Last night, I read the news that Leonard Cohen had died. Immediately, I wanted to call my college roommate, who introduced me to his music and poetry. She was the one person on earth who I wanted to talk to, to say, have you heard the news? I feel so sad. When Carol Shields died many years ago, it was my mom who I wanted to call. It is as if relationships are embedded with art, or art is embedded with relationships, intense, personal relationships. A song is more than a soundtrack to an experience, or some songs are. Some songs are experiences.
I learned to play piano by ear by playing Suzanne and Bird on a Wire.
That’s an experience.
I’m writing this while listening to CBC Radio Two’s special on Leonard Cohen. So my thoughts are scattered. I’m listening to Leonard Cohen sing Suzanne, in fact.
Yesterday, I went to two movies at a feminist film festival playing town. Both movies were labours of love, the filmmakers following their subjects for years. The first movie, called Driving with Selvi, was about an Indian woman who became a taxi driver; but it was also about child marriage, and forced prostitution, and the precarious existence as a young woman unprotected by her family or the law. Through it all, Selvi’s radiant personality shone like a beacon of joy and gratitude, for all that she had. The second movie, called The Apology, told the story of three women, known now as the grandmothers, who had been forced into sexual slavery in World War Two by the Japanese military; all were teenagers when they were kidnapped, two were 13 or 14. I watched this movie with my mom and my almost-14-year-old daughter, and we wept. A lot. The grandmothers carried so much pain, decades of hiding and shame, and yet here at the end of their lives, as they protested to publicize this hidden chapter of history and supported each other, it was their dignity that shone through. They were tired. But they had a vision for peace and healing.
Both were Canadian-made films, by female directors.
Both were an antidote to the despondence I’ve been feeling. These were not perfect stories about perfect people with perfect endings. These were stories of perseverance and injustice and work and hope and love. These women, in both movies, were so loved.
I went for a run this morning, a pathetic wheezing run into the chilly wind, and I went with a friend, because I wouldn’t have gone otherwise. My friend told me that she wished her work involved making things; to which I replied that I wished my work involved doing things. We laughed. We wondered if we were on the right track, in that general way that people wonder; is it too late, am I locked in, now, now that I’ve devoted myself to a single pursuit?
I think, way back when, that I wanted to be an artist, the way the Leonard Cohen was an artist; I think this is what I imagined, along with my college roommate, when we listened to his songs and read his poems. We imagined ourselves immersed in ideas and emotion and symbolism and significance, which sounds abstract, but felt, in the moment, intensely real, like we would be swimmers in a great universal ocean, like we would be poets.
Wherever I was going with this post, it’s gone. I’ve lost the thread.
I think we have much to struggle against now and going forward. Art is where I’m turning for comfort. Art is what I’ve got, and so far it’s the only answer I can give.
All is not well in my mind. I am uneasy, restless, despondent, flat. I woke at 4AM and could not sleep. I feel aimless and free-falling despite the structures that surround me, including this solid house.
Yesterday, I read an article from The New Yorker, on the multitudinous self, which is at odds with the idea of the holistic self we seem to admire and aspire to. Yet we are not the same across time or within our different relationships; we are not as consistent as we imagine we should be, or perhaps we imagine we are. The essay tried to put the divisiveness of this election into context, by discussing the difference between neighbourly relationship, which are governed by decency and revolve around the particular, and politics, which is ideological and abstract; a single human being may present one way in one sphere and another, seemingly contradictory way, in another sphere (not to mention the further spheres in which the self must operate — family, job, religion, soul, etc.).
And in essence, the essay was an argument for accepting the multitudinous self rather than striving for a holistic impossibility. It pointed out that the characteristics that make a great leader in the corporate world may not make a great parent in a family; but that doesn’t mean one person can’t do both, or be both, only that we behave differently in different contexts, within our different roles. That is why politically at-odds neighbours can meet in the park and talk about their dogs. Because those are two separate spheres.
But social media challenges us, the spheres cross and so we are behaving politically in our neighbourly spaces; and that complicates and divides us in ways that make us deeply uncomfortable. The argument being, I think, that it is not a character flaw to behave differently in different situations; it is the basis for community survival.
This morning, I sat in kundalini yoga, my arms lifted over my head, lowering and raising and lowering, and aching and burning, and I began thinking about something else entirely. I remembered baking bread on Sunday afternoon, while listening to the Sunday Edition on podcast, an hour on Man’s Search for Meaning, a book written by Victor Frankl in 1946, shortly after he was released from a German concentration camp; his parents, brother and pregnant wife all died in concentration camps, a suffering I cannot fathom. And yet, Frankl wrote a book that is still in print, its words still luminous with love. On the program, his biographer discussed the fundamental flaw in the pursuit of happiness—the pursuit itself, the pursuit of a goal that cannot be forced into being, if happiness is even a reasonable or desirable pursuit at all. The more you chase it, the further from you it speeds. And, said the man, the relentless focus on the self, on creating happiness for oneself, dooms the enterprise. It’s only when we turn away from ourselves and focus on others that we become—not happy, but whole. We find meaning in our life because we’ve reached beyond ourselves.
Love is meaning. The only way to fully inhabit the self is to look, listen, love beyond the self.
I sat in kundalini yoga, my arms aching, and remembered, and remembered more: yesterday afternoon, chopping mounds of onions and sweet potatoes for our Thanksgiving dinner, listening to another podcast: Tapestry, with Mary Hines, an interview with a woman who had corresponded with Omar Khadr when he was a prisoner at Guantanomo Bay; the woman had become his teacher, and she testified on his behalf at a trial. She talked about the fear of God in a way that made this fear make sense: not cowering under fear of punishment by an angry god, but fear of refusing God’s invitation to action. Fear of making a choice based on the shallow terms on which we so often base our choices: fear of being judged by others, fear of looking foolish, fear of being singled out, fear of taking a stand and having to suffer the consequences. When none of these worldly or earthly pressures could shake the more profound fear of not doing justice, of not doing right—this, she said, was the fear of God. I look in awe at those with courage to stand firm in their convictions; does this strength come from a bigger place and purpose?
Do we know what is right? Do we know what is just?
The woman on Tapestry spoke about being pulled in an unexpected direction, a direction not of her own choosing. An invitation, an opening, a tidal pull, a crack where the light gets in.
As I sat in kundalini, I asked myself, as my arms spun circles and ached terribly, where am I pulled, who are the others upon whom I turn my gaze?
Stories, I heard.
You have stories, you already have stories, and stories pull you always out of yourself. Yet you resist their pull, you resist even the idea that you might be good at something, that you’ve written stories that are like gifts, in a way, that mean something larger than yourself—that don’t belong to you.
Who are you to say you should change course and seek a new outlet for your desire to be of use in this world? That’s not pull, that’s push, that’s pursuit.
I am so tired.
I stayed up to watch the Blue Jays game on Sunday night; the Blue Jays game and the presidential debate. After the debate, the Blue Jays won, which was fun. But I found myself unable to shake the image from earlier, of a composed, self-contained woman being stalked around the stage by a much-larger, hostile man, his eyelids narrowed, his rage and disgust scarcely contained.
It disturbed me.
Today, when I walked to yoga class, I had to pass by a number of men who were working on the hydro lines outside my house. I was one woman, they were many men. I did not fear them. But somewhere in the back of my brain, I wondered whether these men might speak of women the way that Trump was heard speaking of women, I wondered whether Trump is telling the truth and most men (or even some men, or even a few, which is more than enough) view women as sexual objects, to be desired or loathed, end of story; or are we to be “championed and revered,” as another Republican (Paul Ryan, to be precise) said when rebutting Trump, which sounded almost as terrible, in a weird way, as if I, as a woman, could not operate on my own steam, as if I, as a woman, were a figure of worship, mythical, not quite real. And then I shook my head and thought of all the open-hearted men in my life. And I kept on walking.
I’ve always chosen to believe that I can be myself, as a woman—small in stature, ordinary, complicated, messy, curious—and be accepted as an equal in any situation, and much of my experience confirms this; but when confronted with the evidence shown in that debate on Sunday night, my spirit shrank, a bit.
I wonder whether other women feel the same.
I have no voice.
After writing my previous post, I promptly got sick and spent most of last week shivering on the couch, feverish and dizzy. I dragged myself off the couch to coach a soccer game on Tuesday evening, heavily dosed with Tylenol. I’d recovered enough by Friday to embark on our trip to Kingston, with a detour to Sauble Beach to pick up CJ at camp. Kevin and I drove separately; he spent the weekend with AppleApple’s team, and I spent the weekend with Fooey’s team — same tournament, two different teams. Thankfully, we played at the same field, so we could spend Saturday near each other. The boys stayed with their grandma. It felt like we were all dispersed. One of my happiest moments of the weekend was during game two, when I looked across the field and saw a whole bunch of redheads watching from the sidelines: it is the only time everyone has come to see Fooey’s and my team play. Everyone got to see AppleApple play the following afternoon, when her team made it to the semi-finals.
Coaching was fun. I still had a voice, and I was feeling much better. The girls started the day slowly, but played a solid second game, and by game three they were firing on all cylinders. It was exciting to see the team play up to their potential. They played like I’ve imagined they could, with intensity and togetherness, and skill. It was thrilling.
We ended the day with a swim and a pizza party, and some late night goofing around at the hotel.
I woke up on Sunday with laryngitis. I could still speak raspily enough to be understood. But after another long day that included a family brunch, supervising five children (we had an extra child on the trip with us), three more soccer games, dinner out at a pub to watch the Euro Cup final (photo above), and a five hour drive home (many pee stops), my voice was done.
I woke up yesterday with nothing. A whisper.
I picked up the dogs from the kennel using this whisper. The women at the kennel whispered back. I saw friends at CJ’s swim lessons and explained my voicelessness in a whisper. My friends whispered back. The woman at the pharmacy whispered back. The chiropractor whispered back. My kids whispered back. With help from a whiteboard and a whistle, I coached a practice yesterday evening with my whisper. The girls huddled up to listen to instructions. “Why are we all whispering?” one asked, and I told them how everyone had whispered to me all day long, and they thought it was really funny. Tonight I will attempt to coach a game with only this whisper available to me.
I shouldn’t even be whispering, as it’s hard on the voice and will slow recovery.
Oh, how I miss my voice. I miss its command. I miss its humour. I miss its participation and connection. But there’s voicelessness and there’s voicelessness. Mine is temporary.
I want to comment on the way the world is blowing up all over the place. No justice, no peace. That’s the phrase that keeps running through my head. No justice, no peace! But what else have I got to say? I don’t always need to speak. Sometimes, like now, I just need to listen. I don’t know what it’s like to be black. I don’t know what it’s like to be a police officer. I don’t know what it’s like to own a gun, or to live in a country where gun ownership is so prevalent. I don’t know what it’s like to live in poverty. I don’t know what it’s like to live in a war zone, or to lose my home to war. I keep reading articles, watching videos, trying to understand, trying to imagine.
What I’ve been reading
- My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard: A Mother Jones Investigation, by Shane Bauer (July/August, 2016). Long form piece, difficult to read, about the hell on earth of the for-profit American prison system, both for prisoners and for those hired to guard them.
- An American Void, by Stephanie McCrummen (Washington Post, Sept. 12, 2015) Another long form piece, also difficult to read, about the man who killed black worshippers in a Charleston church last year. It’s a window into poverty and disconnection.
- Making a Killing, by Evan Osnos (The New Yorker, June 27, 2016) An article on the reframing of the gun industry from selling guns for hunting to selling guns for “self-protection,” all in the name of profit.
- full transcript of Obama’s speech in Dallas (added July 13, 2016) This speech left me weeping. Then I went and read some of the ugly commentary critiquing it, and I felt more hopeless than ever. The president is saying what needs to be said: that Black Lives Matter is not a movement based on paranoia but on real experience, and also that police officers are asked to contain all the evils caused by systemic poverty, lack of jobs, and a starved public education system. That we are imperfect in our humanity. But I disagree with him on one point, and that is when he says that “In the end, it’s not about forging policies that work …” Yes, it bloody well is! Go on and forge consensus and fight cynicism, by all means, but policies force necessary change. There’s no other way — precisely because we are utterly imperfect in our humanity.
- Remembering Sandra Bland’s Death in the Place I Call Home, by Karen Good Marable (The New Yorker, July 13, 2016.)
What I’ve been watching (too many to list, so here are just a few)
I’m not going to write in detail about Canada’s federal election last night, other than to say that I heard the news about a new government being voted into office as I was driving home in stormy weather from Grimsby, Ontario, after reading to a packed house, along with Peter Kavanagh (author of The Man Who Learned to Walk Three Times). (Side note: That the Grimsby reading series could pack the house on the same night of the Canadian federal election AND the Blue Jays’ first home game in their best of seven series is an enormous tribute to the organizers. For the occasion, I wore my lucky jeans and t-shirt, which I’ve been wearing for the last three Jays’ victories — and when I don’t wear them, they lose, which means I have to wear them again tonight, even though tonight I’ll be coaching my eldest’s soccer team for the first time and the jeans and t-shirt are decidedly un-coach-like garb! Superstitions are so inconvenient. And yet so alluring to a certain personality-type. Busted. That’s me, clad in the same jeans and t-shirt for days on end, thinking it will change the outcome of a baseball game. But they won last night! They won! So …)
This photo dates from last week when the Jays clinched their best-of-five series. It marked the second time I wore the lucky shirt/jeans combo. And look at how they won!
Where was I?
Here I am, on a dull fall day in October, relieved to know that a new government will be setting the tone in Ottawa, a new government will be speaking for Canadians on the world stage. To be perfectly candid, I burst into tears when I heard the news on the radio, driving along the wind-whipped Skyway, alone in my little car. I burst into tears because it felt like the end of an angry and fearful man’s government. It felt like Canadians were saying: enough with the fear and anger—we want to be united not divided. Politicians disappoint, and I’m not naive; there are disappointments to come with this new government. But I’m also not willing to be cynical about the difference tone can make, at the highest level of leadership: if you think Canada is not a racist or xenophobic country, check out some of the letters to the editor in the Globe and Mail over the past few weeks, opinions unleashed and legitimized by the fearful, angry campaign run by the guy who is now our former prime minister. I burst into tears because the guy who won last night said: A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian.
Maple leaves collected by me and CJ on our walk home from school yesterday.
Now to see those words put into policy. Now to see the reversal of the damage done.
From the Anglican Church archives, no date
I’m going to do something I don’t usually do and quote from a Globe and Mail editorial (yesterday’s): “Close your eyes and imagine you are at home with your two children, a boy aged six and a girl aged eight. There’s a knock at the door. It’s a moment you’ve dreaded for weeks. You answer it and there is a man from the government and an RCMP officer who order you to turn your children over to them immediately. The children are led away and placed in the back of a truck in which you see other children crying. The boy and girl are screaming that they don’t want to leave you but, the minute you show any resistance, the policeman steps in to enforce the law. You are compelled to give up your children, because the state has judged you to be unfit as a parent on account of your race. That night, you are alone with your spouse in an empty house, brokenhearted, powerless and without hope, everything that matters from you stolen by the state.”
It goes on to state these facts uncovered by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission: “An estimated 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Metis children were stolen from their families and communities over the course of 100 years of Canadian history.” (I’ve since heard that residential schools existed in Canada for 140 years.)
I wasn’t taught this version of Canadian history in school. But the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hopes to change this—the commission filed its report this week after six years of listening to and recording the stories of indigenous Canadians forced to attend government-mandated residential schools, or whose parents or grandparents were survivors of this system; yesterday the end of the commission was marked with a ceremony attended by the prime minister and other dignitaries, and followed by silence from the current government, which appears to believe it has now done enough. Education is an important part of reconciliation; may this part of Canada’s history be taught in all schools and not forgotten, or worse, deliberately silenced. But what else can we do, those of us whose families came to this country as immigrants, as settlers, without much thought for the people who were here before us; and who have benefitted enormously from the wealth of this land?
I’ve skipped over the part of the editorial that describes what happened to many of the children in the residential schools, not because it isn’t important, but because I found myself, as a parent, stopped dead at that opening paragraph asking me to imagine losing my children. I had to cover my eyes and weep. Because my gut response was, this would end me. I would end here.
Everything that matters to me lives here in my family. When I think about my response to watching AppleApple race earlier this week, and genuinely feeling that it was the MOST EXCITING MOMENT in my life, I realize that all of my MOST EXCITING MOMENTS of PRIDE and PURE JOY arise directly from witnessing my children accomplish what I couldn’t have imagined for them (and it goes beyond measurable accomplishments, and includes the surprise of witnessing moments of generosity, maturity, empathy, thoughtfulness). That’s it. Nothing compares. Certainly nothing I’ve accomplished compares, and I mean that sincerely and absolutely. In fact, I’m convinced that my greatest job right now is as witness to my children’s development. So to imagine them stolen from me, by people who couldn’t even address me in my own language, to imagine them being hurt and beaten or worse by these people, to imagine them returning home months or even years later, terribly altered by their experiences, our mother tongue forgotten or beaten out of them, and being unable through it all to offer them any protection: well, it is too painful to imagine. I imagine that I would run after that truck screaming and yelling, that I would walk hundreds of miles to look for them, that I would find the school that housed them and stand outside demanding to see them, that I would try to steal them back and bring them home; but this is fantasy because even if I could do that, would it matter? If I was wrong in the eye of the law? If the government judged me unfit? Because of my race? It would not matter. And so what would keep me going?
I do not know. My ability to imagine ends here.
And what to do now, knowing that so many families endured this tragedy in our country, and that the reverberations of this policy continue to be felt and lived, and that so much is still so very wrong with the way Canada engages with indigenous communities? I don’t know.
I came across this link on Twitter to a web site that proposes planting a “heart garden” to honour children who died in the residential school system; maybe something like this would be a small gesture our family could offer. Kevin and the kids who were in the kitchen yesterday when I was making supper were all receptive to the idea. We talked about what messages we might want to share, what plants we could plant.
But I also think about how arrogant it was/is of the Canadian powers-that-be to believe that indigenous people needed to learn the white ways—that this would improve their lives and well-being. What if we spin that around and decide that the powers-that-be need to learn the values and systems and beliefs of indigenous people? Is it too much to hope that we could become a real family, sharing the best of our knowledge, changing and compromising for each other? And maybe, just maybe, if I look into my own life more closely, I’ll recognize that it’s my values that need shaking up and changing. Maybe more, more, more at any cost isn’t the answer. I’m thinking of the Lax Kw’alaams band in northern B.C. who recently turned down a deal worth $1.5 billion, offered by a gas export company, because the land that would be spoiled by the project being built has no monetary price. To think of the land as something that can be bought and sold is to think in very temporary, solipsistic, morally questionable terms. This is just one example of an indigenous community leading the way, by looking at the land and at money through a different and maybe unfamiliar lens.
All for now. I welcome your thoughts on this subject.
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