Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Personal Essay for Law School

Last fall, I applied to law school on a wing and a prayer, figuring my decade-old university grades and last year's LSAT score would not be good enough to get into a program that sees 2,000 people apply and 300 be admitted. It is something I have always wanted to do, but it wasn't so fixed a dream that I would stop at nothing to achieve it. I applied because I needed to know if it would become reality. Had I been rejected, it would have stung a little (all rejection does), but I would have been content finding work that was satisfying and meaningful without becoming a lawyer. Lo and behold, I got in. I will be a student again this fall, full-time, for three years. 

I don't know a lot, but I do know that when the universe hands you something this big, you weigh the decision carefully. When I applied, I was highly encouraged by Rich to do it now, and not down the road when the girls were older, which I thought would be more suitable. Now that this is happening, I see how the timing aligns with so many other plans and seasons to come (in parenting and life), making now a perfectly suitable time. 

I had to write a personal essay as part of my application. Ten years out of school, I knew that if I wanted to wow them, it would come down to this essay. I worked on it very hard and made every word choice deliberately and carefully. I thought I would share it here because the next few years are sure to be challenging, and I want to be able to return to this essay that the people who love and support me have also read, to remind me pour que?

Read it, or don't. Here is my essay:
The most formative lesson in my academic life was the one I learned when I put the books away and looked out my window.

I moved to a small, Dene village in the Yukon, outfitted with my education and na├»ve presumptions. I expected to witness high criminal recidivism rates fueled by addiction and poverty; my undergraduate studies told me these issues plagued Canada’s Indigenous population. The village had a reputation as a dysfunctional former mining boomtown where alcoholism was rampant, its economy coasting on a recent influx of cash settlements for residential school survivors. The houses looked derelict, but the cars in front of them were shiny and new.

I began work as a teaching assistant and supply teacher at the small elementary school. On my first day, I was greeted with kids who threw chairs in anger, mocked me for speaking “white”, and who wouldn’t make eye contact as they tried their best to ignore me. They didn’t want to learn my name. I wanted to know their stories.

Trained as a researcher, I went home and opened my aboriginal law textbooks. Section after section revealed despairing patterns that did not bode well for my lofty goals of making a positive change in the remote northern town: Geographically isolated, small, with a history of residential school survivors, and a shallow genetic pool from which members could choose partners. I began to readjust my expectations. I put down the books to become a student of the village.

My husband was one of the village’s three Mounties, and through his work, I saw the recidivism patterns play out. When I sought to understand the larger picture through historical context, those patterns became less about numbers and more about stories. The town existed on the back of its own social ills, the fallout from generations of traumas too complex for a new outsider to fully grasp. Working in the school, I learned how very differently childhood looked when placed against the backdrop of broken families, neglect, and domestic abuse.

The alcoholism was rampant. Children adopted the adults’ coping mechanisms as soon as they realized their prospective life chances, which was usually around seven or eight years old. Teen girls were more likely to end up pregnant without knowing how it happened than they were to finish high school. Grade 2 students traded cigarettes for snacks when there was no lunch prepared for them at home. After years of being formally educated to ask relentless questions and follow paper trails for answers, I learned to choose my questions wisely and consider alternative perspectives.

I slowly connected with the Dene people, interviewing them for human interest pieces as a freelance journalist and attending community events. I accepted an invitation to help establish a sentencing circle, enthused that, finally, I could contribute to something that both employed my knowledge and created lasting change. Our board met twice before townspeople lost faith, motivation, or a measure of both. There were only a handful of reliable sober adults, and their lifestyle choice made them outcasts. Enacting positive change by establishing a sentencing circle sent the message we were somehow better than everyone else. The sentencing circle’s positive merits were outweighed by its being an unwelcome change.

I thought I knew, but I didn’t. One of the threads of wisdom from which we get to pull as we progress through our lives is the acceptance of what we don’t know. I know I want to lean in to better hear the voices of the marginalized, the vulnerable. I want to see those who have fallen between the cracks and ask them how they got there. In collecting their stories, I want to know how to move forward with them.

I want to know how our country’s legal framework can be used to help those who cannot always help themselves. I want to know how our legal system isn’t working, so I may play a small part in helping its moving parts evolve.

I have been collecting stories, these past 10 years. I have interviewed former Prime Ministers, revered Elders and elite athletes, while developing the courage to ask difficult questions. I have spoken with bereaved widows, victims of horrible crimes, drug addicts and dangerous offenders. I have learned from each interview, and am left hungry for more: More stories, more clues, and more perspectives. I made myself a career as a freelance journalist while I raised my four children. I have enjoyed producing articles that spark conversation, teeter on the edge of controversy, and make timely issues accessible to wide audiences. Working as a young mother has proven how much can be done in time that is managed effectively.

On assignment for a national newspaper, I went back to that small Dene village a few years after moving away. I admit I hoped to see evidence of positive change. I learned some of the kids had died tragically by suicide, car crashes, drowning. A little girl who had been turning tricks at age 10 had an abortion and the fetus had been her uncle’s baby. Many of her friends had become very young mothers. It was so much worse than I had expected. On the long drive back, I cycled through disappointment, grief, and guilt. I had the power to leave, to learn, to be supported by a healthy network of family and friends when so many of them did not.

I am of no greater value than the vulnerable, the victims, those born with the cards stacked against them, barely given a fighting chance to succeed. I have been given a pretty good lot in life. My privilege affords me opportunity, and I do not plan to squander it.

I have found great purpose writing Gladue sentencing reports in recent years. Each assignment sees me research and tell someone’s story, providing context and history to paint a picture of an offender’s life. I endeavor to make them human, fallible and accountable, but subject to the conditions into which they were born. This work has ignited a strong desire to pursue further education and training in Indigenous justice initiatives. The Aboriginal Law and Indigenous Legal Traditions option is an element of the University of Ottawa’s legal curriculum that holds my interest. I am highly interested in being part of the developing Indigenous legal framework following the era of reconciliation. It is in legal study, in law school and beyond, that I hope to understand more about the systems within which I may help those who continue to fall through the cracks.

I am hardwired to setting lofty goals that I accomplish with vigour. I follow curiosity’s thread, wherever it leads. I carefully unwrap clues at each juncture of that thread, learning each lesson before moving on. I arrive now with enthusiasm, prepared to study law and apply my existing skills to an endeavor I plan to see through and build upon.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Little Women

Raising daughters is deliciously complicated. I welcome the challenge. I lean into the difficult. I relish and lap up every chance to try and get something right. There is so much on the line. There are big conversations to be had. I am honoured daily with the task of raising and shaping four whole, growing girls who will become women. Humbled, really. Whenever I read a story about #metoo or #timesup, I apply the message to a girl I can imagine as my daughter in her future, which is what we're supposed to do, I think. This kind of thought, when it enters my mind at 10:30 p.m. on a Sunday, can take me reeling on a mystery tour of my mind's contents, shook out on the floor like an upside-down purse. 

Squirrel visitor after snowfall
My mind moves faster than my logic brain, rushing into a whirling frenzy of worry, despair, wonder, fear. How am I to ever equip these girls for this world that can sometimes be so hard for women to live in? There are beautiful perks to being a woman, not least of which the power to bring forth life. With the heavy weight come the soaring possibilities. With the difficult truths come the power of all that is feminine. (I'm in a real #girlpower mood tonight, cantcha tell?). When the heavy burden of responsibility is all that is left standing at the end of these episodes, I feel a bit silly. Rome wasn't built in a day and, thankfully, parenting is incremental.

A little girl turns nine this week!
My job is a mighty responsibility, to be sure, but the only way I'm going to be able to handle this monumental task is one conversation at a time. When Abby was figuring out what it meant to be a girl in preschool, I understood this would set the stage. We talked about what girls can do, what makes us different, and what it feels like sometimes. As a three-year-old, these differences were subtle. As she has grown, these differences and feelings have been sometimes inconsistent with the messages my generation grew up understanding. This is progress. This week, she turns nine. We have had big conversations about what our bodies can do and how hers will change in the coming years. We have read about different women in history who have gone against the grain to live their truth and change the world.

Thank you cards
I think my job lies in these talks. The girls watch my face for cues on how to react to the newscast about a domestic assault verdict. They tell me stories, through giggles, about who they might marry and what they will do when they grow up. There are no wrong answers, (I'll correct them when they're older about plans to marry my sister's boyfriend). I love to sit with Abby on her bed at night and help her unpack her concerns one by one, framing them in reminders about how it's okay to be sensitive, exactly as she is. This is the work I love best.

I will keep learning more, updating my advice bank, listening to hear their words to me as we grow together, them as little women and me as their mother. There are the tough conversations we will have when they are older about what it can mean to be a woman, what precautions we take, the ways we might protect ourselves from those who would harm or hurt us for our gender, knowingly or otherwise. Tonight, I will take a step back from that ledge, kiss my sleeping girls' heads once more, thankful that I have front-row seats to the greatest wonder on earth.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

For Later

Hello, again. I am a writer, which serves as both an adjective and verb. I write. I fill journal pages, write messages, little poems and stories. I write here in this space, although for the first time since this blog's inception, I took a break these last weeks. I kept writing. I am a writer, adjective. I am described as one who writes to make sense of her surroundings and inner workings. A writer type of person.

I took in the Christmas holidays and their ensuing celebrations these last few weeks as a writer sometimes does: I observed. I became hungry and greedily lapped up stories like a hungry retriever chomps up a strip of roast beef left in its dish. I read and absorbed language. I lived. I became surprised, thrilled and moved. I collected, story hoarder that I am.

I like this space because it serves as a very useful time capsule. I commit to pictures and words the things I don't want to forget but don't trust myself to fully remember later on. I want to remember this season for the way it washed over me and, for the first time, I let it. I didn't fight the current, if you'll permit the metaphor. I didn't try to direct the flow, conquer the inevitable or stand stubbornly in the way of what was bound to happen with or without me. Christmas was peaceful, shared with family visiting from all over, happily seated around long, opened up tables adorned with warm holidays meals.

This winter, I am remembering that these children are not my children, as Khalil Gibran wrote. They are with me, but they belong not to me. "Their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams." There is a powerful force field that surrounds four growing sisters and I dare not interrupt such power. I am learning to bow to it. Abby asked to walk to the library unaccompanied, to check out books she chooses on her own, and so now she does this. She beams with pride when she returns. Hailey has very clear ideas about what she wants to do, wear and draw and so I happily hand her a box of coloured pencils and step back. I know better than to mistake Robin's quiet nature for acquiescence or disinterest. She sees in colours to which my own eyes are not attuned. Summer's fire burns so bright, I am weary of dampening her flames with guidance and boundaries. The myths of parenting a youngest child are often true, it seems.

The learning never stops. Nothing stays the same. Just when I begin to feel steady on my feet, the ship changes course again and I learn to navigate under a new set of conditions. That's not wholly true: I am not navigating the whole ship, alone (although the whiny voice in my head laments that I always do). I am learning in what ways I am on my own, one drop in a bucket, answerable only to myself. Other times call for me to push my sleeves up and insert myself into the chaotic fracas of life, helping those who need it, guiding those too young to fully understand, asking for what I desire, too, and remembering to stop before I sacrifice too much of myself.

Roasted root vegetables, a la Abby

This winter I am trying to remember what I already know. This involves removing several distractions so I can hear the still, small voice. That voice knows enough, at least enough of what the day requires. I am taking on a bit more work, still getting out to run in the bitter cold, doing quiet yoga because it feels like medicine (and not just doing it because I know I should), eating more plants, making travel plans, reading books in bed, inviting daughters to help me in the kitchen, trying not to strategize my next day's agenda while I'm cuddling with Rich, and remembering to listen more, talk less. 

Saturday, December 2, 2017


This year, I have visited three places to which I had never been before: Niagara Falls (twice!), Boston and Hawaii. Each time I travel, I develop a greater context; I use these new perspectives to frame timeless questions about myself and the big human family to which I belong. I love expanding my mind's borders and including more experiences to bring back to my corner of the world. I relinquish a lot of control and, in doing so, practice open-mindedness. Then I come home.

This December, I feel a lot like coming home. The world can be a big, beautiful place with lots to do and see. Indeed, I count myself fortunate to have the world laid out before me without major blockades to what I can access. 'Oh, the places we'll go' and 'we can do anything', right? I want my world to be small right now. I crave intimacy, the familiar, and comfort. I left Facebook behind in Hawaii and saw I didn't really miss it, so I took it off my phone and laptop. I check in once in a while. I am missing out on some life updates and pictures and reminders that I have come to rely upon for a sense of community. It will be there when I return. For now, I am closing the blinds to the big outside world and focusing on what is here. Stoking those home fires.

This is less a declaration and more an intuited nod to the season. It is quiet, slow, dark. I feel the same. I made a harried effort to finish Christmas shopping by the end of December again this year, so I can focus on enjoying this month. It is a special time. I have learned to stop defining that special magic by any religious doctrine and embrace the spiritual pull to be still this month, picking and choosing from a number of traditions based on what feels best, to me. Quiet, introspective and a little introverted. At home with my family. So we can hear and see the miracles, tiny and big, that are all around us.

The big world keeps turning, further from the sun than it is any other time of year. Though I am not walking on any new beaches, the waves will keep lapping up the shoreline. The news keeps reporting on tragedies and triumphs, whether I consume the stories or not. There is a lot of doing that needs to be done, so for now I prepare. In quiet reflection, holding little hands, I am home. There is a lot I do not know, and a lot of places I have not been, but when I look to the guiding words of the wise men and women that have come before me, I know home is where it starts.

"A loving atmosphere in your home is the foundation for your life," - The Dalai Lama

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Maui, for 10 years of marriage

A few years ago, we talked about doing something big, monumental, to celebrate our 10-year wedding anniversary. We let our imaginations run wild as we brainstormed: Historical tours in France and Germany! Hiking through Spain! Tea in England! When Rich's concussion looked like it was going to be long-lasting, we had to adjust course a little bit. We chose a week on Maui in Hawaii, to relax, run away, and the option to get out and do some adventuring, if he felt up to it. It sometimes seems like our whole lives are on hold as we wait for him to feel better, like all our plans revolve around his symptoms. You know what? Forced relaxation did us both heaps of good.

Plans were set in place years in advance: We started saving, and asking our parents to step in and babysit while we were away. We knew we wouldn't be able to enjoy ourselves unless the girls were in good, loving hands. It was so nice to have this trip to anticipate; the build up and excitement made it so special. We are now home from our escape away, and though these pictures and words will not do Maui justice, please believe me when I say that island is as close to paradise I've ever seen.

I loved how the island's whole vibe entered around nature: beaches, soaring green mountains, sunsets and sunrise rituals, trade winds and warm, sunny weather year-round. We spent our week doing exactly what we wanted to do, and our favourite memories came from activities that didn't cost a thing. We hiked up Waihe'e ridge one day, a four-mile hike that climbed 1500 feet into the clouds! It was tough at times, but the views of waterfalls, lush green forest and plants were like a scene from a movie. We hiked another day to Twin Falls, through flash-flooded trails and into ice-cold fresh water, but we were proud and thrilled to go beyond the safe/easy hikes to see extraordinary scenery. 

Each day I saw the sun rise and set, and we hardly ever were aware of the time. We put our phones away, and took great delight in asking the question, "So, what should we do today?" Some days we stayed close to our home base and lounged by the pool or beach for an entire day, reading, napping, drinking chocolate milkshakes, whatever we chose! We saw a lot of retired couples, or honeymoon couples, but noticed most of the people our age brought their kids. Our girls would have loved it there, and maybe if we'e lucky we'll all go there as a family one day. Doing something on our own, just us two, felt oddly against the grain, and extra indulgent.

I felt a thirst to learn as much as I could about Maui: the language, the trees names, the local wildlife (there are no snakes, how great is that?), the types of birds and the layout of the island. Our best learning experience was getting up close with a 75-year-old gigantic sea turtle while we were snorkelling on our own, one morning. We hovered in the water, watching him nibble at the coral, and when he surfaced for air, he ascended right in front of us, nonplussed by our presence. In fact, I think he even waved a fin at me, high-five style. Dude. 

We bought new sunscreen after learning that regular sunblock has been damaging the coral reefs over time. We could see evidence of bleached and dead coral when we snorkelled, and the array of colourful fish dependent on the reef for their habitat became hopeful beacons for a healthier reef in the future. I was so impressed by the efforts made to reduce environmental impacts all over Maui: the hotel recycled drain water to water the grounds, the island has wind turbines and solar panels everywhere for alternate energy, plastic shopping bags are outlawed, there were signs explaining responsible hiking practices to reduce harm, and there was a strong emphasis on eating locally-produced food as opposed to food shipped over from the mainland. 

We ate so well. I tried mahi mahi and loved it, we ate local pork and had pineapple with nearly every meal. We found cute surf shack burger joints, highway pie restaurants, and outdoor cafes tucked away from busier areas. We happily embraced the state's latest food trend: smoothie bowls. After climbing the mountain, we gorged on bowls filled with macadamia nut milk, blueberries, kale, protein powder, almond butter, bananas, berries and granola, doubtful it would satiate our ravenous appetites, but we were full for hours.

We were so in tune with each other. It was such a gift to know that magic is still there. Our ability to know and read each other better than anyone else reinforced how lucky we are to be married. We also took stock of how hard it is to be married. It is hard to have someone hold a mirror to all your weaknesses and faults, requiring you to be better, to try harder. That is also the gift, though, how much we have learned about the ways we can love each other, and love the other people in our lives, to the best of our abilities. I have learned to coast through lots of areas in my life with minimal effort, but marriage can never be one of them. I have definitely found you get out of it what you put in. There is so, so much more to learn, and that is encouragement enough as we celebrate our first 10 years and move onto the next. We're better together. 

Monday, October 30, 2017

Time capsule

Ferris Bueller was right: Life can move pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it. I haven't sat to write here in awhile because life does move fast. And sometimes slow. My days and hours and minutes are all used up with demands, responsibilities, work, mothering, marriage-ing, eating and sleeping, so sometimes recreational writing takes a hit. But I want to remember these days. I want this time capsule to keep filling with memories and moments that, I know, will amount to some of the best years of my life; The years with young girls who still think I am the moon and the stars.

Each Friday afternoon, an hour and a half before the school day ends, I pick up one girl and we go on a little adventure. Nothing too grand or costly, just something memorable, wherein we have a chance to talk and be together, just us two. Abby's first kindergarten teacher told me she did this with her kids and I'm so glad I remembered it. I hear what is on their mind during unhurried conversations, no competition from other voices. I see their faces and really stop to look at them in these freeze frame moments, feeling what it is to be grateful for them just as they are. These Friday afternoons are such a blessing.

I am writing. I come home from dropping the girls off at school, make a cup of tea and get to work. I research and write and review and submit and try to keep up with the steady influx of paid work. It feels very fulfilling and my mornings go by so quickly. I eat lunch with my boyfriend, I mean husband, and then I either return to my work, cross house fix-it/maintenance stuff off my list, get dinner started, or run errands. Then it's back to school to get the girls, come home for tea and funny poems, dinner, bath, bed, make lunches, yoga or work a shift at my part-time job and collapse happily exhausted.

I am remembering where my motherhood journey started, way up North. Up there, I saw some pretty severe parental neglect, some really cool hippy families living off the land, some slower-paced lifestyles and some stark tragedies that taught me the value of time with family. Amidst those memories, it seems silly for me to be worrying today about whether I am doing enough, being enough, raising good enough daughters and achieving good enough personal accomplishments. I am. Security, comfort, love, and nurturing are enough. Everything beyond that is gravy. Nearly nine years in and it serves me very well to remember what my motherhood is truly about.

Our seasonal changes have taken shape as leaves pile, harvested good sit in the pantry, the furnace is turned on and the baking increases. The baking, oh it is key. The sourdough and muffins and biscuits and cookies. Our days may be structured differently with the girls in school, Rich home recovering and me working, but the baking keeps us all fed with my own take on soul food. Leave the oven door open a bit to warm the kitchen, and let the smell of fresh baked sourdough fill the house better than any fall scented candle.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Autumn Convinces Me

I play this game where I imagine packing up and moving my family somewhere completely different, to start fresh, better our lives in one way or another. You play it too, I'm sure. Sometimes it's Vancouver Island, where we become a surfer family vibing fireside with guitars, sometimes it's a Nova Scotia homestead where we live off our own produce and raised meats. It's usually a coastal locale, where our lives are tied to tides and briny air, but sometimes my imagination is taken hold by international adventures, too. This game takes on a fervent urgency in the late months of spring when I feel I live in the most wet, cold, dreary climate conceivable. 

A bouquet garni to season to ketchup as it simmers
Summer is my hands-down clear favourite, where I soak up everything my city and backyard have to offer, venturing on day trips to beaches and trails, or road trip to the coast for ocean adventures. My decision to pack up and move is back-benched in light of this renewed vigour, courtesy of the sun. Autumn is a special time, though, and I don't think I could ever live anywhere without an autumn. I hear geese honking before I see their V-shaped flock fly overhead and am, for a moment, tempted to flee to southern climates alongside them, knowing the long, cold winter will arrive and stay. But the bounty of harvest time (my own and the farmers), the return to routine after a cacophony of summer melee, the foliage colour changes and waning daylight hours lend themselves to an air of change that, to me, is important.

We harvested about 40 pounds of tomatoes this year, and counting
I am in the kitchen a lot more, feeling pulled to harvest the tomatoes before they are unusable, bringing in the herbs to preserve for colder days. I am cooking things for later: this week, this month or the long winter ahead, stirring and chopping with the kitchen windows open as long as possible. It isn't often I find myself with free time between new work projects, fall house cleaning/putting away, making our own daily meals and being with the girls, but when I do, I am at the counter. There are sweet potatoes to puree and make into biscuits, soups to simmer, cool and freeze for later, zucchini bread and muffins to bake for school lunches. I don't have to do any of this, of course, but I feel pulled to. These are priorities I re-set each autumn, and in deliberately choosing what to do with my time, I feel better about the direction my life is taking, regardless of what locale my family and I are living.

Oh, hello little buddy
Autumn hikes, trail runs and park visits leave us ready to come home with cheeks rosier from crisp air, wanting to sip something hot, eat something warm from the oven. We go out, we cool down, we come inside, we eat nourishing, warm foods, and we go to bed happy. We have pared down the number of activities we do as a family this year, opting to keep things simple, routine, leaving more room for visits with friends, fall cooking and eating. These things feel like they matter more, at least in this season of life. I crave those comforts more than I crave working more contracts for more money, more than training the girls in various skills at extracurricular lessons and classes, more than binge-watching a show, taking on more responsibilities, or making plans to move away.

Day hike in Gatineau
Comparison, they say, is the thief of joy. As much fun as it is to escape into a fantasy where we live somewhere different (better?), this is where we live, where our people are, where we live out the seasons and take from them what they have to offer us. We have long, cold winters. We have hot, vibrant summers. And oh, we have the most beautiful autumns, surrounded by beautiful native maple, oak and birch trees. Autumn wins me back, convinces me everything's going to be alright. As long as we have a warm home to return to, nourishing food to eat now and later, and good people around us, we'll be alright.

May we know them, may we be them, may we raise them
Song for Autumn
By Mary Oliver

In the deep fall
don't you imagine the leaves think how
comfortable it will be to touch
the earth instead of the
nothingness of air and the endless
freshets of wind? And don't you think
the trees themselves, specially those with mossy,
warm caves, begin to think

of the birds that will come-- six, a dozen-- to sleep
inside their bodies? And don't you hear
the goldenrod whispering goodbye,
the everlasting being crowned with the first
tuffets of snow? The pond
vanishes, and the white field over which
the fox runs so quickly brings out
its blue shadow. And the wind pumps its
bellows. And at evening especially,
the piled firewood shifts a little,
longing to be on its way.

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