Off the Map

July 12, 2017

“From now on, we’re off the map.”

Our guide — Gui — stands with arm extended, ushering us over what seems to be a precipice. One by one, eight travelers descend a stone staircase. Down, down, down. Behind us: a stone wall dripping with morning glories and thorny blackberry canes in bloom; ahead of us: well, we’ll find out.

Down, down, down again, past a few young people playing instruments and some others just hanging out. Pardon. Enschuldigung. Excuse me. Sorry mate. Down some more, to a path overlooking the Douro river and the city of Porto, built up along its banks.

Gui stops to point out the potential of this path as a bicycle and walking trail, states her hope that city planners will have enough vision to install one, then takes off at the blistering pace we’ve come to recognize, her floppy hat-brim and mop of dark curls billowing behind her. We follow in single file, getting a chance to admire a series of increasingly lovely views when she stops to redirect the vines which are creeping over the path. We admire the Dom Luis I bridge, designed by a colleague of Gustav Eiffel, and Gui points out the elegant way each post bears the weight of the structure above.

It’s been over two hours since we met Gui in a park outside the tourist area of Porto. She’s one of a group of three architects who started the Worst Tours of Porto a not-for-profit association which gives travelers a view outside (or beneath), what she calls the Zoom box: the harbor, and the warren of steep streets lined with fish restaurants, wine cellars and souvenir shops that normally fill a two-day visit before most travelers move on.

She’s an expert, sharing her voluminous knowledge as a gift. And she brooks no mansplaining. “Whoever thinks that, knows nothing,” she interrupts one non-question, before setting off up a hill that leaves her would-be instructor gasping for breath and me chuckling with glee. 

I love, not only her fierce intelligence but also her energy, her commitment to her project. And her rigor. She takes us through streets we might have bypassed, past buildings we might have overlooked. My cartographer husband whispers in admiration, “I have no idea where I am.”

I found the Worst Tours when I googled “why are there so many derelict buildings in Porto?” On every street, including the most touristy ones, the 18th century buildings are stained and crumbling, terracotta roofs playing host to their own, bushy ecosystems — that is, when they haven’t caved in entirely. The exquisitely colored tiles are falling off; windows are cemented over or simply gone, leaving only iron grill-work in elaborate mandala patterns. 

Is this austerity?

The economic crisis at work?

Or is it the numberless short-term rentals that we ourselves are taking advantage of, in order to stay here?

Short-term rentals are booming in Porto. Displays in real estate company windows make no secret that buildings are derelict, seemingly inviting investors to gut, subdivide, renovate — and quite possibly, flip. They’re exquisite three- and four-story houses with delicate balconies, arched windows and formidable front doors. Their foundations are stone, their ceilings so lofty they could accommodate a whole other floor. Our building has a yard long enough to keep a family for a year if they farmed it. A neighbor keeps chickens and has planted fruit trees, but ours is overgrown with weeds, and the one on the other side is being dug up, excavating decades worth of tree roots and weeds.

Surrounded by this wealth of real estate, local residents are suffering. The cost of housing is drawing perilously close to the average income. Though many line up for meals in the Plaza de la Republica near where we’re staying, and many sleep in the shelter of a nearby social housing building, there is seemingly no effort to squat in these abandoned buildings. They’re left ominously empty.

Speaking at a pace no slower than her walk, Gui makes clear there’s no easy answer to my questions. Referring to a well-thumbed binder full of plans and maps, she recounts a story reaching back to the construction of this city’s original houses, factoring in the availability of construction materials, the laws and precedents that afford some owners title to the long lots behind their houses, to the culture which values property ownership and which makes squatting tantamount to murder, to the effect of the Unesco World Heritage Site designation which forbids any changes to the facades.

Yet Gui fleshes out the story not of a city which is victim to market forces, poverty or corruption, but a city full of potential.

What could all these spaces become?

The houses are being refurbished, Gui says, and as an architect, how can she complain? There are buildings literally caving in right now. Something has to be done to preserve them. Gentrification of houses is a done deal as far as she’s concerned– for better or for worse. She’s elected to speak today about what’s not so certain: the fate of the unused factory and farm spaces the city has in abundance. 

We see a former factory turned over to artists’ studios and an exhibition spaces, including a collection of street art and a community show of young people’s casettas, the colorful dioramas created in honor of the forthcoming festival of Sao Joao.

Because of this festival, we get to visit the inside of an island, a form of local housing which has been constructed in the city’s long back lots. A narrow path along the edge of a lot gives way to a series of small units, scrupulously maintained, with plants decorating the front stoops. City services are available in the islands, and some have added floors on top of the houses. Children play safely in these corridors, which can be gated out front, and elders are never far from help. Normally, they’re not open to passers-by, but we get in to see that Island’s casetta, giving a donation and making a wish.

This series of diminutive houses might be attractive as tourist accommodation. If sold, the tenants could be turfed out, with the exception of people over 75, who enjoy a bit of protection.

And we go on walking, and walking, and walking. Altogether, we walk for no fewer than six hours, seeing the best and the worst of what can happen in underused urban space.

What happens when a hotel, supported by EU funding, takes over a city block in a market already glutted with hotels? 

What happens when a former shopping mall is turned over to garage bands, becoming a spotlessly maintained rehearsal and recording space, complete with two cafes. Now, an otherwise derelict building is being maintained in good condition, generating income for its owner and the cafe owners, feeding the local music scene and the area as a whole.

Travelling with a cartographer, I’m ever-aware of how little aptitude and skill I have for orienting myself. So I think a lot about what it means to live “off the map.” And I think about the relationship of mapping to story.

Operating without a map means living without clear connections, not simply spatially but in time. Rolf remembers much more than I do — “remember, that’s where we saw the colony of cats” — “cats?” “Yes cats. We saw them right here, three years ago.” It’s not just that he has a better memory than me. He knows where to place his memories so they don’t get lost. Without a map, buildings rear up — seemingly out of nowhere — yet I find myself covering the same ground again and again.  

What is there when there’s no map?  There’s always something. There are always connections in place, always some story being told.

Gui and her colleagues Pedro and Isabel have dedicated themselves to making sure that their city is mapped in detailed, critical and historically informed ways.  In the kiosk which they have lovingly renovated, they distribute zines, pamphlets about local building projects, and maps created by Use-It-Travel, an organization which distributes non-commercial maps generated by locals. The advantage of the kiosk, says Gui, is that people from Porto are attending the tours, wanting to look beyond their habitual paths through their own city. Wanting to see what is unmapped, wanting a say in who gets to map it and how.

 

 

 

These are a few of my favourite things

June 3, 2017

It’s been a busy winter and spring, but thanks to a feast of books by friends and acquaintances there has always been a good book by the bedside to make me reluctant to drop off to sleep. Here’s what I like best about all of them (starting with last read).

Mark Sampson: The Slip

Well I haven’t read it yet. But my favorite thing about it so far is the way he cracked himself up at the launch, reading from the first few pages. Also, the way he likened going down the basement stairs to descending into an “unfinished gizzard.”

Patti Flaher:  Paradise

The play interweaves the narratives of a young Canadian man of Afghani descent who goes to volunteer in Afghanistan and gets arrested, and that of his childhood friend, who is also traumatized while travelling. But the greatest dangers to these young people are seeded and cultivated close to home, even when they happen on other shores.

Terri Favro: Sputnik’s Children

I’m torn between saying “the ending” — which is a real ending, but is also open-ended — and the blurred line between the character’s imaginal life and the real moment in history she is experiencing. Actually, the two things are so intimately related I don’t have to choose (see great ending, above).

Catriona Wright: Table Manners

Peter Greenaway should direct the movie of this book.

Karen Mulhallen: Seasons in an Unknown Key

These are luscious poems of love and loss, and they’re set in Toronto. I know I should get over this, but Toronto to me is still Murray’s restaurant and no drinking on Sundays. In this book, the city wears passion well.

Rebecca Rosenblum: So Much Love

It’s all in the title. It’s a book about brutality but it somehow revolves around love. By finding the love in even the most violent scenes Rosenblum makes them tolerable but also somehow compulsory to read, as a kind of bearing witness.

Kerry Clare: Mitzi Bytes

Two words: domestic scenes. From sex between two tired people who are deeply in love, to the “acrobatics” of household management to the savageness and tenderness of siblings, to the way parents collaborate in keeping a home on an even keel, even as they fight. Clare captures the way a household both reflects the outside world and shields the family from it.

Eva Stachniak The Chosen Maiden

This is a book about endurance. Bronia Nijinska is a brilliant artist, but she’s got too many people depending on her to flame out. She’s forced to adapt, to produce under different conditions, to keep her vision alive in the face of competing needs, impossible decisions and enormous egos. She’s an artist in a way many women are artists: as mothers, daughters, administrators and wives, and she keeps getting better all the time.

 

Writing Prompts for Settlers

May 28, 2017

Okay so we shut up and listen.

Except that over the past couple of weeks I’ve been hearing indigenous authors like Alicia Elliott explaining why the recent shit-storm is a problem. In an article on CBC arts, she has some important things to say about context:  “… forgetting context is a privilege far too readily indulged in by many white politicians, writers, editors and people. They don’t have to live with the knowledge that this country was built through the systemic genocide of their ancestors — because it wasn’t.

It’s a great article. But an author who’s that good shouldn’t have to spend her energy on people who have treated her with such profound disrespect.

In a Toronto Star article titled “The Emotional Exhaustion of Debating Indigenous Views” Lenny Carpenter pointed out: “Indigenous people are in fact playing the role of educators to counter the failure of Canada to educate its citizens on accurate Indigenous history, cultures and perspectives.”

Kateri Aikwenzie-Damm wrote in The Globe and Mail, “I am a writer, poet and publisher. I have put my own writing career on hold many times to fight for respect and space for Indigenous writers and our books.” And later ” The world is shifting. Here’s a hard truth that may move us closer to reconciliation: We do not need them. We do not need to debate them because they demand it and we do not need them to tell our stories.”

These writers have other stories to tell.

And now there’s an Emerging Indigenous Author prize. As much as there was a groundswell of hatred over the so-called free speech issue, there’s a groundswell of support. That’s great! Except that one crowdfunding campaign is not going to address the undercurrent of aggression that was just exposed through this so-called “debate” on appropriation — a debate which, as Keteri Aikwenzie-Damm notes, has been going on for decades.

This means settlers do have to take a stand – not just about cultural appropriation – but about our relationship with Indigenous people. We need to talk — at least to each other. But how?

Maybe we need some writing prompts:

How did this happen?

Hal Niedzviecki had a lot of opportunities to answer that question in the press.

But how did the people around him let it happen?

Nikki Reimer, tendering her resignation from the board of directors at TWUC, wrote a soul-searching entry on her blog.

It shows the welter of deadlines that most people involved in all aspects of publishing juggle daily, the strata and substrata of tasks that bury those of us who work in the arts these days. I thought of Walkerton and SARS. When resources are gutted, people may rise to the occasion and produce an illusion of normalcy. Until something goes wrong.

How did this happen?

There was an Indigenous Writers’ Panel at the 2016 Canadian Writers’ Summit at Harbourfront, where Tracey Lindberg, Lee Maracle and Kenneth Williams provided the audience with copious suggestions for Indigenous authors to read and explore. Someone stood up immediately afterwards and asked which authors she should be reading. Lee Maracle didn’t miss a beat in calling this member out about doing homework. She did it with alacrity and wit; still, was it really her job?

I was among those who mumbled to our neighbours, but didn’t raise our voices. I went home feeling like there was something wrong beyond that one member’s putting her foot in it. There is so much more to do than just be careful with our words.

How did this happen?

After the resignation of Niedzviecki, the Equity Task Force of the Writers Union a group of respected and hardworking writers: consisting of Farzana Doctor, Jane Eaton Hamilton, Ava Homa, Larissa Lai, Carrianne Leung, Judy Rebick, Heather Wood and Waubgeshig Rice put together a set of recommendations. These included Anti-racist education for all staff, National Council and editorial committee members, and a paid equity officer position housed in the main TWUC offices. Their considerable efforts were mocked by Jonathan Kaye as “something out of an undergraduate protest group …”

To me, such measures seem perfectly appropriate, given what has just happened. And it makes sense to take a hard look at my own role in obscuring context.

How did this happen?

It’s 2012. For the first time, I visit Prince Albert Saskatchewan, on whatever semblance of a book tour I’m able to construct with Canada Council funding administered by the Writers’ Union. My grandmother, Mona Gould, was born there, in 1908, and she’s the subject of my first book. We have been to the town of Melfort, seen the map on the wall of the historical society showing the homestead which the family “proved” in the early part of the twentieth century. McTavish: it was a thrill to see my family name on such an old document. My grandmother’s stories of her rugged childhood echoed in my mind. “When I was born they put me in the oven to keep me warm.” We took photographs in front of the canola field that is on the present site of the homestead.

At a gathering at the Historical Society, my eyes filled with tears as I read the poem Mona wrote commemorating the death of her brother at Dieppe. I imagined, as she had so often said, that Howard, the great-uncle I never met, walked into the back of the room and stood listening to the words: “He gave his life like a gift, withholding nothing …”

Prince Albert was the last stop on my little book tour and it was also my grandmother’s birthplace. The family had paused its migration so that my grandmother could be born in safety. Walking around the town the day before the reading I saw the dates over the doorways of many of the buildings. They were built during the settler boom, just when the McTavish clan arrived. Looking at those red brick facades felt like visiting old relatives. I imagined the surge of joy my ancestors felt as they walked around these streets, a new baby just born, a new adventure ahead of them. I, too, was marking the start of a new phase of life, as an author.

The buildings reflected my family history, but the faces I saw didn’t look like any McTavish I knew. Prince Albert is home to a campus of First Nations University and a thriving Indigenous arts community. A sick feeling took up residence in my stomach alongside the pride.

It grew even stronger as I read the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report, and Half Breed by Maria Campbell.

I had written about the family’s journey to the land, the half-built house they came upon, the rigours and joys of life in the outdoors that gave my grandmother the hardiness, zest for life and unbowed will that were so uncommon for a woman of her time.

One person’s safe place was another’s …
One person’s beginning was another’s …
One person’s frontier was another’s …

Maria Campbell:

“Gradually the homesteads were reclaimed by the authorities and offered to the immigrants. The Half-breeds then became squatters on their own land … So began a miserable life of poverty which held no hope for the future. That generation of my people was completely beaten. Their fathers had failed during the Rebellion to make a dream come true; they failed as farmers; now there was nothing left. Their way of life was part of Canada’s past and they saw no place in the world around them, for they believed they had nothing to offer. They felt shame, and with shame the loss of pride and the strength to live each day. I hurt inside when I think of those people … I hurt because in my childhood I saw glimpses of a proud and happy people. I heard their laughter, saw them dance, and felt their love.” (8)

There was a story fitting snugly around my story, outside its margins. It wasn’t my job to tell it, but leaving it unmentioned should not have been an option, either.

I don’t need to co-opt anyone’s else’s tradition to know it’s important to be responsible in speech and writing. There’s a Hasidic story about a man who spreads gossip in his town. He realizes he is doing harm and wants to make amends. He visits the Rabbi, who tells him to split open a pillow and scatter the feathers to the wind. When he’s collected all the feathers, he’ll be forgiven. It’s an impossible task.

How did this happen?

I was raised in an era when Indigenous people were footnotes to history. We read, not Half-Breed, but Animal Farm. The story pre-settlement came before the real history, the main history, our history. Indigenous people were plaster figures in the ROM. They were the savages who attacked the Jesuit fathers in Ste. Marie Among the Hurons. They were the people who lived in Pikangikum, where my father took a tiny plane during my childhood, returning with drawings as he did from Peru and Mexico and Japan.

I didn’t know, in other words. How could I write what I didn’t know?

I knew something. I knew that real history, our history, the only history that mattered was inside.

Okay, so things have changed. I’m learning. I’ve taken a course on Indigenous Dramaturgies with Jill Carter at the University of Toronto. She presented us with a worldview-shaking collection of plays and stories and theory and discussion. I was blessed to have her curate my first in-depth experience of Indigenous culture. All this has been supplemented by Indigenous Canada, an online course University of Alberta and walking organized by First Story Toronto.

All this would make it easy to talk about before and after, about the bad old days when I didn’t know and the good, new days of being an ally. But knowing facts is just part of the story. There’s knowing that and there’s knowing how.

I knew how to see my own people and people like me at the centre of history. Knew how not to question, question, and question again the first layers of information when it came to “who got here first.”

Knowing how takes a whole lot longer to change. Sometimes I think about the metric system. We were told, when we switched to it, that some of us would always think in pounds and inches. Not that we can’t use the metric system; its just that a certain framework is always there underneath. And it comes out in times of stress and fatigue, when we don’t have the chance to think.

Or when we don’t think we have to.

Here’s another prompt:

I feel …

Not good.

Goodness is all mixed up with a sense of self worth and confidence. I’m so attached to the illusion of Canada the Good that I get to movies early so I can watch the Canada 150 Chevrolet and Roots commercials. (The Roots commercial is all about how polite we Canadians are.)

I’m so attached to that illusion that I sometimes can’t tell whether my mission to become a good ally is really about restoring it, rather than any attempt to create a healthy relationship.

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson on Canada:

If Canadians do not fully understand and embody the idea of reconciliation, is this a step forward? It reminds me of an abusive relationship where one person is being abused physically, emotionally, spiritually and mentally. She wants out of the relationship, but instead of supporting her we are all gathered around the abuser, because he wants to “reconcile.” But he doesn’t want to take responsibility. He doesn’t want to change. In fact, all through the process he continues to physically, emotionally, spiritually and mentally abuse his partner. He just wants to say sorry so he can feel less guilty about his behaviour. He just wants to adjust the ways he is abusing. He doesn’t want to stop the abuse.” Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back (21)

Bernard Schlink, on the Holocaust:

There is no entitlement to having the victims and their descendants lay aside the past once the Germans have shown exemplary efforts in coming to terms with it. How and what they remember and forget, to what lengths they go in attempting to free themselves from the traumatic past through mourning the victims or accusing the perpetrators or claiming restitution from the perpetrators’ descendants is their business. Whatever course of action they follow – it is not for us Germans to raise objections or feel indignation. Instead we owe respect to the other side’s difficult struggle with a past that we made traumatic for them.” Guilt About the Past (37)

I feel …

Frightened.

There was an outburst of horrendous aggression in the media in the past couple of weeks, a clumsy misuse of the term “free speech,” the repercussions of which will be felt for a long time to come. But more than any of the words, it was the way a group of people muscled their way into an important, relationship-building conversation and somehow took centre stage. Made it all about them.

What if …

What if the late-night tweeters had used some of their 140 characters on the words: I feel …

If you feel that you have to censor your speech and lie about your feelings based on some top-down dictate it makes sense to be resentful. If you feel like you only have a tiny bit and someone’s going to take it, it makes sense to close ranks.

But what if you felt a gratitude so profound that you were moved to respect, to reciprocate, to do what it took to deepen this relationship and keep it healthy?

We need to view the tougher aspects of the process in that light.

If we get another chance at it, that is.

What if …

Shifting frames is hard. It can seem — to quote the redoubtable Thomas King – inconvenient to contemplate.

The big surprise for me, in making time and space for forgotten and repressed histories and voices is that my strongest emotion has been gratitude.

I know empathy is important, but I don’t get where it belongs in this conversation. I’d rather talk about gratitude. This whole process has felt like being showered with gifts. The Indigenous culture that I’ve been exposed to has enriched my own life and my art, not in the sense of providing me with material to plunder, but in the sense that it dispels the feeling of scarcity that has corseted my artistic life for as long as I can remember. Really great art opens pathways; it doesn’t draw attention to itself at the expense of someone else, and this is really great art. In the Indigenous work I have read, feeling is at one with cogent thought, poetry and science inform each other, stark reality mingles with imagination. Most of all, it means something. It’s not just about verbally jerking off. This holism is nourishing. It provides for its readers.

One of our assignments in Jill Carter’s class was to go and sit “on the land” whatever that meant to us, four times a week for the whole term. Who has time for that? But Jill taught every class with heart and mind and kindness. And respect. I wanted to show respect for that respect. I chose a spot at Riverdale park, a bench in front of a linden tree. I didn’t go as often as I should, but I did visit in cold winds and unseasonable thaws, watched the squirrels leap through branches and flatten themselves against the ground, (marveling at their ability to change their shape), watched people playing with their dogs and sliding down the hill on the meager snow, listened long enough for the highway’s roar to subside and the birdsong and sounds of blowing grasses to emerge. I examined the bark of the tree and the traces of leaves and pods left on the branches.

I started feeling better, thinking better, sleeping better, dreaming more clearly. Teaching better. And yes, writing better. My own stories. I felt grateful to the tree and to the place.

I also started to feel an immense sense of vulnerability. What if I really, really let myself care about this tree?

 

 

Let’s show some respect to the authors in Write

May 17, 2017

I have been trying to compose a blog entry that addresses the most recent issue of Write magazine and the editorial that led to so much … I can’t call it discussion. I am trying to weigh my words, not just contribute to the ill-considered posturing.

The best way I can find is to quote from the authors who contributed to the magazine. They’ve got everything to say about freedom of speech and responsibility to community. About constraints accepted and silence imposed. About tradition and innovation. About the impacts of colonialism, the dubious activity of “space-making.” About pain. About how very, very far we still have to go. About resurgence and making space for themselves and each other. About what that space-making does and can mean. They’re saying it with intelligence, grace and above all, respect.

But these pieces were written in a context of trust, for members of The Writers’ Union, who receive Write magazine. And that trust was betrayed. I don’t feel I have have any right to quote from these pieces. Would any of these writers have written so candidly and openly if they’d seen the editorial? Would they have agreed to participate at all?

The intimacy of this writing could have been a way of creating new relationships and enriching old ones. Every one of the stories is an act of profound generosity. The worst thing about the latest issue of Write is that it failed to respect these gifts.

What these writers have to say is important, and not just in the context of the ignorant and facile talk that has been swirling around since the issue came out.

I’ll take my cue from Jesse Wente and name the writers and publishers whose work went into the issue. We settler-folks need to shut up and listen to these people. If they choose to talk to us again.

Fortunately, Alicia Elliott has. Here’s her fine article. Also, this is piece that she should never have had to write.

Here are the other authors and publishers.

Kateri Akiwensie-Damm and Kegedonce Press
Alicia Elliott
Gord Grisenthwaite
Louise Bernice Halfe
Helen Knott
Gloria Mehlmann
Tanya Roach
Richard Van Camp
Elaine J. Wagner
Shannon Webb-Campbell and Theytus Books
Joshua Whitehead

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If things were so perfect in the writing world and in our society, would we need a writers’ Union?

Leanne Simpson:

If Canadians do not fully understand and embody the idea of reconciliation, is this a step forward? It reminds me of an abusive relationship where one person is being abused physically, emotionally, spiritually and mentally. She wants out of the relationship, but instead of supporting her we are all gathered around the abuser, because he wants to “reconcile.” But he doesn’t want to take responsibility. He doesn’t want to change. In fact, all through the process he continues to physically, emotionally, spiritually and mentally abuse his partner. He just wants to say sorry so he can feel less guilty about his behaviour. He just wants to adjust the ways he is abusing. He doesn’t want to stop the abuse.

 

Shaping narratives in Jack Charles v. The Crown

April 2, 2017

Jack Charles v The Crown — at Canadian Stage until April 8th — opens with the veteran actor creating two bowls, one after the other, on a potter’s wheel. His spare and expert movements are spellbinding to watch. Above his head, we see footage of Charles in earlier days, injecting himself with a shot of heroin, immediately followed by another clip of him doing the same thing. In a matter-of-fact tone, he says he’s been using the drug since the seventies; its effects don’t show on the outside.

When the live actor finally speaks, it is about the cycle of life, the powder that is used to make clay and the dust to which we all return. The screen shows the white powder of his art covering his hands and white powder being dissolved to shoot into his veins. He talks about his spiral of drug use and imprisonment as we watch him mold pots with elegant consistency. His hands are as deft inserting the needle as they are shaping the clay.

Then Charles puts on a suit and starts making his case against the crown. He wants his criminal record expunged. After many years of drug-motivated robberies, his prison number is as familiar as his name. He’s drug-free now, and wants to create programs to help Indigenous people in his native Australia, wants to give a home to his brother, wants to travel freely, yet the criminal record stands in his way.

He cites the many crimes that have been committed against him and his people by the state. Accompanied by three musicians in his songs and stories, he tells of being stolen from his mother at birth as part of Australia’s assimilation policy. Having spent his early years in an institution, he was criminally charged for the first time as a teenager, for trying to find his family.

Who gets to tell this man’s story? Projected are film clips of the prodigiously talented Charles playing roles on stage and on TV. A founding member of the first Indigenous Theatre in Australia, he also starred in the Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith among many other films. I am not familiar with most of them, but the clips left me wondering whose had written these stories? And what narrative residue did they leave for the people who saw them? Or acted in them.

Charles quips that the judicial system has a whole biography of him, a thick file, complete with photographs. Mug shots are projected above, taking the place of family photos in recording the story of a life. Charles ends with a song, “Son of Mine” in which a father tells his son of his own narrative choice. He could tell of rape and destruction, but instead, chooses to tell a story of hope.

Charles takes charge of his own narrative in his play, and it’s a gentler one than we see in the documentary Bastardy, that inspired it. The film is unflinching in its portrayal of Charles at the height of his addiction, ricocheting from homelessness to prison. If the play tells the story of a survivor, the film shows what he survived. I was lucky enough to see the film straight after the play, and came away wondering if it was necessary to see the film, in order to appreciate it. His quick remark about his life in care being “similar to the residential schools” said a lot. Yet the film makes one point resoundingly. After years of sleeping in laundromats and public toilets, what finally broke Charles’s downward spiral was getting a home of his own.

Jack Charles is a brilliant man. At 73 he’s a masterful performer, as well as a teacher and respected elder, brimming with wisdom and full of potential for still more growth. He wants nothing more than to help other people. Because he’s housed, he has an opportunity to do that. His show serves as a reminder of what a whole society loses when so many are eking out an existence under bridges, or locked away in group homes and prisons. That’s a story we in Canada need to hear.

A Woman Looks on War

November 11, 2016

Mona Gould received a rejection for this poem when she submitted it to The Montrealer in 1939. Alvah Beattie wrote: “It is with a great deal of regret that I return A WOMAN LOOKS ON WAR. It is so true that I would have liked to publish it. Unfortunately, we are banded together in a common cause and the newspapers and the magazines of Canada must do everything they can to “sell” the war to Canadians; this notwithstanding the fact that we know what it is all about, and have to set aside any humanitarian viewpoint until the war is over.”

It was published in Gossip magazine in 1969.

A Woman Looks on War

She said:
“I am a woman,
And I am being perfectly honest about this calamitous war,
I resent it!
I know that’s taking the small view,
Not the wide … or as it is sometimes called, the long view,
But that is because I was born a woman
The very fact that I was born a woman
Makes me naturally a possessive person.
The fruit of my womb, for instance,
Is pretty much mine.
And I’m not altogether anxious
To have it become cannon fodder.
I know that doesn’t sound very patriotic
And I hope it won’t offend anyone in the War Office.
But I said I was being honest
And if I said anything else it would be a lie!

“It wasn’t that I had any plans laid out for him;
He would have been free to choose for himself his life work;
It’s just that I don’t feel it’s cricket, somehow,
For him to miss out on all the normal activities
The thousand and one mad and merry activities
That young men know in time of peace.
When people say they word “peace”, now,
They do so in hushed tones.
It’s suitable that they should do this
When the Dove lies dead!

“War, to a woman, takes on something the same aspect as child-birth
That is a strange and terrible battle, also,
But the blood let, is in a living cause,
And the hostage is a living thing,
And there is triumph even in the anguish.
War goes forward with the same implacable vigour.
The march is started … and there’s no stopping it
Til the thing is accomplished,
And the first … or last cry!”

She said:
“I am a woman.
And I am naturally a possessive person.
And I don’t give up my son to any cause
Even though it be noble and glorious and worthy of all sacrifice.
I know that’s taking the small view,
And I know there must be mothers made of sterner stuff than I am;
But I have said that I would be honest,
And I would like to have had something more for him
Than a few short years set to martial music
And the first … or last … cry!”

Monster Feet

November 8, 2016

I broke my toe in the spring. It was the middle of the night, and a chair was not where it was supposed to be, and the next thing I knew I was seeing stars, just like in the cartoons and what the computer calls “special characters” were coming out of my mouth, just like in the cartoons. And among the stars were visions of my dance classes and morning walks and all the things I do to say sane and healthy, plunging away from me like a receding train.

Stay sane and healthy, or fool myself that I am?

Maybe it’s the same thing.

It was early spring and it was mucky, and the only shoes that didn’t make me yelp were a pair of dilapidated Finn Comforts that I once bought for a ridiculous amount of money at what I call the Fascist Shoe Store. When you walk in they tell you everything that’s wrong with your feet and your life and what you need to do — not to make all of this better — but just because they say so. Do not ask me why I was in there.

Anyway, the FCs are okay but rather floppy and not as comfortable as their price suggests. They’re sandals, the kind with straps across the front that you can adjust with Velcro.  Ideal for a broken toe, and paired with a thick sock, adequate for early spring. And they’re red, because my feet are huge, and bright colours are always on sale in my size.

And as I secured the Velcro over my knobbly toes, which, had somehow all contrived to swell and huddle closer to their wounded neighbour, I thought back to a time about twenty years ago when I went shoe shopping with my mother in what was then the Women’s College Hospital Shoe store. They sold orthopaedic shoes, and they also sold dressier shoes for people who have foot problems. My mother didn’t just have foot problems. She had monster feet. Her toes were twisted and cramped, her metatarsal arch sunken, her heels perpetually dry and swollen. It wasn’t her fault, but she was ashamed of them anyway.

And as I stood there, urging her toward the bank of sandals with Velcro straps and away from the relatively dressy shoes with their patent leather and rhinestones I realized that I was not alone. There were at least four other women there, with matching frown lines, whispering to their mothers: Mum; those will just make the problem worse; it’s these you need. And the mothers reached back for the pretty shoes like children in a toy store.

And all of us frowning daughters were wearing low-heeled shoes with wide toes, because damned if we were going to get our mothers’ twisted feet. I suspect we were all, in our secret hearts, hoping our dancing days might still begin.

But what I and those other frowning women did not know, is that the monster feet come anyway. The bunions, the callouses, the toes drawn back as if in horror of where they’re inexorably going.

And last spring, as I fastened my Velcro I made a little grunt of accomplishment and pointed to the nicely lined up straps in a gesture that made me feel possessed. Another kind of monster feet looked back at me.

This is what my father used to do, after his stroke. He used to point to his accomplishments, closing a door, setting a cup on the table, fastening the Velcro straps on his shoes, which he wore with black socks just like mine. My father was a brilliant man who ate everything you were supposed to eat and exercised every day, and kept his mind active. And then one day, he couldn’t any more.

And I had to admit that my cognitive abilities had been dealt a blow at the same time as my toe had, and at my age, I didn’t have enough brain cells left to hide it any more. On that particular day, getting the Velcro to line up was an accomplishment worth grunting for.

The toe took so long to heal. I hobbled around and jammed my hip and neck in the process. But finally, it got better. And I went back to wearing the kind of wide and supportive high-heeled shoes they are making nowadays for us tired daughters, and I went back to my dance classes, feet on relevé and mind in denial, where it belongs.

 

 

 

Of Swimsuits and Serendipity

October 25, 2016

This is an old post — as you’ll soon see. For some reason I just didn’t feel like blogging over the summer.  But here it is.  Maybe it will make us all think of warmer days …

It was May and we were exhausted, and we went to Picton for the weekend, to a lovely inn with a hot tub. I had never been in a hot tub before. I’m not the public bathing type. And swim suits don’t work on me, any more than I work at barbecues or frisbee games or beach parties.

I realized this as a teenager, before nerdy was chic and charming. At the start of Grade Nine we were directed to purchase a number of items, and once I had the binder and pencil case and pens and three-hole punched paper as well as the belted blue Crimplene romper and track shoes, there was no money for a swim suit. But there was a sort of all-in-one sleeveless body stocking you could get for what seemed a reasonable amount of money and I got a light blue one.

When this schmatte got wet, the horror of seeing what I already knew was happening below the neck swathed in near-see-through blue nylon was enough to make me swear off swimming forever. I began to pretend — to put it delicately — to a greater degree of maturity than I had actually attained at the age of thirteen — in order to avoid the swimming unit of our gym class.

When it looked like our teacher, who also taught health, was not going to accept the doleful, “heavy, heavy flow” excuse any more without a doctor’s note I came up with “the cat peed on my bathing cap,” which I assure you was true.

Such is my dislike of bathing suits that I didn’t own another one until I was engaged. And that — continuing along the degrees of development theme — was at the age of 42. My soon-to- be husband bought me a sporty little striped number which didn’t look bad. That was before I really came out to him about how I hated water and beaches and so many things other people enjoy. I wore it once in fourteen years, and now all the elastics are pulling out of the leg-holes and the whole thing sort of crumbles when I try to put it on.

Knowing about the hot tub, I started searching for bathing suits on the Internet. Life has improved. Geek is chic, and shopping discreet. And I actually found one I liked. And — because I’m not quite up to speed on the whole online shopping thing — I was all set to go to the store and try it on.

And here’s where the serendipity comes in. Because I began to realize that bathing suit ads were appearing on the periphery of my screen all the time. I might be searching for a really really good definition of say — “paucity” — and I’d find a bathing suit ad.

Okay. This happens. For the privilege of using Google for free, you have your searches monitored, even your email monitored, and ads appear based on the words you use. I know this, but I sort of forgot and immediately thought, “It’s meant to be!” I must go to Simon’s at once and pick up one of those suits.”

Is this a pre-digital response? Do people thirty years younger than me think “bot” before they think “God”? Do they even believe in serendipity the way I do? Or is there some kind of digital serendipity they believe in — as in, “I was just thinking of you when I got your text.”

For the most part, serendipity is kind of a dangerous concept. It’s responsible for a lot of bad dating decisions, for one thing. As in “So what if he’s a bastard, I ran into him in my own coffee shop and we ordered the same thing.” And when you’re as neurotic as me, it’s just as easy to believe in bad luck as it is in good luck.

But I’m attached to the notion of serendipity, even a kind of agnostic serendipity. It’s nice to think there MIGHT be a force out there, knowing better what I need than I do myself and seeking to connect me with it.

I often tell people, for instance, that if we’d used an Internet dating site my husband and I would not have met. Invoking chance is one of those hideously self-satisfied couple things I promised I’d never do. Like going to an inn or sitting in a hot tub.

In Picton we went to Books and Company, where I found a copy of Dr. Doolittle, which brought me such joy to find because for some reason I’ve long forgotten, I had been thinking I needed one. Books and Company, wonderfully, mixes new and used books. I thought about how much of the pleasure of book shopping — particularly used books — has to do with finding things by chance, and noticing how that collides or harmonizes with what’s going on in our lives.

And I thought about how belief in serendipity might just be a forgivable bit of narcissism that helps to navigate life’s uncertainties. And so what if whoever designs Internet ads is exploiting that to sell bathing suits?

Speaking of which, I didn’t have time to buy a bathing suit before our trip, so we ended up shopping for one in Picton. I said I didn’t want to go into the shop but my husband pulled me by the sleeve and plonked me in front of a rack of suits. And what should I see but the one I’d been searching all month, and it fit, and I wore it in the hot tub.

 

Doubious Allies

July 8, 2016

Moderated by Waubgeshig Rice, the Indigenous Writers’ panel at the recent Canadian Writers’ Summit consisted of Tracey Lindberg, Lee Maracle and Kenneth Williams.

As I expected, these diverse individuals had very different things to say, but the discussion often circled back to one question: “How can white people in the literary community be better allies to Aboriginal writers?” Or maybe I was just focusing in on what I wanted to know.

Tracey Lindberg took the discussion to a whole new level, speaking with deep emotion about the contrast between her accomplishments in the world and her inner feelings of uncertainty and powerlessness.

Her novel Birdie, also goes straight to the heart. Lindberg hones in on the raw nerve of what violence and oppression do to a person’s mind and body and stays right on top of that nerve for the whole arc of the narrative.

Taking to her bed upstairs from the bakery where she works, Lindberg’s heroine Bernice/Birdie takes an internal journey through her traumatic past. Her cousin Freda and aunt Valene come to watch over her. The wrongs Birdie has suffered are unfathomably deep, and Lindberg is encyclopaedic in her description of the varieties and manifestations of her pain. Birdie has — as Lindberg puts it — a “palate for pain.” She divines the painful spots in the women in her life as if reading a map.

Boundaries between people are fluid; so are boundaries between thought and action, dream and waking, real time and memory. Birdie is an expert on the ways of trauma. “After any memory, after the thinking, it could take anywhere up to a week (if then) for her to even remember the incident that triggered the emotion.”

That this is Birdie’s internal landscape is horrifying, but there is strength in her very expertise. Lindberg has created a heroine whose resilience comes from living in her pain, not walking away from it. She is a survivor, not by mastering circumstances or by being rescued from them, but by finding her true resources, her true nourishment. There is no easy resolution but she emerges fortified and ready to take up the challenges of her life.

There are white allies in Lindberg’s book. They’re not allies for saying or even doing all the right things. At their best, they provide a space for Birdie’s process. In the pages devoted to Birdie’s foster parents, the Inglesons, Lindberg captures the brew of tenderness, gratitude, resentment and guilt she feels towards these “sweet” yet heedless and unconsciously privileged people. A scene where Birdie tries to decide on a prom dress is laden with irony. Thoughts and feelings roil beneath the surface for Birdie, while her foster mother (who has won an award for her foster parenting) sweetly — and disastrously — offers both dresses. With the Inglesons, Birdie has “moments of real tranquility, pieces of peace.” Yet she is always internally working, strategizing, translating.

Another white character, Lola unquestioningly takes in Birdie’s cousin and aunt as they tend to her through her long transformative process. Ultimately, Lola develops a close relationship with Birdie’s cousin Freda yet even here, we see Freda providing her with resolution, with a happy ending where Freda herself sees ambiguity. Freda is still doing a lot of work.

Back to the panel discussion:

Kenneth Williams suggested approaching elders and asking them questions, knowing that we will get things wrong, because we will.

I thought: That’s just it. We have got things wrong. We will continue to get them wrong.

Bernhard Schlink’s Guilt about the Past, came to mind as it often has in discussions of reconcilation. He’s a completely different sort of writer, but the simultaneously delicate and relentless probing quality of his thinking reminds me of Lindberg’s work.

Schlink writes: ” … during the soccer World Cup, I was watching a match in a beer garden in Berlin. When the German team scored its first goal, a worker my age threw his arms into the air and shouted, ‘Wir sind wieder wer!’ (‘We are somebody again!’) So even this worker saw himself under the long shadow of the past and experienced this moment as a liberation, as a chance to get back into the light.”

For Schlink, “The thought that the past could and should be mastered contains not only the yearning for freedom from it; it even asserts an entitlement to such an end. As with every task, whoever works hard at it expects that the task will eventually be completed, and then demands to be released from duty once the task is finished.”

There’s a fine line between becoming a good ally and demanding to get back into the light. I wonder if it’s possible to ever truly know the difference.

 

Better late than never: Salt Water Moon

March 15, 2016

I only got to see Salt Water Moon at the Factory Theatre on the last weekend of the run. This makes me late to the party in rhapsodizing about it; still, better late than never.

It was nothing short of exquisite. This stripped-down version of David French’s 1984 play (under the direction of Ravi Jain) was part of the Factory’s Canadian Classics Re-Imagined season. With no props, no costumes, nothing on stage but a series of candles placed in the pattern of the firmament, a young couple, Jacob (played by Kawa Ada) and Mary (Mayko Nguyen) grapple with tough decisions about their future. Ania Soul enfolds the action in guitar music and singing, as well as reading stage directions.

Salt Water Moon is a story utterly particular to its time and place. The setting is Newfoundland, 1926, with the slaughter of World War One still fresh in memory, and tough economic realities rendering the couple’s future precarious. Mary experiences any young lover’s trepidations, jealousies and disappointments, but when it comes to choosing a mate, her stakes are astronomically high. Jacob is endearingly cocky, but his bluster comes off as bravery, knowing the rigid class system that he will confront in providing for a family. Their conversation evokes a close-knit – at times claustrophobic – community, the thousand details of daily life from pipes to stockings to cars, to sinister revelations of the fate of children whose parents cannot care for them.

Stripped of all visible signs of context, the production constantly acknowledged the original script, reminding us that we were one step removed from it. Not only was there no set; the stage directions did not correspond to what was going on. Costumes were described, which were different from what the actors wore, props were mentioned in the stage directions, their use only mimed on stage. The characters walked among candles meant to represent stars; Jacob laid his head on the ground to indicate listening at a door. Most spectacularly: the final stage directions have Mary howling out her pain while Nguyen stood poised in silent grief.

Why and how did this work? I don’t want to analyze it; all I know is that it was spellbinding. I felt as if I were having a miraculously enhanced experience of reading, in which I could conjure the scenes for myself, with a powerful and intimate performance playing out at one and the same time.

Salt Water Moon is all about trusting the imagination. This simple and elegant production did not so much seek universality as celebrate the power of the imagination to evoke the invisible and confront the unknown.

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