Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Childhood’

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…)

Read Full Post »

Lots of babies being born these days. Over the past six weeks or so, no less than seven people I know have had or are due to have brand-new gorgeous babies to welcome to the world. And that’s exciting to me, cause I love babies and I love to see new parents celebrate and find this whole new joy and love. Welcome, to all of you, to the very best of the world.

My own baby ain’t so little any more. A teenager now, and well on the way from the last of childhood to the meat of adolescence. It’s a time of pride in who she has become, a time of remembering that little girl who is, in a very real sense, gone, and a time of reflection on my relationship with her, my role as a parent. There is much to be thankful for. But also much regret and a whole lot of struggle with inadequacy. (more…)

Read Full Post »

Men Who Mattered

Yesterday was my first day feeling truly and completely well again after four weeks of mystery illness. A good day to go for a swim with Mica, do some lengths and get some exercise, and take Megan out to meet my cousin Matt, who’d invited us over for a barbecue. Matt is awesome. He lived with Mica and I for a couple of years, so is really the only cousin of a great many that I really have an ongoing relationship with. He’s an absolute sweetheart, great with Mica, kind and thoughtful and progressive. Just good people, plain and simple.

But as we drove away, I found myself thinking not about Matt but about his dad. My Uncle Brian. Brian was a Brit, married my mom’s sister and joined the rest of the family on Vancouver Island – Tahsis, specifically. He was fucking huge – a weightlifter, a karate teacher, woodsy-guy with big-ass sideburns and forever dressed in blue jeans and blue denim jacket. He was also just about the quietest and most gentle man I ever knew in my life. I always felt especially close to him for some reason, and he did to me as well, I’ve heard from various people over the years. Perhaps it was that quiet, that gentleness, something silent that was in this huge, powerful man and in the little skinny boy that was me. Don’t know. But something just made us close from the start.

When I was around 9, my mom and dad went off to the Philippines for a summer to do some political work. Things got hairy, they ended up staying longer than expected, and I spent that whole time in Tahsis living with my Aunt Helen, my two young cousins, and big ol’ Uncle Brian. We walked alot, and said little. We sat alot together, and said little. We caught alot of mackeral, a whole lot of salmon, and cooked up my first dogfish into steaks. It was one of those formative summers you have as a kid; one of those where you realize for the first time the magic of a particular part of the world, the magic of a few people, and catch some glimpses into the possibilities of manhood.

Yeah, that is one reason Brian was so significant to me. I was a scrawny kid. I was pretty athletic, I was popular, I did well in school – but I always felt a little less of a boy, a little less comfortable with the fact that one day I’d be a man. So to have this giant of a guy sit so quietly with me, just be close, and exude such gentleness and such love for everyone around him….it impacted me tremendously, and gave me one of the clearest models I can remember of what a loving masculinity could look like.

Brian and my Aunt Helen seperated quite some time ago, and I didn’t see him for years until my grandfather’s funeral. But when I did – wow, I was awed again, I was in love again, and I realized how much I’d missed him. But then he was back to Tahsis, I was back to Vancouver, and that was that once again.

In 2002, I’d just separated from Jo and was living in a little basement suite on the east side. My mom called one night, late. Brian was dead. A long-time depressive, he’d left home with his gun, found a quiet spot in the woods and shot himself. I cried and I cried and I cried. At the funeral, I joined my cousins in carrying the coffin, and cried and cried and cried some more. And yesterday, when Mica was in bed, I cried again. Damn, Brian. You have no idea what you meant to this kid, what that gentle soul with such immense physical strength symbolized to me. And how much I dreamed that one day I could hold myself like you.

Been thinking on men since then – on those men who touched my life in particularly important ways as I was growing up. And I don’t mean my dad – he was clearly a model in many many ways, and so much of him is in me. But those stand-outs among family and friends that for some reason became larger than life and tremendously influential in a young boy’s childhood.

Mike Lewis – my dad’s business partner, a long-time friend of the folks through various social justice networks, and one who it appeared to me had a spark and a celebration of every day like I’d never seen. Whether a song or a soccer game or a joke or a debate or a prayer or a snowball fight – Mike was always in the middle of it, his energy bringing kids and adults together for play. That’s rare, but we had a quite a bit of it when Mike was around, and I learned from him how important that intergenerational playtime is. And I remember, from him, how much of a difference it can make to a kid when one grown-up steps down for a few minutes to get dirty, to play hard, to laugh loud.

Peter Boles – another friend from social justice work, one who found me when I was about thirteen years old and headed for trouble. Peter started, out of the blue, inviting me over to his place in Victoria on weekends to hang-out and talk. We’d sit on the floor all day long and chain-smoke cigarettes. We’d talk about war and refugees and borders and state violence and fear and struggle and how-the-hell-can-you-keep-going. And he’d read my crappy angst-filled poetry and he’d love it cause it was me, and for the frist time ever in my life I felt like someone actually listened, someone actually cared what I had to say, someone was making time and space in his life for me.

My Uncle Ron – another uncle by marriage, another now -separated, so I haven’t seen him for years. Another outdoorsman. Ron was a forester, a hunter, a fisher, and as far as I was concerned the epitome of the strong capable man. He could build anything. He could catch anything. And he had an incredible patience for kids – or, at least for me. Ron would wake me early in the morning to hit the bush and see what we could find, what we could catch. He always just knew exactly the spot to go, exactly the lure to use, exactly how long to wait. It was almost magical. And for a city boy like me, the opportunity to spend many summers around him, around work and sweat and farming and building and hunting and fishing – well, it was always a gift, always a thrill, and as an adult, as I’ve thought back, Ron has stood out as one of those few great infuences, those who showed me a part of what manhood was all about.

Bob Jones -Bob is a chain-smoking, hard-drinking, radical street priest, connected to the Catholic Worker Movement. He’d known my mom for years, but I didn’t get to know him until I was around sixteen and we moved to the downtown eastside. Bob came up and moved in for a while, helping with the renos and spending some time on the streets in Vancouver. I was still feeling pretty Catholic at the time, doing the radical liberation theology thing, and Bob was to me one of the few that really walked the talk. Surrender your comforts. Go out to the street and build community. Bob did it, living weeks at a time on the streets, and generally keeping his priestly-identity well-hidden. He was there to talk to people, to be just another face in the park, but to do what he could in that role to offer guidance and support and get people connected with one another. Haven’t seen Bob for years. But here again, one of those people that walks into a young person’s life and shakes it to the core just by his presence.

David Drake – When I was twelve and thirteen, we lived in a little Nicaraguan fishing village, San Juan del Sur, while my folks did some work with Guatemalan exiles there. One of these was David Drake. Damn near the kindest man I ever met, David was tall and gentle and worked like hell to support his community, but always in the background. David was an American by birth. During a stint in the Peace Corps, he met a Guatemalan woman – a revolutionary – and fell in love. They married, they lived their life together in the resistance movement, they went into exile together. But David always felt on the outside. David always personally felt some responsibility for the fact that his government waged war on his adopted community and the family he married into. When in Nicaragua, amidst the US-sponsored contra war, this only intensified. He knew he could never be trusted as completely as others. He knew he came of that place that made war on kids and farmers and workers. And it ate him.

David spent alot of time with me, talking, showing me his library – in particular he introduced me to a free-school experiement in the UK, and the concept of non-authoritarian education. He’d serve up banana milkshakes in the afternoon, when we could get milk and sugar. He carved a giant Easter egg out of a watermelon because there were no real eggs available with the US blockade. He bought me beer and greeted me with a hug and smile everytime I showed up un-announced at his door.

David was one of the first adults I related to as a friend, one of the first I was aware of really loving. Shortly after we left Nicaragua and made the trip back to Vancouver, while I struggled to re-adjust and began writing bad poems about war and blood and hopelessness and anger, David Drake killed himself, unable to reconcile his American birth with the struggles of his loved ones against American empire, with the American government’s hunt for those with whom he’d made family and community. It was not my first touch with death by any means, But it was certainly my hardest, most devestating. And the one that taught me – in harsh, brutal fashion – about identity and exile, and the psychological reach of empire.

Enrique Torres – In the early 1980s, a family moved in with us while they were getting settled in Vancouver. Exiles from Guatemala, Marta and Enrique Torres were lawyers and had been representing Coca-Cola workers, among other things. They were harassed, tortured, their lives threatened, and forced to flee the country with their kids in tow. After some time in Mexico, Vancouver became home, and Marta and Enrique were central figures in the development of BC’s very active Guatemalan exile community. They also became like a second family to me. Marta, really, had the more profound influence on my life and my politics. But Enrique certainly impacted me as well, with his combination of tireless work, fierce debate and willingness to make space for this little kid in every conversation and every activity. As I grew up, I found that everywhere I went, somehow Enrique followed. In Nicaragua, folks I met for the first time already had stories about me to tell. When I returned home, Enrique already knew about every drunken binge, every girl I chatted up, everything I’d written. I might not see him for years at a time, but when I did, he always knew exactly where I’d been and what I’d been up to. He was one of those who you just knew was always there, always watching out for you, always in the background checking up and making sure you were OK.

Today Enrique has moved back to Guatemala, working with unions again as that country continues to recover from civil war and resistance switches from armed struggle to civil terrain. And every now and then I run into someone who knows him and has seen him, and every time they still come forward with stories about a younger me that they pick up from that old fighter. And y’know, it’s one of the best feelings in the world, to know that even now, after so many years and so many struggles and so many ups and downs in the fight, he’s still somehow with me, keeping his eyes and ears out. There’s a special kind of love there, a special kind of safety. It’s family.

I’ve written here before about the women who influenced me, about growing up amidst a strong feminist community and both the incredible gifts and the traumas that left me with. These men – they were never the major political influences; they were never the ones who sat with me to offer guidance and advice; they were never the ones I thought of as the strongest, the brightest lights of the struggle, the ones I sought to live up to. But I have realized, as I’ve raised a kid of my own, as I’ve come to terms with masculinity and manhood, that these men were guideposts on that road, that these are ones I carry with me every day of my life, that these are – each for his own reason – the bits and pieces of a model. And that’s pretty fucking important.

So, in the wake of that barbecue yesterday, I’m just feeling thankful today for all these guys that made time and space for a little kid who didn’t have a clue what he might become. I’m feeling love for them all, and thinking I should find some way to communicate to those still living how much they meant to me. And I’m missing them, those who died, those who I’ve simply lost, and those who I just haven’t made the trip to see for too many years. I think a “Thanks. You got me through. And I have loved you for it every day” deserves to be said. Needs to be said. For me as much as for them.

Read Full Post »

The United States of America. That name inspires a lot of feeling in me. Anger, fear, confundedness. But mostly revulsion.

Strong word, I know. But it really does hit me that hard. So hard I can feel it in my throat. I can feel my chest constrict.

When I think of the United States, I think of terror and death squads in Guatemala. I think of a country on the verge of utter collapse – economic collapse, political collapse, social collapse, staved off only by jingoism and endless credit. I think of cops. Lots and lots of cops. I think of all that is worst about us, and little of the best. But mostly I think about being a 12 year old kid in San Juan del Sur, a tiny fishing village on the southern Pacific coast of Nicaragua, wondering every day if the bombs would drop.

I grew up in an activist family, and while my mom traveled the world doing human rights solidarity work, our home was a way-station for countless people from all over the world – visiting unionists, radical Catholics, feminist leaders, writers. And many many refugees. Mostly these were Guatemalan and Salvadoran families, fleeing the state terror of US-sponsored national security states. Even as a pretty young child, I was acutely aware of torture and murder and massacre. And I was acutely aware that all of this was done with the explicit support and encouragement of the US.

I recall a grade six project for social studies. Pick a country, do up a little poster on it and present to the class. I chose Guatemala. I didn’t talk about the geography, the economic base, or even the cultural heritage. I wrote about the violence. I wrote about terror and armed resistance. I wrote about model villages in which North American charities did their work of feeding, “civilizing”, evangelizing in close cooperation with security forces, a central cultural piece of the counter-insurgency strategy. And I added pictures, lots of pictures. Pictures of bodies on fire. Pictures of mass graves. Pictures of faces tortured beyond recognition. At the time, it seemed exactly what was expected. Only in hindsight do I wonder what the hell those other kids must have thought.

This was, however, simply the world that I knew. I was immersed in the local Central American refugee community, my closest friends the kids of radical lawyers in exile, the scars of their struggle visible in every line on their faces. You didn’t represent workers in Guatemala in the 1980s. You didn’t take on the Coca Cola company.

Waves of people. It was like the underground railroad all over again, with families shuttled from home to home, snuck across borders, given sanctuary in churches. And it all seemed perfectly normal, And it was all part of a momentous struggle against one great beast – not capitalism, as I didn’t have that language yet. The United States – that brutal leviathan that hunted our friends.

Then in 1985 mom and dad announced a trip. With them, we four boys piled into a borrowed VW van and began a long drive south. Through Guatemala – there was no way to avoid that. Through Honduras. We would keep out of Salvador at any cost, that state less reluctant to kill subversive North Americans than the Guatemalan military was. Our destination? Something new and exciting, something of an alternative, something that signaled how close the victory was. Nicaragua.

Through the 1970s Nicaragua had been the worst of the worst. But in July, 1979, the dictator, Somoza, fled, and tanks rolled into the capital city, Managua, manned by women and men, farmers and workers, teens and pre-teens, even by kids like me. The soldiers of the Sandinista National Liberation Front entered victorious, and showed the world that resistance was definitely not futile.

We were headed for the revolution. We were headed for this beacon of all that was possible. We were headed for a tiny village of fishers who played host, too, to a community of Guatemalan exiles who were using this place as a base for various resistance work. Mom and dad had volunteered their own skills, so we drove into town and set up home in a house on the only hill, looking over the town and out to sea.

I went to school, as did my brothers. Mom and dad went to work with the exile community. We got our ration books to collect our weekly quota of rice and beans and milk. Us kids played translators to visiting delegations of Canadian labour activists. And this, for me, was heaven.

I was 12 and 13 years old during that time. I went to school with kids sixteen and seventeen who’d been living through years of civil war. I sang with them each morning the hymn of Sandinistas, about struggle against the Yankee enemy of humanity. I learned that Cuba sent nurses and doctors and eggs and meat to my community while the US sent guns and training personnel to the contras who attacked small villages across the country. I learned that alcohol was readily available, glass was not, and drank out of plastic bags tied tight so they could be carried in a pocket until it was time to nibble off a corner and squirt the clear silver rum into my mouth. I discovered the joys of leaping on a rickety truck and hopping off some towns down the road, and that the best place to sleep on the street was outside a militia office, cause they’d always have coffee and cigarettes in the morning. I learned that gringo supporters like us could always only be trusted so far, but that girls like boys from far-off places with different looks and different languages. And I watched my dad put on a gun.

Guns were everywhere. This was a country at war, and we knew it. As we traveled the country, the midnight bursts of gunfire would wake us up sharp and sudden. But San Juan was generally safe. Our kids left whole and alive, and came back in boxes and bags, but we didn’t have the war on our streets. What we did have was a shoreline, a port, and a fishing fleet that sustained its own people and many more in many towns. We had no active contra war in our community. No, here we waited for the big battle. Here we waited for the Marines.

Every night, groups of men and women sat on the beach, smoking, talking, singing, reading, cleaning their guns and watching for US boats on the horizon. Every few weeks it was dad’s turn, and he’d strap on his rifle and head out with the rest of them to do his shift. Every night I longed to go. Every night I was proud and excited. And every night, too, I was scared that this was the night it would all go down.

It never did, of course. There were days we could see the reconnaissance ships out there. There were days we were threatened, as the hotel being built to encourage tourism made for a good target. Once, in fact, a few shots were volleyed over the village into the hills behind. But only a moment, and it stopped. No shells fell on us.

We studied and played and drank and smoked. Mom and dad worked and documented and organized. And then, one day, we rolled out of that town in our van once again, to leave the revolution behind, to again make our way across the lands of state terror – under strict orders not to say a word and let our parents do all the talking at all times – and home to Vancouver.

The next several years we carried on as before, making space for fighters and teachers and families from the south who needed a safe place to land, raising money and raising awareness of the Central American resistance and the promise of Nicaragua. And then, of course, it all ended, War gets tiring. Eventually people trade hope for peace. Eventually people take the deal – we’ll drop the worst trappings of oligarchy, you drop the armed struggle; we’ll have elections, you’ll abandon this whole socialism idea. The Berlin Wall is down, those days are over. Let’s make a deal.

I’m sitting now on the train from Kingston to Toronto, my ten year old daughter sitting beside me playing chess on my palm pilot. This trip, there’s no border guards holding guns close and searching our bags. This trip, there’s no order that we can’t be trusted in Guatemala, and will need to accept a military escort to the exit border or turn around and go home. This trip, there’s no fear of speaking because our real work could be discovered at any moment. This trip, there’s no parades for dead kids.

This trip, though, I am just as scared and just as angry. In a few short hours, we’ll be heading for the airport, picking our way through US customs and security, watching our ID be scanned into the system once again, waiting for the pauses that always come, for that moment that they do in fact let me across the border. This trip, once again, I wait to feel sick. The border always provokes a physical reaction in me. I hate that country. It still feels like violence. It still feels like murder. It still feels like war. And look at me! I’m a mid-thirties white guy, well-educated, professional, money in his wallet and a child at his side. Borders are fucking easy on me. Cops don’t look twice. No fingers twitch at guns when I pass by. I’m the target market for “the police are your friends”.

But I’m feeling sickish already, simply knowing where I’m headed, simply knowing that soon I’ll be face to face with that beast again. It won’t recognize me as prey or competitor. It won’t bare its teeth or sharpen its claws at my coming. It will ignore me as a part of its natural landscape, as one of the ones living by its beneficent protection. But I know the secret here. I know what lurks behind that purr. I’ve seen those eyes before. And a huge part of me still hates.

Read Full Post »

Meg is working on a book project – taking bits and pieces of writing out of a specific political history of hers and trying to piece them together into a single narratve. It’s a pretty incredible and pretty important story, and she’s my girl, so I am excited about this myself. And I find it’s got me thinking about my own writing, too.

I wrote my first “book” when I was about six. I was a dinosaur freak, so I’d go through all my dozens of dino books, paraphrase bits and pieces and make books of my own. Well, I’m sure I just plagiarized, but there being no existing copies of those I doubt anyone’s gonnna be able to prove it.  But I did alot of this, simply because it was important to me to make my own book about the thing I loved. I wanted to see my own print. I wanted to see my name on the cardboard cover. I wanted to say, “this is mine”.

As I got older I wrote less, until around 13 years old. We’d moved to Nicaragua, just a few years after the Revolution and mid-civil war. I spent my time there drinking white rum out of plastic bags because glass was a treasure, hopping buses from town to town and sleeping outside militia offices cause that was always a safe place and I’d often get invited in for breakfast. I watched my dad and all the men of the town go off with their guns to do their own militia duty, smoking, reading, talking, watching for American boats on the horizon. I stood in line for our weekly rations and waited at the bakery for fresh bread each day and marvelled at the stacks and stacks of eggs that magically appeared one day, a gift from the Cuban Revolution. I went to school and learned my Spanish and watched kids go to war and kids come home in bags and caskets.

But I didn’t write. Til I got back to Vancouver.

I came back from Nicaragua to start high school, and immediately went into crisis. What the hell was I supposed to do in school? How was I supposed to play sports, study for exams, and all that kind of shit? I couldn’t handle being back home. I hated this country. I hated the people. I just wanted to be back in that fishing village. Letters came in, more deaths as the war progressed, and the suicide of the gentlest man I have ever met in my life, an American living in Nicaragua and destroyed by the fact that he was an American and always would be. I drank alot. And I wrote.

Poetry started for me at this time in my life, initially just images, feelings that I needed to capture somehow. It was pretty depressing stuff, alot of blood and death and rage and loneliness. But it was all I had. And it made me feel like I had something that was mine, something worth living for, something I wanted to share.

I carried a notebook everywhere, and I do to this day.

And I started reading poetry. Robert Frost was a favourite at that time, moving later to e.e. cummings, Yeats, Shelley and Coleridge and the Romantics, and – the grand-daddy of them all – William Blake. I read poetry all the time, any little chapbook I could pick up, and I wrote and I wrote, finally ending up at UVic for Creative Writing after highschool.

Long-winded history, I know, especially considering that nothing really came of this. I focused instead on activism and politics, history and social sciences. But writing never left me, and that notebook in the pocket still gets pulled out regularly to document whatever’s in my head at the time.

And I still feel like a writer. When finishing the Ph.D., I was constantly fighting some members of my committee on style – the need for citations, the need for more linear narrative, clear and logical argument without the detours into autobiography, profanity is not acceptable in an academic dissertation, and what the hell are you thinking writing in rhyme?

I stuck to my guns on all fronts. I won over a couple of committee members. And finally, when I wrote up my “methods” chapter, which was essentially a few pages on how and why I write, my supervisor commented, “Now I get it. You’re not a sociologist, are you? You’re a writer.” Yeah. And all was well, and the dissertation went forward, and whatever concerns folks might have about my lack of properly-academic approach, everyone consistently appreciated it as a good read – something that doesn’t come in academic work very often.

Since then, I’ve kept up a bit of writing. A few articles – academic, but stream-of-consciousness, too, as all my writing is. Some more poetry, which I haven’t done for years and is giving me a good deal of pleasure. Some new projects, on unionization of wrestlers, unions as bosses. And blogging – here, over on Viaduct, and in a new, silly little fictional blog I’m just starting to play with.

Writing matters. And having someone – anyone – reading it matters, too. That’s one of the main things I’m noticing from this process – that I want to write more when I know that somebody out there might take a look. It doesn’t matter what I write. It doesn’t matter how I write. But it matters that it is writing to be read.

That’s what’s exciting, too, about Meg’s book project. It’s the process of writing, it’s the getting a story told, and it’s the knowing that someone somewhere might one day pick up your words and take them in. That publication piece, it does matter. It moves the process from one of therapy to communication. And it boosts the self, taking the writer from a place of trepidation at the possible reaction to a place of accomplishment and pride.

So I’m feeling inspired at the moment, inspired by Meg and the possibility she has opened up just by taking that step to find a few readers and get some encouragement. Might be time to dust off some of my own half-finished projects, too. Cause I’ve gotten excited again about writing. And that’s getting me excited, too, about writing to be read.

 

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »