The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: family

Christmas Opposite


YOU WON’T BE SURPRISED TO HEAR THAT the number of those who are homeless has increased in recent years. What does irk us somewhat is the discovery that the numbers of those homeless in the upper 1% is also going up. It’s not that they don’t have homes – the average number is three for this group, and that doesn’t include holiday homes or yachts – it’s that they increasingly avoid settling down anywhere. They often put more importance on their means of transport to all these various places than they do in the temporary habitats they reside in.

Those in the upper crust have always been characterized by their possession of opulent homes. But in previous times, at least, they actually lived and worked out their lives in their communities. Where the rich once boasted of their mansions, they now boast of their constant movement. The meteoric rise of yachts and private aircraft supports this trend. The idea of the historic form of civic membership is quickly waning in this group.

Such a development is also mirrored in various aspects of the corporate sector. For a significant part of our history, where we worked often formed a kind of status. The larger a contribution a company made to its community, the more prestigious it was to work there and be highly regarded by the community.

But that’s all changing now, as companies continue to move their headquarters and plants quickly and adroitly to other locations. As author Rosabeth Kanter put it: “For cities as well as employees, this constant shuffling of company identities is confusing and its effects profound.” Kanter goes on to say that the damage to the social and economic fabric in a community when a business departs is like “tearing holes” in community identity and confidence.

And then there is growing disenchantment within what we might term the “anxious” class. At best, it’s about not knowing if there will be a job next month; at worst it’s about not knowing where the next meal will come from. And eventually they become labelled by the very economy they can’t bend to their circumstances. They become known primarily by their relationship to the economy. Their abilities, faithfulness, intelligence, dedication to community, or their responsibility to their neighbours are totally passed over in favour of how they compare to the wealthy. They might be pulling off the minor miracle of holding down two or three minimum wage jobs, but the sum total of all their efforts might mean they still can’t afford a house. Despite their uniqueness, they find themselves coupled with the poor, or lesser off, or marginalized.

For such people Christmas loses much of its magic. In a world where the rich, like Ebenezer Scrooge, or the devilish Mr. Potter in It’s A Wonderful Life, had to work out their lives and reputations in a settled community, there were always possibilities for the rich to turn their lives around, or for the poor to achieve some sense of relief and hope. But what if the rich aren’t there, but instead on a holiday isle somewhere or in their Asian headquarters for a few weeks? How do the upper and lower segments of community meet in a fashion that makes renewal possible in such a situation?

Author Lee Rainwater, in his book What Money Buys, outlines the kind of life those struggling to make ends meet inevitably face:

They are engaged in a constant implicit assessment of their likely chances for having the access and resources necessary to maintain a sense of valid identity. People’s anticipation of their future chances, particularly the young, seems to affect quite markedly the way they relate to others and the way they make use of the resources available to them. By reducing their chance, chronic poverty blocks economic and political participation, and consequently weakens the capacity to develop confidence and sustain enduring relationships.

And so there we have it. Lacking the identity and resolve that an economic sense of stability would bring them, these “anxious” citizens become vulnerable to a kind of financial domination that generations believed they had escaped following the Second World War. Though rich in spirit and potential, they are necessarily allied to their lack of income and consigned to a kind of “dead space” of emotional drudgery.

This is the very stuff that Christmas in any community is meant to overcome. But when we feel helpless to change the economy or to even locate those needed to be held accountable for the growing gap between rich and poor, the holiday season becomes a dull ache, and incessant reminder that Christmas miracles must be meant for someone else.

Recalling his own tenure in poverty, author Charles Bukowski noted, “What a weary time those years were – to have the desire and the need to live and be respected but not the ability.” This is the opposite of what Christmas is supposed to be – the belief that goodness would outweigh greed, peace could overcome economic oppression, and that our employment could be an extension of the talented people we are. There is no Santa Claus on this one; we must dedicate ourselves to creating the conditions of Christmas in our own communities.

Anne Hidalgo – A Mayor for Everybody



SHE IS AT ONCE ENGAGING, AND AS THE FIRST FEMALE MAYOR of Paris, France, an energizing groundbreaker. Anne Hidalgo has many similarities to London, Ontario’s present acting mayor, Joni Baechler – highly enthusiastic about the job, a history in planning, an interest in affordable housing, and a keen desire to bring neighbourhoods together. But while Baechler is moving into the sunset of her time as acting mayor, Hidalgo is just getting started.

Hidalgo is often at her best when speaking of authenticity as a chief elected official. Politics, especially at election time, is often about candidates attempting to outdo each other as leaders of the people – often a tactic rather than a reality. Hidalgo puts a premium on genuineness, however, as when she was quoted recently in the Guardian:

“People want responsible politicians who are themselves, and I am who I am. I don’t play a role. If I’d wanted to, I’d have gone into the cinema or theatre … which, come to think of it, might have been fun, but was not my path … I haven’t changed and neither has my life. I have my family and the same friends and I still take my son to school. If the celebrity press wants to take pictures of me pushing a trolley around the supermarket, well, I’m not sure it will sell tabloids.”

In an age that frequently requires politicians to place career above family, Hidalgo’s approach is refreshing, in part because she presents the everyday occurrences of her life as just like that of most Parisians. And citizens have taken to that approach.

Elected only recently, it would have been easier if she would have championed great city causes such as prosperity, tourism, or European renewal, but she opted to speak about the one great concern that has been troubling her for years – economic inequality. She admits to having trouble imagining a great future for her city unless poverty itself becomes a priority. Her chief vehicle for tackling that reality is to create better affordable housing opportunities. Historic political practices and the influence of an international economic elite class means she is in for an uphill climb. The fact that she won her election with this as a key piece of her platform likely shows that the average Parisian realizes the time has come to deal with the problem effectively. “This was a campaign promise,” she affirms, “and I have made this my objective.”

One could only hope that London, Ontario could find such a champion among its leadership contenders. The city presently has a waiting list of over eight years for those in need of such housing, and although it has had some success in providing affordable shelter to families and individuals in need, it remains unlikely that poverty will hold a primary place in the upcoming civic election. That’s too bad, since an increasing amount of media space is given to the challenges of those facing low-income situations in the city because of the stubborn presence of poverty in the city.

Anne Hidalgo comes by such a focus honestly. With degrees in social services and law, she parlayed that skill into an impressive mayoral run about issues of social equity. And by winning as she did, she now possesses a mandate to move Paris from its Victor Hugo-esque image of haves and have-nots to a modern city that emphasizes the importance of every citizen contributing to the overall success of the community.

So convincing is she in her ardour for a fairer city that New York mayor, Bill de Blasio, calls her his “political soulmate.” Her recent trips to cities like New York and London, England, with plans for many more, indicate that she believes cities must work together to forge through their shared challenges.

Hidalgo is unique in that there are only a handful of women mayors in large cities like Houston and Madrid. We need more. In the meantime, however, her belief in the potential of every citizen in her city places her at the vanguard of a global mayor’s movement that cares about inclusion just as much as prosperity. London, Ontario, could use a similar vision – now more than ever.



For All of It


“Let there be spaces in your togetherness, And let the winds of the heavens dance between you. Love one another but make not a bond of love: Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls. Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup. Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf. Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone, Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music. Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping. For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts. And stand together, yet not too near together: For the pillars of the temple stand apart, And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.”
― Khalil Gibran, The Prophet

Jane. Thank you for all the years, the dreams realized, the disappointments shared, the commitments kept and those we are still attempting to realize.  Here’s to a life lived for others in which we have discovered each other.  Walk your path; I’m near by.  Happy Anniversary – and thanks for all of it.

“Being with you and not being with you is the only way I have to measure time.”
― Jorge Luis Borges



Different, But Not Less


EVERY SUMMER OUR FAMILY VOLUNTEERS AT AN ONTARIO CAMP that assists kids with autism. A friend, Fran Slee, inherited a former family camp on the shores of Lake Cecebe and had a dream of turning into a camp where not only autistic kids, but their families, could have a place to move out into Nature in security and awe. It is a wonderful place of personal and collective transformation.

Our family has never been challenged with the pressures of autism, but we’re not blind to the obstacles and opportunities it brings to the lives of these families. Many kids with autism face sensory challenges, reacting strongly to bright light or crowd noise. Some respond so violently that they can slam their heads against walls. Others can quietly stroke a companion’s hair and hum to themselves. The fortunate ones develop coping mechanisms over time and learn to tolerate what before threw them over the edge.

There is a spectrum to autism, with people classified within a low-medium-high range. The high functioning can move on with their lives, especially with early training. It is presumed, though not capable of being proved, that famous people like Albert Einstein, Thomas Jefferson, Charles Darwin, and even Michelangelo, struggled with autism. But those are the people everybody likes to talk about because their creative minds discovered remarkable ways of seeing their respective worlds. But what of all the others – remarkable people with autism attempting to move ahead with little steps everyday, or those who might be forever lost in their challenges? They will exhibit public behaviours that embarrass others but are fully understandable to parents.

Those fortunate enough to spend a little time with them witness strains of remarkable brilliance breaking through those habits they require to function. Though they have trouble really knowing the world and how to express themselves within it, they are nevertheless capable, over time, of understanding it and revealing moments of profound inner beauty when such occasions occur. Those lucky enough to find an inner path to walk upon become remarkably functional; others must always be guided by a companion’s hand. Temple Grandin says that the autistic person is, “different but not less.” No matter where they lie on the spectrum, they are just like me, struggling to find a sense of order and place in the world. They have their weaknesses and strengths, but are capable of great love and self-awareness.

The ability for parents to be able to bring their kids with autism to an affordable camp, swim with them in the water, cook outside, head out in a canoe, or watch turtle eggs protected in a nest on the beach, brings moments of delight, illumination, and peace. Jane and I went out this week and bought a bunch of fireworks and set them off from the beach on Canada Day evening for those present. The “oohs” and “ahs” were worth every moment. For a time we were all just humans on a journey, capable of awe, and enjoying community.

I watch the remarkable ability of the parents and caregivers and I’m forced to wonder if I’ll ever develop such capacity for patience and understanding? Likely not, for they are forces of nature, with wells of feeling so deep that they are as remarkable as their own kids. I think of what one of their number, Debra Ginsberg, said and feel I am only capable of standing in their shadow:

“Through the blur, I wondered if I was alone or if other parents felt the same way I did – that everything involving our children was painful in some way. The emotions, whether they were joy, sorrow, love or pride, were so deep and sharp that in the end they left you raw, exposed and yes, in pain. The human heart was not designed to beat outside the human body and yet, each child represented just that – a parent’s heart bared, beating forever outside its chest.”

Autism isn’t just about something that’s missing. It’s about the remarkable presence in someone’s life that brings out understandings often not seen and compassion almost endless. It is me that is mulling about, feeling incapable of functioning at such a high level, of overcoming moments of stress with flashes of brilliance. It takes coming to this camp each summer to expose my own limitations and feelings of insecurity and lack of capability. Camps like this exist because the human race never gives up. More than that, the human heart is capable of spotting beauty in a world of chaos. Locations like this strive to be one of those stones that an autistic child can step on for the next part of its journey. Or as author, Adele Devine, puts it: “My aim is to sort the jumble of information we throw at these children and present it in such a way that they will have a greater chance of achieving independence and fulfillment.”

Thank you to Londoners Fran, Jim and Alyssa Slee, for being these champions of the special place where such learning can continue, and where people like me can overcome my own limitations, at least for a time, and see the world for the multi-dimensioned wonder that it really is.

Blood Purple

Glen jumping

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.” … Albert Einstein

WHEN I ASSESS WHAT I EXPERIENCED YESTERDAY through these observations of Einstein, I realize I was never more fully alive. Standing before a filled to capacity Alumni Hall at Western University, and for the first time in life being introduced as “Doctor Glen Pearson,” I was carried along by emotions not of my own making and immersed in tradition far greater than any single life.

And yet the subject of my commencement speech was the sheer power of the enlightened individual. Before me sat graduates, all gowned in Western’s purple, who were about set to unleash their great talents and passions on a world that would surely be shaped different by their efforts. And for that brief few moments, all that youth and vitality mixed with my older years into what was the graduated class of 2014.

I had been robed earlier and stood with my family and Western President Amit Chakma for some official pictures, feeling welcomed and honoured, as only great educational institutions can accomplish. Filing in with the other dignitaries through the gathering of those who were about to become my graduating peers was a kind of baptism into a new family, keen of mind and prone for adventure.

No sooner was I bestowed with the Honourary Doctorate of Laws than I was asked to address the graduates, their families, and the faculty. I had been prepared, but the moment I stepped up to the microphone, it was immediately apparent to me that I was filled with a kind of awe – an historical mystery of time and place that makes one feel ennobled and humbled in the same moment. For the briefest of seconds I couldn’t speak. I was being swallowed up and singled out by tradition in a single act of great kindness and honour that only a great university can bestow.

I spoke of what the moment meant to my family. There before me was Margaret Roy, my mother-in-law – 91-years old and a woman of pioneering spirit who graduated from Western University in the year of my birth, 1950. When she was singled out, the audience welcomed and honoured her with warm applause. But present too were my wife Jane and a number of my children who were Western graduates. My three Sudanese kids will soon be graduating from those hallowed halls as well. And now, for the very first time, I would join the great Western family as one of its own.  Our veins would flow purple.

But the heart of the speech was really about the power of the individual and its capacity to shape and better the world. I recalled the words of Jane Austen – “A woman, especially if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can” – and stated that it was finally time to file such an outlook into the history books. There before me were hundreds of graduates and most of them were women, about ready to challenge their world, not only by their presence, but their abilities and gifts. Yet rather than merely applaud that fact, why not actually give them positions of leadership as a way of embracing a better form of humanity – more inclusive, gifted, and equal?

The remainder of my speech I don’t recall so well. I was, fully and meaningfully, lost in the body of my peers. All that I would expect of them, I must accept of myself. If they were brimming with potential, then so was I, despite my years. In an instant I knew that the standing ovation that resulted said more about the dedicated hopes and aspirations of those graduates and their families than in any words I could have shaped. It was their way of saying, “We’re set and ready to make the world a place to which our dreams call us.

I went into the day as a citizen and came away from it an honoured soul. With my mother-in-law, my 7 children, 4 grandchildren, and numerous friends, I stood in awe of the power of an enlightened institution about to be infused with a renewed legacy of teeming life. And I realized that, while some pursue meaning, all of these people who filled my day were about to create it. The world would never quite be the same because of that potential.

If the greatest thing about wisdom is to spot the miraculous in the common, then yesterday was a moment of great clarity and promise. The awe of it remains with me today, but the responsibility towards the creation of that new world now weighs heavier on all those who were present yesterday. We are up to the task.

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