Let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. Goodbye Jack Layton.

Jack Layton and Olivia Chow. Pride Toronto 2011. By Fabiola Carletti. (CC)

I took this photo of Jack Layton and Olivia Chow during the Toronto Pride Parade this summer. Jack looked healthy and excited, waving vigorously at the cheering crowd.

That was July 3, 2011.

I never could have guessed, snapping that photo, that I was witnessing one of his final public appearances. When a hoarse and skeletal Jack announced his new cancer on July 25, the normally bustling newsroom at the CBC fell silent.

He said that he, like many other Canadians, was facing an advancing cancer. Despite the somber news, he walked in and out smiling, and held his head up high.

This morning, when I walked by a muted television at work, I saw a red-eyed Peter Mansbridge standing on set. Peter is never on the morning show. Before I even read the banner, I knew something was wrong.

Then the realization: Jack Layton is gone.

I instantly thought back to the beaming and energetic man I saw at Pride that day, and I wondered how everything could happen so quickly. I knew he had a tough road ahead of him, but I thought his strong spirit would keep defying odds and pull his weakening body along. If he could have, I know he would have kept his promise to lead the official opposition in September.

The most popular tweet going remains:

I agree. Today we lost a very decent man — one who deeply cared about Canada. He was proof that optimism need not fade with youth. That a loving and lasting partnership is possible. That generations can connect.

The word he used most in his last letter, as illustrated in the word cloud below, was BETTER.

Jack Layton's last speech as a word cloud.

Art director Stuart Thursby was so inspired by the text that he turned excerpts of it into free downloadable posters. Hundreds flocked to city hall and left messages of hope. Many posted the following mantra on social media:

Love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair.

This final message transcends partisan differences. Jack’s a man who held on to hope until his last day. As we bid him goodbye, we should take his words to heart — regardless of who we voted for.

We should always be trying to be better people, and better to each other … right down to our last breath.

Thanks, Jack, for being loving, hopeful, and optimistic. You will be greatly missed.

Jack Layton will have a state funeral, a rare honour announced late Monday. Prime Minister Stephen Harper exercised his discretion to offer the ceremony to Olivia Chow. It will take place on Saturday, August 27 in Toronto.

(If you can’t make the funeral, there are other ways to connect. Like this wonderful initiative just launched on Facebook: Acts of love, hope, and optimism in memory of Jack Layton)

Here’s one of mine:


Jack Layton and Olivia Chow. Pride Toronto 2011. By Fabiola Carletti. (CC)


Words that always make you feel better

Image by Tanisha Pina on Flickr

I’ve been thinking about personal affirmations lately — those helpful declarations that get people through their dark nights of the soul.

Some people etch a soothing phrase onto their wall, or repeat it under their breath, or tattoo it onto their skin. It doesn’t matter if it’s cheesy or clichéd or naïve. All that matters is that they have a relationship with their statement, and they believe it to be true.

It’s an incantation. A mantra. An invocation of the divine.

My mother says “everything happens for a reason” as if no one else on the planet has ever uttered those words in that order.  Somehow, she takes ownership of that overused phrase, and puts it to work.

My friend Amanda has a cursive sentence encircling her wrist: “Write! Writing is for you.” Her eyes sparkle when she speaks of the passage that inspired her ink and continues to drive her work. She doesn’t seek approval of it.

My brother once wrote a heartfelt song for his high school rock band. When he sang the refrain, he would close his eyes and sing from his soul: “No. I cannot be bothered by this.”

In a world of complexity, it strikes me how simple these affirmations can be. They remind us that our inner dialogue is powerful, and that we need to be conscious of the things we’re saying to ourselves — especially the things we say over, and over, and over again.

I’m going to wonder about this for my own purposes, but not aggressively.
Maybe my affirmation already lives in me.

Meantime, I’d be delighted to hear from you. Do you have a personal mantra?

I don’t, and I will never, know enough

How can one little worm get through all the books? (Photo credit: lawrence_baulch on Flickr)

I’ve stared at this phrase for the last 10 minutes:

“Substantial and demonstrable knowledge of regional, national and international issues.”

I’m applying for a more permanent job at the CBC, and this requirement initially sent me into a bit of an epistemic tailspin.

I automatically read it this way:

Substantial (in terms of importance? breadth? expertise? And by what metric? As compared to the average person or the seasoned journalist? ) and demonstrable (does this mean showing an awareness of topics selected at random? Being able to speak to any number of complex issues intelligently? Writing a multiple choice test?) knowledge (regurgitation of what I’ve read? analysis and criticism? facts and figures? All of it?) of regional, national and international issues (local blogs, front page news, foreign media — all of the above? All of the above on every story? What about cultural frameworks, privileged narratives, power relations?

Grad school: I think you did this to me.

While completing my master’s degree, I started many sentences with: “what do you mean by … ?” and “what’s your definition of …?”

The weird thing is that I was always a somewhat reluctant academic. While sitting in the so-called ivory tower, I wondered if most people could appreciate the things that go on at that altitude. Too often it felt like the scholars were less interested in exchanging meaning and more interested in making audiences nod and say “aaah, brilliant.”

I was also very aware that the opposite of dumbing it down was the equally ridiculous act of puffing it up.

By Bill Watterson

But there’s no denying this: my worldview has been forever changed by all those lectures, books and mind-boggling debates. I developed more intellectual stamina, in spite of the pain of attention. I also learned to appreciate the value of being a self-critical and well-read reporter.

Mid-career journalists like Tim Porter warn that it’s too easy to fall into the daily grind, allowing journalism to simply be whatever journalists do. As he wrote in a 2003 post:

“I practiced journalism, but I knew almost nothing about it …while working in a role dedicated to informing the public, I had precious little information about my own profession, about its best practitioners (or greatest charlatans), about its history and role in the development and preservation of democracy, about its standards or even about the people I intended to inform – the community around me.”

Statements like these make me want to hold on to my Michael Schudson and Stephen Ward books — but at the same time I know that I can’t just name-drop media scholars if I want to do well on a day-to-day basis.

As a fresh graduate, I now face the world beyond academia and must imagine an audience that doesn’t consist of university students and professors. As I list hard skills on my resume — hint: deconstructing normative paradigms didn’t make the cut — I once again find myself searching for balance.

Where is the solid ground between contempt for the “ignorant masses” and contempt for the “snobby elites”? Between shallow generalization and pinpoint specialization? Between the strictly practical and the hopelessly philosophical?

It’s important to me that I do this thing both skillfully and thoughtfully. I’ve loaded this blog with questions: Is it crazy to choose journalism in the first place? How can I bring kindness and nuance to my work? How sensitive can a journalist be? How can we have conversations about ethics that don’t seem stuffy?

I still have too few answers, but maybe that’s okay.

Part of what drives me is my dissatisfaction with what I know and my genuine desire to always do better. For this reason, I’ve concluded that “substantial and demonstrable knowledge” must be a process, and never a pinnacle.

The best I can do is keep learning, and keep humble.