Thursday, 2 January 2020

New Decade

On the eve of this new decade I once again read W.H.Auden’s poem September 1, 1939 and was struck by his reference to being “uncertain and afraid as the clever hopes expire of a low dishonest decade.” What adjectives would we use, I wondered, to describe the decade just passing? I decided that “greedy and diverted” would describe it best.
Through the past decade we have seen increases in wealth, homelessness, violence, hate crimes and endless consumption, and we have participated in diversions and distractions that might take our mind off such things. But lately it has become more and more difficult to ignore what's happening around us. Whether you're looking at videos of the raging fires in Australia, or watching a mourning ceremony for the disappearing Pizol glacier in Switzerland, or attending a vigil on Gabriola Island to protest anti-Semitic graffiti and swastikas sprayed on a Jewish summer camp, it’s difficult to escape from the shocking developments in our world, globally and locally. 
Elizabeth Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University says, “The science tells us that every gigaton we cut counts,” in avoiding a catastrophic future. I believe it is also true that every positive step we take to improve the lives of those around us counts in reducing hatred and violence.
Auden says, “Those to whom evil is done do evil in return” and “We must love one another or die.” I think he’s right and the moment is critical. Let’s do what we can to “show an affirming flame.”
It’s a timely poem. Worth reading at the start of this decade. We need to look at what’s going on in the world and use clear-sighted 20/20 vision. And we need to be acting, rather than distracting. It’s time.
Auden’s poem is also timely. It’s worth reading.

September, 1939

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,

Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism's face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
"I will be true to the wife,
I'll concentrate more on my work,"
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

From Another Time by W. H. Auden, published by Random House. Copyright


Saturday, 14 December 2019

Homelessness 2020


I hesitated before pulling in beside the taxi that was parked in front of my bank. From the passenger door a long leg had appeared. Stockinged foot, sock rumpled and unclean. Behind that, a torso slumped over against the dash. The taxi driver ran around to the front of my car and signalled for me to stop. After he retrieved a blue clog from the sidewalk, he waved me forward as he tried to fit the clog on that extended foot.

When I opened my car door, I heard a low growl and saw the owner of the leg. Long grey hair. A flowing beard. As the man stood up, the driver put an arm on his shoulder. “Are you sure you don’t want a ride downtown?” The man uttered a guttural shriek.

I asked the driver, “Do you need help?” He shook his head. ‘No…at least, I don’t think so.”

When I returned to the car, I could hear the man still shrieking. The taxi driver, now placing himself between the man and me, said, “This lady needs to get into her car.”  As I passed by, I heard the taxi driver say, “Now you keep that money safe. Put it out of sight.”

The driver took off hurriedly and the man walked over to my car and began to pound against the door and thump on the roof. He leaned toward my window and stared at me, howling. His expression was furious, beseeching, incomprehensible. His blue eyes were intense, penetrating. I remained motionless as the hammering on the roof continued, along with the snarls and moans. It was an inhuman sound, unlike any I’ve ever heard. The closest I’ve experienced are the screeches from the herons’ nests when the eagles swoop in and capture their chicks.

People walked along the sidewalk in front of me. They went in and out of the bank. Most of them stopped for a moment to stare at the roaring man but no one offered assistance. I thought back on times when community members have been moved to help each other. In the last few snowstorms, neighbours came to my door and brought soup. They offered to shovel my driveway. In certain circumstances, people have been moved to step up and offer help. And they felt better for it. But not in this kind of situation.

The man continued to circle my car, again and again, peering in at me, making that unearthly sound, hammering the roof. He was angry. Afraid. Terrifying. I didn’t think it would help if I got out of the car and tried to talk to him. I considered calling for help but was afraid to open the window. I could have phoned 911, but what good would that have done?  Finally, I leaned on the horn until the man staggered off, still howling.

After several minutes, I drove to the shopping mall. Surprised to find myself still trembling, I stayed in the car and wondered what I might have done differently. Not far away was the location of the tent city where three hundred people lived until temporary housing was constructed and the tent city was dismantled. The temporary housing accommodated 168 people, and I seem to remember that there was an application process in which the most motivated people with less critical problems were given preference for relocation. Where have the others gone?  The ones who whose psychiatric illnesses were pronounced or whose substance abuse was extreme?


Last year, I was one of the people who wrote letters in support of providing temporary housing for homeless people. I helped with welcome packages for the new residents, and had little sympathy for the neighbours of the shelters who complained that they were now afraid to leave their homes. Not surprisingly, there were some incidents when people moved into the shelter. An eight-foot wall was constructed around the compound and periodically people wrote abusive messages on it.


Several decades ago, I was a social worker on the psychiatric ward of our regional hospital. We set up a halfway house for individuals with psychiatric problems. Now there are a number of halfway houses but they are full with waiting lists and they are not designed to provide emergency responses for the growing number of homeless people who, despite psychiatric and substance use problems, are not connected to medical services.


Back when the food banks first began in our community, we social workers spoke out about the need for these services to be offered on a very short-term basis only as crisis interventions. We believed governments and communities could tackle the problems of poverty and homelessness, and that we would not continue to require such patchwork solutions. Now, all across our country, there are local, regional and national associations of food banks that are doing crucially important work to meet an ever-increasing demand. Our local food bank now has hired a Director of Development in order to help find ways of responding to the increasing need.

Some people have suggested that provincial institutions should be set up to incarcerate people with extreme psychiatric and addiction problems, but that only shifts the problem. As a community we need to find ways of supporting people who live amongst us.

At the grocery store, I added extra money on my tab to support the food bank. Then I stopped by the Salvation Army person who was collecting money in front of the liquor store and gave her all my change.

I thought about fingers and dykes. Walls and borders. The passing of bucks. Complexity, and an impossibly divided and broken world. About the new year ahead.

Thursday, 5 December 2019

Resilience and Hope

Last December I was given a Christmas cactus which had small white buds from which magnificent white blossoms shot forth – magically, it seemed, orgasmically, as each flower reproduced itself. After the blooms died, I put the plant out on my patio where it endured rain, snow, ice, freezing temperatures, and then heat and blazing sun. I had ignored it, forgotten about it, but a month ago I brought it inside, admiring the shiny green leaves that had lasted through the year. Soon small white buds reappeared and, despite my neglect, it bloomed even more profusely than the previous year.

The thought of it, a pleasing and resilient evergreen plant that asks for nothing, demands no care at all, responds to abuse with a generous cascade of blossoms! It made me wonder. If I were God, I decided, and I’d produced the Christmas cactus, I would not have gone on to create humans.

The world is in dire shape and it’s easy to feel hopeless. We humans have done great damage to our planet but there is yet much beauty out there and it's worth putting in some effort to salvage what we can. And it starts with maintaining hope.

When I sat down to try to sketch my Christmas cactus, I'd just learned that a beetle had been named after Greta Thunberg, that tireless young advocate for action on climate change. So, I decided to include the Greta Thunberg beetle in my sketch and let it carry the message of hope. Because even if it is true, as Thunberg has said, that hope is not enough, action can spring from hope. It’s a starting point in dark days.

In her new book, Almost Everything, Anne Lamott writes, “Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don't give up.”

She’s right. Humans can’t compare with Christmas cactuses, but we do have the capacity to hope and to act. We need to show up and we need to act. And positive action helps us to continue to be hopeful.



Saturday, 21 September 2019

Things that Matter

Yesterday I heard that our prime minister had been photographed wearing blackface make-up. He was in costume for a school fundraiser with a theme of Arabian Nights. That was in 2001.

The media went ballistic. No need to speak of crisis climate, health care, housing or any other of those possible election topics. The prime minister wore make-up that portrayed him as blackface. Later it became brownface. And then a second instance was reported. Now there seems to be evidence that there were three occasions when he appeared with blackface. This is the most important of pre-election news.

I don’t suppose the prime minister had bad intentions at the time and he has since apologized. He says he did not then think that his behaviour was racist but now he does and he deeply regrets what he did.

Racism is a serious problem and I’m glad that times have changed so that we now have to be much more careful about what we say and do.  Not long ago, things were very different. When I was young it was traditional at our Presbyterian church for the men of the church to do a minstrel performance at the annual Christmas concert. We all looked forward to it. I believe my father, who had a splendid bass voice, was wearing blackface when he sang “Ol’ Man River.” He didn’t think he was mocking anybody. He admired Paul Robeson more than any other person at the time. And, at that time, we all thought that imitation was the highest form of flattery. I think that proverb may go back to Marcus Aurelius, but we know better now.

Wearing blackface or brownface make-up as part of an Arabian Nights event would have seen by most people as a costume, not as mockery. Similarly, I did not think I was mocking the Roma people when I dressed my young daughter as a gypsy on Halloween. Nor was she mocking homeless people when she wore a hobo costume. My father-in-law, a very tall man of imposing bearing liked nothing better than donning a dress and a hat for a New Year’s Eve party. My mother-in—law did not feel she was being mocked -- and she happily helped him apply his rouge and lipstick. She thought it was funny.

The truth is, we used to kind of like dressing up. We liked pretending to be something that we were not. It was fun.

When I spoke of these things to my daughter, she replied that, confusing as it may be, the pendulum may need to swing the other way for a while. “The ‘we’ you are speaking about,” she said, “are all members of a specific ethnic and cultural group, and perhaps more conversation about how white people feel about white people’s behaviour is not the top priority.”  

That made me step back and rethink my own privilege. Born in Vancouver in 1942 to British-born parents in a comfortable neighbourhood. Being female had some limitations but, overall, it was an extremely fortunate situation that I took for granted. I had access to education and work opportunities that many others lacked. I did not question that.

Yes, times are changing -- and it is a very good thing that we old people must now become more sensitive and more aware.

Writers now have to be very conscious of appropriating the voice of others: non-indigenous people cannot write about indigenous people. Men should not write in a woman’s voice. We have to forget the advice of one of our Parliamentary poets and others who advised us to “write about what you don’t know.” On the contrary, these days we must all be careful never to pretend to be what we are not.

But I regret some of the limitations. Laurence Olivier could not now give his brilliant Othello performance and, although the theatre allows for lots of gender-switching, it’s not likely that a white man will ever be cast in that role.  Soon we will get rid of the Dame traditionally a woman played by a large man in the Christmas pantomimes. From the other perspective, though, it was wonderful to see the two women who played the lead male roles in Coriolanus at Bard on the Beach this summer; it was a gripping performance in which I was mostly oblivious of sex or race.

Privileged Caucasian people, of whom I am one, cannot these days give our imagination free reign. Rather, we must mostly stay within the confines of our own narrow little lives. We will learn to do that.

In the meantime, it's heartening to see that the young people I know are conscious and respectful of diversity. They deplore racism and are clear that wearing blackface make-up is wrong.


They are also concerned about the state of the planet and, as we approach an election, they want to know more about the platforms of all the political parties on important issues such as climate change, health care, funding for education, and so on, rather than being bombarded with media reports of “scandals.”


This is an important election. Would it not be better to focus our discussions on the substantive measures that truly could improve the lives of disadvantaged and racialized residents in Canada?


Tuesday, 3 September 2019


“You’re a usage snob,” my friend tells me.

“Better a usage snob than a usage slob,” I snap back.

The key word I chose for this year was “evolve” which means to develop gradually but it also implies growth or maturity, not merely to be changed.
There is a Greek word, apoptosis, which means natural death of cells. I read that its ancient Greek usage was to describe the “falling off” of petals from flowers. That description makes me feel wistful. I see such a falling off all around me. It makes me resolve to evolve into a nicer person.

It’s not easy, when it's not in your nature, to be nice to and about everyone and everything, but I’ll try. Smile more. Say nice things. Agree with others that people and things are nice. Secretly, though, I will snicker about the etymology of the word nice: from the Latin nescius, meaning ignorant. Or the Old French meaning, careless, clumsy, stupid.

I know I’ve been complaining too much about the persistent and pervasive use of the word lovelyLovely is from the old English luffic and once meant affectionate, loveable, but, as George P. Marsh pointed out in The Origin and History of the English Language,“ it is now used indiscriminately to all pleasing material objects, from a piece of plum-cake to a Gothic cathedral.” Language evolves, but I don't always like it.

I tell my friend that I am an old crank. She agrees.

Yet I am determined to evolve.
I can stop being cranky.

Become nice.

Watch for it!

It will be lovely.



Monday, 5 August 2019

Opression, Poverty, William Blake

William Blake wrote his poem, Auguries of Innocence, more than two centuries ago, but much of it seems quite current. I have always thought that the first four stanzas might help encourage people to abandon mindless travel to escape boredom or the cold in favour of staying home and paying attention to what is close at hand:


To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower 

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand 

And Eternity in an hour


   The next eight lines speak to the horror of confinement, slavery, hunger, and suffering, conditions which Blake says enrage heaven, frighten the regions of hell, and call for reparation. The lines should frighten many politicians.


A Robin Red breast in a Cage

Puts all Heaven in a Rage 

A Dove house filld with Doves & Pigeons

Shudders Hell thr' all its regions 

A dog starvd at his Masters Gate

Predicts the ruin of the State 

A Horse misusd upon the Road

Calls to Heaven for Human blood


Auguries of Innocence is very long and complex and I am not a Blake scholar, so I would not attempt to give an analysis of the poem, but in addressing oppression and poverty it is quite clear that he sees them resulting in grave reprisal:


The Babe that weeps the Rod beneath

Writes Revenge in realms of Death 

The Beggars Rags fluttering in Air

Does to Rags the Heavens tear.


At the end, the poem acknowledges inequity -- although it suggests that it might change each morning, each evening: 


Every Night & every Morn

Some to Misery are Born 

Every Morn and every Night

Some are Born to sweet delight 

Some are Born to sweet delight 

Some are Born to Endless Night 


Finally, it warns that we will be led to believe a lie unless we see through the eye of some larger light, which for Blake is God and only when we see through that light is a Human Form is displayed:

We are led to Believe a Lie

When we see not Thro the Eye

Which was Born in a Night to perish in a Night 

When the Soul Slept in Beams of Light 

God Appears & God is Light

To those poor Souls who dwell in Night 

But does a Human Form Display

To those who Dwell in Realms of day.

For Blake, this Human Form would be Jesus, the ideal human being. I am not a religious person, so I do not see this poem in religious terms, but to me it proposes that one can understand larger issues through the small things that are close at hand. Indeed, maybe Blake is telling us that we can only grasp the meaning of large ideas by seeing them through what is immediate and nearby.

All of this, without my even having to refer to the climate crisis, seems testimony to the value to be found in simply staying home. Or as Ram Dass would say …being …here… now.




Thursday, 30 May 2019

In Search of One’s Self

When I was young, people often spoke about Self-consciousness and Self-doubt, aspects of personality that were frequent conditions back then, and about the need for successful people to develop Self-esteem. In the 1930’s and 1940’s, Dale Carnegie had produced several popular books and delivered hundreds of lectures on this topic of Self-confidence. Freudian and Jungian psychoanalysts promoted Self-exploration and towards a goal of Self-knowledge. In the 1950’s, Abraham Maslow gave us the concept of Self-actualization as the highest stage of personal development. This led to the human potential movement of the 1960’s and 70’s, a time when institutions made it clear that ordinary people could seek personal growth and Self-awareness through workshops on sexuality, Self-expression, psychodrama, Gestalt therapy, primal screaming, astrological awareness and a host of other Self-improvement approaches.  

Throughout the next couple of decades, the glorification of Self flourished with approaches that focused on Self-worth in terms of one’s financial portfolio. There were best-selling books on the habits of highly successful people. Nietzschean concepts of Self-management, Self-autonomy and Self-mastery were revived; the sovereign individual was celebrated. Personal appearance was highlighted and expensive programs on pursuing excellence and dressing for success were marketed. We began to pay more attention to how we look, and the “lookist” society thrived.

Then came the cell phone. Now we can instantly capture our looks and successes in every aspect of our lives. We can circulate our mirrored reflections to the world at large. Hairstyles, pedicures, shoes, breakfasts, doobies, margaritas, tequila shooters, cappuccinos, electric bicycles, home d├ęcor, sunglasses, underwater massage experiences, etc., can be instantly replicated and circulated to a global audience.

Does this Self-regard increase our happiness, our Self-esteem? Do the hearts and likes and affirmations from hundreds of followers increase our Self-confidence? Or are we as filled with Self-doubt as much as we ever were? Many psychologists have proposed that selfies are exacerbating insecurity, anxiety and depression and decreasing confidence.

Can we escape this omnipresent presence of Self-regard? About fifty years ago, in discussing Albert Camus’ The Stranger, my college instructor spoke of “the prison cell of Self.” Is that concept relevant today? It seems, instead, that our current philosophical dilemmas are the result of the imprisoning cellphone of Selfies.