The Listeners.

The other day in my favourite café, I was listening to a friend who’s been dealing with mental illness all the decades of her adult life.  Diagnosed long ago with so-called ‘schizophrenia’, she clearly needs to talk about her feelings, issues and events.  How important it is to feel heard.

As I thought about how psychiatry changed under the domination of the pharmaceutical industry, and how all of society and government just rolled over and accepted that wave,  I found myself getting angry all over again.   Talking to a skilled professional about one’s distress, actually helps change that distress in the process.  And some therapists can even help a client evolve, grow, mature, even develop wisdom and insight.  It sure changed my life!

I am astonished at how lucky I was, and how many of my acquaintances had the opposite experience.   A shocking number of them have had one kind of emotional distress or another over the decades without ever experiencing ‘talk therapy’.

How was I so lucky that whenever I went through an identity crisis – which happens to most people from time to time – I was able to access professional support?  And I took it for granted at the time.  Having read many humanistic psychology books, I guess I took it as a human right.   Progressive psychiatrists, psychologists, encounter groups, ‘transactional analysis’ groups, psychological workshops, assertiveness groups, women’s groups — I could go on.  Perhaps I was simply part of a brief enlightened era.  But underlying all of that, essentially, was the experience of feeling heard and understood.  What countless friends and acquaintances got instead: pills.

We all have the need to be heard – and maybe at some times more than others. Some people do a lot of talking, but somehow can’t release what they really need to say, so their need is never fulfilled.

And on the other hand, there are people who would love to be supportive listeners, and could be effective, but aren’t sure exactly how to get into it.  These two groups  remind me of dancers gazing at each other across the dance floor, listening to the music, but not sure what to do about it.  And some have the best of intentions, the will, and the caring, but just can’t seem to ‘listen’ without getting into trouble.

What we’re talking about is not a regular conversation.  We’re talking about special times with deep needs, that could be filled in a mutually beneficial way. We’re talking about pairing those who have the need to be heard, with people who can do the helpful, active, effective listening that’s needed.  People who have time – for listening takes time.  People who want to be supportive and helpful, who appreciate how meaningful this kind of listening can be.

What perfect ‘volunteer’ work, I think, for a retired baby boomer, for example, looking for a meaningful activity.   If she’s always been a ‘good listener’,  she might only need  some tutoring on active listening skills.*   Just a little tweaking.

‘What do you mean,’ I can hear some saying.  ‘Anyone can listen, can’t they?’  Not so fast.  Not everyone can listen ‘actively’ and ‘non-judgmentally’.  Some feel compelled to react, to argue.   And worse, some feel compelled to gossip about what they heard.  In this role, we have to take it to the grave.

In an ideal world, our health care system would cover psychological help for just about any kind of distress.  It’s in that field we find tools and strategies that can be fairly simply taught, for coping  — or changing.  After all, whether you are only homesick or in a mild depression, for example, or at the other extreme perhaps a long period of suicidal feelings or violent urges, most people on occasion could use some trained help with changing their feelings or their thinking – finding some inner peace.

A skilled professional can help us develop insight, help us grow as a person, much faster than the painful method of  a lifelong experiment with trial-and-error, or accidental wisdom gained slowly through life into old age.  But how many psychiatrists offer ‘talk-therapy’ these days?  It’s fifteen minutes, and pills.  How grateful I am that I had ‘therapy’ back in a time when it meant something.

But life’s just not like that.  We need people operating at different levels of skill, somewhere between ordinary listening, and full blown professional help.  A ‘volunteer listener’ might just fill the bill.  And imagine a whole team of them, in a community, functioning like a self-help group, sharing their learning, helping each other become better listeners – and hey, maybe even becoming advocates.

There are many people in my life who have inside what I call “a wounded child”.  Some of these wounds are pretty severe, to the point of interfering with their living a satisfying life.  Yet feeling free to talk about it, and feeling heard, can bring some relief and peace and a clearer mind.

There are a few potential, pleasant, by-products I can imagine, from a sharing/listening activity like this.  One is that some people who have tended to talk a lot about trivial impersonal things without observing how the listener was receiving it, would begin to be more appreciative.   Even respectful and considerate, realizing that this person was actually sharing a valuable skill.   And there’s a good chance that he or she would eventually have satisfied the need to be heard, losing the compulsion to speak

And the Listener, on the other hand, might feel the self-respect or self-esteem that comes of knowing she is giving something of value – something that can be life-changing for the other.

I began to think of this years ago when my husband started working at home.  He had a big load and no colleagues to share it with.  It took awhile to understand all he was talking about, but eventually my listening was a regular activity.   At some point

I also heard about the Shoa project**  One could say it formally acknowledges the importance of telling the story, for the person telling it, as well as for posterity.

Then I was recently listening to an acquaintance talk about his childhood, and could hear in his voice what I can only think of as a repressed sob, as if he were on the verge of doing that.  It felt to me like an ocean wave of needing to get it all out, and I suggested doing it on video as I had done with others before.

Suddenly all these ideas seemed to crystallize into the one about active listening teams.   If someone takes it and ‘runs with it’, that would be incredible.  And no doubt I will continue to explore the idea with other interested people.   I sure do see a role for caring volunteers – at least until the psychiatric field comes to its senses – or governments come to their senses and begin covering psychology!



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What do we want? Homes!!

Okay, so where are the activists on housing?  Why do we not see rallies at City Hall or Queen’s Park,  with Naomi Klein stirring the crowd?

Naomi:  “What do we want?”

Crowd: “Homes!”

Naomi: “When do we want them?”

Crowd:  Now!

Then again, one leader can’t do everything.

IT truly puzzles me.  We have a housing crisis that has been acknowledged by all the experts – but seldom hits the headlines.  Why is that?  My tentative theory is that we live in a culture that virtually ridicules people who speak out or express a passion.  And people who feel there’s an issue of some sort that needs public attention, tend not to speak out in case they are wrong.  They chronically doubt their own judgment.

I believe this is an understandable byproduct of a critical-judgmental culture.  And then we are also in ‘conservative’ times!  Add to that the dizzying presentation of ‘news’, which comes at us in so many forms, from so many directions.   Sometimes I feel like I’m being spray-painted with ‘information’.  Who knows how or where to follow their curiosity and learn the details about an issue.  No, it’s way too overwhelming.

The homeless are in survival mode, so they’re not yelling about it.  And people who are “underhoused” tend to say nothing about it.  Sometimes it’s embarrassment – they’ve come to believe what their accusers say, that their situation is their own fault.  They shouldn’t really admit publicly that they have a ‘housing problem’.

And most people are convinced they can’t make a difference anyway.  The government will just make the issue disappear again, by announcing another study.  If that is the case, I imagine we won’t see public rallies until there are many more people actually living in the street.  Or perhaps dying in the gutters.

Here’s a little-known fact: First, all countries that signed onto the Universal Declaration of Human Rights* officially acknowledged that housing is a human right.  Could have fooled me, here in Toronto.  Second, the UN actually recommended way back in 2006** that Canada declare a state of emergency regarding housing.

Guess what, folks.  It didn’t get better.  Seven years later, it’s worse.***  And just in the past year or two, the number of households on Toronto’s waiting list for ‘affordable’ housing has gone from over 70,000 to more than 85,000.****  Since 2009, Toronto’s “outdoor population” increased by 24 per cent.*****  There are many more interesting (potentially tragic) bits of info where that came from.

The City’s chief planner has said that the current massive level of condo development will produce about 67,000 units.   But sales slowed down dramatically, most likely because they’d become too expensive.  So potential buyers remain in  apartments that might have been freed up – apartments so desperately hard to find.  And desperate renters are paying way more than they can afford, to rent those unsold condos at a rate of 98%!

Frankly, I think the evidence is in: we’ve become so totally self-absorbed that we’ve stopped noticing, stopped caring, stopped acting.  Paralysis has set in.  All the more reason for activist-leaders like Naomi Klein to prod and poke, and get us up and shouting.

I suppose it’s possible that, like me, they see so much wrong, so much that needs changing, they’re not sure where to start.   Could it be up to you and me?






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Another police shooting!

Ah!  Another police shooting of someone “with a knife”.   And another demonstration approaches – August 13.  This was Sammy Yatim, a boy in distress.  It seems like there’s an awful lot of ignorance around ‘distress’.

In the next rally,  a consciousness-raising needs to happen.  We need to discard the usual shouting and screaming, and organize ourselves to be taken seriously.  RESPECTFULLY.  We need people to stop and think about what we are saying.  (So we need to think about what we are saying!)  We need to acknowledge to ourselves with brutal honesty, fearlessly, that we have been self-defeating, un-focused, and definitely un-successful.  The irony is that (I believe) we have been conditioned through both education and culture, to function in self-defeating ways.

Getting to the nitty-gritty: shouting one or two meaningful phrases is good.  For example: “Police policy must change”, “Change police training,” or “No more police killings”.

But silence is good too (with signs!).  “Silence is golden” – especially if it’s a very large crowd.  The silence of a large crowd shocks people.  It gets their attention.  They don’t roll their eyes at ‘just another loud rally’.   They stop, look, and listen.

And this time, a large crowd is finally a possibility.  There’s time.  A lot more people would join in, if they felt that the violent ones, and the “black bloc” were not welcome.  Not that you can stop them, but you can at least send out a clear message, to those with ‘good intentions’.  A lot of people really do care.

Surely everyone realizes how self-defeating a rally is when people are shouting in a thousand ‘tongues’ – sending conflicted, confusing messages.  Imagine for the first time since the late sixties, a really massive demonstration with a focused, clear, ‘adult’ message, demanding specific changes.  What power that would have.

Problems with my term “adult”?   Let me help you out with that, because I can understand the reaction.  I’ve spent a lot of time trying hard to see these events from the ‘viewer’s’ POV.  They usually see coverage of it for a few seconds – rarely a  minute – on the news (so-called).  And the news is biased.  So what they see is a handful of people apparently shouting a wide variety of messages, some clearly unrelated to the ostensible reason for the rally.

But imagine a mass of people who clearly, confidently, know what they’re talking about, and send a consistent message.  They are clear.  They are assertive.  They command respect.  People listen.  And people think about the message, because the message is clear enough to think about.

Oh, and about the Bloc.  The problem with “violent resistance” is that it is  displacement for thoughtful, adult demands.  When we demonstrate in a disorganized, obviously impulsive, careless way, we exhibit the behavior of little children.  Kids who need to shout and scream – so they do.  It’s not about communication.  But communication (especially of our image) is precisely what we need to think about.

The way to get respect, is to command respect through behavior – our image.  People might not be able to articulate it, but they can sense the difference between those who merely need to vent their spleen, express their angst, etc. – and those who know what they want, know their rights,  and are determined to get real, meaningful change.

If that message comes out, and an acceptable response is given, we will have succeeded.  There have been recommendations out of previous coroners’ inquests, but a rally like this could make all the difference.




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Legalizing drugs? No brainer!

Heroin doesn’t care who it takes,  Janis Joplin, or Chris Levoir.   It’s an “equal opportunity” killer.   The rich and famous, or your brother, my grandchild, whoever.

I suppose alcohol could have killed Chris.  But not likely unless he’d been drinking large quantities for a long time – or of course had an accident related to alcohol.   A single ‘overdose’ of heroin.  Now that’s the real crime!  Imagine if a single dose were legal, and had a ‘regulation’ consistency.   Like alcohol.  Chances are he’d have had his high, and would still be alive to talk about it.

And to sing his next song.  He was so good.  He was such a loss.   I remember him participating in a fund-raiser at Alternative Grounds – for Kennel Café which was closed because of a fire.  He was 31, lead singer with The Mark Inside,  but that night he performed alone for the benefit.  The pet store re-opened just the other day.

The fact that alcohol is legal, and regulated, probably keeps deaths and other impacts relatively low, in proportion to the number of people imbibing.  And what a great source of tax revenue.

The ongoing debate about legalizing marijuana (and other drugs) seems like a no-brainer.  Not only would legalizing drugs produce large increases in tax revenues, and regulated drugs, but imagine the savings on the costs of ‘drug wars’.**   How many young people were snuffed out in local gang wars; and how many grief-stricken mothers are there, throughout the western world?

If voters were making choices based on facts instead of sensational headlines, we’d have legalized, regulated, and taxed drugs long ago.

*                                   **

Posted in Alternative Grounds, legalize drugs, Politics, Roncesvalles Village, social change, urban life | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Toronto’s loss, Hamilton’s gain?

A friend of mine – single mother of three wonderful adolescents – is trying to find a two-bedroom apartment close to their father, in the west end of Toronto.   That way they could easily visit back and forth between the two parents.

Imagine the challenge – a two-bedroom apartment in urban Toronto for starters, and on a low income.*  She’s been searching for weeks and, as with others I’ve spoken to, has discovered that the only apartments available in her price range are almost unlivable.  Already she and her children have acknowledged this, and the search now includes one-bedroom units; the kids have expressed willingness to visit one at a time.  I can hardly imagine how discouraging the situation must be.

At this stage in our urban evolution, we should be investing in affordable housing, low-rise apartment buildings, incentivizing basement apartments, and so on.  Yet how often do we hear comments like “She should have made different choices” “Why should I pay for her mistakes?”  How have we come to this – that so many are only concerned with their own bank account?   So un-generous.

Have we completely lost sight of the reality that any of us could end up in the same boat?  All it takes is a broken marriage really.   Last I heard, this is almost half the population.  Or temporary unemployment, which has happened occasionally to some of the finest, best-educated people I know.  ‘There but for fortune….’

Toronto has many such thoughtful, creative, smart people who enrich us, but find it a financial struggle to live here.  To survive here.   At the best of times, the ‘creatives’ rarely make more than a struggling income, so they are finding it almost impossible now.

It is not surprising, therefore, that such people are increasingly moving to Hamilton**, Guelph, Kitchener, or other parts farther afield and less expensive.  If you follow “urban trends”,  you know that these places are beckoning, loud and clear.  And they look increasingly attractive as they enhance  their urbanity with  more modern public transit and other perks.  This is exciting to those looking in their direction.  And these places are being enriched by ‘our’ artists, now transforming their neighbourhoods instead of ours.

Did we think these creatives would stay here forever to enrich our lives?  Stuck here for the work?  Dependent on us self-centered, comfortable people?  Not any longer.  Much of their functioning can be done online while they listen to the soft sounds of modern transit and watch ducks – from their charming, affordable, downtown apartments.  Enriching Hamilton and Kitchener.

They are leaving this high-end city, its Yorkvilles, its expensive, increasingly packaged Hollywood entertainment, and the financiers and lawyers who can afford to live here.

But we still need to do something about those who must stay like my friend, who is still searching.



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The tender cafe

How precious is the kindness and gentleness that surrounds me every day.  I treasure it.  It is part of a sub-culture hard to find in many places.  I think that’s why I head here every morning.  I can’t imagine a better place to start the day.

It is expressed in the generosity of people who readily invite others to sit at their  table, when the place is full, or donate a ten or a twenty in case someone comes along who can’t afford a coffee or a breakfast.   And there isn’t a split second of wondering whether that donation will go where it’s supposed to.

Someone recently took a fiver out of the tip jar though, and everyone assumed the thief must have really needed it.  No one got upset.

For about two weeks,  a woman shuffled in when the doors opened every day. obviously exhausted, obviously without a home, she’d have a coffee, sip it awhile, then nod off for the morning.  The group of men who sat a few tables from her, spoke in lowered voices the whole time,  patiently.  If there were such a thing, I’d give them the “Lovable Guys” award.   The scenario is typical here.

Over the years, people of perhaps a less compassionate spirit have gradually emigrated to the newer cafes opening up as the neighbourhood gentrifies.   They contribute their attitude to different café cultures down the street, while making room here for these warm creatures.  For me, it is fascinating how even the choice of a café is an expression of who we are, in much the same way as we choose our clothing each day.

It is also often an expression of our needs.  And I, in my two months of grieving three lost friends, express and fulfill my own need for the comfort I find here.   They naturally overlook the shadows under my eyes, as I heal.

Posted in coffee, compassion, homelessness, Roncesvalles Village, urban life, world class city | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Neighbourhood fascists?

I’m sitting across from someone who should know better, but he says “Well I don’t want tall buildings either!”  We’ve been talking about the need for densification to reduce urban sprawl, slow down gentrification and increase affordability – my favourite topic.   Should I accuse him of being a ‘neighbourhood fascist’?  No, name calling just makes people defensive.

I despair.  How, I ask myself, do we persuade people that we humans need to give ourselves the chance to adapt?  Survival of the most adaptable….   And then the obvious creeps into my awareness: we’ll do it a drop at a time, like water on a stone, just as we did with women’s rights, civil rights, and so on.  Well, hopefully faster than water on a stone…. That would take forever, and forever’s too long.

Of course many would scoff at the idea that this has anything to do with rights.  But it does – if we believe in the right to affordable housing.  Surely it also has to do with compassion.  Do we care that most of the next generation has to leave the neighbourhood for more affordable accommodation?  Do we just say ‘nevermind, more are arriving every day, to replace them’?  But won’t we miss our daughters and sons?

And what about  urban sprawl?*

The trick is to never give up.  And don’t get angry, get clear.  Will information win the day?  Not if people aren’t listening or reflecting on it.  Maybe the solution would be to make people aware that what they’re really reacting to is the idea of change.    Like not wanting to change the “character of the neighbourhood” – wanting to protect “heritage”.

But protecting character and heritage does remind me of Nazis.  Yes, really.   Why, after all, do we resist change?  Why do so many want a neighbourhood to remain the same?  I remember feeling that way myself in my twenties, in Montreal, when a whole slew of beautiful old grey stone buildings were being torn down to make way for an expressway exit.  That expressway exit eventually ran right up my street – St Marc St.  I ran through the buildings taking picture after picture feeling as if the world were crumbling, not just a handful of buildings.  I still have those photos.

When I visit Montreal now, decades later, I drive down that street that I loved.   That street is – and was – an interesting mix of architectural styles.  Some hundreds of years old, some built in the twentieth century, some two or three-stories, others 20 stories, some privately owned, some low-income rentals.

One of my professors at Concordia owned a very old house around the corner.  He taught a course called “Sociology of Deviance”.  Was he ‘deviant’ to live in such a neighbourhood?  Walking distance to the university.  Am I ‘deviant’ to want to live in that kind of neighbourhood now, in Toronto?  A perfect “Jane Jacobs” neighbourhood it was and is.

Urban life.  That’s what it seems to me.   But many of my neighbours don’t think of our street as an urban street.  They don’t like it when one of the old houses is demolished – especially if it’s replaced by an architecturally modern one.  Today, when I think of St Marc Street, I think of a street which tells the story of our real heritage, through its varied architecture.  But my street here in Toronto tells a short  story of only a narrow slice of Toronto’s heritage.

If the resistors were being honest with themselves, they’d acknowledge that even among the ‘beautiful old buildings’ are some built in the 1890s, others built in the 1920s.  Why not include some built in the new millennium?  Even the old church at the end of the street is a combination of different styles – some old and elegant, some added more recently and not elegant at all.

In any case, what does it all mean, to ‘retain the character’?  And if saving the character of a street means that people have to leave Toronto, what does that mean?  At the end of the day, we are choosing one of those narrow ‘meanings’ – whether we know it or not.  Wouldn’t it be nice if we knew what we were doing.


Posted in affordable housing, densification, gentrification, neighbourhood, Roncesvalles Village, social change, urban planning, world class city | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment