This doesn’t affect me, so…

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…

March 2020

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:

Be white
Be Canadian
Be Christian
Be straight
Be middle-class
Be able-bodied
Speak English

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. 

Laying to rest: Rich Bitch.

In the wake of taking up this midlife reinvention, I’ve been facing a challenging narrative that I’d like to rewrite. You know, for my eventual taking over the world, and all. As has been the case since I was a young girl, the act of declaring an issue out loud is one specific way of purging it. But to banish it for good? It’s been often more effective to write it down, and then send it out into the universe. So I trust you’ll forgive me for what is about to be a boatload of purging, as I begin the process of making peace with something that’s bothered me for decades.

Officially, I’m laying to rest ‘Rich Bitch.’ May she rest easy. 

If you’re confused at all, well, thank you for feeling this way. Generally, I pride myself on most decidedly NOT being too much of a ‘bitch’, and I’d hardly call myself ‘rich’. Although the latter depends only on the metrics you’re using or whatever perspective you choose to take, as it’s all relative. But let’s just assume, for the sake of argument, I’m talking rich rich. (Interestingly, it’s been widely reported that Canadians snatched the distinction of the ‘Richest Middle Class’ in the world from America as of 2015, though for certain this virus crisis will shatter all global data in a downward trajectory.) By Scrooge McDuck standards? I don’t measure on the scale. I will, however, say that I’m aware of my privilege and blessings, and these make me feel a gamut of emotion, from gratitude to humility to utter discomfort.

Who is she… this ‘Rich Bitch’ you speak of?

Allow me to introduce you: her name is Samantha Leigh.

She’s such a nice, young girl. Now 13 years-old and most definitely a ‘pleaser’, she’s desperate for the approval of others. She longs to be a professional ballet dancer one day and flits about anything with a flat surface. Currently, she’s in the throes of that awkward stage… a mouth full of braces, overly-permed/hair-sprayed hair and regrettably, zero curves (for which she prayed daily would one day appear, and then when they did, she cursed them all to hell!). She lives on a beautiful, quiet cul-de-sac with her brother and sister, mom and dad, and an extra adorable sheepdog. Samantha is mostly happy — at least, this is what she projects.

But she also hurts.

There have been whisperings going on during recess for about a year now, and whether or not she was intended to hear these things, she heard them. ‘She’s such a rich bitch!’ … this coming from a couple of the neighbourhood boys who attended school with her. Certainly, she was conscious of her family’s abundance during this time, but her awareness morphed into a cavernous shame that would swallow her for years, and ultimately come to shape her view of money (and, sadly, people). 

A belief system is born.

As she enters her last year of elementary school, she’s optimistic these whispers will simply fade away. They do not. In fact, they seem to ramp up, seeping deeper into the dermis of her skin, where they take hold of her value system and then spread like cancer, creating a number of other beliefs she would subscribe to for years.

Having money is a threat.
Having money makes people jealous.
Having money makes people hate you.
Having money makes people think that you think you’re better than everyone else. Having money is therefore the devil.

It sounds outrageous, dramatic, perhaps even a bit silly. But this is her truth. My truth. These were my core beliefs as they related to finance and I grew up to eventually become … wait for it… a Financial Advisor… someone literally committed to helping people build and accumulate their wealth. You can see one reason why I needed to leave my career. Not exactly the healthiest relationship on earth with money!

An uncomfortable display of ‘rich’.

But how did these idiotic boys come to this conclusion? And more importantly, why did I let their taunting hurt me? 

The answer is complex. Honestly? I had one of those classically, ‘great’ childhoods and would not trade my parents for the world. Let me be crystal clear about that. We all know, however, there are always problems lurking behind the scenes. And we will do whatever it takes to hide these from others. Welcome to Facades 101 — a course that teaches you to unconsciously craft a kind of storefront you may not even realize you’re building. 

What affected me so intensely was the obviousness or at least the overt appearance of having money, especially when I knew there were others who didn’t. This gaping, socioeconomic inequality struck me. One particular boy — who shall remain nameless — appeared to grow up with considerably less. He had a distinct edginess about him, always milling about in his shredded jeans, his house perched close to the neighbouring shunt yard. I never judged him for this, I’m simply painting a picture. But he was a ringleader in goading others; before long, he had many of the boys calling me ‘Rich Bitch’.

So what did I do? I dated him, of course. (If you can call it dating when you’re barely 14!) Shocked the teachers and kids on the playgrounds alike… what was Samantha — this goody-two-shoes — doing dating the rebel who smoked and ditched school?

I had hoped this strategy of mine would alter his opinion of me, once he got to know me. Ha! We lasted barely a month and it wasn’t long until the whispers graduated to other audible blasphemy. (Sidebar: this boy grew up to be a social worker and is a fantastic human, I hold no grudge for his hurtful egging on. For he was in pain, too.)

And what of that uncomfortable display of wealth I alluded to? 

Well, at one point in time, we were the only ones in the neighbourhood with an inground pool, which in those days was the kind of backyard recreation reserved only for people with deep pockets. There were also multiple luxury cars in the driveway, and every designer name brand a kid could wear hung in our closets. ALL the expensive, usual suspects were there… Nautica, Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren. (#Facts: as I’ve become more self aware, I have a visceral, gross response to visible designer labels on clothing. These labels created a divide that I can only now recognize, one that became more painfully obvious in high school. Understand, though, I acknowledge my own hypocrisy. Not only did I wear these ridiculously priced clothes, but I eventually sought out work at a store that allowed me to purchase even more, but at a discount price. The payoff being my own eventual delusion that I’d be more popular and ‘legit’ if I had the ‘right’ clothes on my back!)

Today, I can look back and objectively see that we weren’t rich, and in fact this has been validated by my parents directly. Upper middle-class? Yeah, that seems reasonable. But the story goes that we were also stretched quite thin… dangerously so at times. It was a precipice that seemed worth the risk of living on, for it fed the hungry, bossy ego and plugged the gap of limited self esteem. 

Let me give you some concrete examples.

My mom used to always say, “I grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, and no child of mine is…” insert whatever you’d like here. Do I fault her for this? Absolutely not. She was simply doing what we all do: wanting to give her children more opportunity and privilege than she had growing up. She was also incessantly teased as a child for having less than others… you can see how the circle goes. 

My dad? He suffered terrifying abuse as a little boy, resulting in very deep, very painful trauma that caused him to believe he also wasn’t good enough. As a married couple, this combined shame resulted in an insidious need to acquire enough status symbols that others would see their obvious success, put two and two together and assume they must be decent people. Ergo, worthy.

Maturity, healing and wisdom, for all of us.

We are all older and wiser now, and know this not to be the way the soul works. Decades have past, people have changed, attitudes have shifted and healing has occurred. Our possessions do not define us. Standing in complete dichotomy to the past, my father is more comfortable living with less in a third-world country than he is showing any outward sign of relative privilege. He’d tell you he just flat-out doesn’t care about that stuff and would rather give away any excess that he has. 

And my own thinking has evolved, too. Heck, I’ve been lobbying for years to sell everything and live out of a backpack, or at the least a Tiny Home. My time on the Camino solidified my thoughts on material possessions and the emptiness that comes from attaching to them.  

I’ve also spent years viewing money as this necessary-but-undesirable ‘thing’, and yet I worked in this competitive industry where ego is most often splashed in front of anyone who didn’t care to look. Case in point, I once was at conference for rookie advisors, and the keynote speaker — a successful, seasoned advisor — took a full five minutes to show slides of his ‘compound’. I kid you not, he literally referred to his house this way; at that time I had no choice but to swallow down the barf in my mouth.

So what have I learned?

I am not this girl called ‘Rich Bitch’. And, it’s ok to have money, because I now believe that money is simply energy. We can hoard that energy, hold it close to our chest and maybe, find ourselves in a restrictive, lonely existence. Or we can put that money out into the world… in whatever form we think is best representative of our hopes and dreams. Note: I’m aware that even talking like this comes from a place of extreme advantage. There are billions in the world who require money just to stay alive. They’re often not even taught to dream, for what’s the point when survival is really the ideal outcome?

In terms of my own allocation of money, one thing I’ve prioritized is investing in my kids memory banks, possibly even to the detriment of their education savings. This has come in the form of some epic travel, partially driven by a desire to expand their own perspectives, but also by the idea that actually experiencing things you might otherwise only come to understand in a textbook, is worth something. At least, I believe it is, and it costs money. So, I send that energy out into the world in exchange for the unlimited potential growth that comes from discovering another culture. At the end of the day, I’ve also learned that what we do, how we act, or what we purchase simply proves what we believe. 

It’s time for me to make peace with money. It’s been a festering block and I’m finally ready to banish it! In the process of creating my new business, I’ve discovered that although it’s specifically purpose that drives me, if I attach any shame to potential financial success I won’t be as strongly positioned to serve than if I happen to be so fortunate to smash it out of the park. 

Likewise, I’ve had to face my own ugly judgement towards others. Just because someone is successful, or has money — lots of it, ALL the stuffs — doesn’t mean they don’t also uphold the virtue of wanting to make a difference, or caring about others. If a person chooses to spend their dough on a limited edition car, who am I to judge? Or a ‘compound’? That’s their prerogative. Besides, we all have different drivers for how we view money and I’m the last person that should be pretending I’m judge and jury of what’s ‘right’. I’m not.    

So, my dear Samantha Leigh, I shall miss you, but I’m letting ‘Rich Bitch’ go. No tears, no regrets. Peace be with you, girl!

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