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and Storytellers, too

I nearly forgot — how could I?  The weekend between the first hospital stay and the biopsy hospital stay,  my storytelling friends gathered to tell the 1001 Arabian Nights stories.  Every year we gather to tell a different epic. It’s so fun– everyone takes a different story or two, analyzes, interprets and learns it, and over the weekend we weave to each others’ parts. I hoped to tell this year, but decided not to because I had so much work to do, more teaching than ever before all at once. Turns out, that was a good idea on account of the seizure and the tumour and all, anyway.

The storytellers, I hooked up with them in the early 2000s, and they taught me that “you can’t know someone’s story and not love them”. That phrase has brought a light to many a tangled, gloomy, fractious relationship. Don’t have to like them, but you can love them.

So, Kira and Patricia read my blog, and they told a few of the other tellers at the epic. They circulated a card, and bought a beautiful bouquet, with a wee cabbage in it, some red berries, purple lilies, some kind of fine fern–beautiful. And a card with everyone’s signature, and words of encouragement. Tell stories, keep the histories alive, remember, imagine —

Philomena gave them to me, and we had a good visit the Friday before i went into the hospital. They have all added to the magic all around me. where would we be without stories?

If the tumour doesn’t go away, i’m going to turn it into a vault for super powers. I’ll start with cribbage and go from there.

November 30–I got my head staples out today. My doctor gave them to me, i think i’ll make a little art collage that will incorporate them. Some people might find that repulsive. but there’s no blood or hair on them, I think. So unless you knew they were keeping my head together, you wouldn’t know. My friend came with me, and rolled her eyes when my doctor and I talked about what kind of workouts I could do. “Kettle bell swings?” I said, “with light ones?”

“What’s that?” she asked, and my doctor told her it was exercise equipment. My friend rolled her eyes. She said something amusing then, but I can’t remember what it was — when you read this and remember, will you let me know?

I told my doctor that this tumour was giving me lots of material for stand up. As we left, she said, “Don’t be a stranger” and then muttered, “No stranger than usual, anyway. Hey! maybe there’s a future for me in stand up”.

Yesterday, I picked up about 50 pounds of frozen meals that some of my students prepared for me. They spent a day cooking, and my friend Trish picked it up and gave it to me. You’re all invited over for dinner! make it fast, because i’ve moved back into my house now, and i’m kind of like a geological event… Mind you, I’m determined to take better care of myself and let myself live in a home that can be a place of hospitality.

but still, better to not wait too long to come over.

first appointment with the cancer agency this afternoon, I’ll let you know how it goes.

 


 

An eloquent area, pt. 2: Keep an open mind!

Hello, Beautiful People,

well. I’m out of the hospital now. I have a little white gauze patch on my head, perched near the back, slightly to the left covering some staples–it looks like a wee, rakish yarmulke. My head doesn’t ache as much or often anymore, and it doesn’t feel so much like I have a spike in my head. When i cough, it still feels like my head is cracking open a bit, but not as much as yesterday. Or even as much as this morning.

Last week, on Wednesday, one of the men in my morning class gave me a card when he walked in. I started to cry, and thought, “oh no, here we go…” I didn’t think I would get a word out all day for sobbing. but I did. I thanked him and turned away, took a few deep breaths and turned again. Another man came to school wearing a little red bow tie on his t-shirt. ” That’s cute, Mike, did you dress up in honour of the occasion?” I asked him. he said, “Kind of”. He’s one of the quiet ones, sits at a table in the back, watches everything. “nice” I said.

Then I noticed that everyone was wearing bow ties, in all colours. Mike offered me one, and i pinned it on my shirt. I don’t remember now, but I think I wept openly then, how could one not? He made one for everyone in the class. all different colours. I started our class the way i usually do, with a moment of breath. I think we all needed it a bit more that day than usual. I said I was very moved. I cried a little, and said I would just keep talking through my tears and eventually I would even out. I did. We went through a powerpoint presentation that a friend had presented to my Monday evening class a few weeks before. She works in the day, so couldn’t do it for my daytime classes. we had a really interesting discussion about First Nations Learning Principles, and the contradictions and parallels they noticed in their practicum placements over the last two weeks. At the end of class, we kind of lingered because we didn’t want to go, but eventually we had to because another class was coming in to the room. some students came with gifts and cards, many lined up to hug me, “you got this” and “thank you” they said, and I said to them, “thank you. thank you. thank you.” I have never felt so grateful, I think, or so proud, or so frightened but brave all at the same time.

When I went to another building to teach my afternoon class, they all had Mike’s bow ties on too! It looked like the whole building was awash with colourful bow ties. I couldn’t stop smiling, and I couldn’t stop crying. Again, the end of class came and the next class came in–many of my morning students were in Christine’s afternoon class, and again, they lined up to hug me and give me cards and gifts and cry and thank me, and some looked so stricken. I hugged them tight, and said to them, too, “thank you. thank you. thank you.” and “i’m going to be just fine. I’m going to be okay”.

My friend Nora came to get me. I’m not allowed to drive for a while. Cause of the seizure. three other faculty members are taking my classes. I know they won’t love them as much as I do — they’ll only have them for four weeks, that’s barely enough time to learn anyone’s names! I sent all of my colleagues the letters that I sent to my classes, their stories woven together. I might get in some trouble, I’m obviously critical of the trans trend — exactly opposite of the direction my department is taking. But there ya go. It’s going to come sooner or later. And I don’t require my students to agree with me (though I hope they will, I know it’s a very big departure from the current propaganda). I want them to hear and consider a feminist view — enough have told me they don’t hear this from any of their other instructors, and they find my views interesting/relieving/sensible — that it gives me courage.

November 27th, 2016– the last week has been a total blur. It feels like things have settled to a steady pace, I’ve decided the thing in my brain isn’t a hitchhiker after all, who would stop to pick up a glowering, short-armed creature by the side of the road? No, it’s a stowaway. I haven’t named it, and I won’t fight it, I don’t want to get intimate with it and I don’t want to give it any more energy than I have to. But I’ll take it as far as it’s going, and drop it off at its destination when it’s time. I’ll tell you what i remember about the surgery and the hospital stay, and give details about the biopsy results–not necessarily in that order.

First, the biopsy results: It’s a Grade 2 Oligodendroglioma. My friend Stephanie said, “Trust you to have a thing that’s seventeen letters long!” Apparently this kinda thing is pretty rare, and mainly alights somewhere in the frontal lobes. Where the language and memory and personality machinery grinds and clanks away. Mine’s in the left parietal lobe. That’s where the right side of my body is run from — the motor skills–walking, lifting, dancing. But that won’t stop me from blaming any of my inappropriate behaviour, lapses in judgement or gaps in memory on my brain tumour. I’m gonna get as much mileage out of this as I can. “Oligo” means short, or small, “dendro” means tree, or branches, and “glioma” is brain. And according to Dr. Google (I saved you the trouble), only 4% of all primary brain tumours are these little critters. Usually in the frontal lobe, and most of them stow away in men’s brains. Maybe I do have a male brain in a female body! Anyway, it’s not cancerous, though it’s a grade two, which means very slow growing, and could become cancerous. So I’ll get a referral to a neuro-oncologist, who will figure out what kind of chemo to use to shrink it. I’ll have to ask him if he thinks he can make it get outta there.

Trish came with me to the pre-op preparation. I wasn’t allowed to eat or drink anything after midnight the night before, except 8 oz. of clear juice an hour before check in time. my surgery was scheduled for noon and was expected to take 2 hours. then a couple of hours in recovery, then up to the neuro icu ward. I had to shower on Sunday night with this bleach-ish stuff, then in the morning again, and when i got to the pre-op room, wipe down with warm, thick baby-wipes.  I met a whole bunch of nurses, two anesthesiologists, a man with a Scottish accent and an Irish name, and a woman who looked like she might be a lesbian. Mind you, everyone could look like a lesbian in those blue smocks and poofy paper hats. Dr Zwimfer came, and so did another neurosurgeon named Dr. Ajmal Zemmar. I got “The Z team”. I asked Dr. Zwimfer if he played squash. He laughed a bit and said “25 years ago, but not for a long time” — “good enough” I said. Then I got an iv, and finally they came to take me. Su came from work, and both she and Trish were there when the porters and nurses came to take me away. They gave me blankets “it’s cold in the OR” they told me.

“Am I supposed to be dizzy?” I asked. someone answered yes, that’s exactly what’s supposed to happen. in the OR, which was very very bright and very very cold, they helped me slide on to a warmed pad of gel (which felt a lot less disgusting than you would expect). I was crying, and they kept saying, “You’re in good hands”. I replied, I know, yes, I know…and then someone put a mask over my face and I said, “thank you”. that’s the last I remember.

I had  very vivid dreams that I can’t for the life of me recall — only that i was in a broad plain that was as bright as the OR and there were pockets of people around. I don’t remember what, or if, I talked to them or interacted. Ajay’s face was the first person’s I saw as I woke. I cried as I woke up, he said, “you’re waking up, it’s okay to be emotional, that’s normal”. Again I said thank you. I had a short seizure as I woke up, it felt like the first one, but it  wasn’t nearly as long, or as horrifying. I didn’t lose consciousness, or bite my tongue. That was good. No one around seemed as concerned about it as I was. I couldn’t reach the call bell, or say “help”, all I could do was say, “ahhhhhh”, like the first time. But then it was over.

I asked them to call Trish to give her a message. I think the nurse’s name was Robyn. or maybe Rachael. she called Trish and gave the phone to me. She was happy to hear me and I asked her to call my ex-lover* and Rape Relief to give a message that I was okay.

The lowest paid workers in the hospital can hold up every part of treatment. when my room was ready, I still couldn’t go because there weren’t enough porters. I told them that I have a friend who was a porter there, I’m sure she’d come out of retirement for me–they didn’t think that was very funny. I finally got up to the room, and Trish was parking her car again, Su was waiting for me, her daughter came in and so did my friend Kim. Su kept staring into my eyes and saying, “look at that! she’s not even pinned!” meaning my pupils were regular size not shrinking into disappearance because of the opiates. They all talked about me in the third person a little bit. “she’s so alert and perky” and then, “you’re so alert and perky!”

I was STARVING — well, clearly not, but i’d been 20 hours with no food, 30 or so hours with no coffee (too late for that at 8 pm). I was some grumpy, I tell you. And Trish had taken my phone, too. I’d given it to her, I was shocked by how hamstrung i felt. Never mind that i was tied to an IV running antibiotics and painkiller into me, and these weird compression sleeves on my legs. kinda like a massage actually, and felt nice, but it was a long time until I could move with any confidence. Well, “long time” is relative. Also, it felt like there was an iron spike in my head, and every time I coughed, I could feel my head coming apart. I got Dilaudid the first day, which was quite pleasant, and that interfered with the pain very effectively.

Tuesday was my birthday. All day long, I got as much mileage as I could out of that. Everyone who came to see me, the doctors, the physiotherapists, the nurses, had to run through a neurological exam with me, “hold your hands out, palms up, close your eyes, push my hand, do you know where you are? what’s your birthdate?”

“Today!” I would gleefully holler.

“oh!” they would be surprised, having not put together the date on my chart with the date on the calendar. “Too bad you have to spend it in the hospital”, they would say.

“I like hospitals” I answered. Every time. Then they would wonder if the seizure or the tumour had dislodged something they’d missed before. “I know people think that’s weird”, I said once, to the CT Scan guy.

“It IS weird” he said.

In the morning, my nurse, Rita, and another nurse (Pam? Maybe it was Pam) sang “Happy Birthday” to me. Every meal came with the list of what was under the lid, and at the bottom, Happy Birthday!! with a little high-lighter happy face.  Su came with a beautiful cheese cake and a birthday gift from her (adult) son, Will. A Russian powerlifting device meant to develop grip strength. Her daughter, Iris, gave me a book of Sudoku puzzles. so I spent the day improving my finger and jaw strength (the Sudoku made me grind my teeth).  Shauna, who has guided me in one way or another from applying for grad school to finishing my PhD and beyond, and is taking over my Monday evening class — came to visit with a package of cards from everyone in that class. They were beautiful! they’d spent some time the evening before making these cards. I waited until she was gone to look at them and laughed and cried and showed Rita and anyone else who happened into my room.

oh yea, the ct scan. So, every day there’s quiet time between 6 and 8 am, and between 6 and 8 pm. No visitors. But then from 8-10, people can come visit. So on Tuesday, my birthday (did I mention that?), I had some visitors during the day, and was looking very forward to evening, when my friends who worked during the day might come. I had some cheesecake leftover from the morning. I swiped some of those babywipes under my arms so i’d at least smell fresh, and tried to tamp down my hair a bit. I wasn’t allowed to shower or shampoo yet. Didn’t want the staples to rust.

Right at 8 on the dot, porters came to take me for a CT scan. Dammit! They told me it would only take about twenty minutes. The doctor, earlier, had said I’d go for a CT scan sometime in the afternoon, then I’d be moved to a regular ward. But when I’d not heard anything, I figured all that had been moved to the next day. when we got to the ct and radiology place, there was a log jam of beds and gurneys, and I was at the end of the line. The porters expressed surprise. “Wow, it was so quiet in here just a minute ago!”

Tick tick tick. Everyone else was whisked in, out, then away. In, out, away. In, out, away… Finally it was my turn. In, neuro exam, “spell your name”–E-R-I-N– “What’s your birthdate” — Today!– “oh, that’s a drag. to be in hospital on our birthday” — It’s okay, I like hospitals — “that’s weird”. CT scan, out.

then wait.

and wait.

“hello, can I go now? I could walk…”

I was getting a bit pissy. I’d been gone an hour already–more than an hour. My visitors would be gone. dammit.

“We’re trying to find someone to take you”

“I have a friend who was a porter here,” I tried that one again, not expecting they’d go for it this time, either, “i’m sure she’d come out of retirement for me”. She would, too. But the work messed up her back, so it wouldn’t be good for her. Never mind, I would be happy to trade pyjamas with her, and push her up to the ward. The people around didn’t take too well to that suggestion, they talked about insurance and liability. “I was kind of joking”, I said. I was getting a bit cranky and irascible. I reminded myself, this is Canada, I would have to sell my home to pay for this if I lived in the US, they’re doing the best they can, it’s not their fault, it’s the fucking government spending taxes to suck up to big business and pipelines and privatizing education and whatever else.  I am grateful, I am grateful, I am grateful…

But it’s my birthday and i’m all alone on this hospital bed and I feel fine, fer cryin’ out loud, except for a little headache, and I haven’t worked out for four days and I’m a bit squishy now, and my people are upstairs, maybe they’ve gone home already…breathe, Erin, breathe. No need to get all self-pitying and whiny. You’re in Canada, what would this kind of health care cost if you were in the US? A fortune, that’s what. those few cells they drilled into your head to get would cost more than a small painting by some famous guy. Not as much, maybe as a small painting by a woman, but still. I’d rather have the art on my wall than a little glowering stowaway in my brain…but I wouldn’t sell my house for it. and I don’t have to sell my house for this, either.

I roamed around like this in my head for a bit, interrupting my own musings every few minutes to ask someone else who passed by if they could get me up to my room. Everyone was sympathetic. It was 9:30 before i got back. the porter who took me was a lovely woman named Alison, or maybe Allison. Or Alyson. Anyway, she was short, Black, and really nice. “How ya doin?” she asked. “I’m fine,” I said, “But a bit grumpy”. She warned me every time there was a bump. I would’ve liked to take them at some speed, maybe catch some air — but then again, my head was still a bit achey, still felt like it was coming apart at the seams when I coughed or laughed too hard. She told me I wasn’t nearly as grumpy as some people. Some people (mostly men-people, by her stories) would swear at her, at the porters, and insult them, and tell them they were worthless. She said she didn’t ever warn those guys about bumps. That kind of treatment can sure wear you down. Still, she was so cheerful with me, and kind. She called me “hon”and positioned my bed just so when we arrived at my room.

Bronwyn had been, but couldn’t wait for the hour and a half I was gone. She brought a card and a 2017 Canadian Farmer’s Almanac. I haven’t read one of those for AGES. I forgot how fun they are. Su and Will had waited for me that whole time.  I have so many gifts, I tell you. Su brought daffodil bulbs and we’ll plant them on my balcony. All day long, I got nothing but goodness from everyone around me.

I told everyone to “keep an open mind, but have a good fastener available or stuff will fall out”. Yesterday I looked at my staples. Louise was visiting, and we took pictures. the incision is pretty long, and very nicely aligned, at that. That’s good to not have a crooked skull. That would be weird. They didn’t shave any hair either.

Okay, lookit, I could say more, tell more little stories about my generous friends — OH! one more — the day of my biopsy, Stephanie, Erika and Joey made a go at my apartment. I think i’ve said on this blog before that I got my dad’s housekeeping gene. which is to say, it’s recessive at best. Holy untidy, Batman! I sweartogod sometimes, if I could, I’d evict me. sigh…

Anyway, I don’t know where they put everything, but they tidied and cleaned and put away and tossed stuff that was stale-dated and cleaned my refrigerator and I think they even cleaned my windows! it looks amazing in here. I have such good friends.

I’ll just end with this–you know, for a long time, even since i stopped drinking, I would say, “I squandered my potential”. Even though I would say to other people, “your contribution matters, you are essential”, and kind of believed it of myself, but not quite. but then, when my little stowaway kicked me in the head, I tell you what, people have risen up and stood beside me so close, there is no way I will fall. My beautiful brother, my family in Saskatchewan, Alberta, Ontario, Cornwall and Wales, are calling and offering and weaving the love together with my family here in Vancouver. My students told me I am inspiring, that they haven’t ever had a prof like me — and they told me what i’ve done that sparked them up, too, so I know what to keep doing. My feminist comrades gathered round and sent flowers and called. I know their love for and expectations of me remain great. The fellowship, my sober comrades, too — “you can fake caring, but you can’t fake showing up” said one of my friends–and there’s been no fakery from any quarter.

I know that all of this is exactly because I am reaching my potential. I have responsibilities, and I know i’m meeting them because my fellow travellers, my family, my colleagues are showing up for me, now. I decided at the beginning of this term that I would be up front about my feminism, my lesbianism, the harms of the trans trend here, the comfort and relative ease of sobriety–without preaching to or insulting others–and it seems i’ve found, or am finding — a way to do that. I am taking myself more seriously since the summer, and now this new adventure has shown me grace and gratitude. And you have too.

I can’t tell you how, well, awed I am. You already know how odd I am.

Keep the faith and feel the love, Beautiful People.

*There is nothing like a potentially life-threatening condition to melt resentment away. I am very grateful for that, too.

An eloquent area. pt. 1

Hello, Beautiful People

The neurosurgeon said last week that my tumour is in “an eloquent area” of my brain. I like the sound of that. It means that there’s lots of stuff going on there. Here’s what the November 7 MRI said:

There is a focal cortical expansion and high FLAIR signal involving the left parietal lobe extending through the pre and post central gyrus. This extends over an area measuring approximately 3.5x 3.0 cm. There is minimal faint intrinsic T1 signal distributed throughout this area without associated enhancement. this extends along the posterior aspect […]

dammit. I started this six days ago. Now it’s November 20, the eve of my biopsy, and i can’t find the mri results. Not that i know what they mean exactly, but the neurosurgeon, Dr. Zwimpfer, (which is kind of a badass name and fills me with confidence) said that it is in an area responsible for motor and sensory function. Not in the sense of humour part, or the memory part, or the accordion-playing part. Though accordion also involve motor and sensory, but never mind.

Anyway, I went to the appointment with Trish, Kim and Susan. They have been right beside me. So have many many other people.  Since i wrote that first post about the thing in my head, I tell you what, I have been overwhelmed by the love. I can’t tell you. Louise was here to visit her brother and nieces and their families, and she stayed over an extra night. Shawn, my brother, said he and Wendy would come if I wanted them, my friend Glynnis in Alberta, she said she’d come too – I’m a little embarrassed, really. All this attention, and I feel fine. Really.

My students were on their two-week practicum when this all happened, so Monday the 14th was our first day back together. They were all excited about their practicum experiences, and I really wanted to hear about them, too, but it was also the last week we would be together. I had all three classes on Monday. Two of them meet twice a week for an hour and a half, and one meets once a week for three hours. Monday I wore my new Utilikilt (I bought it when I returned from the Ancestral Homeland – all inspired by Edinburgh. Way too expensive, but it has pockets!) and ironed my shirt and wore a bow tie and a wool suit jacket. I brought Ruby, my accordion. I told each class, after we did a few minutes of breathing together (I do that before every class, a few minutes of attending to our breath, settling in with the space and each other). I said, “I don’t know how to say this gently, really, I have a brain tumour”. Sometimes some of us started crying right away, sometimes a little further in to the explanation. I usually started crying when I got to the part about, “I’m not going to be able to finish the term with you”.

I referred to it as “a wee hitchhiker”, and I said it was almost friendly as brain tumours go, not to worry. And I said the neurosurgeon has a great name and looks like a squash player, so probably has good hand-eye coordination. That’s good in a neurosurgeon. I told each class that I love them, and I thanked them for their generosity and curiosity. In the morning class, a woman told me that she admired my teaching and my passion. A man told me that he found this class was a safe space to feel uncomfortable, and to talk about things fully, to hear different ways to thing about things. I said, “I didn’t tell you so you could say all this nice stuff about me, but, you know…you don’t have to stop either”.

Usually I write objectives for the class on the whiteboard. “by the end of this class, you will be able to…” but Wednesday I didn’t. I told my Wednesday classes, “my only objective is to get through the class with minimal snot on my shirt”.

I have to go now, Trish is coming to get me. but I will tell you later about Mike’s bow ties on Wednesday, and about sitting in a circle after class on Monday, and the emails and cards and shared tears and gifts – and my cousin Bev calling from Saskatchewan, “We can feel the love for you out here!” she said. It’s gonna be okay.

 

I have a thing in my head

Hello, Beautiful People.

Erin here. I have some news. It’s not good news, but it could be worse news. Like, it could be the news that Donald Trump was elected president of the united states of America. That is really really bad news, so it makes my news kind of even happy in comparison. My news is that I have a brain tumor.

A fucking brain tumor! Holy crap. How does one even begin to think about something like that?

Here’s the story: Last week, Thursday November 3rd, I had a seizure. I was just lying around home, feeling a bit sorry for myself because I had a cold, and then one of my legs started moving. I kind of thought that maybe I was going to have a cramp, because I get cramps sometimes. But then the other leg started moving, and then I tried to reach down to stop them, and I couldn’t control my arms and hands either, and then my whole body was going all spastic – it was very weird and frightening. I shouted a couple of times, really loud, “AAAAAAHHH!” but it was the middle of the day and none of my neighbours heard me, and then it felt like there was a disk over top of my windpipe, and I couldn’t inhale or exhale. Then I passed out.

When I woke up, I thought it was a dream at first. I felt something on my tongue, like a pebble almost. But I couldn’t get it out of my mouth, so I looked at my tongue in the mirror, and it was deeply cut and very bruised on the right side. The pebbly bit was the beginning of a kind of scab. I realized then that what I remembered as a dream had really happened.

I called my friend Francesca. We had talked about getting together for coffee that morning because she was in town for a few days, from some far-off island where she lives now. But she got too busy, and I had a seizure…anyway, she said she thought I should go into emergency. So I did. I drove to the nearest hospital, a little Catholic hospital in a residential neighbourhood.

I didn’t know what to think. The doctor who saw me wore a checked short-sleeve shirt, with a stethoscope round his neck, tucked into one of the front pockets, and he looked like a doctor from a Norman Rockwell painting. He was kind and measured. He got me in to a CT scan. Twice. Once with dye, once without. He looked at my brain, and my torso as well.

“There’s a swelling on the left side of your brain” he said, “It might be an infection, a stroke, or a tumor”. He thought it might be a tumor. He said he would get me set up with an MRI. A CT scan is a computerized tomography. It’s a bunch of x-rays all taken together to make a kind of 3-D picture. A Magnetic Resonance Image is that – magnets and noise acting together to make a more detailed 3-D picture. The MRI was Monday the 7th.

I was in the hospital, still, because that would expedite the process to get me the MRI. You know what, I barely had a moment alone. At the end of August, I started seeing a new woman. We met earlier this year through a mutual friend, and shared a bit of spark right away. She’d already read my dissertation, before we met. Part of it anyway. So that made her pretty interesting to me. I’m a bit self-involved that way. When I got back from my epic trip to the Ancestral Homeland, I invited her to dinner. My travels, and the women I’d met along the way, the adventures I had all served to nudge me out of my grief and sorrow. I gained some confidence again, had a sparky connection with UK feminists who inspired me and woke me up. Old Erin returned to Vancouver. But even better than I was before.

Anyway, I invited her to dinner, we learned a bit more about each other. So far, we find each other interesting, smart, politically astute, engaging, kinda sexy too (but I’m not gonna talk about that stuff, no way!), and really funny. We spend most of our time together laughing.

Before I left for the hospital, I sent her a message to please call me when she got home from work. But I got impatient and decided to call her before she called me. Or text, I don’t remember if I texted or called. Anyway, she came whistling over to the hospital from where she was. She was with me when the doctor said, “it looks like a tumor, but it might be something else”. He told it to me straight. He said he didn’t know any more than that, but they would keep me until they could give me a few more answers. I started to cry, I couldn’t not. But not great snotty wracking sobs, just quiet frightened tears creeping down my cheeks.

I don’t remember now who came that first night. Susan’s daughter Iris came one day, she brought a whole bunch of treats. She’s been off sugar for some months, so is living vicariously through other’s consumption – gummy bear things, fancy beautiful chocolates, energy bars, san Pellegrino sparkling flavoured water, some other fun things to eat. My friend Kim came nearly every day, and my women’s step group came, too, once a few came and we had a meeting in a room on my ward. We talked about living sober, and being grateful and holding each other up.

When the nurse came to make sure my IV stent was in okay so they could put dye into my veins for the MRI, she looked at my arm and said, “It looks swollen, is it painful?” and we by and by figured out she was talking about my very impressive bicep. I laughed and flexed the other arm, “Which way to the gun show? That way!” We all laughed at that…

I haven’t been alone for hardly a minute since I got myself to the hospital last week. I know there are people I haven’t told. My radical feminist friends and allies met on Tuesday, I went too, because I wanted to be with them. Including my ex-lover, who’s mad at me – hell we’ve all been mad at each other for a good part of the last few months – but we always know we need each other, and we are essential to each other’s lives. She said to me, “I love you so much, Erin, you know that, right” it wasn’t a question. I do know that. And she knows I love her, too, no matter what, and forever.

One of the women I admire most, and who I know I’ve disappointed – but for whom I would do nearly anything (she knows that too), said at that meeting, she said, “you have a reputation for kindness, you show up for people. Now we can show up for you. We have a history, you’re one of us.”

My first lover, from the mid 1980s, when we were young and new and full of possibility – she lives here now, and she has brain cancer too – but worse than mine. She knows more than anyone else what this is like. She called me and said “I love you very much, Erin”. I told her we’re in a special club – I think only really really smart people get a brain tumor. She’s really smart, and she was instrumental in both my coming out as a lesbian and my embrace of feminism.

Everyone has showed up for me. It’s humbling and inspiring. My new lover came right from work the minute I sent word I was in the hospital. My oldest friends, my sober friends, my work mates, my feminist friends, everyone has stepped up. My doctor came, too – and she gave me a hug. Our first hug in the 26 years she’s been my doctor…The guys at the gym, my Terminal City Barbell Club – I went over for a workout yesterday, first day out of the hospital, and two out of the three of these guys, hands full of chalk and calluses, hugged me full and hard. The other one, a young man, said, “Erin, I don’t know what to say to someone who has something like what you have, …”

“Me neither, KC, I get it”

“…but I hope it’ll work out okay, and we’re beside you”.

I know.

My brother cried on the phone with me, “I love you so much, sis” and I could see him standing in his kitchen, holding the phone and wiping his tears. “Do you want me to come?”

Oh yes, I do. But I don’t need him here, and he would just be lost and neither of us would know what to do. There isn’t anything to do, really, just wait. Maybe do a little research about neuro-plasticity – how we could maybe re-shape the tumor into something useful, brain cells that I can use to climb walls and race trains – I told him not to worry. I’ll let him know what to do, as I know more. I told him I love him too. He is a lovely, lovely man. I’d think that even if he weren’t my brother.

The tumor is cancerous, looks like, but it might be the kind that just sits there, glowering, but doesn’t move or grow at all. They’ll find out more when they do the biopsy, November 21st. If it’s terminal, I can think of a few magnificent incendiary actions I could take that will help all of us in the wake of that nightmarish election to the south. But I don’t think I’m going to die any time sooner than the usual four-score-and-ten.

I asked the neurosurgeon if it was caused by accordion-playing. He didn’t think so, but no one can be sure. it’s not from cell phone use either, and there’s no indication it could be MS or a stroke or infection. Nope. It’s a wee tumor, that’s all. I can get away with all manner of bad behaviour now! Naked accordion playing, swearing in church, whatever I want. I would’ve thought i’d want to drink good whisky and smoke smooth cigars. But I don’t. Not even a little bit. I AM drinking coffee late into the afternoon though. Rebel me.

I’m gonna wrap up now, I’ll keep you posted. As cancers go, this is pretty good, really. It’s kind of romantic and exotic, for one thing – not icky like colon cancer – and brain tumors don’t hurt. That’s a relief. I am grateful, more than anything, even more than afraid, I am grateful.

Pants

I think men’s pants have more “ball room” than they used to. Am i just oversensitive? I prefer men’s jeans because they’re sturdier and have capacious pockets, but the little poochy-outey fly looks ridiculous. It’s harder to find pants that don’t have room for a cod piece tucked inside. sigh….

Love Letter with Warning Label

I’m teaching this semester.  three 3-credit courses, each with between 29 and 35 students or so. It’s the same course, so that’s a blessing. And I’ve taught it several times before. It’s called Educational Studies 401: Education, Schools and Social Institutions, and it’s one of many required courses for pre-service teacher candidates here at my university. I LOVE it. Well, the students, I love them. And mostly I like what we get to teach. A bit of theory, a bit of policy criticism, a bit of history, some sociology, a heap o’ feminism (in my case), and — increasingly — gender-critical feminist pedagogy. I don’t know if that’s really a thing, “gender-critical feminist pedagogy”, but it should be. Every damn year there has been more and more promotion of ‘trans-inclusion’, ‘support for trans and gender-variant kids’, ‘celebrating diversity’ and ‘queering the curriculum/language/inquiry/etc’.

One of the assignments for this course is a teacher biography. I could have decided to make quizzes or ask for one or two page reflections about something, or something that would be a bit more manageable to mark than 100 4-6 page papers. But I do so love to read their stories. And when they tell me what they  know about where their people are from, and what events shaped them, who influenced them, and what they’re learning about where they live in the political social  categories of class/race/sex–it is so profoundly moving and inspiring. I don’t always like everyone in my classes, but I can’t not love them.

A couple of years ago — three, I think, i compiled all their stories and wrote them a letter, which I read to them the day before they went off on their short practicum. I’ve only ever had one class before, so I could keep up better, and remember who was who faster. And putting their stories together helped me to know them better in class, too. Anyway, I think it helped to glue them together a bit. So I did that again last year. The year before that, 2014, I didn’t get it together to do that. I don’t know why, but anyway, that was the year my mom died, and i kinda lost the plot in the second half of the semester.

this year, I did it again. But I decided to write it the way I asked them to write their biographies, with references to the readings we’d done, and tying in the theory with what they told me about their experiences. For the first time, I added a couple of paragraphs about the danger to school children, and to females generally of the increasing and relentless promotion of transgenderism. Already, some of my students have told me, “no one is saying what you are saying about this, what if we think it’s good, will you fail us?” I won’t, but I urge them to come up with a compelling argument if they think it’s such a good idea, tell me why. But be sure to also discuss how this policy reproduces inequality and reinforces oppression. Because policy (written and unwritten)  is meant to protect the interests of the powerful. I would like to be wrong about this, but I don’t think I am.

I read it to them. For each class, I made reference to some of their specific stories, but also said about the same thing in each of the letters about policy, education, reproduction of structures of domination. Every time, I cried a little bit in one or two spots. I am always moved by how much some of my students tell me, by their eloquence and intelligence.  So I want them to know who each other is, somehow, who they are with in the room, and who’s going to be with them (metaphorically, anyway) in the institution of education.

This year, I’m way more “out” than I have been previously. I mean, I’m more open about my lesbianism, and about being gender-critical. I added that to the letters, as you can see below. After I read it the first time, to my evening class, some of them wrote me after to thank me–a few said they were grateful I’d opened a space to critique the trans stuff, because they’re of a similar mind set as I am, but there’s  been nowhere for them to explore their dissenting opinions. A number of them were moved by the stories, too, and appreciated that I took the time to tell me about their classmates. They really are lovely. I’m honoured to be with them for part of their journey.

It was all a reminder of how important it is to get to know each other’s stories, and to say the things out loud that make your voice shake and your palms sweat. I know most people don’t agree with me, but that’s okay. The important thing is to have the conversation, because then we can find some way forward, out of this dystopia.

Anyway, I want to introduce you to some of the people who will be teaching in the next couple of years– so here’s some part of our stories woven together:

I want to tell you your story, who you all are in the world, and maybe a bit of how you fit together. Look around you, really see each other, because you are really beautiful to behold. You are from everywhere – from Tswaassen, Regina, Toronto and Victoria, and cities and villages in Texas and New England, Korea, England, Guatemala, Peru, Mexico, and China. Your family emigrated from the former Yugoslavia—Serbia, Croatia, or from Italy or Lebanon. Your people are from the Plains Cree, Blackfoot, and M’ikmaq Nations, the Punjab region of India, the Scottish Highlands, Portugal, Quebec, and Galicia tucked in between Poland and the Ukraine.

Your parents and/or grandparents were university professors, high-ranking military officers, teachers, farmers in India and Saskatchewan, nurses and plumbers. Most of you are from working-class people, like most people in the world. Not poor, though, unlike most people in the world. Some of you are from the elite or owning class, and your decision to become a teacher represents downward mobility to your family.

You were raised in poverty by hard working people, and you were raised in wealth by hard working people. Your parents were educated and middle class, but their home country was torn by war and genocide – they had to leave. So they decided to come to Canada to start over.  There are some stories they hold that you have never heard. Your grandparents have degrees and your grandma bakes the best cinnamon buns in all of Saskatchewan (well, mine did). You went to Catholic schools where you learned to lie, cheat, steal and manipulate nuns for fun, and you went to private school where you learned English and piano and how to ‘fit in’ to the life that your parents planned for you. Your lives were disrupted when your father died when you were a teenager or when your parents got a divorce when your mom finally found the strength and economic independence to leave her abusive husband–your dad. Your life turned upside down when your sister got cancer, or when your mom’s drinking got out of hand.  You got sober a while ago, and life went from pretty small and weird to a really big adventure (me too!). You live with your parents, and you moved out when you were young.

You were raised with a religious tradition, in a church or mosque or temple – and when it became clear you were gay, it was a painful time. How to reconcile your heart’s desire and the spiritual direction of your church and family? You found a way, and so did your parents. Now you’re here and you’re part of your family, too. So far as I know, I’m the only lesbian in this classroom, but it’s not too late!  Often that decision comes later for women than it does for men.

You were racist in your youth and learned things about Aboriginal people that reinforced your position of dominance. You were victims of racism and felt the sting of your classmates’ thoughtless insults and assumptions about you.

Your father was a bit overprotective of you, because you were a girl – but his fear on your behalf dampened your confidence in yourself – Or your father pushed you in a direction you resisted, he wanted you to be a “man’s man”, or to take up the family business. Sometimes there was painful conflict between you. Your grandmother helped to raise you and your siblings, or your people lived far away, and others of you lived with your parents, aunts and uncles and cousins—you tumbled together like puppies.

You are proud of your family history, and the culture and language of your Italian/Korean/Serbian/Scottish grandparents, or you don’t know much about your history. You had dreams of joining the US Peace Corps, and worked overseas for a while, but what you learned of US foreign policy and military actions broke your heart and turned you away from that work, and the ideology of imperialism that underlies that work. You are here because you want to inspired children to learn, to think critically, and to act. You are here because you want children to grow in knowledge and confidence the way you saw your father grow when he went back to school as an adult. Or the way you blossomed when you found your passion.

Some of you enjoyed your k-12 education very much – you had many friends, your teachers inspired and encouraged you, and you had opportunities to study and participate in sports—you swam competitively and played soccer, well enough to get college scholarships! This was much more difficult for the females. Not because you were not capable, not at all. But because you were born to the sex-class female, and your opportunities were limited only because of that. Some of you played on boys teams because they got the resources, the time on the field or the rink, and decent uniforms. You could keep up with them, and sometimes outplay them, even when they grew bigger than you did – but at some point, you had to settle for the under-resourced, relatively neglected girls’ sports teams.

You loved music, and sang, and you were in theatre besides all your course work – with the encouragement of your family, and/or the families of your friends. Some of you had a hard time—you were always the new kid, or you couldn’t sit still, or you were bored, or you didn’t understand – or you were frightened because your classmates picked on you or threatened you or beat you up because you were the only brown kid in the school, shy, or effeminate, or not feminine enough, or socially awkward — not the ‘right kind’ of kid. Maybe you were the bully, (sometimes I was) but you didn’t tell me about that. None of this makes you any less human, or any less worthy of compassion and a place to belong. Your house was the neighbourhood hang-out, or you couldn’t invite anyone over because your family was so weird, or wrong, or unpredictable. You were a leader or you were a wallflower. You were the jock or the bookworm. You were the drama kids, the music or the science nerds. You had a lot of stuff, or you went to the food bank often or you had enough.

Some of you described your class background as “lower class” or “upper class” – though these words do describe your class position relative to other classes, I prefer the terms “working class”, “owning class” or “ruling class”. I’m kind of old-fashioned that way, and besides, ‘lower’ to me implies ‘less than’, and as Freire said, the oppressor is more dependent upon those he oppresses than she is upon him.

Ah, speaking of pronouns, did you see what I did there, using the pronoun ‘he’ to name the oppressor, and ‘she’ to name the oppressed? That was a reference to Frye’s essay [Oppression in The Politics of Reality 1983]. Many of you mentioned that essay in your stories. I’m always happy that people find her work so provocative. Some of you hated it, and thought she was attacking men – but most of you thought, “hey! That makes sense to me – I can think of this and this and my mom and my grandma and – oh. Yea. Me too.”

Some of the women in this class told me about your relationships with abusive men, boyfriends or co-workers or bosses.  You told me that when you were in your early twenties, you were reluctant to align yourself with feminism, because aren’t women equal now? And you didn’t want to be seen as a ‘man-hater’. But still, you notice that you’re quiet around your male colleagues, or you sometimes hesitate to walk alone at night, and you noticed at work that men would talk over you, or speak your ideas as if they thought of them, or ignore you. Some of the women here were acutely aware that the boys in your family got more attention, encouragement praise and stuff then the girls. Some of the men here noticed their relative freedom compared to their sisters and female colleagues, and you noticed that there were no women at all in your workplace. And some of you recognize that you’re at a loss now that you have to keep your own home, because growing up, the girls and the women in the house did all that stuff. This is an example of what Freire meant by the oppressor’s dependence on the oppressed.

I’m going to stick with sex for a minute here. As in the biological fact and the political category. You’ve heard me mention in class that ‘sex’ refers only to our reproductive organs. Humans, like all mammals, come in only two varieties: male and female. Males have a penis and testes, and females have ovaries and uteruses – and we have hormonal systems to go with these reproductive organs. That’s it. Gender, on the other hand, is a toxic, hierarchical structure that s imposed upon us at birth, and to which we are made to conform, based upon our sex, by a complex system of rewards and punishments[1].

Some of you described yourselves as “cis-gender”, and you will note when I finally get around to sending your paper back that I say, “cis” is an insult. We will talk about this in class, I promise. Well, now’s the time. Every year, since I started teaching in the teacher education program in 2011, someone has brought up the issue of transgender children. This has ramped up a lot since 2013 when the VSB passed the “Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity” policy. I know you don’t hear what I am about to say from very many people, and I know the Faculty of Education has promoted the ideology of trans inclusion as if it is a good thing, and moving us toward social justice and celebration of diversity – but hear me out, please, and think on what I’m going to say –

Diversity and Division have the same root. And it bears investigating what this whole celebration of diversity is in fact accomplishing. Especially the obsession with “Queer and Trans Identities”. This ideology is promoting the erasure of females. Much as the promotion of multiculturalism promotes the erasure of Aboriginal people, as Verna St. Denis (2011) warned. Men who claim to be women are most often taking up typically feminine ways of dressing and behaving. Women who claim to men are fleeing their womanhood, mostly because they both reject femininity and are attempting to protect themselves from male violence and other forms of sexism. This is how they are getting out of the birdcage. But such measures reinforce gender stereotypes and masculine domination. These measures, as well, divide women from each other, and atomize what could be fruitful alliances into a million different ‘identities’. The cage remains, and it’s getting crowded in there.

No one is “born in the wrong body”. No one. When adults say that boys who like dresses and dollies and princesses are girls, they are also saying that these traits are innate to only girls. Several of you said that when you were little girls, you were tomboys. And at least one of you recognized that you were blessed with parents who raised you as genderless as they could, encouraging you and your brother and sister to cook with Dad and make your bed and play soccer and roll in the dirt and wear dresses or pants as you pleased. When adults tell girls that passivity and cooking and pleasing boys and ineptitude with math and longing for pretty sparkly things are innately female—and these girls don’t like that stuff, nor do they like catcalls and sexual harassment – these girls may think that the only way to escape that fate is to become boys. You see? It’s not transforming anything. It’s abandoning children to deeply sexist and harmful stereotypes. Don’t buy it.

Okay. Back to you – most of you mentioned the class layer cake. And most of you recognized your discomfort as you took steps forward and backward. When you looked around, those of you in front told me you felt embarrassed, uncomfortable, or sad. Some of you were a bit defensive. “My family worked hard” you said, “they came from somewhere else, they had it hard, we are not oppressors.” But all of you made some links between what you experienced during that exercise, what we were reading early in the semester, and what you remember from your life. So by the time you were writing your biographies, you told me, you understood that what you have or what you do not have is much less about how you “identify” and fundamentally about where you are located in the layers of class, race and sex.

Though you still talked about your identities[2], many of you have were struck by the way the layer cake exercise illustrated your positions within a class structure. How you personally identify may be related to what you understand of your social class, but does not have much to do with how people treat you, or behaviours and values you have learned through your relations with others of your class (sex-class, racial-class, socio/economic-class). Like the old saying goes: “Class consciousness is knowing what side of the fence you’re on. Class analysis is figuring out who’s there with you[3]”.

You can move ‘up’ in the class ladder, sometimes you can ‘pass’ for another race or sex, but you you can’t change where you come from. You can’t escape that fundamental training. Maybe you don’t want to. There are some of you from working class families who went to private schools with members of the elite classes. You experienced a kind of culture shock. Just as it will be when you’re in front of your class, and you will see the working class or poor kid who is trying to fit in with the rich kids, or the working class or poor kid who is responding to the inequality by disengaging. Watch the quiet ones, if you can. Try to get beside them, or get them in the middle of the class—give the quiet ones or the obstreperous ones an important job to do, and the resources with which to do it. Watch what happens.

You are all excited about what you will accomplish as teachers. You are nervous about the responsibility (that’s understandable), and you are determined to take it up. Remember. Remember how you felt when an adult you admired saw you, and recognized your abilities and gave you the attention and tools so that you could achieve something. All of you had someone who gave you that. Every one of you. Might’ve been your mom or your dad, your grandmother who was an inspiring teacher all her life, your friend Dian, your friend Sharde, your coach or your high school math teacher. You are capable and worthy, and you don’t have to be alone. Indeed, we’re pack animals, we can’t thrive if we live only in solitude. You can be that inspiration for some of the people in your schoolrooms, too.

You are part of each other’s lives now, and together you have so much to offer one another. You are together humanity. You are together divine. You are together the best teacher EVER. Don’t forget your story; tell it and other stories often, and listen close for the stories of your colleagues and your students. Everyone can learn, everyone can teach, and we are all capable of making an essential contribution. We need each other.

Freire, P. (1970/1990): Chapter 1 in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, trans. Myra Bergman Ramos, revised 20th Anniversary Edition. Continuum Press, New York (pp. 25-51).

Frye, M. (1983), Oppression. In The Politics of Reality. Crossing Press, A Division of Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, CA. pdf.

Denis, V. (2011). Silencing Aboriginal curricular content and perspectives through multiculturalism: “There are other children here”. Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies, 33(4), 306-317.

Appendix 1

Some definitions for those who don’t seem to understand that transracial and transgender politics refer to the same thing

 

Sex: a binary that refers to which reproductive organs you have (males have sperm, females have eggs)

Race: a system that organizes people based on melanin levels in the skin and place of origin (labeling varies, but physical differences exist between races)

These two are physical realities, in which people of some categories face oppression because of their presence in those categories. The term “black woman” says nothing about her beyond a basic physical appearance.

– – –

Gender: a collection of stereotypes placed upon individuals based on their sex (i.e., girls like pink and shopping, boys like blue and sports)

Transgender: the belief that one “feels” like the opposite sex

This is fundamentally impossible without the assumption that male and female minds are biologically wired to conform to gender (aka stereotypes) which is demonstrably untrue and incredibly sexist

Transracial: the belief that one “feels” like a different race

This is fundamentally impossible without the assumption that the minds of different races are biologically wired to conform to certain stereotypes, which is demonstrably untrue and incredibly racist

– – –

You cannot wear the identity of a marginalized person like a costume. Males are not female, white people are not black, and heterosexuals are not gay. All of these are obvious facts, and yet only the first seems to be considered radical.

“Identity has become the axis of so much university activism because, for all the radical posturing associated with it, identity politics does not threaten the established order of society. It promotes a moralistic and self-indulgent anti-politics, where a person’s use of language and the purity of their thinking matters more than confronting collectively the material conditions and social relations under which they are forced to live. It creates a simulation of political struggle – one that doesn’t merely fail to challenge the material inequality and unfreedom of late capitalism, but fundamentally aligns with the dynamics and interests of its atomised, spectacle-driven society. It is a perfect mirror of consumerism, playing-upon the individual’s desires for real freedom, only to perpetuate and prettify the conditions of their alienation.”

http://waragainstintelligence.tumblr.com/post/149879735380/identity-has-become-the-axis-of-so-much-university  accessed October 23, 201

[1] See Appendix 1:  http://sparksparkboom.tumblr.com/post/149337624658/some-definitions-for-those-who-dont-seem-to

Accessed October 22, 2016.[2] Again, see Appendix 1, or link to http://waragainstintelligence.tumblr.com/post/149879735380/identity-has-become-the-axis-of-so-much-university  accessed October 23, 2016.

[3] http://lazarapress.ca/books/broadsides/class/ Pat Smith. Accessed October 23, 2016.

home. what is that, anyway?

Well. I arrived home on Wednesday night, August 9th. I didn’t go right home, i went to a meeting. you know. one of those 12-step deals. Better than arriving home alone right away, I thought.  Some of my friends were there, and they were happy to see me. They asked when I’d arrived and were impressed that I’d elected to go to be with them instead of right home. I dunno if “impressed” is the right word, really. What’s home about my apartment, anyway, really? Home. I felt at home in the UK, and I feel at home when i’m driving alone in the prairies–and when i’m with my brother, even if we’re arguing. I felt at home where ever I was if I was with my mom, even if we didn’t always ‘get’ each other. I thought, in the first year or so of my last love affair that we would be ‘home’ for each other. I was wrong.

As I drove through the prairies, then the foothills, then the mountains to the coast I saw a deer–an uncertain doe gingerly tipping across the dusky highway. I saw an eagle swooping down across the sun, focused on some prey out of my line of sight but right by the road. I saw a vulture (!) snacking on some roadkill on the sultry asphalt. I’ve never seen a vulture in the wild before. And I’d never seen an eagle so close up before, either.  Deer are as common as rabbits at Jericho beach, but it’s been a long time since I came across one on the highway like that.

When i was home, I visited with my friend Diana. We’d been friends since elementary school. We were both in the same Christian girls group, “Pioneer Girls” when we were, oh, I don’t know, 12 or so. I liked it because it was belonging to something, and it was all girls, and I had crushes on several of them at different times. I didn’t recognize my feelings as a ‘crush’ at the time, though. Diana and I went to the same schools too, and both of us name our Grade 4 and 5 teacher, Mrs. Neckay (then she became Mrs. Coene, but after she taught us, i think), as a positive influence. She was the teacher who inspired a desire to become a teacher myself. I got a bit derailed there for a while, but now I am teaching, and I still aim to uphold her standards. She had really high expectations of her students, did Mrs. Neckay, and she helped us to achieve those expectations too. Anyway, Diana. She’s living with her son again, and his wife, and their three young children. Her son is going to go back to school, and living with Mom will help to cut down expenses for everyone. I admire Diana for doing that, and it sounds like she’s bearing up really well and that she and her daughter-in-law are developing a pretty good relationship. It seems they are bonding, creating a space for each other and holding each other up as they hold the men, well, Diana’s son, to account. Sounds like her son is, um, asserting his dominance. Or trying to. The socializing force of patriarchy is extremely strong. I hope the women can stand their ground and that he will remember what his mom taught him about how to be fully human, rather than only masculine.

Speaking of the socializing forces of patriarchy — i went to a beautiful celebration gathering in honour of Joanna on Thursday the 11th. it would have been her 34th birthday. About 25 or 30 people came to Sarah and Justin’s home and we shared food and drink, stories and music to celebrate Jo’s gifts to our lives. And to remember her life, all the aspects of it. My job was to remind those gathered that she had been a feminist and a lesbian — and active and effective for those few years.

It seems impossible that someone so lively and smart, with such a bright spark, could have died. But she did. And it is up to us now to carry her story, each of us the bit of her story we have, into the rest of our lives. Even though Joanna turned away from a lesbian life in the last four or five years (I’d venture to say her feminism lapsed, too then), that is the bit of her story that I have to carry for her.

I remember, when we knew each other, she was one of only a small (infinitesimally small, one might say) number of young women (she was 26 when we became lovers) in her circle who were lesbian.  Most women her age who foudn themselves attracted to other women seemed to resist even calling themselves ‘women’ — much less ‘lesbian’. Nope. They were queer. Maybe trans. “Gender-Fluid” wasn’t yet as ubiquitous a label then as it seems to be now. Still, there she was, a feminist and a lesbian in a world that rejected binaries and reclaimed slut and encouraged ‘self-identity’ because no one person’s experience was the same as anyone else’s, we are all individuals, and solidarity is hopelessly anachronistic. It was hard. I can only barely imagine how difficult it would have been for her. Her first female lovers were her age, and she told me about the struggles she experienced to find common ground — they were queer, and she couldn’t make that label make sense to her.

I’m not just making this up, either (i do tend to ‘invent’ my lovers to match my desires, no matter who they are in real life. it’s a problem) — Here are her own words, at 26:

“…There was a queer ringing in my ear that I couldn’t shake. It rang about the dangers of labeling, and the discriminatory nature of women-only space, and the empowerment in “sex work”. It rang about utter acceptance, and about choice.

I heard a lot of ringing about ‘choice’. I heard it at work in reference to the incarcerated women who made a choice to commit a crime. I heard it in the media about the murdered woman who made a choice to go running alone. I heard it about the dyke who made a choice to become a man. It was the sort of ringing that is so pervasive, you can forget it is even there. It was soothing, even..acceptance, no distinctions..choice choice choice.”

She knew there was something wrong with this inordinate focus on the primacy of “respecting women’s choices”. Particularly as it pertained to the women incarcerated at the prison in which she worked. She could see, she heard their stories, she could put two and two together, fer cryin’ out loud. Those women were there because they had no choice. Had they any opportunities at all, they would have taken them. But they did not. Most of them were conditioned from a very young age to accept the poverty, the neglect, the male violence and degradation as their lot–they couldn’t imagine anything else. Much less decide to choose it.

There was another sound though, it was harder to listen to. Deep angry challenging – it hurt my ears. It was the sound of context demanding recognition. I resented this sound. With it came work, struggle. I tried to ignore it, and succeeded for a while in shutting my ears to it. I couldn’t shut my eyes however, and I saw the lie of ‘choice’ everywhere I looked. Choice was only part of the story – it lacked context, analysis. It lacked a complete telling.

“I started to listen again, and I heard something more this time. There was anger – but also power and hope. The sound was more full, round. It offered a place to stand, a set for the story. It still brought work with it, challenge and struggle..but when I looked around again I could see my sisters standing firm, and heard them making this hopeful noise together […]

“I am 26, and I am a radical feminist.”(Joanna, 2009, emphasis mine).

In this piece she wrote, which she sent in to the lesbian journal Trivia on the topic “Are Lesbians Going Extinct?”, she wrote about the importance of having a context within which to define oneself as a lesbian, and a feminist. She talked about the political importance of  relationships with women, especially women with whom she shared a commitment to liberation from male domination.

After we broke up, (which was, by the way, the best break-up in the history of lesbian relationships–we went out for dinner and gave each other appreciations for the gifts we gave–for helping each other become grown-ups), within a few months she began to date men again. We remained friendly, but we no longer had anything in common.

She had a difficult time dating men, by all accounts. I don’t know the stories, but apparently, they were hilarious. Sounds like she encountered some nightmare men. in early 2014 she met Sean, and he wasn’t a nightmare. In February of 2015, he proposed marriage, and she accepted. In May or early June of that year, she was diagnosed with oral cancer, and they decided to get married as soon as possible.

The last time I saw her was at the party my advisor threw in honour of my successful defense of my PhD dissertation (finally!). Joanna came because she was there from nearly the beginning, and she always believed in me. She told me about Sean then. Of course she knew what I thought of the institution of marriage, and what a shitty deal it offers women overall. It has its roots deep in patriarchy and capitalism, and though it seems (to many people) like a benign celebration of love and commitment now, I just can’t shake that deep mistrust of it. I see people signing papers and i think “chattel”.  It’s an institution, is marriage.

Now, I like institutions, to be honest. Especially hospitals. I spent lots of time in hospitals when i was a kid and a young adult. i’m a very good patient. The “plucky, sweet” kind. It’s a lot like the institution of marriage, in a way –once you “know your place” you don’t have to make any decisions,  besides what you want to choose for meals — it’s helpful if you’re med compliant, of course, and you can depend on the doctors and nurses to give you the right drugs and treatments at the right time. people who are not part of that institution also understand how to relate to you if you’re in that institution. They come to visit, and they bring flowers (unless you’re in the ward where you’re supposed to keep the allergens or scents away), and they keep to visiting hours, and they defer to the Health Professionals too, ’cause that’s how it’s supposed to be. In the hospital, i assimilate into that structure, the role i’m supposed to play, and it’s quite comfortable. I am no threat to that structure. Except when i’m outside of it and then I’m more dangerous. From outside of it, I can see the way that the power operates, I can see how class and race and sex determine where we are in the structure and how much our compliance or non-compliance is tolerated or punished.

Oh! When i was in the Ancestral Homeland, one of my new feminist friends there talked about her analysis that marriage, weddings, are the ultimate in narcissism. Sounds right to me. It’s all nice to be in love and everything, but then you go and make all your loved ones come and bring presents and attend a big party that’s all about you and your  love life. During this conversation, i confessed that I had MC’ed a wedding last year, and i’m pretty sure i came down a peg or two in her estimation. “Why did you do that?” she asked. I was a bit embarrassed. it was the audience, (speaking of narcissism) and i brought the Accordion of Love (not Ruby, i didn’t have Ruby yet), there were many opportunities to provide a humorous critique of the institution, and, well, it was fun. I nearly backed out, But yes–much as I love my friends who got married, it was the attention I did it for. Well…I also liked meeting her parents, and his brothers–and their friends from away, and I liked hanging out with Steph, who was partnering with me on the MC gig — we were both pretty cynical about looooooove a the time, seeing as how we were both in various states of breaking up with our lovers, and kinda cynical overall. Anyway. weddings. Narcissism, compliance, assimilation…I did cave to the social pressure to conform to this celebration of patriarchal and capitalist dominion, and, well…it was a fun party.

anyway, back to my dear Joanna. and institutions of power….She turned away from lesbianism, and from active feminism, too. Especially once she received her diagnosis. how can you keep pushing against patriarchy when there are no lesbian feminists around you anymore and you’re facing a deadly disease? how? I don’t know. she had to decide. she’d already left feminism and lesbianism behind, it wasn’t a big step to erase it from the Joanna she showed the world from then on.

I kinda took it personally at first. Of course it wasn’t personal, I’m nearly sure of that. She knew what she was doing. She didn’t invite me to her going away party when she moved to be with Sean, we hadn’t been part of each other’s lives by then for about four years, nearly five — and she knew what i thought of marriage. I assume she didn’t want to put me in the position of either telling her why I wouldn’t be coming, or coming and being all awkward and weird. Nor would she be all that comfortable if I did go, I’m pretty sure. It was protective of her to do that.

She was a bright spark. While she was in my life, I could see the difference she made to people who were on the margins. she opened a space for them to at least glimpse a place of belonging for themselves. She was a brilliant communicator and could find a way to get practically anyone to step up to greater responsibility for themselves, for others. She made a difference. I kind of can’t believe she’s dead now. I wrote her a few times, in her last few weeks. the last time, I wrote  bunch of stuff about what i was doing, and planning to do. I said, “I don’t know why i’m telling you all this stuff. Maybe i’m kind of hoping for a miracle, that if I tell you about my plans for the future, somehow that will keep YOU here long enough for a cure, or something. Never mind. The miracle is that you were here at all, that you did what you did, and you befriended and helped all those women, and that you had an effect, a good effect, on the people you met and loved and worked with and played with. Including me. Thank you, Jojo.”

It seemed so small and pale to just say “thank you”. She set up a trust fund at the end of her life, called “Celebrating Home”, for agencies that provide housing to use for celebrations. Kind of the roses part of ‘bread and roses’. but also the bread, because people who get together to share a meal, mark an occasion, celebrate a birth or an accomplishment, well — they are glued together then.

Like we were, all the different people gathered to honour Joanna, and each other, on the day that she would have turned 34. We were there because at some point in our lives, we knew and loved Joanna, and now we know each other a little bit, and our lives are a bit bigger, and better, on that account.

ah. it’s too bad that she figured she had to go away from feminism and being a lesbian in those last years. It’s too bad for us, and too bad for her. I think I get it, we are certainly not in a time of women’s liberation, far far from it — and i think when you’re young, and without a context of a vibrant movement, when things get really scary like they did for Joanna, I think you’re gonna go for the relative security. I don’t know. Maybe. But whatever it was, I do know that she was carried to her death in many loving arms — her mom, her sisters, her brother (who I may add was particularly threatened by her lesbianism, I’m sure he was most relieved of all of them when she became heterosexual again), her husband, her dad, her aunties and uncles and cousins — friends from around the world, too. Louise made a beautiful slide show of Joanna’s Vancouver years, which of course showed her at Michfest, and the folk fest, and the Lesbian Feminist Dinner Party (for a while a few of us hosted a monthly dinner party together, a little political, but mostly just social. lovely lovely). It was almost like she was with us. And because of the pictures and stories and mementos, in a way she was.

She had a home. One she was born to, one she created, and she merged these together. In honouring her memory, we created a little home space for each other too.

I’m better now. When i left for the UK, i was very lonely. I know i have friends and colleagues and many people around me who love me. But I felt restless, unsettled, sad. ‘Away from home’, you know? Something happened when i was away, though, and as I returned to Vancouver. Joanna’s party added to that feeling, too. It’s like now i have home with me. I don’t need to be somewhere in particular. It’s here. I found a place to belong everywhere i went in Alberta, Saskatchewan, London, Cornwall, Wales, Edinburgh — I walked on those old streets and through parks and museums and shops and pubs, and I was all alone surrounded by the ancestors. They’re with me still. I’m home.