Meeting Ordinary: A Tribute to My Mother

This blog is about Growing More Human. It started in Africa and will remain centred on Africa, where rests the cradle of humankind. However, the call to grow more human reaches beyond.  For it is in this place and it is in every place that we must always affirm and bestow dignity upon others, and hence my blog will start to grow more inclusive and reach beyond Africa.

However, I am happy to report that I will return to Malawi in September. I will join the London-based development photographer, Adam Dickens, to write and blog while he takes pictures.  Adam is the talent and the heart behind “Taking Pictures, Changing Lives”.  Together we will visit The Book Bus projects in Mangochi (their patron is Quentin Blake, the illustrator). Then we will travel to Mzuzu and Usisya to visit the work of Temwa.

Malawi is the poorest Country in the world. It is one of the world’s worst hit by HIV-Aids and home to more than one million children orphaned by the disease. Malawi is making efforts to overcome decades of underdevelopment, corruption and the impact of HIV-Aids, which claims the lives of tens of thousands every year. When I use my heart to see this reality rightly; it grieves.

In light of this, I am reminded of something my mother taught me – that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.  They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. Article 1 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms this, but it was my mother who first taught it to me, long before I’d ever heard of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

“Mom” – the very word evokes a respect beyond words. My Mom is an example that living out of the false self creates a compulsive desire to present a perfect image to the public so that everybody will admire us and nobody will know us. And that contempt for the false self gives vent to hostility, which manifests itself as a general irritability – an irritation at the same faults in others that we hate in ourselves. Accepting the reality of ourselves, means accepting our authentic self. As a young girl, I would deeply plead to my Mom that I just wanted “to be really good at something”. She never ever permitted me to wallow in that spot of self-pity. Rather, she strictly encouraged me not to worry so much about it and just focus on “being you”.  Only in retrospect do I recognize her wisdom.

My mom is an ordinary woman by most people’s standards. She never wrote a book, appeared on television, or gathered a reputation for innovation.  She eats, sleeps, cuts the grass, makes dinner, manages her businesses and she is my mother. Hers is the story of an ordinary woman whose soul is devoted and enraptured with being a mother (and now grandmother to my niece and nephew).

It is my mom who teaches me that the ordinary self is the extraordinary self – the inconspicuous someone who shivers in the cold of the winter, who rises to make a pot of coffee each new day, who sits before a slice of honeyed toast, drives to town, rummages around in the basement, shops in the grocery store, pulls weeds, picks up sticks, rakes up the leaves and watches the dreary rain out the window.

Where the imposter draws his identity from past achievements and the adulation of others, my Mom’s true self claims identity in her belovedness.  She has a deep faith and encounters God in the ordinariness of her life; not in the search for spiritual heights and extraordinary mystical experiences but in her simple presence in life.

My mom teaches me that the energy expended in the imposter’s exhausting pursuit of illusory happiness is better available to be focused on the things that really matter – love and friendship. She taught and continues to teach me that the ‘still, small voice’ is what I need to hear. I know what my Mom really believes because I don’t just listen to what she says, I watch what she does.

In recent decades both psychology and religion have laid strong emphasis on being over doing. Mom balances the two with beauty. My Mom’s life leaves no room for romanticized idealism or sloppy sentimentality. In many ways, she lives a life that has nothing to do with how she feels and has everything to do with what she does. She is not seduced by a false standard of human greatness. When I need advice, I just look at her. When I want to learn how to serve rather than rule, I look to her.

The lives of those fully engaged in the human struggle are riddled with bullet holes. Mom’s own demonstrates that those who wear bulletproof vests to protect themselves from failure, shipwreck, and heartbreak will never know what love is. Above any other woman, it is my mother who commands my greatest respect.  Beyond all my stories is always my mother’s story, for hers is where mine begins. No gift to my mother can ever equal her gift to me, my very life.  She doesn’t teach me how to grow more human, she shows me.

Because of my mother, I recognize that inherent dignity of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world. And in every ordinary way, I strive to follow her extra-ordinary example.

Happy Mother’s Day to my extraordinary Mom.


“And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

Antoine De Saint-Exupery

*Featured Illustration by Éric Puybaret




Ms. Dallner’s Letters

A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops. Henry Adams


Few teachers are extraordinary, but Ms. Dallner is one of them. Ms. Dallner teaches in London, Ontario at University Heights Public School – a small school with a very big heart.

Pound for pound, this school really fights above its weight class. In fact, it lays claim to being Canada’s very first “Compassionate School“.  The school’s principal  – Mr. Joe Shiek, is a social justice advocate and global head of the “Time Project” –  a social justice platform that invites all schools around the world to unite together as one to engage students in intercultural dialogue about human rights and social justice topics.  The school is also academically strong; it consistently ranks University Heights Public Schoolas one of the best in Canada. But today what impressed me most was Ms. Dallner’s letters.

My niece is in Ms. Dallner’s grade 1 class and so it happened that Ms. Dallner became aware of my upcoming work with school children in Zambia. Through my sister, I shared some information with Ms. Dallner about the school in Katuba, Zambia (see previous post). I shared with her about how the grade 1 class in Katuba boasts 100 students and about how different the learning environment is for students there.  What she did next is what only extraordinary teachers do – she had students individually compose and illustrate ONE HUNDRED letters for their unseen, unknown friends in Zambia.Letters

I’m blown away. 100 letters. One HUNDRED.  Last week my niece was working on an assigned project for “Hundreds Day” at school (I subsequently learned that “Hundreds Day” marked the 100th day of school with fun activities, games and projects). In order to gain perspective on the actual number 100, she created a picture with 10 groups of 10 different coloured goldfish on it. One Hundred goldfish is a lot of goldfish in one picture. But one hundred personalized and illustrated letters? That’s special – very special.

The letters are endearing and incredibly human. They talk about the cold winter in Canada. One letter explains how to build a snowman. It takes three snowballs – one large, one medium and one small and you stick the balls together. The kids tell their Zambian colleagues about snowflakes falling from the sky and how much fun it is to play in the snow and sled down snow hills. They ask questions and then they talk about the fun snowball fights. They mention how much they like to eat pizza and make snow angels and skate on the ice. They describe snow as fluffy cold stuff that you have ‘lots of fun in’. They explain how you need to wear a snowpicuhcoat, snow pants and boots along with hats and mits to go outside.  They mention the Chinese New Year, assemblies in the gym, the four seasons, singing in the music room, animals and their brothers and sisters. They mention where they are from: Canada, India, China, Egypt, Russia, Albania, Sri Lanka, Libya and Pakistan.

The letters are a precious present. They are a very real gift from real little people playing in the cold Canadian snow to their little Zambian friends in warm wet Africa.

Looking to children may be one of the surest ways for us to learn how to grow more human. Looking to teachers like Ms. Dallner is also highly recommended.