The last time I lived in Ottawa, the Arab Spring was just beginning. I would come home to my mansion to watch the Al Jazeera live feed for hours. I had studied nonviolence for social change; here was nonviolence for social change taking place right in front of my eyes.
I moved to Colombia and lost track of the middle east. My world narrowed and expanded to include a small community between ocean and mountains, between urban and rural. The geographical scope was tiny, but many of the same elements were present: complex histories, resource disparity, conflict, and a belief that ordinary people could create change through non-violence.
I won’t ever fully understand what I witnessed and participated in during my time in Latin America. I do know, however, that all of those ordinary days of waking up and walking to work shaped me.
A few weeks into 2017, after the re-negotiated peace deal had been signed, a student group in my neighbourhood tied white ribbons to the trees in a nearby park. On each ribbon, a student had written the name of an assassinated social leader. As I walked to work, I passed a father holding up his small son, teaching him to read by sounding out the the names wrapped around trees. The world is more terrible and more astonishing than I could have ever imagined.
The people and organizations I worked with in Latin America gave me the chance to learn and grow. I was invited to bear witness to struggle and joy, in the intimacy of small details: the cradling of a chicken; the burst of laughter in a team meeting; bunuelos in a grease stained paper bag eaten on a street corner after a ceasefire.
The context and structures that enabled me to thrive are also the ones that produced the death threats currently facing my Colombian colleagues.The lessons in social change and advocacy I gained have given me the skills I needed to obtain my current job, complete with comfortable Canadian lifestyle. The implementation of those practices in Colombia often mean repression and violence. I am praised for my work; my mentors face death.
Now I am in Ottawa, right where I started. If I close my eyes for too long, it is if I never left.
I am afraid of forgetting. I am afraid of standing in front of the grocery store shelves and no longer feeling overwhelmed. I am afraid of seeing comfort and consumption as not a luxury, but as a necessity. Ultimately, I am afraid that my life in Latin America will become solely a small blip of past adventure on the radar of my settled, professional, middle class life.
There is a line from Rumi (thanks, Shawna), that reads:
We must become ignorant of what we have been taught
and be instead bewildered.
Run from what is profitable and comfortable.
Distrust anyone who praises you.
Give your investment money, and the interest
on the capital, to those who are actually destitute.
Forget safety. Live where you fear to live.
Destroy your reputation. Be notorious.
I have tried prudent planning long enough.
From now on, I’ll be mad.
In contrast to everyone who asks if I finally feel safe now that I’m back in Canada, I am only beginning to live where I fear to live. Once again, I am trying to choose to be uncomfortable. I don’t want this transition to be easy. I cling to the powerful energy of disorientation, of bewilderment. It reminds me that other ways of existing are possible and powerful.
I had the joy and the privilege of crossing borders without questions; of walking alongside spaces that were never mine; of choosing to be uncomfortable. After a visit to Mampujan, I once wrote that “There is an incredible privilege involved in arriving and leaving, simply because I can, that has allowed these lives to be intertwined with mine, both in joy and in sorrow. But to forget to feel uncomfortable and to refuse to recognize change is also a privilege, one that wipes out relationships and what it truly means to be part of the life cycle of a community, in death, in confusion, and especially in the celebration of new life.”
What is my responsibility to honour these moments and relationships, now that everyone tells me I am home?
On the outskirts of Salento, a pair of friends purchased twelve hectares of land formerly used for cattle farming. In what is mainly a job of watching and waiting, they work to encourage the ecosystem to switch from cattle back to cloud forest. As they do nothing, seeds that lay dormant have sprouted back to life. Tiny wax palms share space with bamboo. We stopped beside a stream to learn that the water residing in a bamboo stalk is as sweet and pure as the water in a coconut. It rises and falls with the pull of the moon. If harvested properly, the stalk will rejuvenate itself, pushing up into a new sprout right beside its trunk. A poor cut will rot the stalk, spreading throughout the grove. Nicolas, one of the owners, warned us to be careful not to step on the bamboo roots. He explained that the reverberations would echo throughout all of the interconnected giant grass.
In my own way, I suppose that this blog, this space is my own love letter to trees. I am trying to remind myself that we are just as connected as bamboo. Our everyday choices reverberate in the lives of others; our roots are holding on to one another. An uprising in Egypt. Walking together in Colombia. Disorientation in Ottawa (a little older, not much wiser). This work of planting flowers belongs to all of us; this is my favourite forest.