The Gift of Literacy: Reflections from the life of World War Two Survivor Eva Olsson

Yesterday I visited the school where my husband is a vice principal. I wanted to see him, true, but the main reason I popped in was to hear Eva Olsson speak. She was visiting Edmonton to present to students in the Sturgeon School Division, traveling from her home city of Toronto, Canada.

Eva is a World War Two survivor and her stories were arresting. She used her experience with the “Nazi bullies” to implore the children in the audience to stop using the word hate and instead treat each other with compassion and respect.

Eva Olsson Alexis Marie Chute Writes 02 blog

She told the story of how her family was lined up with thousands of other Jews and separated. One group went to the gas chambers. The other group was put into work camps. Eva was just a teenager. Her mom was separated from her, sent to be murdered, and that was the last time they saw each other.

Eva’s father went to a work camp and died of starvation. The photo Eva showed was of a long line of bodies so thin that their stomachs caved in and the people were literally just skin and bone. It was like a collection of arching ribcages. The image made me shudder.

Eva Olsson Alexis Marie Chute Writes 01 blog

Eva and other girls her age were sent to another work camp. They slept outside on the grass – even when it was raining – and spent winter nights in a mud hole like pigs. They were all given wooden clogs, not in their size, and had no socks. Their feet were covered in blisters.

 

“May a new love for humanity be born out of the horrors we have known.” From the Scroll of Remembrance at Bergen-Belsen

Eva spoke of the power of hate to do such horrible things to other people. She also critiqued the bystanders of Europe who let this horrible tragedy of genocide take place. Her message was that bystanders – even those of today – that watch evil happen and do nothing are just as guilty.

I felt incredibly proud to hear such morality praised and advocated for – and also a little uncomfortable. Sometimes it feels our culture is very grey. We don’t want to upset others with our values so we water them down. Tolerance is at the forefront. Eva’s message actually felt wonderfully refreshing! There is right! There is wrong! We must be resolute in our convictions.

At one point she asked all the junior high kids: “Who does NOT like going to school?”

A large number of hands went up.

(Being a bookworm and an education-addict, I cringed when I saw the hands.)

What was Eva’s response?

SHAME ON YOU!” she said sternly.

Eva did not go to school as a child or youth. She could not read or write. This embarrassed her greatly. She so badly wished to get an education! (She now holds a PhD so I believe her wish did come true.)

This is one of Eva’s messages that will linger on with me forever.

I don’t want my children to take their education for granted. It is a gift.

 

“I cannot live in the past, but I must life with it. Perhaps writing my story will weaken the hold the past has had on me.” – Dr. Eva Olsson LLD (Hon.), FRCPSC

 

When I was younger and in grade school, I was bullied relentlessly. It wounded my spirit deeply and I too would have put up my hand saying I would rather be anywhere else than in the classroom. At the time, I didn’t appreciate school. Who does as a youth in North America where we don’t have to fight for it?

I hope to cultivate a love of education in my kids. The ability to read and write opens many doors, cultivates the imagination, allows for understanding and compassion for others, and creates a means for self-expression.

As both an avid reader and an author, I cannot imagine my life without the gifts of education and literacy. These are things I fight for in my life – not in grand ways, but they are priorities that I protect none the less. It can be as simple as turning off the TV to read a book. Choosing to use proper English even when texting. Reading to my children before I tuck them into bed even when I myself am oh so very tired.

I celebrate the stories my daughter writes on every piece of paper in the house. Her spelling is a mystery most days, but she is learning. She is hungry for it. What a gift! What a precious ability that we have which I hope we never, ever lose sight of. What a blessing!

I am so very thankful that Eva Olsson reminded me of this lesson – of the critical importance of literacy.

Eva’s life is inspiring. To read more about her, please click here.

Distracted Humans Article, Edmonton Woman Magazine

I’m proud to share my latest article for Edmonton Woman Magazine:

Alexis Marie Uncensored: Distracted Humans

In the article, I reflect on the distracted driving law in Edmonton. For me, writing this article was a great reminder to stay focused on the road – BUT there is also a more profound message to be gleaned. I don’t believe the law will make much of a difference, and here is why: We live in a distracted culture.

  • People find it hard to focus.
  • We multitask too frequently.
  • Sleep is fractured.
  • Technology allows us to stay connected 24/7.
  • We can check our status updates and news feeds in just a few swipes and clicks.

How many times have you had someone you were speaking with check their phone at the same time? Or look like they are not really listening but already planning their response? These are some of my pet peeves.

We are distracted humans.

When I reflect on this situation, I love to find the good. What is the cure for distraction? Focus of course!

Personally, I have found mindfulness an important practice in the pursuit of focus. Mindfulness is a type of meditation that encourages one to be present, in the moment, experiencing what is happening.

Mindfulness helps me to be in touch with my body, sensing what I need. Mindfulness keeps me focused on what is important in my life.

Have you ever tried mindfulness meditation?

Distracted Humans Edmonton Woman Magazine Alexis Marie Chute BLOG

Edmonton Woman Magazine cover, Sep/Oct 2015

Edmonton Woman Magazine cover, Sep/Oct 2015

Here is my Edmonton Woman article called “Riding High.”

Edmonton Woman article on “Motherhood.”

 

 

The Social Media Seesaw for Writers

Social media is a gift for writers who are now able to directly engage with their readers and promote their work. Yet, it can also become a consuming time-suck and addictive distraction from doing the actual work: writing. It is a hard balance, like the pursuit of all “balance” in life, as to where the line is on how much social networking is really too much.

I myself go back and forth on the social media seesaw, feeling some days like it’s a blessing and others like it’s a curse.

Computer

Here is how I manage the double edged sward of social media and get stuff done:

  1. Make lists. I write out everything that is a priority to complete, which often includes a few social responsibilities of my business, such as blogging and twitter. Then I organize myself and my schedule, taking into consideration the most important tasks that need to be done and how much time everything will take. I keep the lists handy to keep myself on track.
  2. I switch off from social networks and focus on the priorities. When I am writing for a magazine or my current book projects or crunching a deadline on whatever I have on the go, I give it my full attention. My phone is my distraction, so I will lock its screen so I can’t log onto social networks, or leave it in another room. It is so important to give whatever you are doing your undivided attention.
  3. Schedule the social. This has been a wonderful timesaver. I write my blogs, schedule when they will be released and on what social networks I wish to share the posts. This keeps me active on all my social platforms every day, even when I am actually being very unsocial and working on my books. Helpful programs like Tweet Deck and Hootsuite are also great at scheduling ahead of time.

Seesaws can be a lot of fun. The same is true with social networks. You may go back and forth on how much you choose to engage those networks, but your presence there is essential. Figure out how to manage the seesaw and you will set yourself up for success.

New Column in Edmonton Woman Magazine: ALEXIS MARIE UNCENSORED

I am very pleased to announce that I have been asked to write a column for Edmonton Woman Magazine. My first article for them will be published in their May/June issue.

The column’s title: ALEXIS MARIE UNCENSORED

Oh boy, this is going to be fun!

Alexis Marie Chute artist writer author photographer blog 2

I will be writing about all kinds of topics from sex (ooh la la), marriage, parenting, careers, feminine identity, and exercise. If you have a topic you want unearthed, or at least picked at and prodded with curiosity, comment here or pop me an email at [email protected].

The uncensored quality of my column will stem from the honest approach I take in my writing. There will be no sugar coating the facts. No extreme polite, politically correct nonsense. Yes, I am a Canadian so my manners will remain intact. Still, I ardently believe we all are hungry for the meat of life, those things that really matter – delivered with all the garnishing of course. That is what my column will be: a tasty, hardy mental treat. Now that’s a mouthful! (And I’m getting hungry…)

I will post here when my articles are live (in print and online). Stay tuned!

Check out Edmonton Woman Magazine by clicking here.

Writing about Difficult Subject Matter

Writers amongst other artists have the amazing ability to challenge, question, critique and explore our society.

They ask:

– What do we believe as a people?

– Why do we believe this?

– Is there another way?

Many individuals have mixed feelings about writing about controversial topics and taboo subjects. There is a part of me that relates to that and wants to keep the peace, not rock the boat, and ensure everyone is happy. That’s the boring side of me though and she often takes backseat to the other part that’s BOLD and COURAGEOUS.

I want my work to matter and because of this I need to write about what matters to me first and foremost. My topics often seen unpopular or reflect a concealed part of accepted human behavior. For example, for the last two and a half years I have been writing about the death of my son, managing grief and finding healing. It never fails to amaze me how these topics make people uncomfortable – unless they have lived through them. People who have lost a loved one speak my language and I to them. Those are the people who I write for with this focus on bereavement.

The Three Minus One anthology features an essay I wrote where I reveal my raw state of sorrow in the early days after my son died.

The Three Minus One anthology features an essay I wrote where I reveal my raw state of sorrow in the early days after my son died. Read more about Three Minus One.

The different topic I’m embarking on with my new writing at the moment is also somewhat taboo yet equally important I believe to bring into the open. That’s what I care about: opening up topics that should be talked about, breaking the silence. I ask myself all the time: Why are these things hidden?  Should they be? What will happen if I talk about them? Will I tarnish my reputation? Spontaneously combust? Will my work be accepted? How can I change the world?

Here are four principles that provide internal navigation for me in writing about difficult subject matter:

 

– When you are just beginning to write, do not think about who will read your words. Write from the heart.

– Tell the truth. The truth is scary but needed in our day and age. Your work will matter and stand the test of time if it reflects the time it which was penned.

– If it matters to you, it will likely matter to other people. They are who you write for.

– If it crashes and burns, who cares? You only live once and might as well give it all you’ve got. 

 

What helps you when you have a challenging topic on your mind? How do you get your thoughts down on paper and out into the world?

 

 

50th Anniversary of the Great March on Washington, a Continued Petition for Racial Equality

What mother was not affected by the death of seventeen year old Trayvon Martin? I am a Caucasian Canadian, removed in many ways from the racial struggle that still thrives throughout the United States, yet my thoughts still immediately turned to my own young son and daughter when Martin was killed on February 26, 2012. The wellbeing of my children is never far from my mind.

Growing up in Alberta, my perspective on racial issues reflects the Canadian stereotype of politeness. Our nation’s struggles with diversity are often masked, quieted even beneath a vocabulary of tolerance. Nevertheless, my parents taught to be respectful towards people different from myself. I remember celebrating culture days in my primary and secondary schools in the 90’s and have many lifelong friends that include individuals with diverse ethnicities.

This past June I began grad school for creative writing at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. There, I was surprised by how many of the American students, both black and white, wrote about racial issues. These issues reflected the States fifty years ago right up to today. Their struggles had not been my reality growing up and we talked openly about their experiences.

When I visited New York this July I heard about the 100 City Vigil and decided to attend. The vigils took place on July 20th, 2013 across the United States and were rallies for justice following the not-guilty verdict in the Zimmerman trial that ended one-week prior.

My husband was nervous for my safety expressing concern that the gathering may grow violent, yet I insisted. Something had been stirred in me both as a person who cares deeply for human rights and also as a mother who can relate to Trayvon Martin’s parents. My second child died in my arms from a cardiac tumor in 2010. The death of a child is devastating, yet for me the experience allowed me to begin writing and making art to comfort others who have had similar losses or who have had to rebuild their lives after hardship. I see in Martin’s parent’s the same potential to turn their sadness into social change. Their strength is heartening.

The 100 City Vigil was an event I will never forget. The gathering was peaceful and inspiring. It opened my eyes to see that beyond our Canadian borders, and very likely still within them as well, racial equality requires a greater awareness and acceptance.

I stood in the crowd beside a young African American woman named Latoya Phillip, a student at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. After the vigil she said, “It was beautiful today to see people gathering, all of different races, people from all over, celebrities, politicians. It was a very beautiful thing but this is not it. There is so much more work to be done. This is the beginning.”

I asked Phillip what she believed to be the next steps. She responded by saying, “The first step should be to remove bias from the heart. That is the first step. Now we need numbers, we need power in numbers. We need more people, people to go to Washington, to go to the people who make the policies, because this has to change.” Latoya Phillip shook her head, “It’s not fair. It’s not fair.”

The visit to Washington that Phillip referred to took place this past Saturday, August 24th, 2013. It was a rally at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., followed by a march to the Martin Luther King Memorial. This event was to celebrate the 50th anniversary of The Great March on Washington that took place on August 28, 1963.

The march of ’63 was a protest for jobs and freedom for African Americans and was attended by an estimated 250,000 people. It was one of the largest gatherings for human rights in American history. Saturday’s event, organized by The National Action Network, hoped to attract even greater numbers than five decades prior although all the major news papers I’ve read record the attendance only in the tens of thousands.

The New York vigil and the 2013 March on Washington called for new policy, specifically a change to the Stand your Ground laws and federal anti-profiling legislation. The message was clear; the death of Trayvon Martin woke up many to the inequality and injustice that still exists – but were enough stirred to action?

Martin Luther King III spoke on Saturday about his father’s iconic “I have a dream” speech. Yet the son of the great Martin Luther King Jr. was clear, “This is not the time for nostalgic commemoration, nor is this time for self congratulatory celebration. The task is not done, the journey is not complete, we can and we must do more.”

I believe those words also resonate with us above the American boarder. We Canadians must turn our tolerant ideals into action; we too have much work to do.