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British-born writer Christopher Hitchens died of cancer on Dec. 15, 2011. (Kevin Van Paassen/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
British-born writer Christopher Hitchens died of cancer on Dec. 15, 2011. (Kevin Van Paassen/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Those who inspired in 2011 Add to ...

It’s easy to be a year-end crank, taking aim at all those who in private pushed your buttons (you know who you are) or public figures who made fools of themselves.

But we should also hold on to those 2011 moments of inspiration, when someone did something we admired. My list, as always, is eclectic. Here are just a few who impressed me.

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Rev. Brent Hawkes, senior pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto, one of Canada's leading gay-rights activists

Dr. Hawkes officiated at the heart-breaking, heart-thrilling state funeral for late NDP leader Jack Layton last August. He knit together the entire event with his own humanity, not just sharing the story of Mr. Layton’s musings about life and death as he neared the end, but reminding everyone there and the hundreds of thousands watching on their screens: “It’s about remembering each other and our love and our lives together.” He told the crowd that Mr. Layton had never failed to ask about Dr. Hawkes’s long-time partner/husband, JohnSproule, and then looking straight at Stephen Harper, who seemed to have tears in his eyes, he said, “Hi, Canadian Prime Minister. How is Laureen doing?” An impossibly tender moment from a spiritual leader skilled enough, on such a sad and politically diverse day, to bring out the best in everyone.

Alison Pick, award-winning Toronto poet/author

This 36-year-old Toronto writer was one of three talented young Canadian novelists who stood poised on the edge of international stardom last fall when her lovely, haunting 2010 novel Far to Go, about a Jewish family and their gentile housekeeper in Czechoslovakia on the eve of the German occupation in the late thirties, made the Man Booker Prize long list. Alas, she woke up to the news that two Canadians did indeed make the leap to shortlist and stardom – Patrick deWitt and Esi Edugyan – but not Ms. Pick. While her two contemporaries, ultimately unsuccessful at the Man Booker, went on to take all the domestic literary prizes this year, Ms. Pick’s Far to Go, on many best books list of the previous year, winner of the Canadian Jewish Book Award, and now being published in paperback internationally, is still out there, ready to be appreciated. Currently working on a memoir, she says she remains “very grateful” for the attention that being on the long list brought her book, and asked me not to dwell on any disappointment that she might have felt at being third writer out. We will see her on such stellar lists again.

Christopher Hitchens, the late, great polemicist and author whose output shamed us all

This famously acerbic essayist, atheist ( God Is not Great) and Brit passionately transformed as an American man of letters died last Thursday at 62 of esophageal cancer. Which makes both the quantity and quality of his literary output this past year astonishing. His new book, Arguably, a collection of essays published in September, perches near the top of The New York Times bestsellers list. He’s debated Tony Blair, churned out scores of pathologically articulate columns and managed to contribute more to the public conversation than most writers of sound body ever could.

Coping with a feeding tube and intense pain, in what was probably his last Vanity Fair essay (unless he blogs from heaven, which I wouldn't put past him), Hitch weighed in on Nietzsche’s famous saying, “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger” and decided it was hooey. To Mr. Hitchens, God was not that great, but to writers, readers and thinkers everywhere, Mr. Hitchens was.

Hitch, henceforth because of you, I will try to write twice as much, twice as fast, and twice as eloquently.

Female foreign and war correspondents

Not just Lara Logan, the CBS news correspondent who came forward to detail how she was viciously sexually assaulted during the protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, but all the women who left their often young families and risked their lives to not only bring us important stories from embattled countries, but also change the face of journalism as they did. I participated in a Women in the Field Symposium at Ryerson University last March, and by far the most exhilarating panel was the foreign correspondents one, which included The Globe’s Sonia Verma, and the Toronto Star’s terrorism expert Michelle Shephard, whose new book, Decade of Fear: Reporting from Terrorism's Grey Zone, was published last August. They seemed fearless, smart and humane, or as the National Post’s Kathryn Blaze Carlson, who had covered the Haitian earthquake, said, quoting what a mentor told her about witnessing those in desperate life and death struggles: “Tell their stories. Cry when you’re alone at night.” I walked away thinking, if I had it to do over again …

So many runners-up

Hillary Clinton, who globe-trots putting out diplomatic fires as U.S. Secretary of State and then shrugs graciously when asked to comment on being still the most admired woman in the United States: “People are used to me.” My female friends, who triumphed in various professional and personal ways this year, and kept me going with their humour and wisdom. My husband, who still makes me laugh and think, and my brave 15-year-old dog Lucy, now completely deaf, her sight occluded by cataracts, her walking a little more laboured, but giving wonderful lessons on how to grow old gracefully. It helps to have a tail to wag.

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