Too often I know the titles for these posts before I can think up some half-decent content to follow them.

When my jumbo water-bottle relieved itself inside my bag this morning, I knew I had a winner. The beauty of being a writer is that something can always be salvaged from the wreck, regardless of how messy it gets. I’m talking about the story and in this case, I also lucked out by managing to save a few watery pens from drowning. Islands of loose change I could not care less about saving have now sunk to the bottom of my one purse, reminding me that if my wallet were a boat, well, it’s time for a new boat. 

Now for the hard part… something actually worth reading.

I don’t feel like I’m drowning, that’s not what this is about. But sometimes, when you find yourself treading water for the eleventh hour on-end, a ledge to grab on to becomes more appealing than proving the point.

My arms are tired. And I never really was a swimmer. I lack buoyancy and it’s no secret I failed level four of swimming twice.

Being somewhere without anything to ground you is a lot like being in the middle of an ocean. There’s no sense of direction, and the only difference between up and down is two different shades of blue. You take on water; you give some back. You absorb the swills and you counter the swalls. You make up words just to feel in control: You can’t master your fate if you’ve lost your soul.

You just are, exactly where you are. 

All of this is to say that I’m tired of flailing my arms, wavering around like one of those air-fed stickmen that billow in used car lots. If the air-fed stickman were in an ocean. And somehow still functioning.

You can either let the waves of emotions wash over you while you stay put and tread, or you can go along for the ride and see where you end up. I mean, you’ll either hit land or you’ll just find yourself in the middle of another ocean, which can’t be that bad.

Across the Atlantic, people will wake up to read a post that doesn’t make much sense. But they can’t say I didn’t warn them: I delivered a great title, and have never promised to do more.

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If grey were an emotion, it would probably be dread.

And everything in the vicinity was grey.

The mist, the air, the sense of numbness that gripped shivering limbs and clouded weary minds.

The fog was a smoke that lingered around the corners of the 28 buildings. They lined the rough and sandy pavement like numbered tombstones; two stories each and crumbling after six decades of remembrance. Today they see many visitors, but no one ever brings flowers.

The trees just outside of the barbed wire fences were spidery patterns, drawn with burnt charcoal on a blank slate of a sky. While everything in sight looked bleak, worn and used, no amount of time would be able to wash away the grey that permeated the decaying walls, the shattered windows, the creaking slats between the wooden barrack roofs.

The red bricks were dull and the grass was frosted. It was as though colour was an afterthought, a desperate attempt to breathe some life into the unforgiving scenery normally known through black and white photographs.

The clouds huddled together against the biting bitter wind, refraining from crying on the cold, hard ground.

Auschwitz.

Just an hour on a bus from the already faded pastel facades of Rynek Glowny, Krakow’s main square. Even after suffering through two world wars, the architecture in Poland’s second largest city is virtually untouched.

But when the Nazis came, the country could not, and did not, put up a fight. It wasn’t long until the bricks from the buildings on the city’s outskirts were taken out of the homes of Jewish residents, and put into new infrastructure for the same people.

Over a million Jews, Poles, Soviets, and Roma people were exterminated at one of the very few camps specifically designed to be a final destination: The entire population of Manchester exterminated, twice over.

Today, the Birkenau camp remains as a field of ever-increasing ruin and rubble. Two black strokes, heading toward death in parallel, enter and stop abruptly, literally at the end of the line. After decades of time and weather taking their toll, what surrounds the rails now is what is left of the nearest barracks: A single brick furnace per unit, attached to nothing but the ground that bears it.

Off in the distance is a group of two-dozen Israeli-Jewish travelers, chanting in Hebrew around a modern art monument. A smooth black sculpture void of any detail, it represents the final moments of life in the barren gas chambers. Jagged pale grey stones no bigger than two-pound coins cover its surfaces, traditional Jewish tokens of respect. They are placed haphazardly, as if dropped by birds flying over the desolate camps.

There were no birds, though. The swallows and martins singing elsewhere were nowhere to be seen. The trees were barren, and the wind blew forcefully as if trying to command attention without emitting a single moan. The lack of natural sound engulfed the site in a quiet sense of hesitation.

As the songs from the young men and women clad in black rang out mournfully to no one in particular, there were only two other sounds that could be heard.

The first, the thudding of heavy feet on gravel, mixed with sand, packed from being well-tread. The second, the Polish woman whispering nightmares into the ears of tourists and visitors.

“To survive in Hitler’s Germany…”

Her words speak truths, listing facts and figures as though she was reading an aftermath report of the damage done: Cold, emotionless, clinical.

It is the shoes – the hundreds of thousands of shoes – that visualized the impact of her account. There are babies’ shoes that, at one time, were most likely white, dainty, and worn by a girl who could not yet walk; there are formal women’s shoes with leathery straps and a wooden heel an inch-and-a-half high; there are the shoes of men who could do nothing to protect their families. Once worn by unsuspecting people, the shoes are now faded grey symbols of the Holocaust’s atrocities, preserved behind glass in one of the camp’s exhibitions.

Just outside, behind the thick brick walls that are too high to scale even with a helping hand, bodiless voices float up and over the spiked black wires that crown the fences. There’s chatter, and there’s laughter, as packs of tourists with cameras and grumbling bellies board buses with navy blue padded seats back to Rynek Glowny, and away from Auschwitz.

People came to remember, so that they could try to forget.

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If you’re looking for the post about Vegas, it’s the one below. This one is dedicated to something a little less frivilous.

I wasn’t sure how I would cross off #62. Be recognized for a journalism-related achievement from my list. I had even thought about leaving it on there until the bitter end as motivation to go out and achieve something worth recognizing. But winning a Jack Webster Student Journalism Award fit this goal best for several reasons.

First, it’s something that I’m proud of because second, it’s an honour. Third, I originally created my list as a list of eclectic, adventurous, and significant celebrations for all kinds of achievements: This definitely is one of those. Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, the award was journalism-related, and not for actual journalism.

So what did I write about?

My essay was short and to-the-point, like most of my essays are when I’m up against a pushy deadline, and constrained to a tight word count. In 500 words, I wrote about my view on the place of journalism in the world, my aspirations, and my reasons for getting into journalism in the first place. In my opinion, the reasons behind why anyone chooses any career – or any path for that matter – is very telling. Being allowed to know why anyone does anything is fascinating to me.

When I re-read my reasons, it all seems to make sense. I can trace back how I got to where am I by selecting certain “significant” events, by pointing to people who have encouraged me, events that influenced me.

But at the end of the day, I’m not so sure those are the case. What I mean, is that looking back I can choose to include what I think got me into journalism in the first place. In reality, if some small, seemingly irrelevant, non-journalism-related, circumstantial detail was changed, I may not be in my final year, studying journalism, and in love with the idea of telling stories and embarking on a career path that allows me to learn for a job.

There are, however, a few “milestones” (for lack of a better term), that definitely had an impact.

One of them was my discovery of Christiane Amanpour.

When I share this story with people, 80 per cent of the time I get a response that has to do with how she and I have similar hairstyles. If success in journalism was based on hair, I must be on the right track.

We share at least one other thing in common though, and that is a positive belief in the potential of journalism.

I won’t post my essay: When I went searching for past award recipients’ essays online in an attempt to dissuade myself from entering a competition that sees a number of high-caliber entries by more qualified entrants than I, I couldn’t find a single thing. I won’t break the tradition of secrecy by making it easier for next year’s essayists. They will just have to be original. I will give you the first three lines.

Christiane Amanpour once stated that: “Good journalism, good television, can make the world a better place.” And I believe that to be true. 

The key, however, is that journalism itself should not set out to make the world a better place. Rather, journalism that discusses ideas, explains concepts, and provides accountability for actions, has the great potential to make our world a better place by informing populations and educating minds.

Thank you to the Jack Webster Foundation for seeing something true in my writing, and for a fantastic evening; Thank you to one of my instructors for flat-out telling me to apply.

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In my New Year purge of papers and knickknacks and clothes I never wear, I found a copy of my very first article, dating back to December 2007.

It was a human rights column written for my high school paper The Empress, inspired by the all-too-familiar Robert Dziekanski case splashed across the pages of real newspapers at the time.

But on the topic of “real” publications: I think the paper we put out was a more-than-decent product given that our school didn’t have a journalism class at the time. (In hindsight, it was more the teenage equivalent of a Vancouver cultural mag than a newspaper.)

I usually cringe when I read anything I wrote in high school: It’s always less imaginative than what I conjured up in elementary school, and less grammatically correct than what I write now. Hopefully.

But this piece was worth a read, and so escaped my toss pile.

Plus, it made the front page, so I had to keep it for hubris’ sake. And also because I’m fairly certain that this is the only high school story I wrote. (I never interviewed that policeman.)

Column: Human Rights                                                         Hayley Woodin

Do you know your rights as a Canadian citizen? If you don’t, how do you know when your rights are being violated? You may have heard about the Florida university student who was tasered and handcuffed by police for asking a question at a presidential candidate forum. Were his rights violated? The last time I checked, it was perfectly legal to ask questions in your own country. Freedom of speech is a constitutional right, granted to us by the government. So why did the American authorities deem it necessary to aggressively stop the student from questioning presidential candidate John Kerry? And more importantly, does this abuse of power occur in Canada?

Over the past few months, I’ve come across over half-a-dozen news stories involving local police or RCMP who seemed to have overreacted while carrying out their policing duties. In future columns I hope to explore these cases and share what I have learned about how police enforce the law, and how they are reprimanded when they are found to have overreacted.

But for now I want to ask the question: what are our rights as citizens when it comes to dealing with the police or other authorities? And what are our responsibilities, if any, as “good Canadian citizens”? Does the old Canadian stereotype of us being generally polite come from following rules of etiquette and abiding by the law? Or is it solely an impression we seem to make on other cultures? An interview is in the process of being set up with a local White Rock policeman, and it is here where I hope to find some answers. Things aren’t always as they seem, yet sometimes first impressions turn out to be true. It is here that I hope to ask more questions, and share with you my personal opinions.

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It’s been a while since I last blogged: school, projects and work have all gotten in the way, and it’s once again that time of year where exams take over students’ lives.

So while procrastinating from my long, long to-do list, I will update you on my busy, busy life.

For starters, classes finish Dec. 10. Boy how time flies.

On Dec. 12, I’ll be starting my three-week internship at 24 Hours newspaper. The best part is that I won’t be taking part in the typical intern duties, like grabbing coffee or answering phones. Luckily for me, I get to report and write daily, with a story published every day in the paper.

The opportunity gives me course credits at school, and, if I choose, can count towards my four-week work experience in second semester.

It’s exciting; it’s scary. I’m going from being a full-time student, to being a full-time intern and then going back to being a full-time student, and somewhere in all of that I will be feasting on turkey. No winter break for me.

In other news, I have now been a part of Kwantlen’s President’s Ambassadorial Team (PAT) for a couple of months now.

Being on the team keeps me busy (I just baked 65 cookies for a bake sale to raise money for the PAT clothing drive) and it has proven to be a great learning and networking opportunity (I met Carol James several weeks ago, and had public speaking training with Langley Mayor Peter Fassbender).

I must now cease my procrastination, but I will end with two final tidbits.

First, on Saturday I will be accompanying Dal Richards on the piano as he sings Christmas carols at a local women’s shelter.

And second, I have been promoted: I was elected the Entertainment Bureau Chief for the Kwantlen Runner a while ago, that’s nothing new. But in a recent Google search, I was alerted that I am now the Entertainment Furniture Chief…

Tweet me!

@HayleyWoodin

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I recently came across some of my journalism assignments from my various first year classes, and decided that my blog would be the perfect place to publish some of the things I’m proud of. In one of my classes, we had to write a feature story about someone who is “making it.” The assignment was vague enough so that each author had the option to choose a subject who had either attained great success, was overcoming some sort of challenge or is living somewhere in between. This is my “making it” story.

* * *

Some may say that Miriah Reitmeier is one in a million.

On many levels, she is just like any ordinary 18-year-old girl, who memorizes celebrity gossip magazines cover-to-cover and has a keen knack for fashion.

Miriah enjoys hanging out with her friends, has a part-time job and absolutely adores her puppy Max.

She is super health conscious and works out at the gym to keep her figure.

She also prefers milk-based drinks at Starbucks over caffeinated ones, because she read a trendy fact somewhere that coffee isn’t good for you.

But Miriah is also an extraordinary girl.

She is an extremely gifted opera singer and an opera aficionado, a songwriter, a self-taught clarinettist and guitarist, an artist and an alumnus of the White Rock Youth Ambassador Program.

She also has an exemplary memory for detail, and knows facts and information on a wide range of subjects.

But statistics say that Miriah is one in 150.

She is among the approximate 65,000 Canadians living with the neural development diagnosis known as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), according to Time Magazine.

“Autism is a type of disorder [where] people usually don’t socially interact with other people, and sometimes they don’t have the willingness to communicate with other people,” Reitmeier explained.

It is also the reason why Miriah is capable of such extraordinary things.

“In my home, I don’t usually use [the terms] special needs or autism or disorder… I just think about myself as a person who’s willing to overcome these types of challenges in life,” said Reitmeier.

“Instead of a disability or a difficulty or a learning disorder, it’s just a way of learning things differently,” she explained.

ASD is a spectrum of varying symptoms and varying degrees of severity, autism being the heart of the spectrum, followed by Asperger syndrome and Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified, or PDD-NOS.

It encompasses a wide variety of psychological conditions related to social interactions, communication and behaviour.

But Miriah’s situation, unique to less than one per cent of Canadians, is what allows her to attain greatness in various aspects of her life.

Miriah was first diagnosed in August 1997, right before her sixth birthday.

“Back in the early years, I wasn’t really learning about communication. Instead of using communication I would just be screaming, yelling and mumbling, and speaking a little gibberish, and that made my mother think that I wasn’t a part of a world that most normal people would be living in,” she said.

Her parents, Brenda and Mike, decided to take Miriah to the doctor because of her abnormal childhood behaviour.

“[The] first thing they did was the hearing test and the psycho-ed test, and I kind of failed both of those,” Reitmeier said.

“It just left both of my parents devastated,” she added.

And for Miriah, it seemed as though the challenges she was set to face for the rest of her life were only beginning.

“Ever since I was a child I didn’t have much friends back then, but then when I entered high school I was being picked on and people were calling me bad names for instance, and wouldn’t let me be a part of their groups,” Reitmeier said.

But with age comes maturity, and if not for her peers, then most certainly for Miriah.

“By the time I grew up to be 14 or 15 I realized that when I was a part of an activity for people with special needs, I realized what my disorder is and I just tried to make sure that I would not be feeling sorry for myself,” she explained.

And her “disorder” can hardly be called one.

“I don’t look at autism as a type of disorder, I look at it as a way of really to learn something from what your obstacles are. Autism is like a way of not willing to be in a different type of world [than from] where people are living in right now,” Reitmeier said.

“It[’s] just made me realize what my potential is like to be socializing with other people… what my potential is like to be forming good friendships and to be staying connected with other people,” she said.

One of the symptoms of autism is that social cues or body language are not picked up on, making day-to-day communication somewhat of a challenge.

But Miriah has taken conscious steps to try and change that.

“I’ve been learning more about the basic human brain and where autism triggers. Like inside the frontal lobes it triggers communication as well as the temporal lobes where it conflicts with the speech figures inside your brain,” Reitmeier said.

Communication through music, however, is a different story.

“Music has saved me from these types of challenges that I’m living with,” said Reitmeier.

“The only dream I’d like to have is to pursue my music career and travel all around the world and perform in different places,” she said.

And if that happens, she’d sing an array of easy listening songs, “a little bit of pop and rock and roll” and, of course, opera.

Her passion for, and perfection of, opera has developed over the years with the help of Mark Donnelly, one of Miriah’s many role models, along with her social worker Debbie Wanchuck and Margaret Atwood.

More commonly known as “Opera Man” who sings O Canada at Canucks games, Donnelly has coached Miriah for several years.

And like teacher like student: Miriah sings the national anthem for the Surrey Eagles and the Delta Ice Hawks on a regular basis during hockey season.

While music is a priority and a passion in her life, it is also a medium through which Miriah can let loose, be herself and practice social interactions.

“Ever since I’ve been a part of the music world I try not to think about my autism, even if that means I have to socialize with some normal people or be a part of some social therapies,” she said.

Besides practicing for at least two hours a day, Miriah sings with the Peace Portal Alliance Church’s choir, plays some gigs throughout the Lower Mainland and won the White Rock Youth Ambassador Program’s talent competition, held back in July 2009 in White Rock.

While autism may not be a major obstacle for the young artist when it comes to performing, stage-fright sometimes takes its place.

“I was a tad bit nervous when I first had come to perform in front of a big audience at the Coast Capital theatre for the first time because it seems like I’ve never performed at any one of those types of venues,” Reitmeier said, revisiting the night of the talent competition.

The WRYA Program allows youth to volunteer and give back to the community, and hone their public speaking and social skills.

Also known as the Miss White Rock pageant, the candidacy portion of the program requires the future ambassadors to give a speech, attend events, write a community knowledge quiz, write an essay and perform a talent among many other components.

“And you know, when I see ambassadors shine through the stage, it just made me think that if I ever happen to relive one of those moments through the program, then I’d be happy to, I’d be happy to go back to where I started and relive the moment,” said Reitmeier, referring to how the experience of having to get up on stage as an ambassador has changed her and her teammates.

Miriah sees each experience as a learning experience, and an opportunity for her to grow as a person.

“I don’t usually look at the negative things that are in the past, I look at the things in the past that are in a positive outlet,” she said.

As for her future plans, Miriah’s ideal goal is to study opera at the University of British Columbia, an ambitious goal.

“I would describe myself as a person with a lot of ambitions,” she said.

Her short-term goals include finding a second part-time job on top of her current position as a server at Peninsula Resort Retirement Living in South Surrey.

She also has plans to get her driver’s license, to travel and to find a boyfriend, but that’s an entirely different story.

And as for living with autism, Miriah sees it as a past event that will only bring advantages in her future.

“I don’t think about the disorder as a disability. I don’t usually see myself as a person with autism, I usually see myself as a person who is gifted,” Reitmeier said.

Extraordinarily gifted.

* * *

Tweet me!

@HayleyWoodin

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