Thursday, August 6, 2009

A Human Rights Experiment

We Thought It Was A Retreat - Silly Us

Every year, Kathy Karn, a London psychotherapist and consultant, who specialises in EMDR therapy, and David Baum, a consultant and author, who specialises in personal and organisational change run a one week retreat on Lake Temagami, called Rekindling the Spirit, where a group of people come together to get in touch with themselves and the world around them in new ways. That's a pretty vague statement, but if I tried to put into words what it was really all about, I'll never get to the story of what happened to us there. Here's a bit more about it.

Anyway, last year, 13 of us, 6 Canadians, 6 Americans, 1 Brit from Nepal, including Kathy and David agreed to meet at Bear Island, at the Tipi Camp owned by Virginia McKenzie for our one week retreat, cum Human Rights Experiment. In our group were 4 men, 1 transgendered woman, and 8 women. Almost all of us had never met, though all of us had met either David or Kathy previously.

Bear Island is situated on Lake Temagami in the middle of as beautiful a nowhere as you could find in Canada. We took a dirt road off the highway north of North Bay for about a million miles (1.6 million kilometres in Canadian) or so it seemed, until we arrived at a boat dock.

The 4 of us who arrived at the dock when we did, 3 from London, and a female doctor from California who had flown all night to get to North Bay, met up with a man with a boat heading to Bear Island, which was where we were going sort of. We were vague because we didn't really know where we were going, and he was vague because he didn't really know where we were going. Anyway, we ended up where we were, but not where we should have been. We were on Bear Island all right, but barely, and you can't get there from here, wherever there really was. Well, we calmly waited for someone to come to our rescue (That's my story and the story of my 3 companions and we stuck to it), and eventually ended up at the Tipi camp here, after being rescued by a boat from the Tipi Camp an hour or so later.

So, as we all gathered things got started, and we will learn why I call it a Human Rights Experiment.

To me the most important words written in North America ever are the following from the American Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." When I look at the use in Canada of Human Rights Commissions to dictate artificial rights about feelings and Family Status, and who knows what else, as whimsically as can be, and then to enforce these on poor schmoes who are going about their day to day lives, I see that all as a liberal experiment gone very badly, and I caution my American friends and neighbours to do whatever in your power you can to keep it from happening in your state and country.

So, it was this morning as I thought on the wonderful experience of Bear Island about a year ago, that I realised that it was in fact a very successful experiment in living Human Rights.

Shortly after we ALL arrived we did an introductory exercise, where we sat across from each other and said a few words in answer to a question. The question we answered together was how I was introduced to Jamie, the transgendered woman I now count as a friend. In a moment of what must have been divine inspiration we realized that our bodies had betrayed us both, Jamie who had lived unhappily as a man for most of her life, and me because an auto accident had taken away much of what I thought was important to me.

A short time later in a move that Barbara Hall and the Ontario HRC would probably not recommend, an opportunity came up to deal with accommodation and Jamie's unique gender situation. David asked Jamie to explain her situation a bit, and to ask for what her needs were, which she did. I do not think that any one of us had had any experience with a transgendered person before, so it was new for us all. Jamie understood that, and spoke from her heart. As we were all sleeping in tents, a tent of the women invited Jamie to join them, and everybody was happy.

What none of us knew or cared about was that in Ontario, Jamie had rights as a transgendered person, in that wierd matrix of rights that could have trumped the rights of other people with us. But, by open discussion, and with open hearts, Jamie became one of us. Who knew about rights? We chose to love.

I was in a tent with two doctors from Arkansas, and Montana respectively. They treated me with a great deal of respect, and did not make me feel out of place when I had to limit my activities. I don't normally travel in doc circles, so was pleasantly surprised to find that they put their pants on one leg at a time, just like the rest of us. I never even saw either of them try to do it two legs at a time. As for the female doc, nobody mentioned to me that she was a two leg at a timer either, though I never checked or asked specifically. My only point is we met people we would not have occasion to meet normally, and found them to be pretty normal people. Surprise, surprise.

But, as the week progressed, we learned more about each other, about the trials and tribulations that each had been through or was going through. Some were more talkative than others, some a little more fun loving.

We were on native land, and we respected the land. We learned from Virginia about the camp, and about native customs and spirituality.

We did a sweat lodge one evening, which was intriguing. There is something to be said about being in a small enclosure with several of your newest, closest friends, surrounding a pit of very hot rocks, chanting native songs. What was particularly profound and intriguing about the experience was that the sweat lodge was a historic part of the native spiritual culture, and understanding its significance to Virginia made it real for us as well. Also, each person experienced it uniquely as well, according to their own spirituality.

Early in the week, in a discussion with a couple of people, I had made a comment to the youngest woman there, Ellie, about the naivete of youth or something dumb like that. It was not a necessary statement, and certainly not a pearl of wisdom, just one of those times when my mouth opened before my brain engaged. Ellie was open enough to tell me she was offended by what I had said. I apologized for offending her, and we moved on from there. Here in Ontario, she could probably have filed a Form 1 with the Ontario HRC for age discrimination based on my inadvertent faux pas, and Barbara Hall and her band of investigators could make my life miserable for an endless period, if they so chose.

As the week progressed, I became quite fond of the vibrant, intelligent young woman that she was, and of her unique story. At the end of the week, we had a blind gift exchange of something we had each brought that had some significance to us prior to coming to Temagami. She happened to pick out the gift that I had brought, which seemed like a good peace offering from me to her.

David and Kathy created an opportunity for us to build a community for a time. We chose to honour that, and so we then also chose to be vulnerable about our own stories and to accept and respect the vulnerability of others and their stories. We laughed. We cried. We played together.

Above all we respected that all of us are created equal and that we are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

It was a successful experiment. But, the best part came after the experiment ended.

I fell in love that week.

I fell in love with all the people who were there with me on Bear Island, and I fell in love with myself.

I especially fell in love with my wife, who I had left at home, and returned to. In the past year, my wife and I have grown closer together, as we live our lives, liberty and our pursuit of happiness. Oh, the gift I received was a painted heart that David Baum had received from Jane Goodall, in Africa a number of years ago, which I then gave to my wife to remind her of how much I love her. It is on our dresser in our bedroom to remind us of our love for each other.

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