Yesterday, I left the house at 2:30 p.m. in my pajama bottoms, making a beeline to the nearest Tim Horton’s drive-thru. This was an act of sheer, unadulterated laziness: a woman in desperate need of a coffee with zero desire to clean out the machine from the morning’s earlier fix. My youngest had also not eaten lunch, and a house full of fruits and veggies just wasn’t cutting it. (50% of the inhabitants here are watching what they eat. I’m not one of them, neither is the kid.)
As I approached the order window, I found myself confronted with the icky stench of discomfort. An unkempt-looking Indigenous man sat on the concrete block adjacent to my car, holding a tattered cardboard sign that read: HOMELESS. ANYTHING HELPS. Doing my best to avoid eye contact, I unconsciously scanned the situation from 10,000 feet above. Here I was, milking the convenience (and dare I say luxury) of takeout while this human’s reality painted an entirely different picture. In that moment, I scoured the car for evidence of anything I could donate. But it’s COVID, so I haven’t used real money in awhile. And by the time I thought to order him something to eat, I was already up at the window paying.
I drove home. This doesn’t affect me, so I’m just gonna move on with my day…
It’s now Saturday, and I find myself in an all-out tizzy. Like most, I’ve been taking in the week’s appalling news and riding a rollercoaster of WTF-ness. The two most disturbing bits to me have been what I’m calling ‘The Cooper Showdown’ and ‘George Floyd’. I’ve been sponging up all the abhorrent details GOOGLE will provide in a desperate search for some kind of answer. Of course we know I haven’t found any, because what I’m looking for doesn’t yet exist. My brain longs to make sense of it. It’s denied over and over, and yet I continue to follow these stories with interest, disgust, shame, and sadness. In the words of The Black-Eyed Peas, “I think I’m all distracted by the drama and attracted to the trauma.”
Throughout my life, I’ve been confronted with a number of pivotal moments where I learned something catastrophic has happened in the world, I’ve felt a sense of fleeting impact and then quietly gone about the business of getting on with life. There are three core examples I want to speak about, highlighting some important things I learned at the time and some personal reflections I’m experiencing right now.
September 11th, 2001
I was 27 years-old and had just finished an early morning meeting at the mansion of a prominent, local businessman. I walked back to my office at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, and recall feeling so lucky; the sun was out, birds chirped their sing-songy best… I just knew it was going to be the kind of day where everything you touch falls into place. Except that it didn’t.
As I sat down to turn on my computer, one of our long-time volunteers walked by my office. She seemed flustered and struck up a conversation that went like this:
“Samantha, dahling, have you heard the news?”
“News? What news?”
“New York is burning. It’s just awful!”
“What do you mean?”
“Wall Street! The World Trade Centre, you don’t know?”
“No, I don’t know anything.”
There isn’t a need to fill in any other blanks, because everyone knows what happened that day. As the situation evolved, it crept rapidly into the orbit of all Foundation staff, and soon we found ourselves huddled around one of the two TVs on our floor. How could this be? What did it mean? When the second plane hit, it became obvious the crash wasn’t an accident. Our fixation continued, and as the towers burned people began hurling themselves out the windows.
And then the first building collapsed. Just like that. Melting into a pile of dust and rubble and bodies.
I could no longer watch. I grabbed my bestie, Sara, and headed over to the Rideau Centre for some mall walking and the kind of coffee a shell-shocked person seeks out. On the way over, the only thing we could talk about was the horror of what we had just seen. Neither of us could process it, but something Sara said to me has stood out to this day. This is a paraphrased, recollection of how our conversation went:
“OMG Sara. I can’t believe this. Those poor people. Thousands have just died.”
“I know, Sammy. It is terrible.”
“You seem relatively calm about this.”
“Oh, I’m not. I’m deeply disturbed. I’m just not as shocked as you. Mass killings have been going on in the world for years. We’re just sheltered, or we don’t pay that much attention to it because it isn’t happening in our own backyard.”
As a Jewish woman of just 24, Sara was far wiser and worldlier than I, referring not just to any number of atrocities against the Jews, but any other oppressed and terrorized group of people around the globe. Of course I knew some of what she was implying, but because these things had occurred ‘over there’, or before my time, they weren’t in my immediate consciousness. This doesn’t affect me, so…
January 20th, 2020
My little one and I hopped on a plane for OperationBringHomePiperFromItaly. She had just spent the first semester of her Grade 11 year living in a small town, 30 minutes outside of Milan. As a former exchange student myself, I couldn’t wait to meet the generous family who welcomed her into their home, and thank them in person for taking on the added responsibility of a third teenage ‘daughter’: my quirky, slightly-dramatic-but-also-lovely 16-year old.
Our plan entailed spending a few days getting to know the characters and scenery of Piper’s new world, then hitting the open road for a week of Mom/Daughter bonding. Basically? Going wherever the Plavins whirlwind blew us. To make a very long story short, we spent ten incredible days soaking up the iconic landmarks of Milan and Venice, then headed north to Austria to get our Sound of Music on. The usual travel mishaps of spontaneity did not bring us down, but one of us faced some challenging moments on crowded trains. Saffy — my 12-year old — had been tracking the story of this virus thing happening over in China.
I’m sure you know where this is going.
Looking back, it’s so easy to connect the dots. The virus wasn’t even on my radar screen and then suddenly, news of China locking down an entire city found its way into our conversation. I recall thinking specifically that the media LOVES to overhype and spread fear. These became my lines of defense against Saffy’s increasing anxiety throughout our trip.
On January 30th, we were to meet back up with Piper’s family for one last hurrah: a celebration meal together at my request. This was the same day the WHO declared a world-health ‘Public Emergency’. Also the same day, our Italian family reluctantly and politely declined to see us, given our vagabonding all over (in and out of hostels, train stations, buses, and airports; as I told you, it was a whirlwind). Laura, Piper’s host mom, felt terrible and wondered if her husband wasn’t taking things just a bit too far. He had been encouraging me to get the kids face masks and himself brought home something that looked akin to a literal gas mask. We were disappointed but respected and understood their concerns. I just assumed they had fallen into the trap of the aforementioned ‘Media Vortex of Fear’. Grant you, on the 31st of January, Italy became the first country to suspend all flights to China and even declared a National Emergency after only 2 cases had been found in Rome. I personally thought this to be excessive and dramatic. Little did I know.
So we made a plan B for the next few days and flew back to Canada as scheduled on the 1st of Feb.
Again, there isn’t a need to rehash all the details of Italy becoming the new epicentre, or the irony in my judgemental and very naive thoughts. Those are all givens thanks to the convenience of hindsight. Our family would hear over and over You’re so lucky you got her out of there just in time! Who knew! We watched in disbelief as Covid shut down the very area Piper had lived in, and hundreds of deaths began to pile up.
Still, we pressed on with our lives, and, in fact, counted down the days until we could board the next plane for a long-awaited family reunion trip to a beach in El Salvador. This doesn’t affect us, so…
Quick background for context. My parents have owned a home in Antigua, Guatemala for the last ten years. They fell in love with the country, the culture and the people on a Habitat for Humanity build in neighbouring Honduras many moons ago. My younger brother, Jonathan, accompanied them on this same volunteer stint, and yadda yadda yadda, he moved there, fell in love, and married the most wonderful Honduran woman I know: my sister-in-law, Shalem. After dealing with years of Canadian Government shenanigans (read: proving their love was ‘legit’), they eventually settled back in Canada and started their family last year. My little niece Mila was born while I walked the Camino last year. In fact, she is one year old today.
Our reunion was slated from March 17th to the 30th — ten days of reconnecting with the most special people in the world to me. My kids were finally going to meet their new baby cousin. My parents would have all five of their grandkids together for some typical ‘Wrenshall Family Hoo-Haw’. It would be a grand adventure, of epic proportions. And in light of some recent health challenges in the family, the trip served as a beacon of hope, togetherness and love. Even up until March 10th I had the suitcases packed and all my going-away checklists fulfilled.
It was also on this day that it became clear we might have a situation on our hands.
Certain countries around the world had begun to restrict the entry of anyone who had been to China (didn’t affect us) or specific European countries within the last 30 days (Uh-oh. This affects us). And now it looked like neither my sister nor I would be allowed to enter El Salvador, as we had both been over to Europe within the last 30 days (her for a wedding; me for a course in the UK).
So we began to research a plan B. OperationGetOurMoneyBack from the resort in El Salvador, and find a lovely Airbnb to stage our family reunion in Antigua, Guatemala. That seemed like a safe bet and so far they had no travel restrictions to speak of. It’s crucial to know this was all happening the week before we were due to travel.
As luck would have it, my little family happened to be flying into Guatemala in the first place, since we were going to join my parents who were already down there and ride to El Salvador by bus. Thus from a flight point of view, we were all good. We scored ourselves a lovely Antiguan place, smacked down the full payment and began to settle into the new idea of being together in Guatemala, instead of El Salvador.
But the perfect storm was a-brewing. On the 13th of March, the Canadian Government announced all non-essential travel should be avoided. With my bottom lip sticking out like a sore thumb, I bitterly hit the cancel button on our new Airbnb find and proceeded to contact Delta to deal with our flights. I couldn’t believe that this thing called COVID would have the audacity to ruin our family’s plans. This affects me now, so I’m pissed…
Meanwhile, my brother and sister-in-law who had arrived a few weeks earlier to introduce their new little Mila to her extended Honduran family, found themselves locked inside the country of Honduras. Unable to leave or move through any other Central American country. Likewise, a similar fate was in store for my folks, who wound up stuck in Guatemala. This affects me BIG TIME now, so I’m calling CBC News and my MPP.
Some Date in May, 2020
(Actual dates fuzzy due to repetitiveness, insanity and uncertainty.)
Fast forward to learning about Ms Amy Cooper. Cockily ignoring the dog-leashing requirement of the Ramble at Central Park, Amy felt indignant when she was called out and asked to respect the rules by bird-watcher Christian. When he made repeated polite attempts to insist she comply, Amy became even angrier. So she reached into that unconscious filing cabinet in her brain to pull out the only retaliation her pissed-off self could muster. I’m surmising this is what went on her head:
You have no business calling me out. My dog and I have every right to be here. I’m alone in a wooded area and you’re a black man. If I appear threatened in any way, it’s YOU who will be punished. I know this, because our society seems to favour white women in distress. Will serve you right for raining on my parade.
Amy’s act of knowingly pulling out this decades-old weapon — the white privilege card — is what sends me into a tailspin. Because, I keep hoping that with every passing news story of a gunned-down, unarmed African American man/boy/woman… with every radically different and unjust judicial scorecard… that… that… something will change. That people will snap out of their hatred — both conscious and unconscious. That we will come to a place of abolishing oppression and racism. That we will wake up.
Then, I wondered if I’m really awake? Why did this story bother me so much? I’m not like Amy Cooper. So… what, then?
I realized it today. It’s bothering me because it’s a pattern of watching something vile, unjust, unacceptable take place and then moving on with my cushy little life. It doesn’t affect me, sooo…
I’m calling bullshit on myself. All these terrible things… all the atrocities… they DO affect me. I’m a human being. I live in the world. And if the world that I live in turns a blind eye to all the shit it needs to deal with, that shit is NEVER GOING AWAY.
In a sense, I wonder if it’s easier for me to ignore these things because I feel powerless. What could I possibly do to change anything? It’s also just way more comfortable to keep all of these sad things at arms length… a news story that rivets, but one that fades away over time, like popping an Advil, you just know there’s eventual relief coming. The Amy Cooper story should serve as a mirror to all of us. While 99% of the people I know personally wouldn’t dream of pulling that kind of racist stunt on anyone, we have to ask ourselves if we’re any better because we wouldn’t, or if maybe, we are decidedly the same for tolerating it.
I’ve been born into a bubble of privilege. And I’m just waking up to the realization of what that all means. There is an unconscious, different set of rules for people of privilege… life is just easier if you happen to:
The thing of it is, awareness is power. If I can call out myself and my own complacent bullshit, then that’s a start. Maybe this self-awareness can begin to make a difference. Maybe writing this long-ass piece while half-drunk on wine is a start. Maybe someone else will ask themselves, if they don’t have just a little bit of that This doesn’t affect me, soooo… happening.
If you haven’t had a chance to hear these words, take a moment. It’s a remixed version of the original Black-Eyed Peas song, ‘Where is the Love?’. Love it, hate it or leave it, the message is clear.