On Life and Living

selfArchive Blog 03/18
On Life and Living

Several years ago I had an opportunity to stay with the internationally renowned psychiatrist and thanatologist Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (1926 – 2004). Dr. Kübler-Ross was a pioneer of hospice in the USA, a courageous advocate for both adults and children suffering from cancer and AIDS, and author of the ground-breaking book On Death and Dying (The Five Stages of Grief) along with over 20 other books.

By the time I met her, Elisabeth’s health was in decline. She had already survived at least eight strokes and was living well beyond what she and everyone else had expected. Having previously confronted the spectre of my own death, I was presumptuous enough to think that I could help her to die well. Instead, confronted each day with her formidable intelligence and devastating wit, I became her student. Fortunately for both of us, Elisabeth didn’t pass away during my stay but she did show me what living a fierce and fully engaged life can look like, even as death draws near.

Live, so you do not have to look back and say: “God, how I have wasted my life.”
—Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross from Death: The Final Stage of Growth, 1975

This week I revisited some personal work I had prepared and presented to Elisabeth. Recognizing the level of social intimacy involved in caring for a physically compromised individual—especially one with both fame and notoriety—I had written two small booklets for Elisabeth with the intention of fostering rapport and engendering trust between strangers.

B O O K  I
Elisabeth : On Life and Living assumed the form of a social contract and served as an introduction.

B O O K  I I
Elisabeth : On Taking and Giving was a social note, debriefing, farewell and thank you.

As I re-examined the booklets, I considered whether they had any value outside my personal experience. That’s when some memories began to resurface.

How did I come to find myself living in Elisabeth’s Arizona adobe as her companion? Contrary to whatever convincing words I told myself, I was there because I thought that I just might be the one person who could finally bring Elisabeth to peace. It was no secret that this world expert on dying was having difficulty. Candid about her frustration and anger over her compromised physical state, she isn’t the first person who’s had to depend almost entirely on people like me who were less knowledgeable than herself. (That alone had to be a master class in patience.)

As a follower of her work, I was disturbed by some of the articles I’d read that year. Despite having devoted much of her career to speaking for the voiceless and ceaselessly advocating for death with dignity, Elisabeth was again being attacked in the media, this time because she was not dying as it was felt she should. The presumption of the writers was galling. Instead of recognizing her courage in speaking truth, they were framing Elisabeth’s candour as weakness. 

Reflecting upon my experience of meeting Elisabeth, staying and leaving, I wrote a third and final booklet for my series:

B O O K  I I I
Arlene : On Listening and Healing was a personal reconciliation of the lessons I learned from Elisabeth about dying and living.

I understand why people were drawn to Elisabeth. Her personality was magnetic. Even at the most intimate stage of her life, a time when common decency would dictate that strangers should extend her and her family privacy, people wanted to talk to her, interview her, know her, see her and claim some piece of her. They seemed to want to be in the aura of her legendary brilliance and fame. Of course, I was no different—except that I cloaked my own needs in the guise of service. Where others had failed, I would bring peace. My conceit was folly for all manner of reasons but primarily because at the core, Elisabeth, like many of us—like me—was navigating the healing realms of acceptance, forgiveness and love. Frankly, Elisabeth didn’t need me; I needed her. She was showing me the fierce grace of healing though I couldn’t quite see it at the time. 

It was only years later, back in Vancouver, that I understood more about this thing called healing when (after years of degenerative illness) my close friend died. This was because something remained between us that was not healed prior to his death. After he died, I would sometimes ask for his forgiveness or for my own, until one day when the concept of bestowing forgiveness fell away entirely. What remained in its place . . . was love.

I think modern medicine has become like a prophet offering a life free of pain. It is nonsense. The only thing I know that truly heals people is unconditional love.
—Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

Learn more about Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and the foundation that continues her legacy at

Time brings change. While this scene no longer exists, here’s a glimpse of what the gate to Elisabeth’s Arizona property looked like back then.
a   The sign that simply said “Elisabeth”
b   The Swiss Flag
c   The Tepee
d   The Totem Pole
Three Booklets for EKR from Arlene Cotter

© 2018 Photograph of Arlene by Christopher T. Hall
© 2018 selfArchive | Arlene Cotter Three Booklets for EKR


Direct Experience

selfArchive Blog 02/18
Direct Experience 

Not vicarious.
Not simulated.
Not virtual.
Not someone else’s experience,
but your own.

Today is a day like any other. I think I’ve seen a blue whale but, oh . . . wait . . . I haven’t. I think I’ve passed discarded oxygen cartridges on my final ascent of Mount Everest but, oh . . . wait . . . I haven’t. I could go on in a similar vein. And I know exactly how such impressions occur.

Whatever I’ve read or heard or watched in my lifetime, I’ve filled in the gaps with my reason and imagination. Like most people, I have a facility to weave sensory tapestries that connect narratives and create experiences I’ve never had. Except that I have had them . . . in some way. I’ve been touched by them, emotionally and psychologically. I just didn’t experience them viscerally for myself. But who cares. It’s all experience, right? We can’t be everywhere and do everything.

This is true, of course. But maybe it’s beside the point and there’s a bigger thought here. What about direct personal experience with things like creativity, intimacy, pain and reverence? Empathy is a valuable human capacity but the idea of it is not the same as empathy drawn from personal experience. And then there’s courage, and the development of character.

The opportunity to experience life—however quotidian—is the gift of being alive. This primary emotional imprinting transcends any hollow simulacra. And it roots our experience in context. Otherwise, what exactly are we doing?

Are we doing anything hard, unpleasant or meaningful, or just bombarding our senses with thrills and avoiding emotional engagement?

More directly:
Are we deepening what it means to be fully human, or are we losing a core connection with ourselves . . . our self?

selfArchive 719 | Awareness | Awakening | Illustration | Words

© 2018 Arlene Cotter and selfArchive | Direct Experience 2


Re:Considerations for 2018

selfArchive Blog 01/18  
Re:Considerations for 2018

We live in relationship with all living and non-living things. The global conversation about being human includes: ethics, science, health, philosophy, spirituality, the celebration of human potential, and a growing sense of personal accountability for our economic, environmental and social impacts. It is from these diverse influences that many of us struggle to build an integral foundation for waking up. We’re unconscious when we ignore the vanishing forests and the weekly extinction of species, or when we deny the correlation between our daily lifestyle choices, dead whales, and the bare mountainsides that were glaciers only a generation ago.

My leather sectional,
once my pride, has become
an embarrassment.
I sit less comfortably on it
now that I know better.

If you’re interested in animal-free biofabricated leather substitutes, you might be interested in this New Jersey startup called Modern Meadow. Here’s what they say about themselves on their company website: We believe in a future where animal products are animal-free. There are those who wish the world was different, and those who work to change it every day. At Modern Meadow we are working tirelessly to see this new future materialize; one where humans make the material and the animals roam free.

We each have an opportunity in 2018 to re-consider our impacts.

selfArchive 718 | Awareness | Illustration | Words

© 2018 Arlene Cotter | selfArchive Re:Considerations


Tiny Trees

selfArchive Blog 12/17
Tiny Trees

I searched patiently for stray needles and sprigs beneath the long rows of cut evergreens waiting to become Christmas trees. Then I stopped to twist and break my tiny finds. Some had no scent. Others released fragrant bursts, reawakening my senses and a lifetime of forest memories—fresh air, pine, spruce, fir, cedar and snowy silence.

When you walk among trees, consider Tree Canada. It’s the leading national tree planting charity in Canada.

selfArchive 717 | Awareness

© 2017 Arlene Cotter selfArchive
© 2017 Arlene Cotter photograph


War and Peace

selfArchive Blog 11/17
War and Peace

November is an opportunity to reflect upon the impact of war and peace in our lives.

A project about War.
Moving A Wall

A reminder about Peace.
Living Peace

Information about Remembrance Day Ceremonies
City of Vancouver
UBC Remembrance Day Ceremony

© 2017 Arlene Cotter selfArchive
© 2013 – 2017 Arlene Cotter Transformative Spaces
Ceremony photograph by Don Erhardt | UBC © 2017

© 2017 Poppy illustration by Ping Ki Chan


Cancer Support

selfArchive Blog 10/17  
Supporting People With Cancer

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and it’s a valuable reminder for us to honour healing in all its forms. Please take some time this month to encourage someone you know who has been, or is now on the cancer journey—with whatever type of cancer. We can all be a part of the healing journey.



© 2017 Icon illustrations of Arlene by Ping Ki Chan

What It’s Like to Be Diagnosed

Whether we’re a family member, friend, colleague or caregiver, we all know someone who has recently been diagnosed with cancer. Our first impulse might be to reach out and help but the truth is, most of us don’t know what to do. This book can help. From This Moment On: A Guide for Those Recently Diagnosed With Cancer helps us understand what it feels like to face a cancer diagnosis. Once we learn more, we’re better prepared to offer our support from the shadows or step forward in a major way. Take your first step on a journey that will transform you and every person it touches. Cancer is life-changing experience for everyone and this is a reminder to help create the finest opportunity for healing—from this moment on.

One Canadian Cancer Statistic

Nearly 1 in 2 Canadians (49% of men and 45% of women) is expected to develop cancer during their lifetime.*

*Based on 2017 statistics

Links to Learn More About Cancer 

The Canadian Cancer Society
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month
BC Cancer Agency

selfArchive 745 | Awareness | Healing

© 2017 Arlene Cotter selfArchive
© 2013 – 2017 Arlene Cotter Transformative Spaces

Read more:
Canadian Cancer Society’s Advisory Committee on Cancer Statistics. (2017). Canadian Cancer Statistics 2017. Toronto, ON: Canadian Cancer Society.
Read more:
Statistics Canada. (2012, July 25). Table 102-0561 – Leading Causes of Death, Total Population, by Age Group and Sex, Canada, Annual. Ottawa: Statistics Canada. CANSIM database.


Campus Colour


selfArchive Blog 09/17
Campus Colour Consultation 

Consultation 2016/2017  
Update UBC Okanagan Campus Design Guidelines for Colour

University of British Columbia
Campus + Community Planning (Vancouver Campus)
Campus Planning and Development (Okanagan Campus)

Communication Challenge
The scheduled update to the existing UBC Okanagan Campus Design Guidelines by the Vancouver and Kelowna planning units provided an opportunity to review the colour guidelines and address strategies that would increase visual integration on Campus for ongoing development projects. 

The objective was to work with the UBC team and an advisory panel to develop colour guidelines that would contribute to the positive transformation of the UBC Okanagan Campus by furthering the university’s aspirational goals.

The following Campus Plan Vision Statement, developed in consultation with the UBC Okanagan community, guides the physical evolution of the University’s Okanagan Campus over the next 20 years. The University of British Columbia’s Okanagan Campus aspires to be a centre for learning and innovation that produces global citizens through transformative personal growth and collaboration. Its people, places, and activities are linked by a shared commitment to fostering community, and supporting social and ecological well-being. Deeply connected to the landscape, the campus is an accessible, intimate, and welcoming environment—a catalyst for positive change.

—Excerpted from the 2015 UBC Okanagan Campus Plan

Developed with the UBC team through a series of development phases, the UBC Okanagan Colour Guidelines provide an overarching strategy to deliver visual cohesion across a unified yet contextual UBC Okanagan Campus experience. The foundation of the guidelines is an integrated UBCO Colour System that informs colour recommendations for the selection of building materials, landscape, and surface infrastructure related to all development projects on the Campus.

UBCO Colour System
Developed over a series of four development phases during 2016/17 (including a colour workshop and several presentations), the colour system provides a conceptual and practical framework for future applications.

Written Guidelines for Colour
The Colour section of the Guidelines was expanded to activate areas within the Architecture and Public Realm sections.

The Colour System Quick Reference provides a tight, comprehensive, stand-alone core reference resource for UBC staff and design professionals. It facilitates presentation briefings with design contractors (architects, landscape architects and allied professionals; including interior designers, environmental designers and communication designers), and provides a simple, accessible framework/tool for discussions about colour.

Research and Development
Colour Workshop
Written Guidelines

Quick Reference Guide

selfArchive 745 | Recent Project | Guidelines

© 2017 Arlene Cotter selfArchive
© 2013 – 2017 Arlene Cotter Transformative Spaces


Transformative Spaces

selfArchive Blog 06/17  
Transformative Spaces

Transformative space envisions an opportunity for authentic dialogue. Whereas boundaries limit exchange—spaces are either open or closed—this theoretical framework identifies perimeters as transformers and people as receptors. Those with a willingness to suspend judgement can cross the membrane into a neutral, transformational space in order to exchange ideas. Upon exit, they will assume their original state . . . or not. This is how transformation happens.

selfArchive 745 | Awareness | Diagram

© 2018 Arlene Cotter selfArchive
© 2013 – 2018 Arlene Cotter Transformative Spaces


Creative Fear

selfArchive Blog 05/17
Creative Fear 

To live is to create. Human Beings cannot stop creating. As dynamic organisms we are constantly changing in response to the infinite potentials that surround us. In moments when we glimpse the interconnectivity of all things, our expanded perception can just as easily inspire us as overwhelm us because if we accept the responsibility that we are all co-creators, we will be asked to face both our capacities and our fears. When we’re attentive—and brave—we can live more of ourselves by meeting these moments with conscious intentionCreative Fear locates a moment of potential. Confronted by fear, a diver stands frozen even as the waters rise around her. Either she will make a conscious intention to swim, or fall unconscious. 

selfArchive 705 | Illustration

© 2018 Arlene Cotter selfArchive
© 2013 – 2018 Arlene Cotter Creative Fear Series


Living Peace

selfArchive Blog 04/17
Living Peace

Consider 10 words from Mahatma (Mohandas) Gandhi,* the international figure of peace.

There is no path to peace.
Peace is the path. **

The words express a profound approach to many of the world’s social and political problems, yet this simple, direct message of peace is easily lost to us. Here are five reasons why we might overlook it:

Perhaps we can’t hear the message; 

Perhaps we don’t understand the message; 

Perhaps we distort the message, or

Perhaps we simply don’t care. 

A fifth response is more interesting:

Perhaps we can hear and understand the message perfectly well but choose to ignore it because—whether consciously or unconsciously—we realize that peace requires too much effort on our part. 

When we read Gandhi’s words, even those of us with the best of intentions might find ourselves jumping straight to an impersonal concept of peace activism (likely something far too ambitious to sustain) instead of being thoughtful about what Gandhi actually meant and required of us. His words challenge us to reflect upon the idea that “peace begins with me” for long enough to create personal change. In other words, for long enough to model peace in our own lives. If we’re willing, we’ll understand that peace is not something to seek, but something to live. Right here, right now, peace demands our commitment. We might say we want peace in the world but peace demands something of us that we may not be willing to offer. 

[ C O D A ]
Peace speaks directly to the core challenge of self-awareness. Becoming self-aware doesn’t ask us to behave in any particular way except in one regard: Self-awareness requires that we notice what we’re doing and what we’re not doing. We’re either making peaceful choices in our own lives, or we’re not. When we stay present and resist hiding behind the complexity of our stories, truth emerges. Facing the truth of our daily lives is a daunting challenge for us would-be peace ambassadors. Most of us know this firsthand because between the consequences of our behaviour, the demands of our relationships and the near-constant bombardment of media, we struggle to live peace-filled lives every single day. 

Truth is elegant and simple,
so unlike
the complications we create
to keep us from facing it.

selfArchive 757 | Awareness | Illustration

* Mohandas Gandhi (1869 – 1948) was a leader of India’s independence movement and an international figure of peace who inspired global movements for civil rights and freedoms based on a form of non-violent civil disobedience.
** Quote from Mohandas Gandhi.

© 2018 Arlene Cotter selfArchive
© 2018 Arlene Cotter, Peace


Human Boundaries

selfArchive Blog 03/17
Human Boundaries

Our thoughts create boundaries. We create real and imagined boundaries that define how we situate ourselves in relation to the world. Boundaries are whatever we create—physical and non-physical, concrete and abstract, real and imagined. Some boundaries protect us and others restrict us. When we explore the boundaries we create, we learn where our edges are soft or hard, rigid or flexible. We discover what we allow to touch us and what we block.

selfArchive 740 | Awareness | Diagram

© 2018 Arlene Cotter selfArchive
© 2018 Arlene Cotter, Human Boundaries


Redux of First Book


selfArchive Post 02/17
Redux of First Book

Redux celebrates a long overdue thank you to my readers, contributors, publisher and agent. It is a formal acknowledgement of my first book. 

For years, I tried to keep my professional and private lives separate. When I wrote From This Moment On: A Guide for Those Recently Diagnosed With Cancer, the schism further widened. While I will comfortably present to 500 people on the topic of design, I had reservations about publicly sharing my private struggles with cancer. I’m an introvert by nature but that wasn’t the reason; I felt uncomfortable about sensationalizing what is for cancer patients and their loved ones an intimate and life-altering journey. My intention was to guide people on their own journey, not to distract them with mine.*

With time I’ve realized how the book, its contributors and readers helped me come to terms with my own cancer experience. The resulting integration of my professional and personal lives now allows me to share what I’ve learned without feeling guilty about surviving cancer—at least most of the time. My experience has also privileged to me to witness many stories of healing, each precious and unique.

* It hadn’t occurred to me that people might be interested in my story. My goal was to develop a tool to help others shape their own cancer journey. I was wrong. People were curious.

Explore the Book

© 2017 Arlene Cotter selfArchive

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