Wednesday, June 08, 2011
Otesha Testimonial

In my everyday life I consider myself to be a perfectly ordinary person. I listen to the CBC. I do laundry when I run out of underwear. I like a drink after a long day at work. I love the feeling of crossing an item off my To Do list. Like any ordinary person, I wonder about who I'm going to spend the rest of my life with, I count invisible money, dream about the places in the world I’m going to see, and I lie awake at nights thinking, "What I am going to DO with my life?"

Like many, I knew that I wanted to help people... right? That’s what good people do... right? I knew my heart twitched with a pang of guilt every time I saw a World Vision commercial, so that must mean that I’m meant to go out there and change the world by doing something great... right? What kept me up at nights wasn’t necessarily the plethora of problems plaguing the world, it was that ever-so-slight-yet-very-important difference between the fact that I CAN make a difference in this world and that I DO make a difference. So, what I was going to DO about all that out there... how does one go about choosing a problem to help with?

Going on an Otesha bike tour was of the biggest ACTS of my life – I was finally going to DO something with all of my undirected energy. I discovered Otesha last March and it was completely by chance. I was at work one day and needed to ask an old colleague a favour: “Hey, think you can help me out when I’m super busy in June?” And she said no, she was busy in June doing this farming bike tour thing. Here’s a link if I was curious. And I was, so I clicked on the link. And another link. And oh my, by the powers that be vested in the Internets, I found The Otesha Project.

Poking through the website for the first time was like opening one of those matryoshka dolls, you know, the Russian nesting dolls that are placed one inside another. “Ooh, there’s more. What, there’s more? No way, there’s more!” I could hardly believe it – this organization was this delightful combination of different things I loved in life that I never thought could be combined: theatre, bicycles, environmental education, working with youth, seeing the country, living simply and sustainably and more! So I couldn’t help but just take a breath and jump right in. I applied and I interviewed; I was accepted and I was pleased as punch.

My parents on the other hand... I announced over brunch one weekend that I was taking a few months off work to go on a cycling and performance bike tour and my news was met with silence and then, “You’re doing WHAT?!”

Parental resistance aside, I had to get busy. I had to get a bike, and panniers and a rack to hang the panniers on to. And gear and a lot of stuff I didn’t have because I had never done anything like this before. I had to fundraise and train and yikes - fit 2 months of my life into two bike bags. I was both terrified and totally pumped.
One evening in June I met Otesha’s Ferocious Farm Tour team as they came through Toronto. I went to see the play I’d soon be performing myself, I went to check out their bikes and gear, and have a vegan dinner with them. And all of the sudden I realized the answer to the question I had been secretly asking myself for months, "What have I gotten myself into?!" And the answer was: something simply amazing.

During the first week of September I witnessed 16 complete strangers become my new family. We were a mostly fully-functional one at that. It was our training week and we had to figure out how we were going to live with each other for the next two months. All of the sudden I was using hand signals at nightly meetings trying to reach consensus. I was talking about my feelings at least once a day every day. I ate my meals out of one reusable container with my one spoon. My bed was my sleeping bag and mat on any empty floor space I could find, nestled snugly amongst my team of 16. I was rehearsing a play with no costumes and no props, and I knew more about importing bananas than I ever thought I would. The one thing I could never get used to though, was eating burnt oatmeal in the mornings.

As a team we came face to face with heavy rain, strong winds, potholes, some serious hills and tragedy. Today marks the 8-monthaversary of our first official day on tour and that means tomorrow is the 16th, the day 8 months ago that we lost Andrew. We came face to face with the fact that life is precious and short.

But you know what else we came face to face with? Audiences! Hundreds upon hundreds of audience members! And while it was sometimes intimidating, it was totally empowering to realize that these students really got the messages from our play and workshops. They’d ask these Level 3 questions that made me pause and really consider my words before I spoke them. How do I explain how clothes are made in a developing country? How do I tell a student from a farming community to be thoughtful in their produce and meat choices. How do I make a fair trading system tangible to someone who’s never heard that term before? They questioned my answers and I liked it. It was powerful. As I went, I could feel the world changing... or was it that the world was changing me? I’ve never been so active, or eaten better. I’ve never slept so deeply or laughed so hard I nearly peed my bike shorts. I’ve never been surrounded by so many learning experiences, so many beautiful people – and I’ve never felt so healthy. Being a part of Otesha was like getting to know myself better and my place in the world. It’s about challenging yourself to really walk the talk. Not only was I setting an example for others, I was setting an example for myself. As an individual I came face to face with my potential, with the impact my daily choices had what it really meant to ask questions and question those answers. And to do it with a smile. With activism should come joy.

Suddenly my life wasn't so ordinary anymore - I was a part of a cycling theatre troupe! We felt like heroes cycling off after performances at schools. What a wacky thing I thought I’d never do. It’s not even that I thought I’d never do it – it’s just that I never thought of it, never thought that such a thing existed.

So what has Life After Otesha been like? Coming home was a big change and I'll admit that the transition wasn't easy, but it was character building. I now carry around a set of small utensils with me, lest I lured by disposable cutlery. My housemates and I let it mellow and I still try as much as possible to read labels and shop ethically. Actually – I don’t shop for much anymore. After coming back from tour, I took on a personal commitment to not buy anything new for at least one year. I came face to face with my consumption and I didn’t like what I saw. What I saw was a chance to challenge it and change it. I’ve realized that doing something differently is not doing something difficultly. Everyday is an effort to make these little changes to my life, and I am excited to normalize these actions so that they are simple and no longer require noticeable amounts of effort. Important, yet so natural that it’s like breathing. I want cycling, staggered showers, eating organic and additive-free to be very, very ordinary. And there is something to be said for things that are, indeed, extra-ordinary. They are extraordinary.

So on my To Do list: Make my own toothpaste. Make peanut butter. Stay conscious in life. Consume less. Change the world. But first, I have to let the world, and all that it has to offer, change me.

I had to think for a long time – how do I share a story of how Otesha can change the lives of real people? Well, here I am and I have proof. The evidence is in my leg muscles, in my ability to change a flat tire, and most importantly it’s in my realization that I CAN and WILL make a difference. I am, slowly and deliberately, becoming the change I wish to see in this world. It’s not huge, not big yet... but I’m getting there a little bit at a time.

I told people that coming to this event would be like An Introduction to the Organization that Changed My Life. But the more I thought about it, I realized that’s a lie. Because The Otesha Project hasn't changED my life... it's changING my life. It's still happening, in the present tense. And it will likely continue for some time.

So what is a testimony? Something given or done as an expression of esteem, admiration, or gratitude – and when I consider all the different ways in which I can describe what Otesha has done for me, all I can say is: Dear Otesha Project, thank you. For providing me with an opportunity to undertake one of the greatest endeavours and adventures of my lifetime. For bringing me into a new family. For HOPE. For making a perfectly ordinary life, feel pretty extraordinary. Love, Shirley.