Favourite books I read as a kid were stories about ancient civilizations. Stories about humans of far away lands with rich cultures and heritages. That being said, I did not hear the words racism or slavery spoken until we moved to Canada from former Yugoslavia in 1993. I was almost 12. In an immigrant family household, survival was the main priority (we were refugees for over a year as a result of war prior to the big move across the ocean). As a 12 year old girl, I was figuring out who I was while at the same time learning about the society we were now living in. We moved to a diverse and multicultural neighbourhood and it was reflected in the students of the middle school and then high school I attended. In fact, I was a minority amongst students in a high school of just over 700 who attended, and looking back on it, I was blessed. I learned about the richness of different cultures from around the world and experienced beauty, intelligence, creativity and friendship of human beings who were mostly not white. I also felt like I was amongst my people – people who were new immigrants or first generation Canadians, people who were trying their best to study and set themselves up for some sort of a stable future, like I was.
We are shaping our tomorrows by the choices we make today. And we are accountable for those choices.
Fast forward to 2020. I am a healthcare worker who works in an inner city trauma health centre, on the frontlines of a pandemic. It is mid-June and the last time I hugged a human being was mid-March. With the exception of my brother who I’ve seen in person three times from a six feet distance, the humans I regularly interact with at work and the essential workers at the grocery stores and market I see weekly, I’ve only spoken to my friends and family via text, phone or video call. At work, I wear a mask at all times except when on break. We are advised to social distance with one another, and I wear full PPE (gloves, gown, mask, face shield, bouffant) when in contact with any patient for their exam. I’m dehydrated often and I’ve had many breakouts as a result of wearing a face mask for long stretches of time. I developed contact dermatitis on my forearms from a hand sanitizer with a high alcohol content. I am constantly tired and find it difficult to catch my breath at times (I’m basically rebreathing my own carbon dioxide for seven hours a day, five days a week). I’ve been swabbed twice for COVID19 and was negative both times, thankfully. (In case you’ve not experienced it, it feels like someone is trying to tickle your brain for five seconds.) As a healthcare worker, I am at high risk for contracting COVID19 as I come in direct contact with patients who are being tested for or are positive for the virus, yet the current Ontario government did NOT include my profession in the pandemic pay. As a healthcare worker I feel a social responsibility to be very diligent in practicing social distancing outside of my home, for I could be an asymptomatic transmitter of the virus OR I could contract the virus and then spread it to sick patients or coworkers. I feel exhausted, spent, segregated, excluded and undervalued, and I am starting to experience what I can only describe as mild depression, as I experience frequent periods where I cry often for no reason, have very little energy or motivation to do anything on weekends except rest and sleep, and often feel as if I am searching for something to grab hold of and pull myself up and out of this. This is how I feel as a result of three months of new work and social norms, three months of no human contact other than what I disclosed, three months of no hugs, three months of coming home from work exhausted and every night carrying out full decontamination and cleansing (includes shower and hair washing, placing clothing I wore that day into the washing machine for laundering, disinfecting my phone, washing my glasses etc). This is my personal experience, only if you speak to other frontline healthcare professionals, you may hear a similar story. I know because I’ve heard them.
In the midst of a pandemic, our society is highlighting injustices and societal conducts which need to be abolished and changed. Root causes of injustice began over 400 years ago and evolved into what can only be described today as institutional racism. Let’s explore a few examples, shall we?
Do you know who Kalif Browder is? Kalif is a black boy who spent more than half of THREE YEARS in solitary confinement at Rikers Island Prison without a trial after an arrest at sixteen years of age for allegedly stealing a backpack. He became depressed, felt isolated, anxious and paranoid after he was released. Can you even imagine his experience? Neither can I. (I haven’t hugged a human being in THREE MONTHS while free to move around and I am feeling depressed.) As a result of the trauma he endured in prison and unable to cope, some time after his release Kalif transitioned by suicide. My heart aches for the injustice this young soul endured. And this is just one story of a young black male getting arrested and placed in prison for an alleged crime, in this case robbery of a backpack. Why is a TEENAGER in PRISON and in SOLITARY CONFINEMENT over a backpack? (The Kalif Browder Story is playing on Netflix.)
Have you heard of Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Antron McCray, Korey Wise and Raymond Santana Jr? In 1989, these young black boys were wrongfully accused, convicted, incarcerated and almost 20 years later exonerated, of rape and assault of a white woman in NYC Central Park. All five teenagers were sixteen years of age or younger (!) at the time of the incident. Korey Wise‘s story is especially heartbreaking – he was tried as an adult because he was 16 years old and as a result, he was sent to Rikers Island Prison, served the longest sentence and spent time in solitary confinement. Can YOU imagine going to prison as a CHILD for a crime you did not commit? (You can watch When They See Us on Netflix to learn more.)
Have you heard the name George Floyd? Breonna Taylor? Eric Garner? Trayvon Martin? Tamir Rice? Ahmaud Arbery? Philando Castile? Sandra Bland? Michael Brown? Emmett Till? These are human beings, and are just few of the souls who are no longer with us, as a result of violence by police or citizens who they encountered for the first time the day they died. Human beings who died because they have black skin.
If you found yourself exhausted when you read the paragraph about my experience of being a healthcare worker during a pandemic over a period of three months, I would think that human beings born black are exhausted from the grief, anger, and sadness of the aforementioned (and not mentioned) injustices and tragedies black people, communities they live(d) in, and their families have sustained throughout history AND in the three months we’ve been under lockdown and isolation during this pandemic. A universal truth is that we are shaping our tomorrows by the choices we make today. And we are accountable for those choices.
BLACK LIVES MATTER.
I named this blog A Rainbow In The Clouds after seeing Dr Maya Angelou speak in Toronto in 2011. She opened by sharing a folk song: “when it look like the sun wouldn’t shine anymore, God put a rainbow in the clouds”, eliciting the possibility of hope. Hope, which I seemed to have allowed to slip from my grasp, or was it taken? I’m not sure, but I want it back. Hope of light shining through is what will carry all of us through this time in history. As will the courage to keep going. Do you have hope and courage? Are you contributing to equality, inclusion, healing of your Self? I have learned that when you want something with your whole heart, the universe conspires to help you achieve it. (Paraphrased from The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho.)
My spiritual director encouraged me to revisit a book I have read, Man’s Search for Meaning written by Viktor E. Frankl, a psychiatrist who was imprisoned in a Nazi death camp as a Jewish man in WWII. I opened the book to a random page and started reading. There I found light:
“…intensification of inner life helped the prisoner find a refuge from the emptiness, desolation and spiritual poverty of his existence…”
“As the inner life of the prisoner tended to become more intense, he also experienced the beauty of art and nature as never before. Under their influence he sometimes even forgot his own frightful circumstances.”
“…I sensed my spirit piercing through the enveloping gloom. I felt it transcend that hopeless, meaningless world, and from somewhere I heard a victorious “Yes” in answer to my question of the existence of an ultimate purpose. At that moment a light was lit in a distant farmhouse, ….and the light shineth in the darkness.”
And I remembered my own inner light, and the inner light which shines in EVERY human being, irrelevant of their creed, skin colour, religion, sex, gender. That inner light is the grace, courage and strength which is accessible for each of us to learn, grow, evolve, elevate and do better. Then I recalled a spiritual teaching which was taught by all great teachers, and introduced to me by Caroline Myss – What’s in one, is in the whole. That means that the need for AND the unravelling of past societal structures which are shown to us through news media and social media, are happening within each of us. Human beings are angry at the injustices black human beings have endured throughout history and in present time! Would you not be angry if you saw a human being murdered, asking for mercy, while handcuffed on the ground with someone’s knee on his neck, and MERCY not being granted?! (Caroline explains this eloquently in this video.)
I don’t know what it’s like to be of a different skin colour other than the one I was born with. I’m perceived by society we live in to be a white woman. I understand that comes with privilege. I also can only extrapolate a little bit of the feelings from my experience of THREE MONTHS working in healthcare during a pandemic, (mainly feeling segregated, isolated, exhausted, not seen as equal by the government, because of my work,) into what I imagine is a life long emotional space for many experiencing Earth school as a human being with black skin. Again, I don’t claim to know this for sure, I am only grasping the feelings expressed by those who have this experience, what is felt by the collective and my own limited understanding. Remember this Oprah show?
Although I don’t have the experience of being in Earth school with black skin, I KNOW that black people are not being treated the same as white people. I KNOW that more black people live in poverty than white people. I KNOW that more black people die as a result of racial prejudices and violence than white people. Those are heavy truths. Also, I am not an appointed government official who can better fund our healthcare system and put laws, policies, and people in places to abolish institutional racism. But I have something in me, which every human has, that NO ONE can touch. That is my own inner space, my own personal power. I can use mine to elevate, learn, transform and impact change in the relationships around me, which will reach all corners of the globe (think how a virus did that). I can educate myself and use my VOTE as a voice, for ultimately that IS the loudest voice. I can stay connected to my inner space, move with integrity, be loving, compassionate, move in light. And so can you. Remember, standing in light does not mean not standing up for what you believe in. Rather, stand in your light in a way that brings change, draws justice, and creates a society where a human being can go outside feeling safe to do so, no matter their race, sex, creed, religion, gender. A human being is a human being. Bring your humanness to light.
All my love,