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Category Archives: love. simple.

Influence

I don’t know what i’m doing, but i’m having so much fun doing it. I’m teaching again, another gang of new teachers, and oh! I love them. They handed in their first assignments to me last week, autobiographies. You cannot know someone’s story and not love them. I heard that from some storyteller or other  a long time ago and i’ve tested it out since. it’s the first assignment i give to my students, and each time I am amazed, and inspired and moved by their candour and hope and confidence and suffering.

They are going to be teachers. They will influence young people everywhere. Maybe they think they can make some lasting change that they will recognize in their lifetime. Maybe they just want summers off. Do any of us know what we’re doing? I give that assignment partly so I can know them a little and find a way in, so i can see them–and partly so they can know themselves, in the context of their lives, their social location. Are you working class or upper class? How has your gender training influenced how much power you hold (or share, or reach for, or don’t have) in the world? What did your parents do? Who are they? what shaped you? How do you shape the world you are in? Hard questions, unanswerable in some ways. Why do you want to be a teacher, what influenced your decision?

The answers were astonishing and mundane and monumental and trivial. Radiant and flawed. Human.

What does it mean to learn and to teach?

Last night, I went to a meeting, and this guy told a story. I missed the story, ’cause i went to the bathroom just as he started talking, but other people told me about it later (including him). Here’s the story he told:

It was summer. His life had become a country and western song. His girlfriend had died in his arms two weeks previous, he had injured his back while moving, he was broke, (there was something about his cat in the story too–it had run away or died or something, I don’t know), and he had had enough. Enough. He resolved to go to the liquor store and get hammered. All the way to the liquor store, he talked himself into drinking, told himself no one would know, he wasn’t hurting anyone, he was in pain, people would understand, of course he had to drink, this was unbearable. And all the way there, he took back alleys so no one would see him. And all the way there he prayed to god to give him a sign, to let him know whether or not he was doing the best thing he could do, or show him some way.

Then he saw me. And that was enough. He saw me, he took that as his sign and he went home and started painting pictures.

He told that story, and just finished telling it when i came out of the bathroom. He looked at me and everyone laughed, and he said to me, “Thank you”. My friend leaned over and said, “you saved him. I’ll tell you later.”

Of course it wasn’t me who saved him. He had heard me speak at meetings, and we had seen each other around. I didn’t see him on that afternoon, in that alley. He saw me and remembered where it was he knew me from, and remembered something I had said and something I often say is, “you are worth better. you matter. We all do.” But i was only repeating some things that i had learned, and that made sense to me. So it wasn’t me who saved him. We all did.

That’s what i am trying to teach, mostly. See, it’s like working out, learning is. If you know how to do a few key things, it will give you the foundation to do anything. I love squats, for example. Wonderful exercise, squats are. They give you legs like oak trees, explosive power, core strength and can even help increase your lung capacity. When i started lifting weights, i was weak, asthmatic, couldn’t run or swim. It took a few false starts, but i found that i loved pumping iron. loved it. And i became strong. Really strong. And I started to run, and swim and i rode my bike everywhere, and i used my asthma rescue meds much less and I could do much more.

Learning is like that. If you explore one thing really thoroughly, you can use that exploration to inform other intellectual pursuits. See, i love Bourdieu’s theories of cultural reproduction and how domination and inequality are reinforced, and even though he’s hard to read and understand, once you find a way in, you can use your understanding of his thought to figure out how all kinds of things work. I can reject some of his concepts, too, in certain contexts, but then find some other way to understand what’s going on. And I can read other theorists, too, and figure out what they are talking about. It’s making sense, too– one little bit at a time.

It’s parallel to regular workouts. I have done the leg presses and the stretching and the warm ups and the building up from using light weights at first, to 200 lbs for one rep* (barefoot, no wraps, no belt). And i can breathe better and run faster and think better than I could before. One little bit at a time.

Does that make sense? See, if when you’re teaching, you give people a range of ideas and means by which they can investigate and understand these phenomena then they can find a way in. If we can wrestle with these ideas in a way that will spark curiosity, maybe they will gain the confidence to read further, and deeper and change their practices to see if the theory can make it better. But if you just go, “yea, this is how you write cursive” or”this is the life cycle of the fruit fly”, maybe that’s not enough–that’s more like using only machines to work out and not barbells and body weight.

Where is this going? I don’t know. I do know that everything we do matters. We all have moments of inattention, but if we have a big vision of what we want to achieve and if we try to do the next right thing, and try to be intentional, then we will both grow stronger and have some affect on the world around us. We all have some influence in how things go. We are all teaching. We may never know, though. I might never have known that i had any influence on that guy who told the story of the sign he got from god.

If there is a god, it has a great sense of humour, sending as a sign a radical feminist lesbian atheist to the suffering alcoholic.  Good one, God.

*that’s when i’m pre-menstrual. I’m always strongest in the week before I bleed.

well, doesn’t that just take the cake?

the evening of August 26,  I, as they say in that non-political anarchist group i belong to, “took a cake”.  It’s been three years since i last smoked dope, which was what I did to take the edge off after I quit drinking, three years ago in April.

the topic i chose was “we will not regret the past, nor wish to close the door on it”, from the promises. in recent months I have been haunted. time is a strange thing, it kind of shrinks or expands. Memory shifts, splits, and mumbles to itself in the corner. the longer i go without drinking, and the more I consider another way to live “life on life’s terms”, the more the defensive layers slip off, revealing the sources of mistakes, the cause of remorse; a fountain of volatile rage fed by a spring of fear. Dread.

I have written here about my older brother, dead before my birth, but always present; and about my mother’s fierce love of her children–those nights facing down the rattle of the Wheeze family in revolt in the treehouse in my chest (I named them the Wheezes, they were sometimes companions, and sometimes adversaries. This is still the case).  That is the context of who i have become. A certain sense of entitlement, a confidence that i am worthy of tenderness and protection. But coupled with that was constant fear. Constant.  and that fear twisted into humiliation, embarrassment, shame and then anger. Rage.

So much pressure. So much love. So much expectation. Not bad, not in a bad way. We should all be so lucky. We are not.

That protective cloud of fear and sorrow with celebration and protection covered my childhood like a blanket. I remember endless sunny days and the nights lit with a million stars in the sky. And I remember many nights at the kitchen table with Mom, sipping hot honey and lemon and talking about everything and waiting until the orchestra packed up and went home for the night. Mom and I carefully two-stepping our way through my childhood to the music of the Wheeze Orchestra string section. I don’t really take those dances with death so seriously.  we don’t have much of a memory of pain–it would be too hard, I guess. So many more people suffer so much more. Nearly everyone else in the world has a much more harrowing story. But still, those nights, the sudden wakefulness without air, the struggle to rise from sleep and catch my breath, breath elusive–tripping and diving just above me, out of reach–“I…can’t…”

Mom: “Breathe deep and relax, honey” i was never aware of fear in her voice. But I know it was in her heart.

Memory–Mom driving her little Dodge Cricket fast through the midnight streets of Red Deer, barely slowing for the traffic lights flashing yellow till the dawn.  We clear the train tracks, nearly taking to the air.  pull into the Emergency entrance of the hospital, and Mom talking slow and calm, “breathe deep and relax, honey, we’re almost there”, me leaning on her arm. the bright lights, the wheelchair, the nurses, an oxygen mask, then the needle in the arm–it was called Adrenaline then, now it’s the same stuff, but it’s called Epinephrine.  The effect is immediate, a million tight bands unfurl in my chest, heart skips and speeds, heat. blood rushing faster to my head, my chest, my limbs all tingling. Oh the relief. Exhaustion too, but sleep is impossible for a few hours yet.

Many years later, my mother comes to a  meeting with me. This spring, in fact. She cries when I tell people how much she loved me,  she and my dad.  I drank at first because it calmed the dread, the anxiety, the social uncertainty. Then I drank to mute the pain, knowing that i was not living up to my potential, that I was squandering the gifts from my family, my fortunate birth. and then it was just because i couldn’t stand myself. and I was lonely. Johnny Walker was my only friend.  The topic of the meeting is “rigorous honesty”, and there is my mom, sniffling in the corner there. My friends attend to her, I know she is there, I don’t remember now what i said, but when I sit down, she squeezes my hand and touches my cheek and whispers “i’m proud of you, honey”.

during the second half of the August 26 meeting, we heard a woman screaming outside. At first I thought she was just hollering in some drunken celebration, but it wasn’t long before we heard distress. we all shifted around in our chairs. ‘should we go out?’ finally some men went out. then H left to attend to her– (i’ve told you about her in this blog before–there has been a big shift in our friendship lately, maybe i’ll write more about that some other time. it’s all good, anyhow)–and soon we heard a siren. finally i went out, too. the young woman was HAMMERED and alternately crying and laughing and jumping around and lying on the grass. Two men were with her, one took off when the cops came, the other stayed with her. he told us they were on their way to the meeting, but she stopped at the liquor store and got a bottle and downed it. then she started hitting the man who ran away. both the men tried to restrain her, but she yelled louder then. H. said the woman had, in one small, quiet moment, told her that she had been raped as a child. Her rapist was a man in her family. Somehow she knew she could talk to her, somehow she knew that her secret would be safe with H. And one of  the paramedics assured H that he would make sure the girl went to the hospital not the drunk tank.

this is why we drink–the horrible pain of violation and betrayal is too much to bear. the contradiction of loving the man who attacked you. the sorrow of blaming yourself for keeping the secret, for not knowing who to tell, the confusion…that girl tried both things she knew to stop hurting, aiming for an AA meeting and aiming for the jar store. she found a feminist. if she uses the number that H gave her maybe she can rise with us. if she can find a thread of belief in her own worth, that thread will lead her to a slender freedom, the one we are trying to broaden together.

We don’t have to drink. If we are together, if we are honest, if we take good care of each other, we do not have to drink. We do not regret the past, nor wish to shut the door on it.  We need our histories, our context, our stories. And from that, we weave together a future. Life is just fine this way. Simple, not easy.

Beginning again.

We met downtown after work. She works in some corporate office — insurance? until she goes to school this fall. I worked that day at the transition house/rape crisis centre. we’d planned this for a couple of weeks. It was a warm evening. We had ice cream (she bought–a gift) and walked down to the beach.

That slide looks fun. She said. Or did I say that?

the slide is in English Bay. When the tide is up (like it was at the time of this conversation) you can swim out to it and slide down from a GREAT HEIGHT into the ocean.

Wanna strip off and go in our underwear? i said

no way! she said

I started emptying my pockets. earplugs (this is my homicide prevention kit, i told her and she laughed and said -ever since you told me that about everyone’s ipods competing for airspace on the bus, that bugs me too-), a rock, my inhaler, a receipt a ten-dollar bill some change a paper clip my wallet. I put it into my pack. my shoes are already off, socks rolled into them.

I said, let’s go in our clothes, then–you’ve got office-y clothes, are those linen? they’ll dry quick–

she takes off her necklace and her rings, grinning and shaking her head, -i don’t know about this- she says -what about our stuff?

These young people look like they’ll stay and look after it, i said to her and went to ask them, –while we fling ourselves, fully clothed, into the ocean, will you watch our stuff?

they smiled and said okay and looked at us like we were kind of weird.

We have this kind of relationship, she and I. It’s always been, since she was a child, that one or the other of us would goad the other into something daring, foolhardy, exciting.

we haven’t done this kind of thing since she was a child.

We are beginning again.

we rushed into the water, screaming before we left the beach –YIYIYIYIYI!–and then there we were chest deep in salt water, pebbles and barnacles nipping our toes.

Cold!

but the salt, oh it heals, yes.

we looked at each other. we laughed and laughed and gasped at the cold.

Not since she was a child.

Do you remember, I asked, when we rented one of those tandem bikes and got a flat before we were half way? And i pushed it mostly with you on it and we got hot dogs and went around the seawall anyway and then i got my money back? do you remember?

No. she said. no i don’t. but i remember roller blading with you.

Something about spontaneous things, -she said- i hope my clothes aren’t see-through-

she climbed onto the raft with the slide first. Am i see-through? she said.

Nope, i said, not you or your clothes.

we both went sliding twice. i got some mysterious cuts on my face–my glasses somehow? a random barnacle?

She laughed. oh this is fun. what a good idea.

the salt. it heals.

and we rode the bus home. pools forming at our feet. we acted like we were like everyone else–dry and tired from work. except for the moments when we’d catch each others eye and smile.

beginning again.