Address to Graduates by Sr. Margo Ritchie

Circle member and Brescia Alumna, Sister Margo Ritchie was conferred a Doctor of Laws, Honorius causa (LLD.) in recognition of a life dedicated to service. The following post contains the reflection given by Sister Margo to the graduates from King’s University College and the School of Graduate & Postdoctoral Studies at the Tuesday, June 11, 2013 session of Western’s 301st Convocation. We would like to thank Margo for her permission to publish her inspiring words.

Reflection:

Sister Chancellor Rotman, President Chakma, Principal Sylvester, distinguished faculty, graduates and many family and friends here today,

First and most of all, congratulations to each of you today. You each know the financial choices that you and your family have made, the moments of self-doubt and feeling overwhelmed, the joy of learning something new with others. And you are here today…at both an ending and more interestingly, a beginning.

Recently, as I was driving somewhere, I heard a CBC interview with Shin Dong-hyuk, a 26 year old political prisoner inn one of North Korea’s harsh prison camps. He was born in the prison camp and knew nothing of another way of living. This was the full extent of his world for 19 years. Amazingly and against all odds, he escaped when he was 19 years old. The book, Escape from Camp 14, was written by journalist Blaine Harden in collaboration with Shin. It tells Shin’s story in the camp and the process of returning to a world he did not even know existed. At present, he is involved in human rights work in South Korea.

Here is the piece that caught my attention and made me think of you today. Through translation, Shin said that the biggest task for him was learning to be human. He described trying to cry and trying to laugh to see if he could mimic what he thought being human might be, if he could translate the crying and laughing into an actual emotion that he could experience. He described that he had a long way to go. Ever so slowly and painfully he was coming to know that other people were more than competitors for food as he had been taught. He was adamant that the biggest life task for him when all was said and done was learning to be human. It took my breath away. It got me thinking.

I think this might be our most significant task also. From what I know so far, becoming human means knowing in our bones that we belong to each other. It means experiencing that relationships are the deep connective tissue of life. Fundamentally it means, especially in this complex world, learning to live in the shelter of each other. Perhaps some of you grew up in neighbourhoods in which you knew the neighbours on your street. I recall my mother going door to door to collect money for flowers when the relative of a neighbour had died. One step beyond that, we see expansive outpourings of simple human community when tragedy strikes as in thee Boston marathon or flooding in Winnipeg. And now, the relatively new awareness for us is that we live in one neighbourhood called planet earth. Our real task, if we are to become human is to get to know this neighbourhood. It is to discover each country, each person, and each species as a neighbour with whom we quite literally share common ground.

Knowing in our bones that we belong to each other. Fundamentally, this is what the Truth and Reconciliation process in Canada is really all about. Today, June 11, 2013, marks the 5th anniversary of the Government of Canada’s official apology and seeking reconciliation with indigenous peoples in Canada. We, indigenous and non-indigenous peoples, share a common history fractured by the refusal to see otherness as essential to a vibrant culture. This refusal manifests as the domination of one group over another and the loss off human connection that blinded us to the often devastating consequences of residential schools. I am part of a local Truth and Reconciliation group where I am learning that truth is both painful and healing and that reconciliation is not a once and for all affair. This is absolutely the moment to write with our lives, our policies and our deepest common humanity a new story in Canada of the relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples. As our aboriginal friends passionately and with considerable exasperation remind us, this history is not only in the past. It repeats and replays today in a thousand different iterations. It is time to say with our lives that this matters to us. Perhaps this is where some of your brightest and best energy will go. Find the hinge place in your own experience that connects to the whole because this is how real change happens. Here is what I mean. On our committee, as we try to piece together a contribution to Truth and Reconciliation, is a Jewish woman whose great grandparents were part of the holocaust. She has found the hinge place in her own experience that makes working too heal the relationship between aboriginal and non-aboriginal peoples in Canada connect in a way that deepens her commitment. Another man who moved here not long ago from Yemen is playing a vital role in this committee. He could easily say that he is not responsible for the broken history in Canada since he is a newcomer. Don’t pin this on me. This is your problem not mine. Yet, he does not go there because he finds the hinge place in himself that recognizes how indiscriminate use of stereotypes can marginalize whole communities of people. As a Muslim he has experienced this since being in Canada. It resurfaces in many ways. He knows that the history of discrimination that aboriginal peoples experience and that Muslim populations experience is distinct and unique. However, in his hinge place he knows that they are a common human problem. They are our common human problem. Who knows but that some of you in this room will use your social work, political, educational, business and systemic justice skills to make a difference in rewriting our common history in Canada? Seeing change as about relationship gets to the heart of the matter.

Being human means knowing in our bones that we belong to each other. Our culture is not so kind to people who, from one point of view, cannot quite make it. I would feel very confident in betting that all of us in this room have experienced the confusion and feelings of helplessness surrounding mental illness. Maybe it is with a friend whose depression will just not end with a little encouragement. Perhaps it is in your placement work where someone your age is learning to live with schizophrenia. Perhaps it is in the eyes of the people who are homeless who grow weary of invisibility. Maybe even you get glimpses of it when you look in thee mirror. Mental illness is one of the most painful labels to carry and closes so many doors in a culture that is unsure about how to be with vulnerability probably because so many of us live close to that edge at various points in our lives. Perhaps you will put your energy into practice and policy that refuse to let people be on the margins of life as if it were a preordained fact. Perhaps in your role as educator or parent or life partner you will have the compassion and stamina enough to change the story of how our culture views people who have a mental illness. Find the hinge place that connects your personal experience to the good of the whole because finding this hinge point is how real change happens.

It is so easy to be cynical and incapable of trust these days. Read the newspaper. Listen to our own conversations. It is easy to move to a place of “no trust.” Sometimes our very starting place is the assumption that our political, religious, educational leaders are not telling us the truth. I was making good on a Christmas gift a few weeks ago at an olive oil tasting bistro. The owner who has an extraordinary passion for olive oil told us that most of what we buy in the grocery store is not really pure olive oil. It flashed through my mind that even olive oil cannot be trusted. But here is the thing. This is what really matters. Listen carefully. Perhaps you will be the ones who let integrity grow within you so that the inner of who you are and the outer of who you are keep intertwining in a way that in the end the strands of the two are indistinguishable. Perhaps you will be the ones to say with your lives that integrity in my home, at work, in my relationships matters to me. They matter to us. And, truth be told, if they matter to us, we will begin to see more integrity mirrored back to us than we ever imagined…and perhaps from unlikely places.

How do we live our ordinary, extraordinary personal lives in ways that express depth and love and initiative, that show that we value relationships? And the question that sits right beside this one? How do we create a global neighbourhood in which the actual experience of each nation, each person, each species is that we know in our bones that we belong to each other? A very wise teacher that I had at university said to me in the middle of some research that I considered disturbing at a personal level, “Always follow your questions all the way down to their end, until you meet a new question that demands your attention and your love. Follow it as if your life, our life depended on it…because it does.” That small tidbit of advice is worth its weight in gold both at a personal level and at a collective level. It is an intriguing and demanding way to live our lives.

And the last thing I want to say is that I hope you learn joy. Right in the midst of all that seems hopeless from one point of view, we just hunker down in the moment and learn joy. Learn to look around…not to mention within… and see beauty. Cultivate an eye for seeing goodness in its myriad large and small forms. Cultivate a heart that leans toward compassion and largesse of spirit and tilts away from judgment and smallness. Learn the exquisite joy of throwing one’s lot in with others who are going for broke in their desire to create a more hospitable world, who dare the exhilaration of what seems so impossible that it makes it worthwhile. And always, always, cultivate compassion for yourself as you learn your way into being the human being you most deeply want to be.

Such soul-sized questions we face together. How can we live interdependently on the planet with 7 billion people and a whole host of other-than-human species when on any given day it can feel like a heroic act to live interdependently with 1 other? Such heart-felt questions we each live with. Will my life make any difference to others? We each hope to be in relationships that nurture the best off who we are and to know the fullest range of our own capacity to love another and to contribute to the whole.

Barbara Kingsolver, a writer from Arizona seems to say it just so…

“The very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. The most you can do is to live inside that hope, running down its hallways, touching the walls on both sides”

My deepest desire and prayer for you is that you live inside that hope in all the moments of your life, with whatever life throws at you, with whatever choices you make. Show with your life what matters to you…and make it about relationship because only relationship contains the energy and largesse to express our deepest humanity.
Congratulations to each of you and to your family and friends.

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Standing on the Ground of Citizenship

We love the Earth. Some of our most satisfying moments are with nature. From gardening to cooking to meditative walking, the Earth is central to our values. As a Circle community of women, we ritualize our commitment to the Earth through Open Circles, our labyrinth, our Red Tent series and Brighid Festivals and beyond. With endless ways to connect, we are seeking how to think like the Earth. But as our understanding of the interconnectedness of life deepens, so does our grief.

Looking at our collective environmental future, many concerns well up. In fact, over the past year, on our Canadian patch of the planet, much has gone awry. Dangerous shifts have been cloaked in the inaccessible or ambiguous language of national and international policy and as such, have escaped sufficient community resistance. Canada, to the shock of the global community, backed out of the only international plan ever developed over the last two decades for weathering erratic climate, the Kyoto Protocol. In an unprecedented fashion, the 2012 federal budget dropped funding for environmental laws that were created over decades by committed scientists, dedicated politicians, and engaged citizens, while approximately half of the budget’s business focused on cutting a wide range of environmental safeties from coast to coast. Enacted through the government’s omnibus bill, it halted protection for water bodies (unless marked for commercial purposes), stopped the monitoring of hazardous waste use by industry, and closed some of our best environmental research centres that track species at risk, acid rain, and climate change.

Economic policy can appear boring, complicated, secular and almost inconsequential compared to the “kissy-joy” and fierce love we feel for our Earth Mama and her creatures. Policy certainly doesn’t scream “spiritual.” But as time marches forward, we are learning of the impact economic policy has on everyone’s well-being. Recent decisions will have great bearing on our descendents, as well as a high impact on our quality of life today. This is because every economic transaction takes from the Earth. At the nuts and bolts level, economics is the buying and selling of goods, and all goods are made by earth materials- even the fake stuff comes from natural sources, such as plastic sourced from oil. Thus, collective rules about economics (i.e. economic policy), have an intimate relationship with the Earth. We can trace this connection through etymology. Ecology and economy share the same Latin root: ecos meaning home. When we participate in economic transactions, we take resources from our home – the body of the Earth. Therefore, we must do so thoughtfully with a high level of cognizance. One of our most important challenges today is one of
consciousness – to reveal the penetrating fallacy that economics and earth are mutually exclusive.

The global drive today for almost every economy, and thus the goal of political leaders who set the frameworks by which we live, is growth. This is expressed through a very specific measure: the GDP, or Gross Domestic Product. Corporations, nations, continents, most of the planet’s inhabitants, whether we like it or not, are competing in a mass buy and sell game measured through the GDP. The countries with the highest GDP are seen as the richest and most stable. Ever-more growth through the GDP for nations and business is irrational and life-threatening because the Earth is a finite system. It is this growth ethos that is causing the mass emptying of the Earth, in species, soil, and drinkable waters. The GDP itself is further flawed as a measure because even negative events that cause a need for purchasing/consuming, such as the billions of dollars spent on cancer, natural disasters, oil spill clean ups and war, increase GDP. This is a system gone terribly wrong. Are these really measures we want included in or dictating our nation’s perception of successful growth?

So what does loving the earth mean today? It means to engage with these paradoxical times of destruction and hope. Acknowledge the craziness and the grief, and then, move forward. Loving the Earth can mean to engage in community action to treat her better. We can be inspired by the ecological love demonstrated by our Aboriginal people that is bringing many Canadians together over these policy attacks. Loving the Earth can
simply mean to notice what is happening and act. It is time to be idle no more. Women of faith and spirit across the globe have great capacity for this because we can walk through the storm and hold onto our hope and solidarity.

It is necessary that we place a new concept at the centre of our group decision making – something other than growth through buying, selling, and plundering the earth. What about focusing a nation’s success on how to benefit future generations, or on how to
create greater happiness? This is what the people of Bhutan have been doing for many decades. They have dropped the GDP index for a well-researched measure of well-being called the Happiness Index.

For us women at the ground level, we must continue to learn to think like the Earth and to speak on her behalf using our own voices in the ways that are natural to us – in
poetry, in music, in essay, at the dinner table, at the coffee-shop, at work. We can nudge people toward their commitment by sharing our love and passion for this beautiful and fragile planet we all share. It may seem odd to think of politics and policy as matters of spirit. But what is politics if it is not the decisions that most deeply impact the happiness and well-being of the greatest number of people? Politics are the plans that decide the quality of life for our selves, our children, grandchildren and beyond. Economic policy is like a giant visioning board for a nation; it decides things like whose mouths are to be fed and who gets shelter, who can afford education and who gets left behind, which business sectors get subsidized and which ones are on their own. It even shapes the vitality of human
expression through the arts. And, as was sadly witnessed in Canada last year, economic policy decides which forests stand, and if water will be protected for future generations.

We have eyes that see, ears that hear, and hearts that feel. Many women’s communities around the world are making it our business to collect the wisdom of the ages. Who
better to take a seat at the policy table? We can’t know all the next steps, but that is part of the curious mystery of these times. It’s about calling forth new aspects in our selves through reflection and wo-manifestation: to become rooted, confident and empowered in the knowledge that we are all we need to be. We have become used to being consumers and exercising our right to vote. Now we are being called to engaged citizenship. We stand on the Earth, and we stand on the threshold of our children’s future and the future of humanity and all living things. This is a powerful moment in the long thread of time, and the political-economic-ecological crisis demands that we stand strong on the Earth. We must weave our ecology and our economy. To have sustainable economic policy is to have respect and reverence for our home and each other; it is a way to make our spiritual principles manifest in one of the most effective ways possible. It is to act with intention to stay. Let’s stand our ground together! Remember you are an earth citizen. Re-mind others.

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“The Mother” at Risk In Canada: A Call to Engaged Citizenship

The Mother at Risk In Canada: A Call to Engaged Citizenship

by Jennifer Chesnut

“With the Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement, the mother-load is at stake.”  Maude Barlow (Chair of The Council of Canadians and Former UN advisor on the protection of the world’s water) speaking in London, Ontario in October 2011.

What is the Mother?

The Mother is the feminine from which all life flows. She is the source of deep compassion. The Mother has many names: she is Kwan Yin, the mother of Buddha, she is Sophia, the energy of all-knowing wisdom, she is Brighid, Celtic goddess of home and protection. She belongs to no one, neither gender nor race but is an attitude, a presence that can be called upon to enable right living. In the many traditions of feminist spirituality, we ask, where is the mother present in our lives? When absent, how can we connect with her?

Since my thirtieth birthday, I have been noticing when her presence rises in me and when she is absent. This is my daily commitment to living from the heart. I use the symbol of the Mother in my professional life as a teacher of children, my writing life as poet, novelist and researcher, and in my personal relationships. And now, I find myself called to fulfill another aspect  – my political self. And in this exploration, I have noticed it is less clear to me how to speak from the energy of the Mother when standing up to injustice and creating social change.

However, she is, in this realm, most deeply required. Oh great Mother, what wisdom do you offer here? How can I embody more of your generous spirit to do the work that I know is needed, to face the conflict that comes when protecting human rights and rights of the earth?

What is the Mother in the collective?

Mother energy is not only personally important but also to be channeled into culture. How does the Mother express herself in our communities, our cities, our countries? Remembering the Mother as nurturer and protector of all living things, how does she show up in the public sphere? Can we catch a glimpse of her in our workplaces and institutions, in public space and in our traditions?

In Canada, we have a socio-political structure that is shaped by the spirit of the Mother, an ethos of care. Our system is called the “well-fare” (welfare) state and we have one of the last working models of this in the world. Our design is one of shared economic responsibility and is based on public ownership of natural, cultural and social resources. The well-fare state intends that human rights are met regardless of class. For example, in Canada, people get the medicine and surgery they need when ill.  Regardless of whether they have money to pay for it, they just get it. The opposite model, which has been fast on the rise over the last few decades, is one of the privatized state. In this reality, if you can’t afford medical care, you don’t get it or risk debt, even bankruptcy. This is an expression of an ethos of the survival of the fittest. We see this trend proliferating around the world from Europe to South America. We sense its critique in the Occupy Movement in North America and beyond.

The well-fare state is an expression of the Mother in the collective. She is The Commons — all that is held in public trust. The Commons includes both the services of nature (air, water, land, etc.) and the services of people (health care, education, municipal services, public broadcasting, etc.). These are things that are freely shared between citizens so that all members of our country can have some sort of opportunity to have their basic needs met.  In a well-fare state, the raison d’etre of government is to take care of the needs of the people. This seems like an obvious point but as we have been witnessing, this way of governance is disappearing. In this design, the economy serves the public infrastructure and not vice versa.

The well-fare state is not perfect by any means. People fall through the cracks. This happens more and more as the well-fare state breaks down and social programs are cut. But if you look to other countries that don’t have publically-owned infrastructure, we remember how valuable ours still is. In some South African towns, for example, citizens must pay for their water each time they take some from the pump. If they don’t have money, they don’t get it. With the Canadian Welfare state, people need to worry less over their daily survival, and so, our country is more peaceful than ones without a social safety net.

How is “the mother-load” at risk?

Globally, public infrastructure is being dismantled by the forces of the free market, unchecked and aggressive capitalism. The free market allows corporations to go into countries and buy up local businesses and then control the cost and quality that they sell in services back to the people. This is enacted through a “Free Trade Agreement”.  Essentially, a free trade agreement transfers power from citizens to corporations. Further, a free trade agreement reinvents the law by rendering existing laws powerless to protect citizens and nature. In clauses like NAFTA’s chapter 11, corporations are enabled to sue governments for enforcing laws that stop their flow of trade – even if these laws are put in place to protect citizens. In the worst circumstances, corporations purchase public infrastructure that socially and personally services citizens like news stations, hospitals and education.

At home in Canada, our whole public commons is at risk through one such aggressive trade agreement called the “Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement” or CETA for short.

With CETA, there will be a great ripping of the social fabric that our ancestors have built—a breaking apart of The Commons if it is not stopped.  Our water, public health care, public education, CBC, Canada Post and more is in danger. Multinational corporations will be able to purchase, own, control and then sell back privately these parts of our country that belong to us. The descriptors “free” and “agreement” make this sound like a good idea — connect with other countries to trade your goods but items like water and health care should not be bought and sold. They are not commodities. They are human rights.

CETA has been constructed by the Stephen Harper government in negotiation with interests in the European Union since May 2009. Only select Conservative members of parliament have been allowed into the negotiations. The rest of the parties have had no input into the agreement. In early October 2011, just before the ninth (and nearly final) round of its negotiation, the NDP and Liberal s and Greens such as Elizabeth May started speaking out about being kept in the dark about it. The media has barely taken up the story and why is that? We must demand a public dialogue.

Now citizens are beginning to write emails, call their representatives at city hall and demand that CETA become public knowledge so it can be stopped.

This is a much more aggressive trade agreement than Canada has ever seen. Its ramifications to our way of life are beyond the Canadian imagination. And as such, the mother as expressed through The Commons is at great risk. Without her milk, we will be offering our children very little. It is time to learn about this trade agreement which will become law in our country as early as January 2012, if we don’t speak up. This is a seminal moment, a great call to engaged citizenship. This is a time to use our voices for what we value before it is too late.

What you can do to protect The Mother as expressed through The Canadian Commons:

Get informed at www.tradejustice.ca

Share this information with the people in your circles.

Keep a photo of your favourite kids in your pocket from now until January 1st, the date that has been set to close the deal.  May their beautiful faces inspire us to speak.

Come to a local meeting of concerned citizens to protect the commons by reaching us at: stopceta@gmail.com

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Dancing on a Shifting Landscape

Dancing on a Shifting Landscape

When we first began to explore and then articulate The Circle’s theme for this academic year – Dancing on a Shifting Landscape - we had no idea how thoroughly we would be reflecting the current energy that is pervading the planet.  From the physical to the metaphysical, our world is shifting in profound ways. From the global climate crisis to the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and other countries in the Middle East, to the second crash of the global economy (to name a few), the world is tilting onto a new axis. For many, this is an exciting, frightening and unpredictable time. While some of the changes are undoubtedly good, many shifts are in a state of liminality or flux, and we are not sure of which way things will go.

So how do we navigate ourselves on a landscape that seems to be changing so quickly that our intellectual, spiritual and physical compass is throw out of whack?  How do we ground ourselves on one hand, while finding sufficient balance to dance while the earth moves under our feet?

For our editorial circle, we naturally felt that feminist spirituality can be a beacon or guiding light to help us navigate through the murkiness of our current time, a time that eco-philosopher Joanna Macy has termed “the Great Turning.” In our opinion, the global exclusion of women from the political, spiritual, economic and social systems that have governed our world over the last couple of millennia has been the most powerful contributor to all current global crises. Whether the issue is global warming, social inequality, corrupt economic systems or spiritualities of dominance and submission, the oppression and omission of women is integral to each one.

So how is it that feminist spirituality can address such a diversity of issues, many of which are outside of the realm of the sacred? In the words of Katherine Zappone, it is because “feminist spirituality may be simply defined as the praxis [or practice] of imagining a whole world. Such praxis depends on the lived experience of mutually supportive relations between self, others, God and nature.”  Therefore, because its very nature is so broad-based, engaging both the personal and the political, the numinous and the actual, feminist spirituality has the capacity recalibrate our systems in order to mitigate the myriad shifts that are occurring simultaneously in our world. To achieve the wholeness to which Zappone refers, must begin first and foremost with the inclusion of women in all aspects of discourse and decision-making.

The very act of honouring women—our bodies, our wisdom and our actions—and resituating ourselves within the centre of these crises has the potential to be the most powerful act of rebalancing in a world that had been knocked off kilter. This power comes from the fact that feminist spirituality demands a full re-imagining and transformation of our human systems rather than a simple “add women and stir” type of solution. Therefore, women must be wary and vigilant of how we resituate ourselves within dynamics of power.  There can be a manipulation of women’s empowerment within today’s society, where it is frequently portrayed as being able to do what a man can do. But why would we strive for that when we often view the actions of the few select, elite men that dominate the world and our systems as corrupt, violent, unfair and greedy? Women’s empowerment is about being able to engage our own wisdom and undertake our own determined actions and do so freely.

This is the essence of “dancing on a shifting landscape.” Our first inclination was to theme the year simply “shifting landscapes;” however, it did not invoke our belief in women’s potential to thrive through change, nor signal our power to shift, adapt and create for the betterment of all humanity. So the next time it feels like the world is moving under your feet, sway with the rhythm and begin to dance.

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The Circle launches new website!

The Circle is thrilled to launch our new website!  With the new design and content, there are many new and exciting elements and pages, including links to event pictures, an archive that includes key dates and photos from our herstory, an archive for our newsletters dating back to 2001 and much more!  We hope you enjoy exploring the site over the summer.  A special thank you to Melissa McInerney from TBK Creative for designing the site and to Abeda Manji, Brescia’s webmistress extraordinaire for the hours of work in preparing the site to go live.

In the fall, we will move into “proper blogging” and feature reflections and thoughts on issues relevant to women’s lives to day.

Begin exploring at:  http://www.thecircle.ca

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