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Category Archives: A world of women

Love and Accordions — variations on a theme

Oh, it’s been AGES since I’ve posted anything. Not because nothing is happening, or I’m not thinking and doing and feeling all kinds of things. Indeed, it’s been an ongoing saga – teaching, learning, loving, raging, hoping, despairing, writing, playing, working – life life goes on as it does. I’m really busy with all kinds of things, and even though I have many friends, and work and interests, still – I am lonely. Can’t shake it. There’s nowhere that is home now. No one who is my home. But that’s okay. It’s an ongoing fear of mine, to be alone. And when I’m afraid of something, it’s a sign that I ought to go toward it, do what’s required to understand the source of the fear. Hang out in the discomfort and learn something.

I’ve been more focused on another kind of keyboard entirely lately. My accordion. Well, accordions. And a concertina. People keep giving me accordions. In 2001, my brother Carl gave me a beat up old Hohner, missing the front grill, some keys sticking, others that were silent. But there were no holes in the bellows and it had a beautiful rich tone, and it was in tune, too. I started noodling around on it and remembered one song from when I was a little kid taking lessons in Red Deer. One song. My fingering was all awkward and messy, and I couldn’t find the right chords for the longest time, but by and by, I put it together, and then I could play that one song. Then I saw a young woman on the street, busking with her accordion. As I remember now, her squeezebox was nearly as big as she was, and she wore long stripy socks that almost looked like a keyboard. Her hair all messy in a couple of ponytails sticking at odd angles from her head. The music she played made me want to dance and cry at the same time. I waited until she was done her song, put five bucks into her open case and asked her if she would teach me how to play. She said okay, and then for about a month or so, she rode her bike to my house, carrying her accordion on her back, and taught me how to play Greensleeves. Then she moved away to Seattle to get famous and I never heard of her again. She was lovely, though, and patient with my fumbling stiff fingers and off-kilter rhythm.

I have a good ear, a really good ear. But when it comes to keeping time, I am the rhythmic equivalent of tone-deaf. I’m from the prairies, from farm people, people who love to dance, and I can’t even two-step. I had to move away from there.

Then when I was in university again, my professor told me about the moveable music school. That term they were offering accordion lessons! Six weeks. There were twelve students and we met in the common room of one of the students’ housing coop. and we learned a few more songs, beautiful sad waltzes and a jig and some scales too. I still know some of those. One of the women in that group had just bought herself a brand new accordion, and she gave me her old one. Another Hohner, in much better shape than mine, though with quirks of her own, too. She just gave it to me. But I barely knew her and I know that accordions are pretty dear so I offered her some money. She understood my need to formalize the exchange, and agreed to the sum I offered her – “were I to sell it to you,” she said, “that was what I thought would be a fair price”. So now, a better accordion, more songs, and the music started to live with me.

Some of us continued to learn from that teacher once the moveable music school term was over, but then summer came, she moved away, and I got too busy with school to chase down another teacher.

My accordion sat there for a while, then my apartment burned up (my ‘fridge caught fire. Imagine that!), and everything was all in a turmoil for a while. I moved myself and my accordion to my lover’s place for six months while mine was rebuilt. And didn’t play her much. At the time I was hosting a storytelling circle once a month, and that was a lot of fun – I brought my accordion – The Accordion of Love – with me to those, and I often brought her with me, too, when I went on marches or demonstrations – take Back the Night, or housing for all, or protest the pipelines or whathaveyou. The Accordion of Love was there. But I didn’t practice in between those things, and I never got any better. Well, maybe I did a little bit but not much.

My lover and I broke up, I moved my accordion back to my rebuilt apartment, she sat in a corner while I nursed my wounds and found my single footing again. By and by I got some traction in life again, and started to pick up the Accordion of Love a bit more. I remembered the songs from the moveable music school, and I was teaching some, so I’d bring the accordion to school to play for my students. They always applauded, the dear things, and laughed with either a bit of hysteria or delight. Some people loved it, some hated it. Ah well. The accordion, you can’t be neutral about it.

Then I fell in love again, oh my. This was it, this woman was home, I was sure of it. We moved from a sweet friendship to lovers. We are both feminists, both activists, both strong smart, powerful women – together we would be unstoppable.

Well. Turns out I was wrong. I had a little niggling fear that by and by she would not love me, eventually. That she would tire of me by and by. She said then, “no, baby, I know you – I have always loved you, that won’t change”.  Well. So much for that. Our love affair and our break up was/is a bit complicated and the patriarchy interfered. Even as it brought us together, it drove us apart. We were doomed from the start. I didn’t want to know that then. I don’t want to know it now. But what I want doesn’t matter, not in this regard.

In the summer of 2014, a few months after my lover broke up with me, and a couple of weeks after I defended my PhD thesis, I drove home to Alberta to visit Mom and to roam around my past on the way there and the way back too. I will always be grateful I made that trip. Mom wasn’t at my defense, (I think she wanted to come, but that’s another story, another time), and I wanted to get out of town for a while. I was very happy about my defense, it went really well. But I was still heart-broken about the end of my love affair. I did not want to give up on us. Anyway, I was happy and sad, and worried about the future, and yearning for home. So I drove across the mountains to the prairies and my mom. I’m so grateful I had that time with her then. I wish I had stayed longer. But there you go. I didn’t, and there’s nothing for it now.

On my way back, I went south to Lethbridge, where I went to university for my BA. I looked up an old roommate, and another friend who’s a poet and storyteller and postal worker. He’s also, turns out, a bit of a hoarder (more than I am, for sure!). I went to his house with him, and he has all kinds of stuff in there – a slide trombone hanging from the ceiling, and guitars, mandolins and big string basses on his walls and propped against boxes stacked against the wall. He’s got shirts half-embroidered on dress forms (he makes his own costumes for his stories, embroiders stuff on cowboy shirts he finds in thrift stores), and stacks of sheet music, books, vinyl records, stuffed animals, oh, I don’t know what all. He had two accordions. He wanted me to take both of them, but I only took one. A little 12-bass kid’s accordion. Another Hohner, but made in Italy. It has such a great sound, bigger than its size, and I could noodle around on it when I stopped for a rest from driving. This is, rather than the big, serious Accordion of Love – The Accordion of Light Flirtation.

That fall, I brought the accordion of light flirtation to the class I was teaching, the day before they were to go to their short practicum placements. It was our last day together for three weeks. We had a great time. Serious learning, to be sure, but we can still enjoy ourselves, n’est pa? The next day I was working at the rape crisis centre, and it was slow morning.

My cell phone rang, and it was a call from my brother. My brother NEVER calls me. It wasn’t Shawn, though, it was my sister-in-law Wendy. “Hi Shawn, what’s up?” I answered, knowing it must be a very big deal for him to call. “it’s not Shawn, Erin. It’s Wendy.” “What’s goin’ on?” I asked. Dread was creeping up my neck. “Your mom is dead” she’s not one for euphemisms, is Wendy. The dread rushed to my throat and poured out my mouth in a great wail. “Oh no, oh no oh no…” I couldn’t stop, “Mommommom” Even now, thinking of it, a low keening comes from deep within.

Even though there is no one who was my home, there are many. My ex-lover called me and told me to go to her house. She gave me soup and helped me book a flight and stayed with me until I went to the plane. I called other friends and they all stepped up – one drove me to the airport, another took care of hosting a meeting that I was supposed to host that week, others picked up some other of my commitments.

My dearest friend, another ex-lover, who lives in Victoria now, made arrangements to come home to be with me and my brother. She didn’t skip a beat. When I called her to tell her she said, “Do you want me to come?” I hadn’t even considered that, but when she offered it was like a parachute opening. Women called me all that week, the radical feminists sent flowers, my ex-lover and my high school friend who lives in Montreal called me almost every day. Surrounded. I was (am) surrounded by a web of relationships. I felt wide-open and cold all the time, like a prairie winter wind was tearing through me. But I was held together, no matter what. These women, from everywhere and every time hold me as I hold them—we are not always intimate but we are always linked.

I went home. I wrote reams. I wept, and went through Mom’s stuff, I held onto my brother, he held onto me. We are still holding on. I miss her so much. She used to holler at me to practice, when I was taking accordion lessons before, when I was a kid. I was supposed to practice a half hour a day, and for most of that half hour, I would just stare at the sheet music. I don’t know why I was so resistant. I did not know that I would return to it after so many years. But that’s often how I am – I never really let go.

It’s been now a year and a half since Mom died. We’ve lived through all the “firsts” – birthdays, graduation, Christmas, New Year, anniversaries, summer vacations… This year a couple of friends bought me an accordion lesson with a young man who’s been playing since he was a child, and he’s a virtuoso musician. My former professor gave me her accordion, a “ladies” size Guerrini. She’s beautiful and more ergonomic than my Accordion of Love. Now I play every day. Sometimes only for ten or 15 minutes, sometimes only a few songs, or maybe just finger exercises and no songs at all. But every day. And I’m getting better. And I do so wish I could play for Mom.

And for Grandma. My Grandma was married to a man who played accordion before she married my Grandpa. James MacDonald was “a jolly fellow” according to Grandma, but he died of an infection he got in the hospital after a routine operation, leaving Grandma widowed at 20 with two small boys and an accordion. “I should never have sold that accordion” she told me once. And she had great hopes for me when I took it up.

The title of this piece is “Accordions and Love” because I wanted to explore the metaphor. I’m not so good at intimate partnerships, apparently.  I’ve not been with anyone longer than 6 years. Mostly they end after 2-4 years, and it’s never me pulling the plug. I’m like that in the rest of my life, too. I don’t think, “I want to do this” and then go about finding out how to do it. Instead someone will say, “try this” or “go apply for that job”, or “you, I want you,” and I will go, “okay. Guess I’ll do that then.” That way, if I don’t initiate, it’s not really my responsibility.

A friend of mine said recently, “Erin, that’s what we all do.” Which may be true. Sounds about right, in fact. And once in it, once I accept the opportunity or the invitation or the challenge, then I have to take initiative. In love, politics, work, friendship, and in music, I have to practice. People have given me accordions, they have helped me find teachers, but I’m the one who has to commit. And I do. Once I say “yes”, I will stick to it (sometimes to my own detriment, I gotta say).

Every day I play my accordion. I make the same mistakes over and over again. I begin again and again. The accordion is patient. I learn to listen. When I strike the right notes, I continue. When I press the wrong key, I stop and go back. Try again. By and by I do get it right. Learning a language – the language of love, the language of music – is a process. And it’s a process that requires you to both lead and to follow. To commit and to take risks. If you’re to grow, you’re going to fail from time to time, and there will be plateaus to endure and times when you think it will never work out or become clear. Stick with it. Go back to the beginning, ask for guidance, don’t give up. Take a break, do some research, listen to other musicians, try again. Remember why this is important (remember why you love her) and imagine a future together that is beauty and freedom (imagine what you deserve—think big) and act now to put the two together.

I’m sticking with the accordion. Practicing every day is helping with my other commitments, too.  Listening to the music, learning how to read and then speak it helps me to listen to others, as well. I’m a committed feminist. Radical.  I yearn to be part of something bigger than myself, and until recently, I thought that could be a gang, or even a partnership, a lover a family – we could be each other’s support, encouragement and solace. From a home base together we could go change the world. But maybe ‘within’ or ‘part of’ is not where I belong – within. Maybe where I belong is the margin, the outside. Maybe from here, not part of a gang, not part of a family, not half of an intimate partnership – I can see more. I can hear different stuff. I can be here on the edge of numbers of groups and hold together threads between us. Sometimes I’ll be on the margin, sometimes I’ll be a hub. Sometimes I’ll play the score, sometimes I’ll improvise.

Right now, I think of myself as lonely. I feel lonely. And it’s kind of frightening. But it’s also an opportunity. To nurture other connections, to serve a bigger purpose, to lead (often from behind) – to make my own spot from which to share my voice. Maybe what I think is loneliness is only what this kind of fear feels like right now. And I should dive into it.  I am lonely. But I am not alone. It’s okay to be afraid and sad. I will feel it and walk toward it, leading and listening with all my heart and mind.

Journey

School starts on Tuesday. Tomorrow! yikes. I’m still getting the syllabus together for the class I’m teaching this semester. I’ve taught it about half a dozen times already, I could just use the same plan as last year — But every year, I do the same thing. I have read more stuff, talked to more people, thought of new things, and made different mistakes in previous classes. So I want to change things around. But I get bogged down in the details of looking for more current articles about this and that and didn’t i see a meme on facebook that makes a point so elegantly, and should I use the article i used for my summer class in my fall class instead? and… I get tangled up in all the loose threads and sometimes i never get ’em pulled together and tied up.

I took off for a little road trip a while back. Drove to my hometown. My agenda was to help my brother sort out our mom’s stuff, give some away, sell some, clear some space in his basement. I wanted, too, to go to Regina where there is a burial plot waiting for her next to our dad and their first son, our unmet big brother who died in 1961. But Shawn isn’t ready — he didn’t have the time to travel, and doesn’t have the heart to go through Mom’s stuff yet. That’s okay. I tell myself that. I wanted to do something, though. He has done so much–before she died he would take her to appointments and get her groceries and check in on her all the time. After, he was executor of her will and went all over town for banking and lawyer signatures and all that stuff — he’s done so much work, and I haven’t done anything. But I have to wait. I have to do what he thinks will be helpful, if I am to be helpful at all. I am not very good at patience, though. sigh.

The summer has been very difficult. My mom is dead. I went home every summer (as much as I could) for the last ten years or so to see her–especially since Dad died. Now home is, well, not home anymore. Not in the same way, anyway. We’re settlers, right, I grew up there, but my ancestors were from somewhere else. Our roots are shallow.

And, too, a significant relationship with a woman I love very much is in shreds. I don’t know if we will find a way to repair it. In July I asked for six months no contact, though I yearn.  For her and for my Mom, in different ways, but deep — I don’t have words for it. I have beautiful friends and allies, mind you, and strong women in my corner, helping to hold me up. But still — I am so lonely. These are difficult times — loss and endings. Grief.

Before I left, i felt a bit crazy. Every time I was alone, I wept. I couldn’t contain my sorrow — even in public. walking to the grocery store. driving to work. riding my bike to the gym. IN the gym, in the grocery store, at work — all of it, the tears came, there was nothing I could do to stop it. An abyss of grief–and sorrow like a giant hair ball made of twine and wire knotted in my gut. I was afraid that on the road, all alone for days at a time, that I would come completely undone.

“great love and great loss will break you open like no other experience”.  I’m seeing a counselor, a spiritual director, (atheist me, too. Go figure)– to help me sort out how to get my feet under me. That’s what she said, “great love and great loss will break you wide open”. Note the distinction, though, eh–she said “Open”. Not “Apart”. I’m whole, still whole — not yet anchored, not yet at peace, not yet. but all the bits are still there. here.

On August 23, I was seven years clean and sober. I did come relatively close to drinking when I was on my way home. I thought, briefly, that drinking would buffer that ball of wire and teeth in my gut– drinking will take that feeling away. and hell, I’m on the road all alone, no one needs to know. But then I played the tape forward, and felt the remorse and the grief return ten-fold. Lonely as I am now, a drink will lock the door and throw away the key. Alcohol will keep me from ever finding my place. I don’t need to wake the dragon, not that dragon anyway, I have to much to do. I am already so far behind where i think I ought to be.

I didn’t drink. I sought out people who have known and loved me my whole life. My brother, beautiful quiet loyal grieving brother Shawn. My old tree-planting brother Carl — who’s just like a big black Lab. “what are we eating now? wanna play? oh. time for a nap!” he’s grieving too, the end of his marriage to Carmen — whom I also love. We went to the Edmonton Folk Festival on the first night together, Carl and some of his huge family. Their all kinda like puppies, and we were all crammed onto a tarp together, loving the music and the people we were with.

My brother Shawn, at the track in Rimbey. IMG_1399

My best friend from Jr. High, and her husband, who helped me so much when Mom died and after. I played my accordion on their front porch and we had dinner together in their 100 year old farm house. Inside, she’s painted a mural on the cupboards, and painted a rug on the floor. She painted pictures of their cows and dogs and pigs along the staircase to the second floor.

IMG_1361

I met two of their sons, one I’d met once before when he was just an infant. It’s easy with us.

My mom’s friend from High School, my godmother Auntie Lorna. Our neighbours Colleen and Ron, Auntie Lorna’s husband Joe, “anything you need, you just help yourself”, and her son Lane who took me kayaking on Lacombe Lake one evening.

Lane had been to the funeral of a friend of his, turns out the man who died was the husband of one of the women with whom Mom taught kindergarten. I so much wanted to tell her about his death, and how his wife was, and how many people were at the funeral and how well the family was caring for each other. Auntie Lorna said she had a dream about Mom one night.

I went to Colleen and Ron’s for lunch one day, too. On my way I picked some Saskatoons from the bushes along the road. saskatoons 2015

They were nearly done, but two weeks early. It was a bit unnerving, all that ripeness so much earlier than harvest season ought to be.

It all smelled of home. Cottonwoods by the river, dust, faint whiff of manure out on Highway 2A. There’s a sweetness in the air. Marigolds and gladiolas, caragana and wolf willow.  I never realize how much I miss that smell until I’m there again.

Everyone prays there. Before every meal, we held hands and someone gave thanks on our behalf. They all thanked god for my visit, and asked his (God is a “he” there, no question) protection and care for me, and their other loved ones. Usually “in Jesus’ name” they offered their prayers. I’d forgotten that we used to say grace before meals. We didn’t, our family, by the time we were in high school, I think. But I don’t know when we stopped. I found it comforting. I liked that mostly no one asked for direct interventions, and offered thanks for the gifts of our friendship and the food we were to share.

On my way home, i went to visit Bob. He lives a bit out of the way of my route home, but his wife, Darleen, had been one of Mom’s best best friends since we moved to Red Deer.  She was so much fun. She smoked cigarettes and cursed. she laughed easily and she was generous and full of life. She and Mom passed the same birthday card back and forth for 45 years. It was one of those cards that congratulated the recipient on being 29 — AGAIN. Darleen gave it to Mom for her 35th birthday, and Mom sent it back to Darleen a few months later when Dar turned 30. Darleen called Mom up and called her a cheap so-and-so, and sent it back the next year again. It crossed the Canada-US border several times, each year a little note added. Dar always wrote something like “Roses r red/violets r blue/we’re in the States now/I sure do miss you!”

Anyway, I called him up my last morning on the road, and he answered on the first ring. He gave me careful directions (I just used my smug phone GPS, but I didn’t interrupt him), and asked me to call if I got lost. When I arrived in his town, it was a bit later than we had estimated I’d be. He called again, “are you lost?”

“Nope, I’m nearly there, Bob”, and he again gave me detailed directions to their place, which helped this time. When i got to his door, through the frosted glass I saw him run toward it, as if to open it before I changed my mind and slipped away.

We spent a couple of hours together. He told me about the renovations they had made when they moved in, the new appliances, the landscaping. He is a man. His whole life he learned to not display his feelings, to talk about stuff and business and plans; not love and people and relationships. So there he was, deep in grief, (how could he not be? They had been high school sweethearts, she was a force of nature), disappointed and lonely, showing me the original architect’s drawings for the house he lived in now.  His sadness felt like a sheet of lead under his skin. Neither of us cried. This is not like me, by the way. Particularly these days.

Everywhere I went, I went to a meeting, too. I was with strangers who could see me; strangers who felt like family too. One hour at a time, sharing our stories, our struggles our loneliness or our delight. At some of these meetings I made coffee or helped to set up or to clean up. Most of the time people greeted me and made me welcome. Every time i heard something true that unravelled that knot of grief and regret a little bit more.

I am not the only one. My mother is gone, my love is unrequited, my future uncertain. I am lonely and afraid, but I am not the only one. Everywhere I went, from home to home and stops along the way, there were moments of beauty and peace. A bit of breath, some colour and warmth. I’m treading water, but i’m not sinking.

It’s days after i began this post, here you go, here you go — class starts in two hours.

traitors

A little while ago, I woke up to the radio announcer promoting a show about writers featuring two women who have turned their backs on their womanhood and rejected solidarity with other women, other lesbians, in order to gain a measure of safety and acceptance and power for themselves. They wrote a book together about their treachery, and are now celebrating its publication.
Of course, they do not see their embrace of gender-neutral pronouns, breast-binding and rejection of their own femaleness (along with femininity) as misogynist. But that’s what it is. The radio announcer said, “Both were raised as girls, but it never really sat well with them”, and then there was a clip of one of them talking about her preference for the (often grammatically noxious) use of the pronoun “they”.
OF COURSE they never liked being girls — I don’t know anyone who did, not really. Some women do like to be girly to an extent — there is some fun to be had in the dressing up part, but god, the pointy shoes, the toxic hair spray, the expectations to take care of everyone everyone — all the children, all the sick people, all the elders, all the men–all the time (and if we get paid for it, we get paid a pittance). Oh, there is so much about being a “proper woman” that is really hard and unfair and painful. And THEN, to add insult to injury, the clothes that women are supposed to wear almost ALWAYS have no proper pockets. And they’re uncomfortable and not as well-made as men’s clothes.
Women are always the ones to make adjustments in order to prevent attack. Carry a whistle, don’t go out alone at night. hell, don’t go out alone. don’t wear the christly clothes that men have designed and relentlessly marketed to us, don’t leave your drink alone, don’t drink, don’t go here, don’t go there, carry this, don’t carry that —
This trans thing is just one more thing women can do to protect ourselves from men’s aggression. Become men, then they won’t hurt us. Then we can also get the stuff that men get — the acknowledgment, the room to move, the attention when we speak, the extra money on our paycheques, the pockets and the sensible shoes. Plus, because men are not trained to pay attention to others as much as women are, they won’t likely notice the female in the locker room. If they do, though, they’ll be pissed. And they’re much more dangerous than are other women (which we know of course, that’s why we do all this elaborate stuff to avoid their wrath).
So there. a couple women who are a bit safer. And they can say, “we’ve never been women, we have always been men” because they didn’t feel comfortable conforming to the feminine gender. Meanwhile, all the other women, (who are ALSO uncomfortable conforming to the feminine gender, by the way), are left in the same rigid social constructs that benefit men (materially, certainly, though the cost to their humanity is great–if they only knew). They’re still cooking most of the meals, changing most of the diapers, making less of the money, and packing themselves and their kids off to transition houses when Prince Charming goes off the rails (again). But our heroes are brave and transgressing binaries by I-dentifying as masculine-ish “theys”. Thereby leading the way.
leading the way backwards. “You’re right,” their ‘choice’ tells everyone, “you’ve been right all along, being a woman is less than being a man. Women are, yes, weaker, dumber, and less important than men”.
If you are female and troubled because you are not allowed to take up your share of public space — don’t bother with all that messy, uncomfortable, complicated political organizing or rape crisis work, or trying to change the gendered, racist, capitalist systems that keep us apart from each other, that increase the pressure of the boot on the necks of our sisters and aunties and neighbours — don’t bother with all that. Bind your breasts, pitch your voice a bit deeper, call yourself Stefan or Logan (Do they ever pick names like Marion or Leslie or even Bill or Roger?) and be a man.
That’s why I call what they’re doing treachery. They can (kind of, almost) pass, and they have race and class on their side, too — they’re using all this to get a bit more for themselves. They’re not doing jackshit to change the conditions of other women’s lives — it’s such an unimaginative solution to women’s oppression*. Building solidarity and organizing politically with other women is really hard and messy and frustrating — but if it wasn’t for the work of women before us, we would not have the vote, or pants, or transition houses or laws that criminalize rape, or access to abortion or credit cards (a dubious benefit, to be sure) or literacy or—
Now i want to be clear — i don’t give a rats ass if they, or any woman, wants to take on a male name, and wear their jeans with the crotch at the knees like the boys do, and take up welding — what really burns my ass is the denial of their femaleness. Why do they not say, “We didn’t like what was expected of girls so we decided to change those expectations for girls”? Why not look around, see where the holes in the walls are, and hammer away at it to make space for other women too? I guess ’cause it’s easier to do the individual thing, and adjust your own behaviour than it is to look for where we benefit, too, and address the contradictions and take responsibility–
Those two, it’s not entirely their fault, their betrayal of women — and i don’t think they’ve chosen an easy road — no woman’s road is easy, well, not many — but the road of the ‘passing for male’ is I think easier. I think it’s kind of comforting for the powerful when the oppressed do something like this, conform to the existing social structures — they’re not rebelling or making waves, they’re just sliding in to a different part of the structure. It’s easier for everyone that way. Except for those who are already on the bottom. Their burden, then, becomes a bit heavier.

 

*I know there are some trans people who are involved in some political organizing — of course there are — and even some who are gender-critical and working with others to dismantle sexism, address class inequality and interfere with systemic racism — what i am most concerned with here is their utter disrespect for femaleness, and their seeming acceptance of the taken for granted assumptions that patriarchy makes about our ‘essential’ qualities.

night streets. women walking.

i go out walking late at night. Twice within two weeks I crossed paths with a woman who was a student in a couple of classes I taught recently. The first time, we were near my house, she was walking toward me, and I thought I recognized her walk. I ticked through the cerebral rolodex (I know no one uses those anymore…never mind), came up with her name–reminded by the way she walks, striding, really, forceful steps, leads with her chin. I prepared to meet her eye, nod, smile, say hello–she didn’t even glance my way, looked right past me, and a little bit to my left. I know she recognized me. My hair is longer, we were not at school, so out of context, but I sensed, (more than saw) her see me, then decide to snub me. She was very cold. The next week, same thing, completely different neighbourhood. I recognized her from further away this time. and again, as she passed me, I could almost feel a cold breeze. I’m not important enough in her life for her to hate me, but I think she does anyway.
The first class that she was in was the first semester of her teacher training year. Everyone new to each other, for the most part. It was a tough class–apparently I can be a polarizing kind of teacher.
Now, i’m nowhere NEAR as radical as I think I should be. Not as a teacher, certainly, nor as a writer or academic — and i haven’t been an active activist now for a long time. But I was far too radical for some of my students in that class. When we talked about sexism, sexual harassment, male violence against women — well. there was some consternation. And some of the people in the class were energized and excited and troubled and sparked up. Others were troubled and defensive and anxious and angry. Some were just plain pissed off. it was a hard semester for all of us. Some of the students (all men, turns out), complained about me to the head of the department. There was a meeting, I was invited to tell my side of the story, the faculty members with whom I met were kind, and suggested that, while probably there were some things I could do differently, to stir up such feeling is not necessarily a bad thing, either. In the end, I think it turned out alright. I definately could have approached the topic differently — carved out more space for women to sort things out with each other, and for the men to help each other with their defenses and other feelings — I forget sometimes that my students are not necessarily allies, even potentially. My faculty mentor helped me address some of the tensions remaining, and we did what we could to mend the fissures.
But there remained intense feelings. Some of the students in that class were loyal and friendly since — others did not speak to me again, avoided eye contact if we by chance met.
This one, the one who leads with her chin, she’s one who stayed angry, looks like. When she was in the class for which I was a teaching assistant, the following summer, I’m pretty sure she did not speak to me directly at any time. It was a big class, so I didn’t notice at first, wasn’t even sure by the end of the class. I’m sure now. But I can’t really figure out why. Guess I hit a nerve.

Another night, another walk, i come upon a shopping-cart shrine. Kind of like a sand mandala, in a way. Someone parked a shopping cart full of stuff in the middle of a sidewalk. Scattered (or placed?) things around it like traffic pylons. A shoe, a bunch of plastic flowers, a crumpled white blouse. in the cart, shopping bags with clothes, chocolate bar wrappers, paper plates, a jacket, a wooden picture frame. a ratty Teddy bear, one eye glaring. Along the fence that runs the north side of the sidewalk, a stooped slender figure shifted along, peering through the chain link every few metres. I wanted to cross the road before we met.
In a couple of weeks, i’m going to teach a short course on “sociology of marginalized youth” at a small suburban college that specializes in training “small p professionals” — mental health workers, care aides, group home workers– And there she was, right there below the hill where I live. A bona fide marginalized youth. i walked past her, she shuffled along the fence, glanced at me–caught my eye. dammit. I said, “do you want some chicken?”
“sure” she said, “okay”. she was tiny. long black hair–a young Native woman.
“you sleeping out?” I asked, immediately wishing i’d shut up. OF COURSE she was sleeping out. What was I proposing? would I take her home with me? I didn’t want to. Oh dear god.
“what?” she asked, and I didn’t answer. I handed her the chicken I’d just got from the Asian supermarket downtown, smoked chicken– and an apple. “You don’t smoke cigarettes, do you?”
“No, sorry, I don’t” I said, and thought for a minute, if I did I would give her the pack, but that’s poison, and it’s deliberate murder, the tobacco companies they target young, impoverished, disengaged Aboriginal people-and i’d feel all temporarily pleased with myself if i gave her smokes, ’cause she would be WAY happier with a smoke than with some weird-smelling chicken (it did kinda smell weird. well, it was smoked after all–smelled like ashes. tasted good, but you had to get past that smell, first).
“That’s okay” she said, “thanks”.

“you’re welcome”, I said, “good night, dear”. She was already back to scouting the fence.

And I walked the rest of the way home.

Holy smokes, it’s 2014 now! I began this post in the spring of 2013, I think. Just noodling away while my right foot healed from bunion surgery. Now I’m still a lesbian, but my right big toe is straight! I’ll just let this post stand as I’ve written it, but by bit over the past number of months, a sentence here, a paragraph there, write, delete, write, save draft, move on…here ya go:
In part, I’m not posting on account of I have this dissertation to finish. Most of my cohort has graduated now. Two others, like me, are not yet done, but both of them lost their mothers early in our program, and took a leave to help with their care and after. They have also added children to their families, as have most of the rest of my cohort. I don’t know how they do it — babies and jobs and publishing papers in peer-reviewed journals and teaching classes and presenting at conferences and ‘networking’ and then they all got academic jobs before or when they finished.
Then there’s me. Not getting a hair cut ’till i’m finished at least a full draft. hair’s pretty long. tangled and wild, just like the inside of my head. I am now working on my THIRD draft, but I didn’t get my hair cut because Mom wanted to brush it when I went home for Christmas. Plus, to tell the truth, now I kinda like it…and as I said, it is a fairly true representation of the knots and split ends and tangles my thinking often is — Harm reduction, women’s liberation, prostitution, front-line work, activism, law enforcement, legislation, compassion, education, learning and thinking and practice and theory — whose voice counts and for what? I have it, i have it all right here, but it’s still in piles or shards, and the finish line is shimmering in the distance like a mirage on the broad desert of libertarian individualism– choice, agency, consent, voice, sexwork, oppression, justice — what the hell do the proponents of legitimating prostitution mean by “justice” or “choice” when they argue for legal brothels? What do the women on the front-lines of feminist anti-violence work, or street-based health care, or social service advocacy mean when they talk about the application or meaning or uses or harms of harm reduction? How do we meet each other where we are, how do we see through the fog and cacophony of “best practices” and “evidence-based” and “respect for their choices–constrained though they may be” and hang on to each other as we look together for a way out?
It’s so easy to go off in several directions, and then i get kinda stuck and end up–well, here, fiddling with yet another draft of yet another blog post that I may not even post at all.  fits and starts, fits and starts. story of my life…
There are always reasons that i’m not done yet. Death, birthdays, grieving, celebration, work, love, fighting, worrying, fretting over this and that–but not delving, you know? not flinging myself wholly into one thing or another– just falling into the messiness of everything and thrashing about. There’s a difference. Falling in, you just get all covered in mess, and it takes a long time of kicking and flailing and sinking to make sense of it. Sometimes you only get covered in ick.
Purposefully leaping in, on the other hand, means you have to look where you’re leaping–even if you don’t see IT exactly, you know the spot to aim for. It’s good, too, to know to dive–close your eyes, tuck your head, raise your arms above your head, palms together, your body a spring–you’ve been training for this, you know what to do–once you’re in the air you have to have faith– and never lose your focus or your nerve.
One of my mentors (I have a few, most have come to me from surprising places) said to me, “Well, you have been dealing with a deadly disease, after all, don’t underestimate how hard that is”. I had, of course. Underestimated, that is, — how hard it is to figure out how to live as fully human after twenty years of hiding inside a case of beer (I preferred good single-malt scotch, of course, but it’s more expensive. And in truth it’s wasted on me. I would just chug it anyway).  There is NO WAY I would be where I am now were I still drinking. No way. Even though I think I’ve had a pretty smooth road, I have indeed worked pretty hard over the last nearly six years just on living sober. I go to these meetings, and I write about my resentments and anxiety and my part in it all, and talk to other women who “go to my church” so to speak, and I ask for help and I help others and I do things that I don’t want to do like pray and meditate (I’m an atheist, but I know I’m not alone. I don’t understand a whole bunch of stuff, so if I talk about it to my grandma, or to my dad or to ancestors who’ve gone before me, and then just shut up and sit still for a bit, an answer will come). So, you know, that’s a lot of talking and listening and writing and doing that just gets me to zero, right? It just gets me to where most people who aren’t addicted begin.
Of course I am still critical. I always chicken out at the last minute. I start, I train, i write, I read, i take my pen and my paper, my books right there, the notes from discussions there, the timer set and — “oh, one game of solitaire won’t hurt” — then before you know it, it’s gone from solitaire to email to that video about [‘well, it’s kind of related to my research…]  to Angry Birds (dear god, what have I become?) — and by the time i pick up my pen again, or open the file on my computer, I’ve lost my nerve. I have to prepare again, breathe deep, review my notes, set the timer — On bad days, I’m covered with ick, have cleared two levels or won three out of umpteen games of solitaire, read two or three articles about whatever, answered the phone, written three emails, checked my email 235.3 times, and —
on good days, all that, plus written one five-sentence paragraph. it’s exhausting. The self-trashing alone–i tell you…
It’s time i learned, though. There are three things in my life that I have to dive into with my whole self–One is living sober. I can’t do jack about anything else if i’m hammered or obsessing about altering my consciousness. I can do anything if i’m staying sober and helping others achieve sobriety. Anything.
One is my dissertation, and what the hell to do with it after — i must not let it gather dust on a shelf–or whatever the digital equivalent of that is—i’m sure it has something to offer, and sixteen women told me the truth about their lives and work–The PhD, jesus. it’s so intimidating.
And one is my, um, primary intimate relationship. I’m not sure what exactly to call it–‘partner ship’ sounds kinda too much like business, ‘love affair’ doesn’t sound committed or serious enough, and ‘relationship’ isn’t specific enough. We’re friends, lovers, political allies, family, home — and in all that sometimes comfort, sometimes discomfort — it’s a journey and a place–a project and a lifework–it’s play and solace and sometimes it’s not — and she has children, too, two happy, healthy, confident and beautiful boys. I think they will grow up to be good men, even with all the pressure to become gendered (and they are that too, of course), but because of their mother and her friends, and their father’s devotion to them, they will always know who they are—and what they can achieve.
We had a deal for the first two years that we would not, during disagreements or fights, go to the “let’s just break up” option. We could revisit the agreement to be together around our anniversary date, make a new deal or keep the same one. Of course some painful stuff has come up, we have had hard moments so far. So it was comforting to have that agreement– it meant that we wouldn’t go to that in haste, we’d evaluate other options first. We don’t have that deal anymore, it was important when we made it, but we have to come up with something different now, more nuanced—something that accounts for what we’ve learned about how we are together and what we understand now about each other. It’s hard work this. I don’t mind (mostly). It’s sometimes a bit, well, anxiety-provoking and difficult — but so are most worthwhile commitments and adventures. She is brilliant and funny, impatient and demanding, she has really good politics (that’s hot), she’s uncompromising and generous, disciplined and impulsive, fiercely loyal and tenacious – she won’t give up on me IF I never give up. I love being with her. She is absolutely worth the work I have to do to be open, compassionate, thoughtful, generous and gracious.
Sometimes, even knowing that, I fail. I’m impetuous and petulant, sometimes lazy, defensive, liberal, self-seeking, thoughtless. I am learning, though, however slowly. All three of those big important things are all about learning and putting what i’ve learned to practice. Trying and failing and learning and trying again and succeeding and asking for help and…

non-sequiter coming right up–
I had a meeting with my committee recently, and when we started up, the first thing i did was cry. It wasn’t because i was afraid of what they would say about the six chapters i’d sent them. I worried they would say that I am not worthy, it’s not good, it doesn’t make sense, the arguments don’t hold together–but they didn’t say that. They said it needs a lot of work yet, but also that it’s substantial, remarkable, inspiring (!). Which is also frightening, but in a way different way.
**************************************************************************************

On December 20, 2013, the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously agreed to strike down most of Canada’s prostitution laws.

The decision is suspended, however, and the VERY Conservative government has one year to draft new legislation that will not infringe on the human rights of “sex workers”, as did the previous laws. Those laws were meant to criminalize such activities as, establishing and profiting from escort agencies or brothels, procuring women for the satisfaction of men’s sexual appetites and communicating for the purposes of prostitution–all laws which could have been (but were not) used to interfere with and constrain men’s demand for sexual access to women.

We went to an open house January 1st, my lover and I–a small New Year celebration of friends who live around the corner from me. We enjoy our friends–they are smart, interesting and generous. It was good to spend the first day of the Gregorian calendar with fine women and good food. There were lucky black-eyed peas and lentils, boiled cabbage and corned beef, cornbread and pecan tarts, and few other women at first. A couple who play bridge with one of our hosts, another neighbor who is a doctor of Chinese medicine, and a co-worker of one of the hosts — then more came.  Including a woman I used to know when we were on a steering committee together, and some other shared projects of the feminist variety.  Now she’s a local politician, or she was. We were never friends, really, though we were at one time allies. Not now, though, and not for a long time.

She’s a little older than I am, and as a young woman was part of the Abortion Caravan in 1970 — women from all over Canada, beginning in Vancouver, traveled together to Ottawa to demand legal, free abortion on demand. Wonderful, brave action, and part of a world-wide movement of women that was rising strong in those days. She was an organizer, and she was interested in women’s liberation from male domination. She would say she is still.

Anyway, she came to the party and sat next to me. She asked what i was doing now, and I told her that i am finishing my PhD. She asked what I was working on, and I told her, “front-line anti-violence workers, their engagement with harm reduction in relation to their work with women in prostitution”. She said that sounded interesting, and I said, “yea, timely too, now.” Then she said, referring to the Bedford decision, “What a great day that was”.

Sigh. People do not pay attention. I don’t know how she could NOT know my position on this.  Anyway, she does now. I said, “oh, Ellen, you and I are not on the same side on this issue at all. Of course women in prostitution, those selling sex must be decriminalized –“

“yes, of course” she said.

“But the pimps, the procurers, the men who buy sex–they’re the problem–the demand must be stopped. It is a big mistake to decriminalize them.” I looked at her, “Big mistake.”

She looked uncomfortable (I think), and then my girlfriend tapped me on the shoulder, “We should make room now for the new people coming,” and I was happy to do so.  Ellen nodded hello to her and we all smiled stiffly at each other. Then we kissed our hosts good bye, wished everyone a happy new year and walked into the grey rainforest afternoon.

We should be allies with ALL of the women who were there that afternoon, and more, besides. Especially women who organized in the 70s, who took such brave risks to ensure my freedom. But the best I can hope for from her now is that she will get out of the way. I don’t think she will–we are equally committed to our positions, it would appear. Perhaps she thinks I am in her way, as well.

Never mind. I just have to finish this damn thing, and then find out how to put it to use. It’s almost there, so close now, the culmination of many years of work. Yet still only a small part to add to the work of so many women before me, beside me and the women who will lead in the future. It is a hopeful beginning.

It’s 2014. Time to grow up.

about that last post…

I made some mistakes. if you got it, please don’t circulate it. I’m going back to the drawing board.

An unruly mob

Posted on

That’s what cancer is. it just gets in, and starts marauding all over the place.  Giving cellular reproduction and fission a bad bad name. It’s like when the cops send moles into peaceful demonstrations, or when undisciplined politicos go to organizing meetings. They start yelling and fomenting revolution and calling for direct action and mass organizing and “subvert the dominant paradigm!” and all this with Molotov cocktails and chairs smashing windows and it looks like a revolution, but it’s more of the same corruption of power and plays into the hands of the neo liberals. Cancer has no vision. It just lands somewhere and starts tearing shit down and putting up crappy slum housing. Cancer doesn’t care. it reproduces and becomes a mass here and a mass there, and starts taking yacht cruises through the blood stream and just ends up colonizing everything in the body. Cancer is the European of the disease world.  Walking right over all the cells that were already there, just going about their business.

Way, WAY more bad-ass than a virus or bacteria. It’s like rabbits in New Zealand.  Except not nearly as cute.

Jackie died May 30th. she was a big woman,  a humble genius– kinda misanthropic–with an eye for beauty, a soft spot for troublemakers and a devilish sense of humour.  She left a box of play scripts and stories, some paintings and collages, art cards, puppets, watercolour series’ of boiled eggs and strawberries; collages with lilies and sparkles; photographs from her life–

and she left a lot of love too. Nora and Polly, the love of her life and her oldest dearest friend — the beautiful people who were lifted by her talent and her eye for beauty. There’s no need to settle for less than bread and roses. She met death the way she lived her life — with curiosity, grace and humour. Surrounded by the people who loved her.

Her memorial is Sunday. She’s gone from us. But she’s still here in her art and her words.

damn, though.

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