Dear Science Guy

Dear Bill Nye, Science Guy,

I debated for a very long time about whether to write about the comments you made recently. You see, you were in discussion with the prime minister of my country and you referred to my community. And your comments didn’t make me angry; they simply made me feel weary, but despite my weariness I felt I had to comment.

What you said is that Fort McMurray is the most amazing place in the most troubling way.

I would have expected that someone who calls themselves the “science guy” would’ve been more careful with the semantics of this phrase. Because you see Fort McMurray is more than that to which you refer, because I suspect you are referring to the oil sands, our major industry.

But that’s not what you said. What you said is Fort McMurray – the place I call home, the place where I raised my child, and the place that appears on my mailing address.

Mr. Nye, Fort McMurray is more than oil sands. It is the home of tens of thousands of people, and it is the hometown of people like my daughter, who is currently studying to become a mechanical engineer (the same degree I believe you hold, incidentally).

When you say that Fort McMurray is the most amazing place in the most troubling way what you have done is condemned an entire community, not an industry. While the oil sands are our major industry, they are not all that we are.

I have become so weary of trying to explain this. To those from outside perhaps it seems that Fort McMurray is synonymous with the oil sands. But the truth is we are so much more and anyone who spends any period of time here should know that.

Perhaps you would argue that the semantics don’t matter; I would argue that they do. You’ve taken a dialogue that should’ve been about fossil fuels, energy and our future and changed it into one about my community.

And in doing so you’ve made the same mistake others have made before, like when Neil Young visited and compared Fort McMurray to Hiroshima.

And just as I did then I’m going to share some photos of my Fort McMurray; not of the oilsands but of my home.

It might interest you to know that my daughter, who grew up here, has no interest in working in the oil and gas industry. She understands that our future likely rests on finding alternatives to fossil fuels. But she also knows and acknowledges their current importance in our world.

So here Mr. Nye are some photos of my Fort McMurray. I’ve chosen to hashtag them #troublingFortMcMurray in the most tongue-in-cheek way, because I know that my Fort McMurray is anything but troubling. It is the place I have chosen to call home for the last 18 years, the place where I have found larger hearts and brighter spirits than anywhere else I have ever known, and the place where we give more than we take. You were right when you called it amazing; you were wrong when you called it troubling.

I would encourage you to come back someday Mr. Nye. My daughter, who grew up watching your television show, would undoubtedly be delighted to take you on a tour of her Fort McMurray, a place where the boreal forest grows, the rivers flow and the northern lights dance.

I hope in future you will consider your words more carefully. Whatever you think of the oil sands, perhaps you could keep in mind that Fort McMurray is the name of a community not the name of an industry; and a community that has endured a considerable degree of ass-kicking in recent years. And perhaps you could ensure your comments reflect this in the future.

Thanks for visiting Mr. Nye. I’m truly sorry that you didn’t get to see Fort McMurray, the community, but only saw the oil sands, the industry. I hope someday you’ll consider recognizing the difference.

Sincerely, Theresa

My #troublingFortMcMurray

Games Time

The kids looked absolutely exhausted.

They sat on the floor of the field house at MacDonald Island Park for the closing ceremonies, and it was clear that they were both tired and delighted. What was the most thrilling to me was seeing kids from different zones – meaning different areas of our province – sitting together, having connected or reconnected at the 2018 Wood Buffalo Alberta Winter Games.

The closing ceremonies of the games were the culmination not only of several days of athletic competition but of months and years of work on the part of the organizing committee. It was my genuine pleasure to play a very small role as the media and publicity chair for the event. It was a very busy weekend, not only for the athletes, the organizers and the volunteers, but also for the families who descended on our region to watch their children compete.

During the competition (or at least the two days that I was able to be on site having been felled by the flu on the first day of the games), I had the opportunity to speak with people from across the province who were visiting our region for the first time.

The most common things I heard were: “Your facilities are amazing”, “This isn’t what I heard about Fort McMurray”, and finally “it’s really great here”.

It was nice to hear these affirmations from visitors to our region; after all we know how wonderful Wood Buffalo is but the external world has not always been kind to us. As the games volunteer working with media it was also a delight to welcome external media to the region. Our media guests, some who had never been here before, had the opportunity to see our region in a different light than oil sands or wildfires, but rather that of a sporting competition.

The ensuing media coverage was almost completely positive. Stories of the games were told but they also reflected stories of our region; our places, our people and our tremendous spirit as displayed by the 1900 volunteers who gave of their time to make the games happen.

For me, it was a genuine pleasure. It is always a delight for me to work with people who are not only professionally committed but who bring passion and enthusiasm to what they do. Working with the games staff and members of the games committee showed me their genuine dedication to the end result, which was not only the delivery of the games but delivery of an unforgettable experience for the athletes involved.

One of the comments often heard at the games was that some of these young adults could be the next Olympians. And while that is true what I kept thinking is that for some of these young adults this may be their only big competition; the only time they have an opportunity to compete at this level and in games of this nature. And so it was so important that the experience be a positive one for them; one they would remember for years to come no matter what their athletic future holds.

When I looked around that field house as the closing ceremonies unfolded, I saw young adults who were not only tired but happy. Whether they had won medals or not, they had had the opportunity to participate in a sporting event with their peers.

Some of the kids sitting on that field house floor might well be the next Olympians. Whether they are future Olympians or not, they are our future – the future of our province, and what a tremendous honour it was to host them in our community.

And what an honour it was to host the officials, the coaches, the parents and the media as we celebrated not only sport but our youth and future. From the opening ceremonies and the bright young smiling faces to the last moments before they boarded the buses to head home, it was simply a joy to have these young adults in our community.

We sent some of these young adults home with medals, but more importantly we sent all of them and the adults around them home as ambassadors for the Wood Buffalo region. They saw our facilities and our schools, stayed in our hotels, ate in our restaurants, and met our remarkable people who volunteered for these games. I believe there is a value in that that cannot be measured in economic terms.

I have had the very good fortune, both through my professional work and volunteerism, to participate in many of these events and work with other members of this community to deliver them. I am so very proud to have worked on the 2018 Wood Buffalo Alberta Winter Games, and it is a memory I will carry with me just as I do with all the other events I have had the great pleasure to participate in.

Who were the real winners at the Alberta Winter Games? Was it the young athletes who came to compete, but also made new friends and had an exciting new experience? Was it the organizing committee comprised mostly of volunteers who had the opportunity to feel such pride in delivering this event? Or perhaps it was all of us and our entire region as we had the opportunity to once again welcome the province into our home? We have seen so many challenges in our region; from the economic downturn to the wildfire, we have braved some very difficult times. How truly remarkable is it that despite all of that we remain hospitable hosts, avid volunteers and community enthusiasts?

What I saw during the Alberta Winter Games in our region was a community that has come together despite the challenges to ensure the successful delivery of an event. We wanted to ensure our visitors went home with good memories and a positive experience of their time Wood Buffalo.

And when I looked around that field house during the closing ceremonies and saw all those smiling, tired faces about to head home on their buses, I knew that we had found success.

Games time is now over; but the memories will live on, both for the people who were part of delivering it and for the young adults who visited our region, many for the very first time, finding a beautiful place where the northern lights dance, the rivers flow and the boreal forest grows.

Empty

I have asked her where she wants to go on our next vacation; back to Disney World and a cruise, perhaps, or maybe Ireland this time?

When she texts back a few days later I am both bemused and perplexed, as it shows what a complicated creature my child truly is.

“Chernobyl,” she texts. “I think we should go to Chernobyl.”

Chernobyl? The site of a massive nuclear accident, a name forever etched in my brain as I recall watching the coverage on television as the dire fears of a nuclear meltdown were realized and thousands fled their homes due to the radioactivity they could not see but that was truly lethal in the most horrific of ways.

Yes, that Chernobyl.

She is in first year Engineering now, and has discovered a fascination with nuclear science. She is in fact considering a trajectory change, switching her focus from mechanical to nuclear and I suspect this has spurred the sudden interest in visiting the scene of a nuclear plant gone terribly wrong.

She sends text after text showing that it is now safe, at least for small segments of time, using terms like millisieverts and other words beyond my simple comprehension. And while she does so, I begin to browse Chernobyl on the internet, quickly finding photos of the perhaps-forgotten part of the disaster: the city of Pripyat, evacuated in the first 48 hours following the disaster and uninhabited since.

Here is the merry-go-round in the amusement park, forever stilled. Here are the houses, the schools, the hospitals, the playgrounds, gradually decaying into dust and nature (of the sort that has been left behind after being irradiated) beginning to take over.

An entire city of 50,000 people gone in two days, never to return.

And as I view the photos I find myself beginning to feel ever so slightly ill, as this seems eerily familiar to me, far too similar to a city emptied of over 80,000 people in a matter of hours just under two years ago.

“You can tour the hospital,” she texts. They do guided tours through the city, and you can see where the firefighters who initially responded to the crisis eventually dropped their heavily irradiated fire equipment before finally fleeing (but not likely before they acquired a massive dose of radiation, and the ensuing health consequences). You can tour the streets and the school, look inside the houses and see an entire community that was abandoned.

It sets me into a long train of thought, as fundamentally it feels like this is a sort of “disaster tourism”, although in this case one heavily endorsed and promoted by the country in which it occurred. The tours are perfectly legal and popular; there are entire packages available.

For me, though, there is another layer of complexity as it feels so close to what we experienced in my community in May of 2016. When we fled we had no idea if we would be able to return; were it not for the fact that our water treatment plant, hospital and other basic infrastructure were spared, we may have found ourselves the residents of an abandoned city to which we would never return.

Both my head and my heart hurt as I ponder it.

“You could write about it,” she texts.

And in that she is right, there is no doubt there are powerful things to be written about Chernobyl and Pripyat, and even about the similarities to my own experience in a community that was ravaged not by radiation but wildfire. There is a lure in that, but there is something else that tips the scales.

There is the desire to feel myself challenged, to bring myself to that pit of sadness and back out again, to immerse myself in that abandoned city and realize that for the people who were forced to abandon it life went on, even if it was very different and very likely very difficult.

Just as life would have gone on had I never been able to return to my own city if a wildfire had not just singed it, but destroyed it entirely.

Chernobyl and Pripyat are perhaps examples of human error, maybe even hubris. But so too they are examples of resiliency, like turning this site of disaster into a way to generate revenue in a country desperate for it.

“Okay,” I text. “Maybe not this year, but yes. Chernobyl.”

And so I will one day stand in an empty city and reflect on their experience and ours. There will be a mix of emotions I am sure, some of them relating to the fact that I was able to return home to my community after a disaster while they had not; but  I also know I will feel there what I feel here in Fort McMurray: a sense of  the courage, resiliency and indomitable nature of the human spirit, even when the worst happens.

Even in the midst of an empty city.

Hometown

Sam at 10 in Abasand, Fort McMurray

“When I tell people at university that I’m from Fort Mac it’s amazing how many of them are, too,” says my daughter as we drive home from the airport.

What catches me isn’t that other kids at her school are from Fort McMurray; it’s that she says she is from Fort McMurray.

I pause and say: “You tell them you’re from here? Not from Calgary?”

You see, she spent the final two years of high school living in Calgary, choosing to leave Fort McMurray for a variety of reasons; and when she did I somehow assumed that when it came time for her to claim her hometown, she would claim our larger and admittedly likely more-exciting-for-a-teenager neighbour to the south.

She looks at me with that expression kids reserve for their parents when it is clear they are a bit senile or perhaps just dumb; “of course I say I am from here, this is my hometown”. And she gazes out the window as we drive home, watching the snow drift and the valley of downtown Fort McMurray come into view.

And I smile, because this is truly something I have always wanted: for my daughter to one day proudly say she is from Fort McMurray, Alberta.

This year marks the longest continuous stretch I have lived in one place, including as a child. Fort McMurray has now been my home for longer than anywhere else, and I know that while I have deep and abiding affection for Toronto and Saskatoon, the other contenders for my heart, that Fort Mac (and yes, I call it that with love) will always be where I consider home. It is the place where I have found people who inspire me, thrill me, love me, encourage me, compel me and on occasion drive me completely fucking crazy; who could ask for anything more than that?

My daughter came here as a child, of course, and had little choice in where to grow up. But the truth is she grew up here, in this place of opportunity and challenge, this quirky northern Alberta city-that-is-not-a-city and that is marked by an incredible vibrancy and energy (and one that has nothing to do with oil).

That she has chosen to claim it as her home town, eschewing her other home of late, makes me even more determined and committed to ensuring this community continues to be the place where children like her are proud to call home.

Communities don’t just happen; they are built by the people within them, and if the people who reside in them so choose, communities can falter and fail. Just as with brick and mortar buildings, communities need maintenance and tending, investment and loving care. And just as with buildings, with neglect comes consequences.

And to be very frank, just as with buildings when the exterior conditions become more harsh, that maintenance becomes more critical. When cold winds blow and hard rains pound a building, the necessity of shoring up the walls and roof becomes very clear; and in our region in the past few years we have seen the cold winds of economic change and the hard rain of blow after blow, including a devastating wildfire that threatened to topple us entirely.

And yet here we are, tending to our home. And why do we do it?

For me, it’s all about the kids, ones like my daughter who will undoubtedly leave one day and venture far away, but who can carry with them the strength, courage, tenacity and pride they found right here in their hometown.

As the car rolls on, I glance at her as she gazes out the window, seeing her hometown roll by. And I smile, as I am filled with pride; in her, in us, and in our hometown.

This Uncurated Life

It was with interest that I listened to a young woman explain her Instagram feed to me. She explained how she always uses the same filters, the same focus on her lens, the same point of view to create a consistent feel for her photos.

She called it her curated life.

I found this both intriguing and troubling, because one of the things I have come to recognize over the last five decades is that life is both uncuratable and truly at its best when it is messy.

My Instagram feed looks like nothing like a curated collection. It is a collection of real moments from my life, from suede shoes with bits of cat fur clinging to them to odd angles, bad lighting and brief glimpses of all the imperfections. And if I am honest these are the type of Instagram feeds I am drawn to, because instead of trying to create some image of perfection they instead reflect the reality of other’s lives.

Have you ever seen an Instagram feed or a Facebook profile that seems to display a perfect life? These always make me suspicious because the truth is life is not perfect.

If I had had the option to curate my life I would’ve curated out so many things; the painful death of my father from lung cancer; my mother’s sudden-death from an aneurysm; the loss of vision in my left eye due to disease; the demise of a 24 year marriage and so much more. But in the same way I would’ve wished to curate these things out of my life, they are what has made my life what it is.

I wonder about those who strive for a curated life; I suspect that one day life will surprise them as it surprises all of us, with unexpected happenings both good and bad. It is unlikely these things will fit into their curation, and yet these are the things that give life true beauty.

I am not saying that terrible things are beautiful; please don’t misunderstand. But I think if life were nothing but perfect, we would not appreciate it because we would not understand there are two sides to living.

They say that we only appreciate light because we can see the dark and warmth because we experience being cold. I think this is true of life as well. Perhaps those who curate their lives have not yet experienced the loss of a loved one, the end of a relationship, significant illness or any of the other life traumas that eventually we will all face. Or perhaps they have endured these things and have instead chosen to focus on a beautiful, “perfect” life.

And I do not judge them for this; I simply do not believe that life can be curated and nor should it be. Life is messy, difficult, occasionally painful and yet incredibly beautiful.

The loss of my parents made me understand how much I treasured them; the end of my marriage led me to explore my own need for independence; the loss of vision in one eye made me appreciate being able to see. To curate these things out of my life would be to deny that they are part of it and part of the journey of my existence.

I not only accept but also celebrate my time on this planet, with moments of both joy and anguish, as I wander through this uncurated life.

Finding Your Tribe

When she was a small child, I would worry on occasion about many things; and one of the things I occasionally fretted over was her small social circle, as she was quite picky about her friends and tended to have few.

There is no doubt she was a bit different from other little girls her age; while they played with dolls her preference was to disappear into her room for hours, emerging once she had completed her latest Lego or Playmobil masterpiece. It was clear quite early on that she had a grasp of certain scientific principles most children don’t grasp until far later (and that some adults, like me, struggle with for most of their life). She was interested in string theory and the riddle of Schrodinger’s cat, space travel and time hops. And she had a dark and cynical sense of humour from an early age, unusual for most children I think (where she inherited that, I clearly have NO idea).

And while she had friends, to me it seemed they were more friends of convenience than of choice; they were “better-than-having-no-friends” friends, good kids but ones she had little in common with and with whom she shared few interests.

The hard truth is that she was, in every sense, a lot like me.

Finding your tribe isn’t always easy. This is particularly true when you are, perhaps, a bit different from the norm and don’t quite fit into where fate has placed you as a child. For me, it was the challenge of being an unsophisticated kid who got plopped into a new school in Grade 6, where all the other kids were savvy and street smart and, frankly, keen to bully anyone not like them.

I found friends along the way – good ones – but it took me a long time to find my tribe.

And so it was for her, even when she chose to leave Fort McMurray to finish high school in Calgary, a move in which I thought she may finally find her tribe. And she found friends there, as I knew she would, but it wasn’t until she started university this past fall and sent me this picture that I knew it had finally happened:

She had found her tribe, in a group of engineering students who share so much in common despite their differences, who speak the same language of science and math and who are building a community despite coming to their campus from across the country and even the world; and it was so familiar, because almost two decades ago, after years of searching, I found my tribe.

One could also call it my community, I suppose. For it was when I moved to Fort McMurray Alberta – and when I allowed it to begin to move me – that I found my tribe, people who spoke the same language of home, belonging and community. We came from every corner of the planet to build homes, lives, communities and a tribe.

In 2016, a few months after the devastating wildfire that struck our region, I considered leaving Fort McMurray. I don’t think I am alone in this; many contemplated this choice, and some did in fact choose to move on. But for me, it was something I could simply not find it in my heart or head to do, as I had found my tribe here. These were the people who were in my life by choice, not just by chance; this was the place where I found every time I gave to it, it gave back to me tenfold.

How do you know when you have found your tribe? I suppose it is like I always told her. If you have to try too hard to fit in, then they might be a good tribe, but they might not be your tribe. If you feel you are losing a sense of yourself to become part of them, then they are probably not your tribe. If they do not make you want to be better and do better, then they may not be your tribe. And if it feels too much like work, if it does not feel natural and right and comfortable, then you may not yet have found your tribe.

That she has found her tribe cannot be doubted. It is in every tale she tells, every photo she sends, every laugh in her voice when she calls; it took some time, but her tribe – her community – is clear.

And so it is for me, too. Despite the challenges, the flaws, the failings, the moments when I roll my eyes at some of my tribal companions or when, for a fraction of a second I am tempted by the call of other places, I know I have found my tribe. It’s not that it’s perfect, it’s not that it’s utopia, and it’s not that it’s never -45 degrees Celsius (!). It is that for whatever reason, this is the place where I fit in, and where I have found the tribe I have spent my life searching for.

The funny thing about tribes, though, is that over your life they can change. New interests, new opportunities and new challenges are around every corner, and sometimes a new tribe awaits. But when you find your tribe – when you find the place where you don’t have to work to fit in, where you all speak the same language (and by that I don’t mean English, but the language of community, commitment and cohesion) and where you feel at home, you savour every moment, because the right tribe – your tribe – doesn’t come along every day.

Currently she revels in her new tribe, in their shared language and interests and common traits; and one day she may move on to a new tribe, but she will never forget this tribe or her allegiance to them.

And so I think it is with Fort McMurray, as once this tribe has claimed you and you have claimed it, it stays with you forever, no matter where you go or how long you are gone.

All my old worries from long ago are laid to rest; I am so very glad she has found her tribe.

And you know, I am glad I have found mine, too, in this northern point on the planet where the rivers flow, the forests grow and the northern lights dance, almost as if to a tribal song.

This is my tribe. And I cannot imagine a better tribe to which to belong.

The Year of Letting Go

The final day of 2017 arrives and my thoughts begin to turn to the year past and the one yet ahead. That thin wedge between December 31 and January 1, while a most arbitrary dividing line in our lives, has the power to do this, make us reflect and resolve and sometimes, perhaps, regret.

As this year hastens towards it’s end and a new one begins, the phrase that keeps dancing in my head is “the year of letting go”. I knew I had read a quote that struck me, and so I sought it out, finally finding it:

My heart truly soared when I read it, because that was my 2017. It was a year of letting go of so many things, putting down some of the burdens I had carried for so long and forgiving others – and myself – for our faults and failings.

2016 was a difficult year in my community. The massive wildlife that swept through our city destroyed not only homes but lives and hearts and souls. And it impacted me far more than I initially understood, even though I had not lost my home or my heart; but somehow the flames had singed my soul and I struggled for so very long.

2017 was the year we marked the first anniversary of that fire, a date that seemed both a relief to finally have past us and an agony to endure. I sat in my office on that memorial date and looked out my window, seeing not an angry black and red sky but a beautiful spring day and could not help but compare the two days, separated by one year in time.

2017 was the year I walked across a stage and accepted a medal for my conduct during the initial hours of that fire. I came very close to denying the medal completely, to asking to have my name removed from the list of recipients because I felt I did not deserve it in any way. On that fateful day in May, I had done my job, which did not involve saving lives or homes; and more than that I was carrying the secret shame that I was profoundly disappointed in myself that I had not been stronger, smarter, braver or tougher on that day or the days that followed.

2017 was the year I made friends, lost friends, saw my respect  for some grow as they showed themselves to be more than I ever imagined and saw my respect for others diminish as they revealed themselves to be lacking in what I thought they had; and in this way it was no different than any other year, as this journey we are all on means at moments our path crosses that of others, for better or for worse.

2017 was the year I left the job I had worked at for almost five years, the one that was intense and challenging and that I loved but that I had come to recognize was having negative impacts on me both emotionally and physically and in which I knew the time had come to move on, although I clung to it tightly because it was the job that had given me hope and life after my divorce and because I adored the colleagues who has become more like family.

2017 was the year I began a new job, one with new challenges and intensity, but keen and sharp and fresh and new and exciting and with a cast of new colleagues rapidly becoming friends.

2017 was the year I worked on a political campaign (well, two, really) and saw the highs and lows and thumps and bumps and victory and defeat and everything in between.

And 2017 was the year I began to write about my marriage and my divorce, these topics until now untouched and undisturbed as they settled in my heart and mind to a place where words could finally penetrate.

2017 was the year of letting go.

I let go of my anger and disappointment in myself that lingered after the wildfire; and I let go of my anger and disappointment in those who I felt had failed me in some way. I let go of a job that I had loved for so very long, but that I knew was time to leave. I let go of people who did not enrich my life and for whom I suspected I did not enrich theirs; and I let go of the emotions of my marriage and divorce enough to begin unpacking that baggage, quietly choosing what to keep and what to discard and what needed to be written.

I broke open and dug out all the rot with my own hands, beginning the year feeling uncertain and unsettled and finding myself at the ending at peace because I have done the things I know I needed to do to get where I wanted to be.

And here I am. 2017 was the year I made peace and love, with myself and with my world and with my soul that had been singed in a fire that somehow left me smoke-damaged and scarred without even touching me in any real way.

It was a good year, one not unmarred by losses and crises and tragedies, but one that reminded me that what mattered was not what happened but how I responded, and one that allowed me to remember to be as gentle with myself as I tend to be with others, forgiving them for things I would likely struggle to forgive in myself.

It was my year of letting go, of letting be, of almost losing myself and diving deep to find myself again, of stopping writing for a time to allow myself to feel until those feelings began to demand they be written again.

And now, 2018. A new book with blank pages, crisp and clean and empty like the dozens of notebooks I own, just waiting to be written in and to tell the story. Today I let go of 2017, not with the angst I released 2016 but with fondness and with gratitude for being not only a year of letting go but being another year I was so blessed to have had when I know others were denied of that privilege. And I look forward to 2018, with new challenges and new highs and lows and more than anything, most of all, another year in which to love and laugh and live with those who have chosen to be part of my life just as I have chosen to be part of theirs.

Dearest reader, whether 2017 was your year of letting go, and whether it was the best or worst or just another year, I hope you will embrace 2018 as a new chance, a fresh start and very simply another year in which you get to dance across this earth.

Happy New Year – and thank you for being part of my year of letting go. I look forward to sharing tales of 2018 – whatever they might be – with you.

And with that, I let go of 2017, and welcome a fresh new year.

~TEW