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A Writer, A Doctor, And A New Radical

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4:00pm, Thursday. I am on my back on my couch, encouraging the muscles that run between my frozen shoulder and my vertebrae to relax. Everything is inflamed because I have been traveling again, talking about the New Radicals. Sitting is impossible, and lying on my back is the only way to ease the pain. My mind wanders to what I'm going to write for this week's column.

Suddenly, through the window opened to the spring air, I hear my neighbour yelling in Italian to a woman who lives across the street. When I first moved to this house, good WASP that I am, I was shocked that anyone would bellow rather than crossing the road to have a "proper" conversation. I see now how the journey to a new land begins precisely where you are - and how far I've come. I like the shouting now. It makes me feel part of a place and time: a moment in this city's history, alongside people who are sharing this corner of the planet with me. As someone recently said, "We all come from somewhere else."

My mind wanders. Last week, I wrote about the theme, "there is no other." I shared an emerging idea -- that maybe we need to shift our thinking toward those who are struggling in our world. To stop seeing them as "other". "What if non-profits weren't charities at all - what if they didn't have to depend on catching our eye in order to continue their work? What if the world's poor didn't have to wonder if those of us fortunate enough to have been born into a place of privilege on this shared planet would ever turn our hearts and minds in their direction? What if the act of giving didn't have to please us first? Or what if we didn't think of it as 'giving' in the first place? Might 'sharing' be a better word?"

I look at the clouds gathering, and think about the comments that post received, and the hundreds of emails. I've been reading them, exploring the threads that connect our thoughts and emotions. And, now, on my back, I'm reading a book that Avril Benoit, of the Canadian branch of Doctors Without Borders, sent: Six Months in Sudan, by James Maskalyk.

It's about a young doctor - a thoughtful, compassionate man - and what he learns about himself as a recruit of Doctors Without Borders, working in the Sudan in northeast Africa.

Here's what the Globe and Mail had to say about James's book. And here is his site.

I read part of a long excerpt from his blog (sections of which are spaced throughout the book) that helps us understand his sense-making process, and have to put the book down to cry.

"it doesn't matter if you are from the north, or the south, or a christian, or a muslim, or a civilian, or dinka, or misseriya, or soldier, or civilian. we deliberately don't care. our intention is to make a place that is safe and solid for everyone in abyei. and it is not just about medicine; that it only our tool. the hospital is not just a place to treat the dinka infant with meningitis or the little misseriya girl with malaria, but a place where their fathers can reach for the water barrel at the same time and say to the other, after you, no after you. and maybe, two weeks later, when they pass in the market, they will nod. and perhaps, two years from now, they might stop and talk."

I keep reading, and wonder why it is that some doctors make such great writers (thinking that maybe I'll take up surgery when I tire of writing)? Perhaps because they are so close to human beings? Or perhaps because they are often well read? James writes about and quotes from some fine writers, and opens his beautiful book with a section from a commencement address American essayist Joan Didion gave at the University of California in 1975 (it's especially poignant if you know what has happened in Didion's life in recent years - do read The Year of Magical Thinking, if you haven't already).

I'm not telling you to make the world better, because I don't think that progress is necessarily part of the package. I'm just telling you to live in it. Not just to endure it, not just to suffer it, not just to pass through it, but to live in it. To look at it. To try to get the picture. To live recklessly. To take chances. To make your own work and take pride in it. To seize the moment. And if you ask me why you should bother to do that, I could tell you that the grave's a fine and private place, but none I think do there embrace. Nor do they sing there, or write, or argue, or see the tidal bore on the Amazon, or touch their children. And that's what there is to do and get it while you can and good luck at it.

It feels like rain. I shift on the couch and continue reading until the book is done and I fall asleep in the last light of the day.

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Julia Moulden is on tour talking about the New Radicals. She also writes speeches for the world's most visionary leaders.

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