crime-prevention program engaged in empowering Jamaican youth from vulnerable social groups through free classical music training at schools throughout Kingston and Spanish town… so the sound good part was still very much up in the air.]

Stressful, frustrating and exhausting are a few of the adjectives one could have used for the lead up as well as the execution of this particular ‘dream’. Literally, I don’t think it could have been more hectic or exhausting… but at one point during the tour while struggling to stay awake at the gracious Jamaica High Commissioner’s residence, one of the students explained that they had a special treat prepared for the guests. A special treat? What special treat? They barely had time to sleep let alone prepare a special treat with all of the travelling; rehearsing and bustling around we had been doing over the past couple of days, in what moment was there time to prepare a special treat?? To say the least, I was a little bit nervous. We had no control over what happened next though, so as I’ve learned to do, I just went with the flow.

Well, from that first solemn note, I just knew: as usual, I had it all wrong. When stretched to the absolute max these Jamaicans don’t crumble, they shine. They completely defied every expectation I had of them and there was barely a dry eye in the place after their ‘special treat’. It was extremely moving in person, and remember they’re running on about three hours of sleep, but here is a taste of what I heard:

I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I guess it takes a while for me to learn a lesson. As during our first concert of the tour when, before the show while they were rehearsing on stage, an early audience member came up to me and said, “Is that really what they sound like?” (And not in a good way.) With my stomach in knots and my eyes barely able to open with exhaustion, I put on a smile and said, “Oh, they always pull it off in the end, somehow they always put on a great show!” The confidence in my voice wavered, but not only did they put on a great show, they won everyone over and had the audience dancing and singing in the isles begging for encores and photographs when the performance came to a close.

IMG_8979All the hard work and frustrations melted away during precious moment like when our tiny oboe player screamed out in glee as a train on the opposite track whooshed by only inches away from his window seat as he yelled, “Auntie Karen, did you see that? He almost hit us! He didn’t hit us! He almost hit us though!! Wow!” The sheer joy and excitement overflowing out of him as he bounces around during his first ever train ride was contagious.

Any sleepless nights seemed insignificant when tears began to form in my eyes and a lump of pride in my throat as our students became leaders while singing along with the Camp Melody kids in Montreal or as role models while the OrKidstra kids performed for them in Ottawa. I had never seen them sit so tall or speak with such confidence about their own country and being part of the “National Youth Orchestra of Jamaica.”

And then there was today, when one of the young men who, to say it very politely, got on my nerves during the trip, was quietly humming the melody to a new trombone student to help him count out the correct beats while no one was watching.

In the end I realized it was never about this specific dream to get to Canada. As I witnessed them speaking with confidence and a sense of pride to their ‘fans’ about the program and themselves after the performances, and now hearing them reminiscing about the tour and helping the younger students: I realize that it was about so much more.

It was about creating a space, a place in the participant’s minds, a spot in their reality that allows a ‘dream’ or a goal, or a thought about the future to become a reality for them.

It was never about just getting to Canada, it was much bigger than that. Canada was just a microcosm of the bigger picture: of the idea that dreams do come true, if you work hard enough, reach far enough and endure quite a lot, you can in turn create a different reality for yourself. I feel so privileged to have been a small part of this big dream.

And as my placement comes to an end, I can see that this tour was also a microcosm for my own journey with Cuso International as a whole. Nothing is as expected, everything is out of your control, but if somehow you can find a way to truly just let go and flow with it instead of against it: remarkable things will happen.   And in this particular case, with a tiny bit of my help, in our beautiful country, dreams did come true far beyond any I had ever imagined. And really, what more could you ask for?



Professional Boundary Dissolver


Do you ever have those mornings when you wake up confused?  It’s during that foggy time between sleep and wake when sometimes… everything just feels wrong; like your pants are on backwards… and they’re wet… blue jeans.

During those times when my chest feels too tights to take in sweet breath; as if air is instead being sucked out of my soft lungs at an alarming rate like those airtight storage bags when you seal the vacuum on just right.

The thoughts start flooding in, questions and accusations hurl together darting at my brain a million miles an hour: “What are you doing here?” “Whose life is this?” “Why can’t you just be like everyone else?”  “Will you ever be satisfied?” “Why aren’t you married?”  “Are you ever going to have kids?” “Is this really your life?”  “What if you end up alone?” “You’re so behind” “You’ll never get a job you love” “Is there such a thing as true love?” “Did you miss the boat?” “Did you make the wrong decision?” “You have no money!” “You have no house!” “You are ‘behind’ everyone you know” “You are getting old, why don’t you ‘grow up’ and face reality?” Etc. etc., etc.

It feels like life is speeding along and everyone has all the answers while I’m still trying to figure out the right questions to ask;  like I’m in a monopoly game, most of my money is gone and I’m holding on to the ‘utilities’ for dear life;  like everyone has handed in their essay and I’m still trying to read the book (I’ve always been a really slow reader.)

It’s at that moment when you awake to a message like this from your big brother:

“Anyway, just took a look at the meditation page you liked and saw a quote that really made me think of you. It said “dissolve all boundaries with love” I think that’s your profession. you’ve made a career out of trying to do this full time. It’s been a major focus for you ever since you left school, so I just wanted to tell you that I’m proud to have a boundary dissolver as a sister. pretty cool title, kind of super heroish. anyway, thinking of you love you”

And everything changes in an instant.

[I should note here that my older brother is probably the toughest guy I know, tied with my younger brother and my dad, of course.  But we’re talking about a true tree climbing, fight club boxing, rugby wrestling tough guy, who will probably be none too happy I’m sharing this.  But that is probably one of the reasons why, in it’s essence, I found it so beautifully moving.]

So, I read this short and simple message with tears in my eyes and realized that I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be, everything makes sense and I am truly happy being a ‘boundary dissolver’.  It might not make sense to most people, but in the light of day, and with a little encouragement, it all makes perfect sense to me.

So, here’s my challenge for you, whoever is reading this blog: (and no, this is not going to turn into one of those weird chain letter emails) I do believe we are all connected and somehow, sometimes we get those passing thoughts of people; they just mist across our minds, barely noticed, but still existing if we’re still enough to listen… or maybe just feel.  My brother sensed me needing some encouragement and I’m sure we all can if we just make a little room.

So just take a second… or three seconds, and sense who needs to hear from you in this moment right now.  It may not be whom you expect (I was really surprised to hear from my brother!) It may not be that person who you should really call more often, or that immediate family member, maybe it’s someone you hardly know that crosses your mind.

Whoever it is in this instant, you should pick up the phone, send them a message or drop by wherever they are and just tell them how much you appreciate them in your life (however you want to express this).

Just a few simple, genuine words can truly change someone’s day, week, or even one’s outlook on their purpose in life, as it helped me with today.

And if you’re reading this and you’re the one who needs a touch of humanity, because some days are just too heavy and it feels like there’s not enough light, know this: Some of us are hard of hearing, especially when we’re listening to the silence, and even though we may be thinking of you, we may need a little nudge to reduce the blasted volume on our every day lives.  So don’t give up, you may even need to pick up a phone, or send a quick note, just a tiny reach can go so far and the results will astound you.

Well, with another too-long blog post complete and the sappiness level reaching new heights, I think I’ve done my part.  I would like to thank you directly for reading this all the way to the end, now stop stalling and go tell that person how much they mean to you, don’t think…. JUST DO IT!

Thanks Tim.img094

“Twinkle Twinkle Little Star…”


“Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, How I Wonder What You Are.  Up above the world so high, like a diamond in the sky…”

A familiar tune for many, but for me, tonight, it conjured up something more.

You see, growing up, I was a bit of an “entertainer”…. my siblings might use another word for it, but that’s how I saw myself anyway.

I would travel to the nursing home in our tiny hometown (village really) with my giving grandmother and put on a bit of a show for the residents.  A “show” is probably an understatement for those lucky enough to have witnessed one, way back then. I would confidently introduce myself, beautifully belt out whatever song came to mind, throw in a twirl or two accompanied by my beaming smile, then bask in the thunderous applause while gearing up for round two…well, that’s how I remember it anyways.

“Twinkle Twinkle” was my go to though.  I don’t know why, but I probably sang that song a million times and it never got boring.  I injected such confidence, such energy and such bliss into every syllable, resulting in a surge of pure joy right through my entire body, why would I ever want to stop?  Yet,  as I think about it now, I can’t recall the last time I really sang.

When I first heard her voice tonight I wouldn’t call myself annoyed, I wouldn’t even call the feeling one of frustration, though it may have had a hint of both.  I would probably just say that I was actually curious to know, ‘why is this girl always singing?’  And when I say always I mean always.  Whenever my tiny, likely four-year-old neighbour leaves the house, skips around the yard, or rides her 3-wheeler contraption loudly around the cement pad outside her house, she’s always belting out a tune.

I was seriously puzzled as to why this child felt it necessary to constantly sing for all to hear for no apparent reason whatsoever. Was she starved for attention? Was it because she thought she was good at it, or was it just for something to do?

And then I heard it… that simple little tune… “…how I wonder what you are…” with such expression, such exuberance, such joy… and all of a sudden I was four again, front and centre on my personal stage performing for my great aunt and uncle, and it all became clear.  As she sang at the top or her lungs, changing the speed and expression of the song as she repeated it over and over and over again, dancing around behind the metal gate and growing plantains that separate us, I grew closer to my ‘protective’ bars to hear her voice and almost teared up.

I recalled all of the numerous encores I was happy to provide for my grandma and her friends, being sure to add an extra dance move or level of volume to each repeat of the song.  I think now of how funny I must have seemed to them, I thought they loved it, and I’m still almost sure they did, but really?  I must have sung that song a thousand times and it never got old.  That’s what I thought about as this sweet little Jamaican girl made her way down the quiet street with her parents, her voice only fading out because of distance, not enthusiasm, over and over and over “…up above the world so high…”

And we were connected her and I, our childhoods not worlds  apart, despite the palm tees, bars and bananas she skipped along beside, I felt so keenly connected to my noisy neighbour and that 4-year old I used to be, it was like it had only been a moment ago.

What other joys were lost along the way?  When did I stop singing that song, or at least repeating it over and over?  I don’t recall, but my sense of true joy, confidence and freedom of expression has definitely chastened.

What was that little girl or little boy inside you passionate about when you were five or six, that got swept under the rug when more “important” things came along?

I have always loved to write and last year for the first time ever I actually signed up for a creative writing class.  It was one of the most terrifying and gratifying things I have ever done.  After shakily reading a poem in front of my fellow students for the first time in my life it was like that little girl inside me cried out “Finally! Thank you SO much!” as she skipped along her way.  I could not believe how much joy that short class brought into my life, such a simple little thing, but purely and entirely just for me.

I then joined a baseball team, having not played in years, but recalling the times when, in what felt like a past life, I was the star pitcher all through grade school (or at least, that’s how I remembered it).  You would think that it wouldn’t have been the same, but the most surprising part was, it was even better.  I think it’s because there are so few instances in our ‘adult’ lives that we truly allow ourselves to just do something for the pure enjoyment of it, conversely as kids, that’s all we do.

Anyway, as usual, this is getting rather long… so I will just end by saying, I know it’s intimidating and even scary, but reach back…. all the way back, lift up your old tattered rug, don’t mind the cob webs or the dust… and pick up something long discarded that that little girl or boy couldn’t live without, give it a go and see what happens.

*Note, the girl in the picture is not my neighbour, but another little sweetheart who wanted to pose for me while I was visiting Ocho Rios. I’ll get my neighbour soon though and be sure to post her picture if she wants me to.

So, we had a concert

100_7483So, we had a concert.  It was huge.  It was thrilling.  It was stressFUL.  But I learned a lesson, and that’s what I’m here for, right?

The day started off with all the nerves and anticipation of ‘game-day.’  We all had our roles to play, endless tasks to complete, but energy galore to get it done, because after all… this was it.

Did I get stranded somewhere for several hours during the time I was supposed to be setting up for the event?  Yes.  Did I end up arriving an hour (that would be around three hours late) before the performance with nothing set up and audience members already arriving? Sure. Did I recognize any dignitaries (ie. Ambassadors, Mayors, High Commissioners, etc.) as they entered being sure ‘all appropriate protocols were observed’ seating them in the reserved area and speaking to them with the utmost humility and respect? (Here’s a hint, as you’ll recall, I’m not from Jamaica)  Of course not.

And although I’m in love with ‘Jamaican time’, did the soothing white sand of my patience hour glass somehow spill out all over the floor as I lost sight of what we were really there for?  In my perfectionist way I wanted everything to go as planned and everyone to do as planned and my vision to become a reality, and when not one thing worked as planned, not one person performed as planned and my vision came crumbling down around me, did I have a tiny breakdown?  Possibly.

But: this is the golden point at which we learn.

This moment came for me after the concert.  Barely able to open my eyes due to exhaustion, with beads of sweat dripping from every part of my body, (I was really not enjoying smelling myself, and making every effort not to, although it was proving very difficult).  I was bitterly unloading cello after double base, after stand, after stand, after stand in the blackness of the Jamaican night in bare feet (as my only pair of sandals just broke) on a parking lot that has seen more in its lifetime than I have, my feet now matching the colour of the night, as a bunch of the boys run circles around me throwing and chasing and yelling, I hear a young boy in a requesting tone say “Aunty! Aunty!”

“What?” I tried (just slightly) to mask the scowl in my voice, “What do you want?” anticipating he was only asking me to do one more thing that day… one more thing that I thought might just put me over the edge.

“Wasn’t today the greatest day?”

And I stopped.  I stopped and actually looked at him for the first time, starred at his round face as it beamed with pride.

“Yes.  Yes, you’re right, today was the greatest day.”  I could feel a grin slowly forming on my face as it all came streaming back to me.

The week filled with anticipation and true learning with guest conductor Hugo, his dedication and genuine care for the kids that was palpable.  He had a way of paying attention to each of them, making them feel special and important as individuals that could each make a solid contribution that mattered.

And finally, it was concert day and in my head, nothing went as planned, but that was the perfect, organic, Jamaican way that everything came together even better than ever imagined.

In the end, the church was full, we never expected that to actually happen.  In the end, everyone showed up, somehow with black t-shirts on, sitting in the right chairs, with the right instruments… a miracle.  In the end, they danced, they played, they laughed, and they made lasting memories.  And for some, so far in their short, and likely very challenging lives, this was the greatest day.  So, despite my westernized perception of perfection, it did turn out to be the greatest, most perfect day in which I learned another life lesson for which I am grateful.


“One of the most difficult things is not to change society – but to change yourself.” — Nelson Mandela

I had a feeling today, a bad feeling.  It started in my chest as if a large person was sitting on it and crushing me. It then spread throughout my body with a tingling negative energy that I just couldn’t shake.  It was like the world had its clothes on backwards and inside out and was just going on like everything was normal, but I could feel it.

My mom gets these weird feeling about her kids.

Mine was about Mandela.

I had to get out of the house, so I hopped in a route taxi (almost on top of the three other sweaty patrons already present in the backseat) to make my way to meet some friends and see if the world was alright outside my head.  The lucky man who scored the front seat turned right around to me abruptly, looked me strait in the face and said “Mandela died.”

It was like I was electrocuted, but somehow I just  said “No.” sternly, as if this man could take back his words and turn back time and we could have ‘Madiba’ for the next 95 years.  Oh the things he could do.

But none of this is fair as we are speaking of a 95 year-old man, a 95 year-old body, a 95 year-old mind.   An individual, that beyond any other, deserves rest.

The world lost more than a man today, it lost one of those unique souls which radiates an energy that reverberate around the world; cutting across nations, colours and ages, stimulating courage, acceptance and fire deep within us.

I feel so blessed to have walked the same earth, breathed the same air and lived in the same moments as this man and I will endeavour to develop the same unwavering faith in human kind as he felt so strongly; even a fraction would be life-changing

He deserves a pedestal to rest his weary body, but I looked up to him not for his grandeur or his presidency, but for his simple, true acts of forgiveness, open-mindedness and compassion.

Take away 27 years of your life and see what you could do.  Change the world?  Why not.  At least give it a try.

The weird feeling is gone, it will be one of those moments I remember forever, but I’m afraid with all the more exciting news of the day like Kate Middleton recycling her gown and Beyonce and Jay Z becoming vegans, this great loss may be lost again in this universe of ‘free thought’.

But I must have a little more faith, I must carry it in my soul, strengthened by thoughts of a man who forgave his captors immediately after 27 years of imprisonment.  A man who expected human rights, respect and dignity even while living in a tiny prison cell and ensured that himself and all others around him received nothing less.  A man who never stopped believing what seemed to most, an impossible dream.  He expected so much of the people he met, the society he lived in and the human race.  He believed that if one worked hard enough, gained enough knowledge and sacrificed enough, it would all be worth it.  Was it?

I will keep a little Mandela with me in all that I do.  Rest now Madiba, you deserve your rest.

“I am not an optimist, but a great believer of hope.” — Nelson Mandela

Just Write

So… I’m a bit of a perfectionist.  Well, more than a bit. I am often so crippled by the thought of inadequacy that I’m prevented from doing the very thing at all.  Some people have called me brave for traveling overseas to volunteer, teaching English in South Korea or living in a Northern Inuit community for almost five years.  My life choices have never felt like bravery to me, probably because they’ve never really felt like choices at all.  I just get a ‘feeling’ and that’s that; there’s no turning back.  Hence: my current location and vocation: volunteering with low-income, inner-city kids in Kingston, Jamaica.

Writing, however, is a whole different story.  I try my very hardest to write every day of my life, as this too is some type of weird compulsion that I have.  Nevertheless, publishing my subjective thoughts for everyone to read feels extremely uncomfortable, to say the least.  As a trained journalist, I sense the ideal of objectivity surging through my veins and always feel strange about putting my own opinions or thoughts out into the world.  But the time has come as Cuso International volunteers are asked to create a blog to share their experiences while in placement, so here goes.  But where do I begin?

In the midst of discussing the state of the universe, politics far and wide and women’s rights before I left, a good friend of mine said of blogging: “just write”. He explained:(while, as anticipated, providing numerous reputable sources in support of his argument) whether it turns out horrible, or maybe just not that bad, you can never get better at something unless you have the courage to do it repeatedly, and badly.  He said, (and I paraphrase) if you do something repeatedly, you are bound to make mistakes.  But if you do it enough, and you have a passion for what you’re doing, you’ll most likely get better at it.  We had a long discussion about how uncomfortable it is to do something you are passionate about badly, when you are versed enough in the subject matter to be able to recognize just how bad you are.  But we still came to the collective conclusion that it is worth it if there is even the slight possibility that one might become better, and by chance, might even stumble across perfection in the distant future while trudging away through the blunders, mistakes and mishaps only a vulnerable individual experiences.

So here is my first feeble attempt at personal blogging and this is what I know: blog posts should be concise, they should include pictures (but not too many) and they should be updated regularly.  For those of you that know me, you’ll recognize that I do not have a strength in any of these areas.  I always write too much and to say my thoughts wander around aimlessly would not be a stretch (see current post), I never seem to post pictures (although I take quite a few) and I am horrible at anything regular. I will attempt to improve. I’m taking the leap and finally doing something that truly does scare me: telling my stories, sharing my thoughts and putting my experiences out into the world.  Wish me luck.

A Blast from the Past

img054Sticking with my theme of ‘putting it all out there’ I’ve decided to post some of my previous journalism work on this blog as well, incase anyone is interested.

Most of my work is still way up North in Nain, Labrador, and I will retrieve it one day, but here is a little gem from way back in J-school (Journalism School at Carleton University). It is the demo CD I made from work I completed as a reporter at Midweek which aired on CKCU.  Some of it is a little laughable, I admit, but it’s a good reminder of where I came from.

Eventually, I will post the full versions of these pieces along with some other interesting interviews like one of our current Prime Minister (right before he came to power) and our former Prime Minister (while he was still in power) along with links to documentaries I’ve made and lots more, so stay tuned.

Here’s my first Demo: Demo CD