A change in perspective

By Theresa Wells

One of my favourite things has to be when a stranger contacts me due to something I have written. This happened a few months ago when someone found me through my blog at Huffington Post Alberta, and decided to email me. What happened after that was a dialogue that has changed my perspective on some things.

The first email from my new correspondent was simple enough. It just read: “Fort McMurray sounds like a fascinating place. It reminds me a lot of my home. Could you tell me more about it?” Because I am always keen to talk about my home I quickly emailed her back, telling her all about the wonderful things here, including our new developments. I told her about the growth of our population and our industry, and our robust economy. I told her about our philanthropy and our diverse culture. I sang our praises, and when she emailed back she said: “It sounds like heaven”.

I didn’t want her to get the wrong idea – that we are some utopia in the Canadian north – and so I wrote her next about our issues. I wrote about endless hours in traffic jams, and the cost of housing. I told her about the rapid growth leading to a shortage of everything from doctors to retail stores, about the pressures on infrastructure, about all the problems and headaches and concerns. And then she wrote back again and said, “I am so envious”.

I thought maybe she wasn’t listening. I thought perhaps she didn’t understand the gravity of the situation here, and the challenges we face on a daily basis. I asked her to clarify, and when she replied I was, quite frankly, humbled. I share it with you here with her permission, although she asked me to keep her name confidential, and so I have.

“I am so envious,” she wrote. “I am so very envious of your busy city. It sounds so much like my own – or rather what mine used to be, long ago. My town is dying, because our industry crumbled and took my town with it. I was born here over sixty years ago. I went to school here, and left to go to nursing school, but I came back to work in the hospital when I graduated. I married a man who worked in our local industry, and our town was booming. They were such good times! I worked in the maternity ward when we couldn’t keep track of all the babies being born, and we had such a shortage of nurses! My husband’s company needed more employees all the time, and it was so crazy, everything just growing and there was such optimism. And then the industry began to fade, and it took my town with it”.

“Over time the town became a sad remnant of what it was. There was a dark time, when our suicide rate climbed as the unemployment numbers rose. The drug trade did brisk business then too, selling to so many who now had no jobs and little hope. My husband died of a heart attack a few years before it hit the worst point, and I am glad he didn’t live to see the town go this way. He was born here too”.

“Now my town is a shadow of what it was. A few years ago I bought a house I could have never afforded before, because the prices had dropped so low, and even in my retirement owning one of the town’s finest homes appealed to me. But I never realized how little that would mean when I saw all my friends move away. They wanted to retire here too, but when their kids and grandkids couldn’t find work they left they left too. I never had children, and so the only thing really keeping me here is my husband – but I am not sure how much longer a headstone will be good enough reason to stay. It’s lonely here now”, she wrote.

“I guess I am in denial too,” she continued. “My town isn’t dying, it’s dead, and they are just putting in the final coffin nails now. It’s been dead for some time, and there is no hope. There will be no reprieve. It won’t come back to life. It’s the patient that we all know has crossed over, and no amount of CPR will bring it back. For many years this town was like the patient that we knew was haemorrhaging to death but couldn’t stop the bleeding. The patient has bled out. It’s dead. That’s why I am so envious, Theresa”, she finished. “My town is dead. I dearly wish we had your problems, all of them. I’d gladly take them all if it meant I had my town back. I was born here and I thought I would die here. But now I have outlived my town, and I don’t know what to do”.

I was, after this email, speechless. I was left without words, because I realized once more that it truly is all relative. We do indeed face challenges here, but they are challenges of the good kind, the kind that spring from growth and optimism, not from death and defeat. We have the kind of bright future – and present – that for some are shadows of a distant past. We are truly so lucky, and the next time I was stuck in a traffic jam I thought not about the challenges but about how fortunate we are. I thought about my new friend, and her words. And I sat back, and enjoyed the traffic jam, because my perspective had changed with nothing more than a few emails from a stranger.

Write to me at editorial@macmedia.ca