TAR-STAINED AND TATTERED

Last evening, I attended a concert in a perfectly renovated hundred-and-fifty-year-old church in my home town. We sat at ninety-degree angles on stiff wood benches, huddled together inside that beautiful and ornate old building listening to a musical group that calls itself LaNef.

The men on stage (on the altar), seven in all, were there to perform sea songs and shanties in the purest tradition of the sailors of the Atlantic (with the exception of the song Rolling Down to Old Maui).

In the evening’s program, I read: “Our goal here tonight is to present these songs, not only as they have always been sung, but also as music to be listened to. It is no small challenge to drag these pieces, tar-stained and tattered, into the concert hall. We hope to give you something new to listen to in these pieces.”

 They sure did. Reverberating off the wooden walls and arches of an old church, those songs take possession of you, swirl around inside your head and chest and squeeze your heart. And you find yourself awash in feelings and images from a world of groaning wooden ships and motley crews of men, and the cold, grey, salty sea with waves crashing and rolling, and gales blowing mercilessly, and the men chilled to the bone and hanging on for dear life.

Those seven men up on the stage sang and played their hearts out, and what they sang was beautiful, funny and sometimes tender but of course it was also about the punishing harshness of being at sea and living that life—a thousand years ago, and today. Which is why their songs made me laugh and made me want to cry as they transported me away from my own, comfortable world.

It was easy for me to let go and follow them, because a hidden part of me has been living among large cargo ships and frosty air for months now. First, there’s been my son Jeremy’s life with his new employer: a large ocean-going dry-bulk shipping company, and his frequent travels to board and inspect his company’s fleet. Last July, Jeremy opened an unforeseen door in his brother Christian’s life when he made it possible for Christian to take a three-month contract working as the Boarding Clerk on behalf of the same company, at the port built by its business partner, a corporation that mines iron ore in Milne Inlet, Baffin Island, Canada.

The northern tip of Baffin Island, X marks Milne Inlet

Before leaving for his hundred-day stint at the “sixth northernmost community on Earth” (his words), Christian spent a day with Jeremy, inspecting a ship berthed here in Quebec, meeting the mostly Indian crew, and slowly catching the scent of the distinctive culture and language of the life of mariners. This hundred-day Arctic contract was an opportunity to make some serious money—the life of a young actor and writer is precarious—and seemed like it would be a hell of an adventure.

The northern tip of Baffin Island, X marks Milne Inlet

Christian left for Milne Inlet on July 19th, and arrived at his temporary new home —well within the Arctic Circle and separated from Greenland on its northern side by Baffin Bay—on the 20th.  Nothing he had done previously to get himself ready (buying lots of extra warm clothes, a pair of indestructible-waterproof-extreme-cold-resistant-protective-steel-capped-boots, a good camera, and several pairs of sunglasses for the days of endless sunlight) made any kind of dent in the reality of living in an Arctic mining camp.

None of it made Christian a sailor. He’s spent these last three months of his life at the mining port, working alongside his superior, Captain P, a veteran seaman, hardened by years of often thankless and even dangerous work and crushing responsibility; alpha down to his bone marrow and surefooted whatever the conditions, both inside and outside the port’s office.

The port at Milne Inlet
(photo: August 2015)

Christian won’t have become a sailor, because the extent of his travel upon the surface of the water was the distance between the tugboats he sailed almost daily and the ships at anchor further off in the Inlet that he had to board in order to begin the endless amounts of paperwork that were his responsibility.

But he will have smelled the brackish water of the inlet daily, and grown fond of it. He’ll have discovered that he’s as steady as any member of any deck crew when it comes to climbing the gangway to board a cargo ship, and looked forward to each and every visit. On the worst, choppy, heavy, restless days at Milne Inlet, he’ll have found his sea legs aboard the tossing and tilting tugboat, and been proud of it. And he will have grown to admire the mariners he had the honour of meeting with every boarding.

The ice arrives at Milne Inlet
October 2017 (photo by Christian Daoust)

When he finally does arrive back home after a hundred days of endless work and ruined circadian rhythms, having lived with miners and truckers, cooks, cleaners and stevedores, engineers and technicians—all male and all constantly counting off the days till their two-week rotations ended and they could head home for an equal number of days off— Christian, standing by and watching them come and go while he stayed put, will have peered, as through a porthole, into the lives of the men on each and every ship that entered Milne Inlet, duty bound to fill her holds with iron ore, their destinies linked to their ship’s, all of them a long, long way from home, and perhaps only a few weeks into a six or ten-month round-trip.

Rougher seas: October 14th, 2017
Photo by Christian Daoust, from the tug

He may feel a kinship with the Russian, Indian, Finnish and Filipino seamen whose lives intersected with his at the frigid top of the world.

I think if Christian had been with me at the concert last night, he, perhaps more than anyone else in the church, would have been moved by the tar-stained and tattered sea songs and shanties of his brothers in spirit.

Christian

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE DREAM OF DEEP AND VITAL SLEEP

Keirle, Gordon; Guardian of Sleep; Leicestershire County Council Artworks Collection; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/guardian-of-sleep-82510

I suffer so from poor sleep—

Interrupted sleep, to be precise.

(I can barely keep my eyes open after nine pm)

And once again, last night,

awoken by noise and movement,

I found myself staring at the digital display

on the clock radio:

 1:30

(I was unlucky, it’s usually more like

3:10 or 3:30 or even 4:00)

 

 

When this happens, I know

I’ll toss and turn for a long,

time-devouring stretch,

awash in thoughts of everything

unresolved in my life, feeling flushed,

ants of anxiety under my skin.

Sometimes, if four is antemeridian, and

I find myself awake, I forfeit the sleep

in exchange for time alone which

is nothing like lonely or uneasy,

but feels rather more like time stolen,

appropriated from the Universe and

made mine.

There’s a cost to this brazen shoplifting

of minutes and hours—a penalty.

Research shows that the hours unslept

are snatched from the end of our lives.

(I learned this only this week)

This seems unjust, and yet

While I covet the dream of deep and vital sleep,

I’m caught red-handed with the irony

that I did in fact fall back into sleep sometime

after 1:30 this morning, held on tight till

7:02 and have felt cheated

and pressed for time

ever since.

Selway, John; ‘As I rode to sleep’ Fern Hill Series; Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/as-i-rode-to-sleep-fern-hill-series-162254

 

AT ANY REMOVE

I hear and read a lot about

our enslavement to technology—

especially to our smart phones.

I call them that without irony in spite of what people say.

 

There’s a photographer who wanted to

show us how lonely

we’ve become, how alienated from

each other,

by having people pose—couples,

families, friends and lovers—

holding invisible phones.

He called his project Removed.

Seeing the cleverness in his black and white photos, people began

sharing them on Facebook, on Twitter,

virtually every which way;

which did seem ironic to me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I placed my smart phone on the kitchen counter

after work today, while I was preparing supper.

It didn’t take long for its black screen to light up and then

it buzz-buzzed as it vibrated.

It was one of my three sons, messaging in, interested

in the day I had, and wanting me to look

at something he’d written; happy to HAHAHAHAHAHA

and emoji in response to

a funny photo I took of the inside of the dishwasher

(there’s a private story there)

 

We were conspirators in real time,

he in his apartment and me in my kitchen, and I just know

that we were both smiling in real time, and I thought

how wonderful my small black phone is to bring

my beautiful son right into the kitchen next to me,

and just then, his younger brother, working way up

in the Arctic, at 72° 15’ 00” N / 80° 30’ 00” W,

(which is easily found on your GPS-enabled phone)

began texting me too. Bzzz-buzz-buzz

 

Thanks to my smart phone, my sons

were no longer at

any remove at all.

 

August 29th 2017

 

HATING HATRED

Pilbro, Anthony; Idealogical Conflict; Herbert Art Gallery & Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/idealogical-conflict-55424

Hate will only eat the truth, then spit out a lie.”   -Anthony Liccione

There are words that feel like they embody their own meaning. The shape and the sounds of them as they escape the speaker’s mouth carry their emotional charge.

Love, lovely…Beginning as they do with the L right at the front of the mouth, and then the O that opens the mouth—they are like verbal caresses. Like gentle emotional exhalations.

And then there are those whose effect is the reverse. As a lover and teacher of language, I’m sensitive to these. I’ve been struck by the word UGLY, with its built-in exclamation of disgust: Ugh! And struck, too, that in other languages, it’s also without beauty. It’s one of the words I remember easily from my high school Spanish classes: FEO (pronounced fay-o), which has a merciless quality to it. In French class, when I’m introducing my students to the morphology and meaning of adjectives, I find myself pausing at the word for ugly, LAIDE (the feminine form, pronounced just like the English word “led”), or LAID (the masculine form—the D is silent). In each of these languages, there’s no way of saying it without it sounding harsh, judgemental and filled with disdain.

C’est laid! (it’s ugly).

Ugh.

Bacon, Francis; Head VI; Arts Council Collection; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/head-vi-63093

When it comes up, I always ask my students whether it’s a word they use, and if so, how. And the consensus among us, regardless of our mother tongue, is that ugly is a word that is almost never required—and certainly not to describe people. When put on the spot, neither I nor my students ever seem to be able to come up with an example of someone we find so objectionable in appearance that they warrant being called ugly.

And then there’s HATE, with its hissed H. No matter what it sounds like in the languages of the world (does a word for it exist in every language, I wonder?), HATE is terrible, caustic, powerful, and vile when it’s aimed at human targets.

Taylor, S.; Group of Figures in Reds; The University of Nottingham; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/group-of-figures-in-reds-46569

HATE. The roots of the word run deep, and it seems that no definition adequately encompasses the harm it can wreak. “Intense dislike” doesn’t begin to describe what I’ve seen unleashed in the world these past few years. I was a victim of both violence and bullying in childhood and adolescence, but I don’t know that I’ve ever felt hatred toward anyone. Honestly. Hate hurts, no matter which end of it you’re on.

The recent Charlottesville riots brought hate into my life in such pornographic fashion that for days, I felt ill; overwhelmed by a sense of sadness and shame for my race—the human race— and disgusted to be a member of a species that’s capable of emotional and cognitive savagery that is a form of self-immolation (hatred exists nowhere else in nature). It got me thinking about this heinous thing that I was seeing in faces and hearing in voices raging “You will not replace us!” “Jews will not replace us!” “Blood and Soil!” Blood and Soil!” “Whose streets? Ours streets?”. It expressed a desire for the brutish, degenerate shunning of most of the population: a rampant, mob propelled hysterical impulse to hunker down in a diminished world: one which, to me, would look a lot like what’s left in the sink strainer when everything else has flowed down the drain.

It was “Us” vs “Them”.

I know hatred when I see it and hear it, because I feel it. Hatred can be an invisible, cold, calculating and soulless thing, but at the Charlottesville neo-Nazi, fascist, white supremacist marches, its unleashed incarnation was rabid and fanatical. I believe that I saw a willingness, by a group of zealots, to lay waste to everything that harbours “Them”. In other words, a lethal campaign motivated by something dark and ugly (yes, the adjective is definitely appropriate here) and fratricidal.

Robson, George; Confrontation; Durham County Council; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/confrontation-43946

What must it feel like to be one of those men holding torches and chanting hideous refrains? Do they feel their skin crawling? Do they experience an adrenaline-fuelled release of toxicity: shame, resentment, anger,  fear, frustration and self-loathing? Surely it’s painful to be held in the grip of such poisonous thoughts and feelings.

“I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.” 
― 
James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

The close-up shots of some of the marching Haters revealed the monstrousness of hate. The men on camera reminded me of angry baboons and hyenas.

 

To hate requires that a person summon stores of energy—a negative, aggressive, focused malignancy— and stoke it day after day. How can a person remain in such a corrosive state of being?

Once you kill all of us, and you’re alone, you’ll die! The hate will die. That hate is what moves you, nothing else! That envy moves you. Nothing else! You’ll die, inevitably. You’re not immortal. You’re not even alive, you’re nothing but moving hate.”
― Ray Bradbury, A Pleasure to Burn: Fahrenheit 451 Stories

Thouless, Angela; Watch Your Back; Art & Heritage Collections, Robert Gordon University; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/watch-your-back-105990

We’re not made to live this way. Nor are we made to cut ourselves off from our fellow humans. We’re programmed to feel what others feel and seek connection with them. All of THEM. We’re designed to recognise ourselves in each other. WE and THEY are simply the two sides of US.

I heard it said several times that you can only hate what you once loved. At first it gave me pause, but I’ve since come to believe that it’s nonsense. I prefer to pin my hopes on the belief that you can come to love what —and those—you have hated.

The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.”
― Viktor E. Frankl

 

Philipson, Robin; The Cockfight; Fife Council; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-cockfight-124885

 

 

POWERLESS

There was that ominous prelude yesterday, mid-afternoon, when the storm clouds rolled in, one after the other, angry and thick and imminent.

And then there was a single, explosive crack of thunder that made me jump right up out of my chair, grab my phone and head to the front porch, where I stood, heart thumping, waiting.

 

I wanted to collect footage of the moisture and the deep green darkness that blanketed our street—enveloped as we always are by the canopy of tall trees—to send to Christian, who presently lives in a place where nature mostly manifests itself as absence.

 

And then the sky and everything in the moment seemed to stand still, and in the dark of the charcoal clouds, there was a such a hush, a void of sound, and the most ominous stillness I’ve ever felt outside of a cinema. Like nature sucking in her breath.

And then, the first rain sounds: like rice confetti, then like shelling. And the wind picked up, fierce and angry. I also made out the sounds of an airplane taking off from Dorval (what must that have been like?). It seemed to be groaning, labouring to climb up above the electrically charged cloak of storm clouds.

 

And I shot short bursts of video that would soon travel to Christian, thanks to a Messenger that’s quick as lightning, and immerse him in WEATHER: green, lush, swishing, howling, rumbling, wet and windy.

And then, around 3pm, the power went out, just as I was finishing. It stayed out till some time during the night. And whatever plans I had or Sylvain had for the rest of the day were snuffed out.

McGinn, Martin; Well; Rugby Art Gallery and Museum Art Collections; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/well-54817
Reading by candlelight, last evening.

Sensing this could be a long outage, we decided to resist opening the fridge for any reason (and them, immediately began craving drinks with ice!). We ended up  going out to eat fast food slowly, delaying powerlessness as long as we could, until finally, we headed home. Out came the candles, which I stacked onto TV tables, placed strategically beside the sofa Sylvain occupied and the armchair I’d settled in, and there we remained, with our books and enough light to lose ourselves in them, quietly, till our eyelids got heavy.

Reading by candlelight, last evening.

THE DIVERSITY OF “WE”

Since the month of May, my son Simon has traveled to the Ecuadorian rain forest and back, scouting possible future locations to bring enthusiastic college science students who want to get a feel for the study of biological systems in situ.

Just a few weeks later, his twin, Jeremy, traveled to Istanbul and then to Varna, Bulgaria, with a mission to inspect huge cargo ships for his employer.

And last but not least, off went their younger brother Christian on July 19th to begin a three-month stay in the northern part of Canada’s Baffin Island—a place just slightly less alien than the surface of Mars.

Welcome to the twenty-first century! When it comes to destinations, ecosystems and cultures, it doesn’t get much more diverse than that.

Of course, their lives aren’t always this nomadic, but Simon, who is perhaps the least likely to travel abroad on a regular basis, has already visited the Americas—North and South—Europe and Australia.

There’s nothing of the retro cool or counter-cultural VW Westphalia quaintness to their adventures. It’s just one dimension of what globalisation means to the generation knocking at the door, poised to take over (probably a step behind Gen X) from my generation, known as the baby boom in the West, that’s fast losing its relevance, anchored as it is to past paradigms that have become cement blocks tied to its leaden feet, and unable to keep up.

Vintage Westphalia camper

Their time can’t come soon enough, as far as I’m concerned. The planet is their oyster, in ways that it can never be for most of their elders. The world came to their neighbourhoods and classrooms. It never did for me. When I was in grade school, the most exotic classmate I had was Kamilla Giedroyc, a sweet girl from Hungary (so unusual was she, that decades later, I still remember her name). But as my sons grew up, here in Montreal, French Canadian names no longer dominated class attendance lists: these were filled instead by the names of children arriving from the Caribbean, China, India, Africa, the Middle East and the rest of Asia, Central and South America, Eastern Europe, and Russia and its former republics. The first Omar who appeared in the school yard took a bit of ribbing for his name (the French word, homard, pronounced exactly like Omar, means lobster—the kids couldn’t resist), but within months, there was no such thing as an exotic name to most kids in French language schools.

Hetherington, Iain; Diversified Cultural Worker 3; Arts Council Collection; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/diversified-cultural-worker-3-64366

My sons, even sheltered as they were, here, in the quiet suburbs of a city that can only thrive through immigration, encountered diversity everywhere they went. It’s the best thing that could have happened to them. It peeled away any constricted sense of human identity they might have, and instead nurtured in them the notion that “We humans speak many tongues, come in many shades, pray to many gods, love in many ways, enjoy myriad food smells, textures, colours and tastes, admire different heroes, have different sporting traditions, have varying world views, spiritual practices, political opinions and ways of defining and connecting to gender identity, family and community.

Roberts, William Patrick; The Common Market; Harris Museum & Art Gallery; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-common-market-152371

The diversity of “We” in their childhoods was perhaps the most formative lesson they could have learned, once they had absorbed into every one of their brain cells that love, kindness and acceptance of each other matter above everything else.

This is the way of all Life. It was good that my children were able to sense their place in the giant web of all living things so soon. It was good that they lived some of the richness and complexity of the natural world and human societies as preschoolers. It opened them up to the incontrovertible fact that life in all its manifestations is complex, interconnected, interdependent and diverse.

The word diversity is immensely important to me, but of late, I’ve been forced to come to terms with the fact that diversity must include (and often does) fringe, freakish, ugly, violent, bigoted, hate-filled, twisted people in various states of arrested development. They can’t all be written off as stupid or ignorant. They are simply a concomitant of diversity. Zealotry mixed with sociopathy or psychopathy is especially frightening, and I’m sure that’s in the mix of this photo of Charlottesville, posted by a Facebook friend earlier this week. It’s the stuff that nightmares and history are made of. This diversity of vision and values and ideas is always there: these people were always there…But it’s so much easier when they’re hidden away in the cracks and basements and every other tainted place where they gather.

Charlottesville, Virginia, USA, August 2017

All of these youngish white men screaming monstrous things and prepared to do so much harm (but I don’t for a minute doubt that there are lots of equally bent and cruel girlfriends and wives—boyfriends seem less likely among this cabal—egging them on): it is soul crushing. It hurts us all.

These past few weeks, my attention has been drawn to these people who appear to be so terrified of diversity, so desperate to reduce their world to an impossibly simple, stark, suffocating, stunted, hateful and exclusionary society that they are prepared to tear nature’s matrix to shreds.

It’s impossible, of course. This is simply not life. It is not nature. We are interconnected, interdependent and interwoven. We are multitudes.: heterogeneous, complex, and diverse.

The veneer of American society was very thin. It didn’t take much to expose what lay beneath it. Maybe it’s good that high wattage lamps are now shining on them, because in nature, the things able to grow in the dark are often the most resilient.

Martin, David; Yeni Cami, Istanbul; Maggie’s Fife; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/yeni-cami-istanbul-125104

About this painting: 

A teacher at Leith School of Art, David Martin is originally from Fife. He has travelled extensively and his art reflects his experiences; he is interested in exploring new and varied environments. In this scene of Istanbul, though Yeni Cami is one of the best-known mosques in the city, he chooses to capture a variety of elements which explore the diversity of the city and the people who live there.

THE SPOTLIGHT

Birthday cards on the piano

What’s wrong with me?

Inside me, joy, love and sadness share a space so tight they’re all tangled. The way they were yesterday.

I’m a July baby, and my birthday fell on a Saturday this year. I don’t know whether you have specific traditions surrounding yours, but a weekend birthday is different, I think.

On the one hand, it’s probably a little less busy on the social media front, because people are not as close to their phones on a beautiful summer Saturday. But on the other, because it’s the weekend, people are free to be with you, and to make plans without feeling harried.

What happens then is that rather than being spread out over several weekdays—a coffee or drink with a friend on Monday, breakfast with your mum on Wednesday, dinner out en famille on Friday—everything becomes focused on that one day. Your friends and loved ones are free. They’ve had time to conspire. They’ve planned.

I was the very fortunate focus of this embracing attention this year.

When I was a child, my birthday experiences were very different. It was summer vacation for everyone, so I had few birthday parties with balloons, hyper excited neighbourhood friends or classmates, games and cake with super-sweet icing. School was out. It wasn’t easy to reach classmates and usually, we were away on family vacation. Mostly in the Maritimes, but almost always away and sometimes even in the car all that day—traveling.

This year, things began the night before, with a terrific supper at a local bistro and a terrible two-hundred-million-dollar movie at the Cineplex with my son Simon and friend Cindy. We dined, drank wine, and laughed like mad at the movie’s end (shame on you, Luc Besson !).

Waiting with Penelope and Graeme for everyone to arrive at the party.

Yesterday was B-Day. It started off under a GORGEOUS, glittering blue sky (it deserves the uppercase letters: such days have been so infrequent in Montreal this summer), and breakfast in a new pub a few kilometers west of here. Simon picked me up and whisked me away.  We were joined by my dearest friend, Louise, who drove all the way from her country house—where her husband was still sound asleep—to be with us.

(You likely already see where this is going. It’s a tale of kind, generous people being their usual, exceptional selves.)

In the afternoon, I was expected at Jeremy’s (Simon’s twin) and Anne’s, to be with them and my grandchildren, Penelope and Graeme, and to be joined not long after by my mum and her partner and finally, by Simon and my sister Danielle.

And that’s when I started to feel an internal wobbliness that makes no sense.

It has to do with the number of times someone said: It’s Grand-maman’s birthday, to my grandchildren, and It’s your birthday! to me. It’s about a pressure building around that, and how I wished I could stand up and send a giant wave their way, filled with all of the love and gratitude and bliss I feel having them in my life: enough so that none of the fanfare would ever be necessary. The being together? Yes, oh yes, most certainly, but not the rest—not the spotlight.

Wating for Christian’s Facebook video message with Penelope and Graeme (all photos taken by Danielle Payette)

With that spotlight following me, I flounder. I’m not meant for it. The sadness in me floats up with the love and joy. It’s so strange. Opening boxes and boxes of extremely generous and thoughtful gifts with the help of Penelope and Graeme’s paper-ripping skills…It’s all so much. There’s no reciprocation possible.

Then it was dinner at the big table that fits everyone. Burgers, delicious salads (thank you dear Anne), chips, condiments galore, wine and laughter. Penelope and Graeme suddenly becoming a comedy act.

An experience of communion.

 

Passing the phone around

And finally, there was Christian, live and in colour, brought to us on my IPhone all the way from Milne Inlet in Northern Baffin Island, three thousand miles away from home for the next three months; due North, in the Canadian Arctic, in the same time zone as us ( ! ); his face the size of my phone’s small screen, missing us, looking, looking, looking and feeling outside of it all, looking for the love on our faces.

And suddenly all of our attention was on the miracle of that phone and the person it was bringing to us. And the phone passed from hand to hand, each of us asking questions in the noisy room where the rest of us chattered as we eavesdropped.

And then it ended up in my hand, and I turned and held it up over my head so that everyone at the big table could catch a glimpse of Christian while he first answered my maternal questions, then told us stories of his first days there, and then just took questions from everyone and made us laugh, and made us feel connected.

Christian speaking to the gallery.

As the signal weakened, we all said our goodbyes and see-you-soons. And then it was bath time for the kids, and time to kiss, hug, and say goodbye.

And my wobbliness was gone.

Photo by Danielle Payette