Posts Tagged ‘Catholicism’

More on the whole Jesus-theme today. Over the past few months I’ve read a couple of books dealing with the Jesus thing – Slavoj Zizek’s The Puppet and the Dwarf and Terry Eagleton’s Reason, Faith and Revolution: two books coming out of radical secular political traditions that grapple with the meat and potatoes of faith in general and Christian faith in particular, and do so with insight and with respect, both of which are all too rare in leftist treatments of religion. I also picked up Eagleton’s critical annotation of the Gospels – his contributions being an introduction and notes of interpretation and commentary appended to the biblical text. And I’d highly recommend all of these, though for different folks and different reasons. (more…)


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Been on a bit of Jesus thing lately. Thinking about religion, considering the role it plays in our understandings of the world, its function as an ethical code, a yearning for something more, a mark of community boundaries and so on. And generally considering the importance that religious symbols and religious communities have had at various time in my life. (more…)

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When I was three years old, I chewed my nails. OK, I chewed my nails far past the age of three, and still catch myself doing so occasionally as anxiety-reduction – but at three I chewed my nails excessively. So excessively, in fact, that it damn near killed me.

It’s nearing Easter, and the family is off to Church for Ash Wednesday. For Catholics, this is the day we remember how thin that line is between prophet and lunatic, saviour and ne’er-do-well. Jesus has been preaching, chasing money-changers out of the temple, eating with lepers and whores and all manner of untouchables, and generally developing quite a following – as he enters Jerusalem one day, riding on a donkey, people line the streets, waving palm branches to welcome this carpenter who heals the sick and feeds the hungry and insists there is no law of temple or state – only the law of conscience. So far so good.

Religious leaders, political administrators and rich folk, however, are not so keen on this guy, and mount a relentless campaign to discredit him as the single greatest threat to all order, a shiftless preacher of lawlessness and rebellion. In a short time, he’ll be identified as a terrorist, amassing an army to overthrow religious law and political law, and these same crowds will gather to revel in his crucifixion.

So, we go to Church on Palm Sunday and wave palm fronds. We go back on Ash Wednesday to burn them and have our foreheads marked with the ash. This particular Ash Wednesday is the first I am really old enough to have any sense of what’s happening around me, and I approach the altar with my parents. The priest reaches down to cross my forehead in ash, and I freak out – I’m going to die, I am sure; this is a mark of death; don’t let this man touch me. Priest and parents assure me that all this means is that I’m a friend of Jesus, and talk me down from my panic. I relent, and am marked with a cross of soot.

Within a few days, my nails bitten off almost entirely, a red line begins to run up my arm, and I’m rushed to the hospital with blood poisoning. For the next few weeks, this sterile room will be home.

This is the mid-1970s, before provision has been made to let families stay with their children in these kinds of situations. What is more, my brother, David, was just born a few months ago, so things are less than easy on the home front. I am alone.

In actuality I’m sure my mom and dad were around alot, but I have no memory of that. I remember a young woman named Karen, who worked with my folks in international solidarity stuff, sitting by my bed, scratching my back for hours, reading me books about my greatest love, dinosaurs. Other than that, I remember no one but George.

George was my best friend in that ward, a friend who would stay by my bedside through the night, wander the halls with me when I was allowed to get up and move around, talk with me about anything and everything. George was my IV machine, and I’d pull him along with me as he held himself always against my arm

It was the beginning of a long association with imaginary and invisible friends – and yes, I say imaginary and invisible because those seem to me to be quite different things, the former a conscious and often fleeting invention and the latter a very real and lasting object for internal dialogue. I had both, and for the rest of my childhood I would invent my closest friends – animals and people and unspecified intimates who would always be there no matter where I was taken.

And it’s an association that has stayed with me, not in the form of any real delusion or hallucination, but in a more constant conversation with myself about anything and everything, a regular retreat into imagination, invention and myth whenever the world is too much with me.

I still think of George, often. And sometimes, too, I still miss him. When I learned, through those weeks in hospital, that everything I knew could be taken in an instant, that one day my parents and brothers and friends would simply be gone, that the world is not always and everywhere a place of safety – when I learned all this, in a sudden and terrifying moment of serious illness and abandonment, I learned, too, that there are ways of self-soothing, of finding comfort in one’s own thoughts and fantasies.

Ash Wednesday, blood poisoning and George. There are lasting legacies of this episode in my life. A tendency to hold the world at bay, to know how quickly things can turn, to never count overly-much on people always being there. These are the scars of that time, and scars I have to quite consciously work on whenever I find myself loving someone new. But there are gifts in that inheritance, too. The comfort of dream, the joy of silence and solitude, the conversations and reflections that allow me to write this blog, and open up a window into myself that otherwise would stay shuttered.

Yes, there are both stability and madness in internal dialogue, there are celebration and fear, there are isolation and the promise of community. And on balance, I’m pretty damn glad for all of it

As I look back over these words before hitting the “publish” button, I can’t really say why this is the post of the day. But I am , for the first time, spending the day at Meg’s while she’s at work. And I am noticing that it feels like home to me. Like a place that is filled with her presence and yet which also has room for me. It feels like solitude and community sit together well here, as the sun comes through the window and I watch cyclists pedal by. Something in this place provides the same kind of comfort George did in that sick ward. Something in this place is just right, just exactly what I need right now.

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Mother’s Day. I sent the obligatory flowers, will call for a hello at some point. That’s the normal routine. Once again, though, I find the existance of this blog gets me thinking in new ways.

I haven’t been especially close to my mom for many years. It’s not a bad relationship, it’s just not a very active one, pretty much limited to five minute phone calls every couple of months and a few visits a year in which most of the time is spent sitting in the same room reading while the kids play. It wasn’t always that way, though.

As a teenager I was pretty close to her – didn’t share alot of of personal stuff, for reasons that will become clear, but she was a major figure in my life as touchstone of a moral code and a life committed to struggle. Not uncommon, I guess, that when one partners the relationship with the parent changes, and that certainly happened in my case. But also once I had a kid of my own I started to process the what my own childhood left me, with a disproportionate emphasis on the traumas. Ah well. Nothing atypical in that, I don’t think.

My mom. My mom grew up on Vancouver Island, one of six kids born to a teacher-mother and a father who worked for the local logging outfit – clerical work, as he’d lost a leg as a child. My mom was – no way else to put it – a nerd. Skinny kid, big glasses, bumped up in school so she was often almost two years younger than her classmates. The oldest of the girls, she had to put in a lot of time working around the house and helping raise her younger siblings.

After meeting my dad – they were on the same team for a long-running high school quiz show, Reach for the Top – she and he moved to the big city for university. Graduation, marriage, kids, jobs in various resource-industry towns, and deep commitment to the Catholic Church follow for the next couple of years, until 1970 when they signed up with CUSO to train teachers in Nigeria as that country came out of the Biafran war. So off they set for West Africa – a far cry from small town Vancouver Island – with two kids under 2 years old in tow. And here’s where I come screaming into the world, on Mother’s Day of 1972 as rain pounds iike gunfire off the tin roof of the hospital.

That, I think, is when it all changes. Nigeria. We return to Canada that year, 1972, and for a time shuffle around as dad looks to get work and mom focuses on the three kids – one more to follow some time later. Within a couple of years, it’s off to Kitimat, where it becomes readily apparent that something has changed as my mom, speaking in the Church about our African sojourn, makes a not-very-veiled reference to Catholicism as the whore of colonialism and imperialism. Yeah – good way to make friends in small-town BC. As you might imagine, pretty damn soon we’re moving again.

That was all the stuff before my memories. After that, what I know of my mom is ceaseless work with refugees, prisoners from Central America to the Philippines, anti-poverty activists around the world and locally and on and on. By the time I’m five, dad is working part-time out of the houe and doing domestic duty. My mom’s working for the social justice branch of the Catholic Church, travelling constantly, opening our home as meeting place and host to activists from around the world, most of them Church-based folks coming out of the massive liberation theology movement.

My mom always embodied commitment to justice, To me, that kid growing up around this, it was her. She spent every day organizing, speaking, educatng. She visited the places all the horror stories came from, and brought people back with her t stay with us for anytthing ranging from a few days to a few years. She worked to create new organizations, to link the Church activists with unions and refugee groups and other radicals. With my dad, she took all her boys for a stint in Nicaragua to see revolution and civil war first-hand. When she decided to give up her international work to get more involved locally, in the downtown eastside, she insisted we move into that neighbourhood, because activists need to live a community to help build it.

Yeah, that was her. I was so fucking proud. I was also incredibly intimidated. Because how the hell could I ever measure up? I was the sensitive, most “girly” of Mom’s four boys. I was the one who took up the political inheritance. But how the hell could I ever compete with a father who simply served, always doing the hardest work, always taking direction from whoever was running a particular event or action, never expressing a need of his own, and a mom who was everywhere, an activist superstar? I wanted to be her. And I wanted people to say about me what they said about my dad: that he was the perfect man, and that she’d created him – an activist in his own right, and a highly-skilled community advisor, but always focused on quietly doing the background work that needed to be done, never complaining, and allowing my mom to be everything she was.

Intimidating, yes. And to make it harder, the Catholic thing was intense. The Left has always had its puritanical streaks, but Left Catholics? Wow. It never had to be said that sex and laughter and joy were things to be wary of, it was just understood, as far as I was concerned. Life was about service. Dedication to one’s cause. Organize and struggle, organize and struggle. Be Jesus. Sainthood is within reach for all of us. Want nothing for yourself, ask nothing for yourself, because any desire is selfishness, and because men in particular need to take care to break cultures of entiitlement. Throw in some second-wave feminism and the “all male sexauality is predatory sexuality” piece and you’ve got quite a picture of the activist/ cultural/ religious world I knew.

I rebelled for a while – drank, smoked, fucked, stole – but earlier than most, and not for long. Ages 13-15, I guess. By 16 and our year in Zimbabwe I was back on track, ready to take up this radical tradition on my own, and convinved that I could deny myself any such selfish distractions and simply serve. And I tried, damn hard.

But when I had a kid of my own I started to realize that maybe not all I inherited was healthy, that maybe there was some trauma there, that maybe I had some resentments over never being allowed to want anything, never being allowed to feel any desire – and that maybe, in fact, struggle needs to come out of desire, that maybe revolution is about an explosion of desire.

That was a huge struggle, and a struggle that I confess I still deal with and probably always will. And it really changed my relationship with my mom.

Previously, there was admiration and awe, and her opinion was all – fear flowed from that, though I never would have called it fear at the time. After reflecting on that past, somehow things reversed – there was fear first and foremost, puritanism and demands – and the respect for her struggle and commitment began to sit in my mind like the background music.

It’s pretty much been like that for the last ten years. And I think that in writing this out I am realizing more that it’s always been a compicated mix of respect/ admiration and fear/ intimidation, and that I have still, to this day, not found a way to balance those things out in my thinking and feeling about her. Hmmm. This blogging thing is its own therapy, isn’t it?

So, where’s mom now? A few years ago a relative who was working the street in the downtown eastside disappeared. That Christmas Eve my mom and I wandered around Main and Hastings and back alleys looking for her. No luck. A few days later her body was found, dumped by a john in Surrey. Mom and dad took in her two little girls, adopted them, and moved back to Vancouver Island to raise them there, closer to the band and the extended family. Mom fights school closures and new housing developments, but the kids are the focus of her and dad’s community-building and struggle today. And I see the pattern again – my own daughter was close to her grandma the first few years of her life, but the last several that has fallen away, as mom’s energy is thrown into the girls she needs to raise, her main interactions with her grand-daughter being statements of morality and principle when something comes up.

Activism and family. We all know that these two need to nurture and grow each other. But it’s a strange concoction, and not a recipe that comes together easily.

So, today, mom will get a knock at the door, and flowers will arrive. I’ll call and say Happy Mother’s Day and ask about the girls and say I hope she gets a day just for her and yes, we’re fine, and all the other basics. I know already that I won’t mention anything about what’s written here. And maybe that’s OK. Or maybe it’s not. But that’s another question entirely, for another time.

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