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Guest Post by Jasbina Misir – How To Be A Good Ally To Sexual Assault Survivors

10 Aug

by Jasbina Misir

TW: sexual assault, childhood sexual abuse, victim-blaming

I wanted to share something truly disgusting and awful that happened to me this past Monday.

At 1 AM I was sexually assaulted during a concert. On the dance floor when the crowd rushed the stage. These are all the details I want to and am going to share. I have filed a report with the police and an investigation to catch the assailant is ongoing.

Why am I sharing this? I am sharing this because for me and for many survivors, talking about what happened is a key part of surviving, healing, responding to erasure and silencing. Talking about an assault can be a way for people to get some kind of accountability for what happened, even if that accountability only ever comes in the form of speaking their truth.

I’ve heard people say that talking about sexual violence experience is a frivolous and narcissistic act, but this could not be further from the truth. I am saying this both as someone who is a survivor and who has worked to support survivors for over 7 years now. I have worked doing peer crisis support and have developed my own artwork in response to being an incest survivor. I have a huge depth of knowledge about rape culture, the realities of sexual violence in Canada, and my experiences have led me to have a well-informed and highly nuanced perspective, skill set, and knowledge base. I basically have my PhD in Sexual Violence – the kind of PhD that was earned in the field, which is the saddest statement I have ever had to say.

Based on all of this, I feel deeply that the silencing of survivors experiences of sexual violence does not make anything better. Rather, it feeds into the numbing and deadening narrative that tells us that we should feel shame.


What I really need you to understand right now is that I know what is best for me.  Every survivor knows their own experience very deeply, and every survivor is the expert on how they need to heal. You don’t get to tell a survivor that they are handling their assault in the wrong way; that is absolutely not up to you.

I also need to you understand that I am not ashamed of being a survivor. I am not ashamed because I have not done anything wrong. No one should have to fear violation, assault, and dehumanization when going to a concert. I REPEAT no one should have to fear and/or experience sexual violence ever. 

I need you to understand that it is not a matter of needing to be more careful. What happened had nothing to do with what I was wearing, the company I was with, or whether or not I have any self-defence skills. If you must know, I was with my close friends at a venue that is usually really safe, I was not drunk or high, and I was wearing a dress that was past my knees which covered my chest. 

But none of that matters.


Even if I had been drunk or high (both of which have been the case during past assaults) or wearing booty shorts and with my tits out (which I often do and will continue to do) or been out alone at night, I STILL AM NOT ASKING TO BE SEXUALLY ASSAULTED NOR AM BEING IRRESPONSIBLE.

I am a person with a body that sometimes cannot and most often does not want to be swathed in artificial layers of safety.

Was I slutty and asking for it at 4-6 years of age when my close family member repeatedly sexually assaulted me?

Was I irresponsible when my former boyfriend consistently would ignore my pleas for him to stop forcing me to have sex or to stop when it hurt to much?


The answer to the two questions above is, of course, no. And the same goes for what happened to me at the concert.

Here’s the thing: unless you are a survivor yourself, I really likely do not want your perspective unless its one that is supportive and deeply listening.


I am writing this because I have had people ask me the most inappropriate invasive questions when I have disclosed information about this assault. Let me be very clear here: this information is not yours to ask for. Not only that, but it is incredibly uncomfortable for me to tell this story over and over. I have had to explain painful intimate details to the the club manager, my friends that were there, my mother, the police, EMS, the doctor. I do not want to have explain it yet again to you just because you feel you deserve it or, worse, want to challenge me on some aspect of what I experienced. That is not how you support someone who has been sexually assaulted.

If you want to be a good friend and ally to survivors, here is what we need:

  1. Believe us – In some ways, the most radical act you can do when someone discloses that they have been sexually assaulted is to believe them. My whole life I have been shamed and silenced around my experiences of sexual violence in explicit ways and micro-aggressions. As an incest survivor the very family member that regularly abused me as a child told me I that I am a liar and a whore so I would be too ashamed and not say anything. It’s tactics like this that help perpetuate rape culture, and whenever you question whether a survivor is telling the truth, you are complicit in that perpetuation. 
  2.  Listen to what we say and respect our boundaries.
  3. Don’t ask invasive questions – I promise you that survivors will bring up any details they think are pertinent. Please don’t ask for more than they are willing to tell you.
  4.  Be Patient – This is really difficult to go through and when you ask invasive questions or admit to skepticism, you force me to hold your hand through being a good ally to survivors. That is not what I need right now. What I need right now is for someone to hold my hand. I would rather you say you are out of your depth, cannot, or do not want to support me or talk to me about this. I am asking for you to be a good friend and human being, not my therapist. Just listen if you are able, if you want to provide resources that might be helpful after gently asking me if they would be helpful sure. Other than that I simply want understanding and space to heal.
  5. Don’t give me advice, explanations, safety tips – Its so fucking condescending, patronizing, and horrible when people tell me what I need, how I should have behaved, or what I should do. If that is your idea of supporting survivors, well that isn’t support for me and I need you to do better. Please.
  6.  Please don’t make this about you – Whatever my response, irritation, shutting down, not talking to you, sadness, I will do my best to be very clear about where I am at but that might mean I need to just step out from the situation. I may not be able to hang out, and when I do it might need to be more low key. I may not want to be touched or touch you. Just accept these things, and my needs, and honour them. If you cannot do that right now, or need support, well for a while I can’t do that. I need to take care of myself. So often when I disclose I find myself having to do so much in the way of educating and supporting people. That should not be my job right now.
  7. Don’t minimize or derail the conversation – I am too tired to deal with “devil’s advocates” or assholes saying I have a “biased perspective” because I am survivor. I have stats, but honestly this is not a message to debate this is me stating what I need and what happened to me to a community of people that I really believe care about me.
  8. Please stop asking me if I have reported this assault. – I have, but often I have not and that is for a lot of really legitimate reasons. I really don’t fucking care what you think about this matter because you are me right now. Support my decisions around them and respect them. This is not about your justice, its about my survival.
  9. Don’t pathologize or make assumptions– I am a lot stronger and more complicated than most people have any idea about. In fact I am probably one of the strongest people you know and this is the kind of strength borne out of sheer fucking determination to persist through so so much adversity. My story isn’t the worst but its mine, and I am dealing with it. So trust that I know myself.

I really value everyone in my life, and generally I assume people mean the best. Right now I am super vulnerable and good intentions cannot justify poor behaviour however well meant. I really love you all and I thank you for all the support, love and friendship I get.

Thank you so much and I really love you all.

Jassie

Jasbina Misir

Jasbina Misir

Jasbina is a non-binary trans femme mixed person. Jasbina self-identifies as a womboi. Jasbina is currently balancing negotiating the industrial academic complex with the affirming healing creating Jasbina does as a Transcriptionist and Artist-Resident through the Trans-Disciplinary Artist Program (TAP) at the Watah Theatre Institute. Jasbina is a poet, a performance artist, sex worker (on hiatus), a yoga practitioner and theoretician, as well as being deeply committed to understanding and continuing to heal mutually constituted oppressions and trauma. Jasbina embraces Jasbina’s madness and continues to work on the process of decolonizing. Jasbina is a survivor of multiple traumas including incest, rape, sexual assault and institutionalization. These experiences deeply informed Jasbina artistic practice , and Jasbina is learning to embracing Jasbina’s madness, exquisite sensitivity and empathic nature. Jasbina works in solidarity and love with the global village.

Summer Bummer

28 Jul

I was ready to have a good summer. Or at least, I was as ready as I ever am to feel anything good which is to say: not very, but still cautiously optimistic.

It had been a rough winter, preceded by a rough fall and a rough summer and, if I’m being completely honest, another rough winter. Most of our 2014 had been eaten up by bedbugs who, it turns out, consume not just blood but also time, energy, money and sanity. As our home life turned into a lumpy stack of pesticide-laced garbage bags containing what now seemed like an utterly foolish amount of possessions, the rest of our lives crumbled too. Work suffered – I missed deadlines and bailed on projects. Relationships became strained; some of them buckled under the pressure and collapsed. Our bank account slowly emptied. We got used to the sweet, burning smell of the poison they blasted through our home on a bi-weekly basis. A faint white residue coated everything.

Then, after ten months of living with them, the bugs were gone. But by that point it was nearly Christmas and we faced the Herculean task of emptying the bags and boxes and putting our apartment back together. I wanted to spin it as a chance for a fresh start; now we could finally paint the living room, pare down our wardrobes, and organize our books! It didn’t feel like a beginning, though – it felt like my life was grinding to a juddering halt. I couldn’t stop thinking about all the things that I’d lost in the last year.

But spring hopes eternal, or whatever clever spin you want to put on an old saying, and I kept telling myself that if I could just make it through the winter I would be ok. If I could just limp my way to the season’s finish line, I would be able to slow down, breathe deeply and recover. So I held on with a white-knuckled grip and waited. As the days lengthened I started to watch my mood like an amateur meteorologist watches the skies, waiting for the wind to shift. But nothing happened; everything stayed stubbornly the same.

Here we are, then. It’s the middle of the summer and every day I stare into the black hole of my own internal despair. I mean, I still get up and go to work and come home and eat food and laugh at jokes and hug my kid, but none of that makes me feel like the future is any less bleak. All of the things I do feel like nothing, which is somehow worse than if they felt bad. At least bad would be something; at least ‘bad’ is on a spectrum of sensation which might eventually be scaled until I get back to ‘good.’ But nothing is nothing is nothing.

Sometimes I do things. Other times I lie in bed for hours, with all the attendant anxieties of beautiful days spent doing nothing. I listen to the cicadas and watch the sun moving through the slats in the blinds. It’s monotonous. Everything about depression is monotonous – just the same boring sadness stretching out endlessly in every direction.

Sometimes I feel so intensely awful that I don’t know how I’ll make it to even just the next minute without doing something about it. It feels unbearable, but I guess I must be able to bear it because I always make it to the next minute.

Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and all I can think about is a handful of words someone said, or a gesture, or a look they shot in my direction. My mind imbues these these things with so much meaning that they swell up until they’re huge and menacing. An offhand remark becomes a cutting insult. A casual glance becomes a grimace of disgust. During daylight hours I would be able to think myself out of these holes, but at 4 am feelings become objective realities.

I had to fill out a form the other day, and in one of the fields you were supposed to list any chronic illnesses you might have. I should have listed depression – they even gave depression as one of the examples, so I couldn’t weasel out of it by pretending they didn’t mean mental illnesses. But the thought of some office worker drooping under a sickly fluorescent light in some windowless basement somewhere reading that word and passing judgement on me was too awful, so I left it blank.

The long, hot days of July and August are usually my favourite time of year. These are the dog days of summer, the dies caniculares, when the dog star Sirius begins its conjunction with the sun. I’ve always had a soft spot for Sirius – Orion was the first constellation I learned to recognize, and my birthday is right smack in the middle of Canis Major’s yearly reign.

The Ancient Greeks felt differently, though – they believed Sirius caused plants to wilt, men to weaken and women to become aroused. in the Iliad, Homer calls the star an evil portent, bringing heat / And fevers to suffering humanity. The Romans thought it brought disease and death. In Sanskrit, the star is called Mrgavyadha, which means “deer hunter” and makes me think of the Frida Kahlo’s painting of herself as a deer shot through with arrows. Except that Kahlo had real things to be sad about, whereas I just have a miswired brain.

It turns out that Sirius isn’t even really a star – it’s actually a binary star system made up of a white main-sequence star called Sirius A and a white dwarf companion called Sirius B. Astronomers say that they’re moving closer to our solar system and will increase in brightness over the next 60,000 years, but it’s hard to imagine that anyone will still be here by then to see it. Maybe the cockroaches will feel it reflecting off their burnished carapaces; maybe they’ll signal towards the sky with their antennae. Or maybe nothing will be left to notice.

Everyone is being very kind and patient with me. Friends check in regularly, and make an effort to include me in everything that’s happening. Let me know if there’s ever anything I can do is a phrase that I hear at least once a week, but I can never think of what that anything might be. I feel like I must be boring them, because I’m certainly boring myself. After a while even misery becomes stale. Maybe that’s the worst part.

The only thing you can do is live through it. That thought is both hopeful and awful. All you can do is keep going and, like a hand groping in the darkness, assume that eventually you’ll find the light switch. And once you do, you’ll know that it was always there, and the light will carry you through until you pass through the doorway into the next dark room.

It’s not a perfect metaphor, but right now it’s all I’ve got.

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On Dreams

13 Jul

Every morning I wake up tense, my fists clenched and my arms pressed into my chest. It’s as if I’m braced for impact, like I’m about to crash-land into the day. I tell myself that it’s the dregs of the REM paralysis that’s supposed to keep you from acting out your dreams, but that’s probably not right. I mean, I’m sure there’s some kind of science to explain it, I just don’t know what it is.

Sometimes I picture myself trying to explain dreams to an alien race that has never experienced them. Ok, I imagine saying, so for eight hours every night humans lie unconscious and vulnerable while their minds weave complex stories out of their deepest fears, memories and desires. Most humans have no control over what happens in these stories, and often they learn more about themselves than they want to. These stories feel very real while they’re happening, but then when the humans wake up the waking world feels somehow more real, so that’s how they know they’ve been dreaming. 

Babies dream in the womb – or, at least, we think they do, since they spend long periods of time in REM sleep. It’s hard not to wonder what they dream about, given that they’ve never seen shapes or colours or even light, beyond whatever few particles can make it through the densely knit tissue of the uterine wall. Probably they dream about sounds – watery voices, the pulsing echo of a heartbeat, some kind of far away music. Maybe they dream about how things feel  – the way their limbs drift and sway in their inland sea, the rebound of their foot after a particularly strong kick, the accidental brush of a hand against a face. Maybe they dream about waiting.

The first dream I ever remember having is from when I was two or three. I dreamed that Cookie Monster developed this delusion that I was a cookie and was determined to eat me. After he broke into our house, my parents and I went on the run in some sort of Sesame Street witness protection program. Just before I woke up, Cookie had discovered where we were hiding, and my parents were standing in front of my bed trying to shield me with their bodies; it was all very Harry Potter, but with less dark lords and more muppets. It all sounds pretty funny in retrospect, but at the time it was terrifying – and why shouldn’t it be? There are few things scarier than a person that you love and trust suddenly becoming hell-bent on your destruction. Apparently even as a toddler I could sense that.

Most of my dreams are bad – they range from the middling anxiety type up to the full out apocalyptic nightmares. In fact, I’ve probably only had one good dream in the past five years. That fact alone was so remarkable that I spent the whole next session with my therapist dissecting it.

The dream started out poorly – I was on a horse, riding into some walled medieval city that had been all but wiped out by the plague. I knew with that irrefutable dream-logic that I had to find a door in the wall, so I started trying to make my way there. Somewhere along the way I lost my horse and had to continue on foot. Scary things happened, although I don’t remember the particulars. Eventually I found the door and ducked inside, although I knew that whatever the danger was, it was following me.

Inside the wall was an underground river. Once the door was closed, the air was very dark and still. The only way forward was to go through the water, so I stepped in and found it was surprisingly warm. I followed the current and eventually wound up at this border checkpoint that also functioned as a holding pen for people hoping to immigrate to … well, whatever was beyond the border. When I got inside, I had to wait in a queue before handing over my visa and passport; they told me it would be a few days before my papers were processed, and assigned me to a room.

Everything was very bright and modern and comfortable. The long hallways were clean and well-lit, the people were friendly, the rooms were adequately furnished. But as nice as the facility was, none of us wanted to be there, because as long as we were there it meant that we couldn’t yet go to the place we wanted to get to – wherever that was. So we waited.

I remember that another woman there complained long and hard about the on-site laundry, even though it was free. She had three kids and was angry because she didn’t think there were enough machines. I was outwardly sympathetic, but I also remember thinking to myself, “she’ll never get out of here if she doesn’t stop making a fuss.” I mostly stayed in my room and read the tatty old paperback thriller someone had left there. I didn’t have anything else; they’d even given me new clothes and thrown out the ones I’d worn to wade through the river. I kept trying to look out the window, but it was too foggy to see anything.

Eventually they let me through. The angry laundry woman and her kids were still waiting to have their papers processed, even though they’d been there longer than me. She was angrier than ever. I figured they’d never stamp her passport, only I wasn’t sure what would happen if that was the case – it was some sort of unspoken knowledge that none of us could go back to where we’d come from. We could only wait to be let through.

On the other side of the checkpoint was a long beach. It was sunset, and the beach extended as far west and east as I could see. To the south there was a sort of tropical forest, and to the north there was the ocean. The beach itself was dotted with campfires, and around every fire was a group of people talking, laughing and singing softly. The air was very warm and in the background you could hear the gentle lap-lap-lap of the water against the shore. I started walking, and after a while realized that this was all there was to the new country I’d come to – endless campfires on a beach at sunset. I started recognizing people here and there in the different groups, and then that magic dream-logic told me that I was in Death. This beach was Death, and the people I recognized were people I’d known who had died. And I knew that if I walked the whole length of the beach eventually I’d find all the people I’d ever loved and lost.

And then I woke up.

Maybe the waiting I dreamed about is the same type of waiting babies dream about. A border is a border, I guess, whether crossing it leads into life or out of it. And just like babies get snatches of sound and touch that tell them what’s coming, maybe we get the same – and maybe it’s just as impossible for us to translate those hints in any meaningful way. Like a person hearing morse code for the first time and knowing that it’s something, but not being able to tell what those haunting beeps mean. Maybe that’s what some dreams are – your brain trying to process those strange signals.

Maybe.

Witchy Woman and Fleetwood Mac star Stevie Nicks was crazy as a cockatoo in the 1980s - she's the poster child for saying no to drugs

A New Era of Canadian Sex Work: Interview With Lowell

22 Jun

Last year, Canada passed Bill C-36, a bill that governs sex work. This new law came about after Canada’s previous prostitution laws were struck down in 2013 as being unconstitutional, and the government had only one year to either leave the laws off the books or else create new ones. They chose to go with the latter option, and based their new bill on the so-called Swedish model of prostitution laws. These laws mainly criminalize the buying of sex but not the selling of it, meaning that johns would face the harshest consequences.

In theory, these laws are supposed to protect sex workers and decrease the threat of trafficking and “sexual exploitation”. In practice, they mean that sex workers are able to sell something that no one is legally allowed to buy. These laws also have the end goal of eradicating prostitution, which is not a great solution considering that there are many sex workers who love what they do and feel empowered by it. It’s hard not to feel that while Bill C-36 promises to help people, it will actually be hurting them.

Vice recently released A New Era of Canadian Sex Work, a short documentary hosted by Canadian musician Lowell. Lowell is a particularly good fit for this role, since she worked as a stripper before releasing her first album. She’s also smart, incisive, and thoughtful as she navigates what these new laws mean for sex workers. She approaches the issue from several different angles, first talking to Conservative MP Joy Smith, one of the politicians responsible for pushing through Bill C-36. She then talks to several different women involved in the sex industry, as well as Chester Brown, the author of Paying For It, subtitled a “comic strip memoir of being a john.” Finally, she travels to Nevada to see how the regulated, legal sex work compares to what we have in Canada. The documentary is short, clocking in at just under 35 minutes, but it packs a lot in and is one hundred percent worth watching.

I recently had the chance to talk Lowell, and here’s what she had to say about making the film:

Anne: So how did this happen? Did Vice approach you about making this doc, or did you approach them, or what?

Lowell: Vice approached me to host a documentary in general, and asked me to pick somethign I was interested in. I chose to do the bill because it felt like a really good opportunity to tell my story and our story.

Anne: There’s a really tense moment near the beginning where Joy Smith pretty much looks you in the face and calls you a victim. Like, when you called sex work one of the oldest professions, she immediately jumped in and said it was one of the oldest oppressions. What did it feel like to have her say that to you?

Lowell: First of all, I was like, how do you have this perfect turn of phrase ready? How long did it take her to come up with “one of the oldest oppressions”? That’s really great marketing, I wish I was that quick.

I guess I’m empathetic to the way she feels. I understand where she’s coming from. But if I were not so confident, I would feel like she was taking away everything that i’ve gained back and everything that i’ve been empowered by. Mostly, I wanted to make her understand why what she’s saying is so terrible.

Anne: What do you think motivates people like her?

Lowell:  I think there are ulterior motives that have nothing to do with speaking for women. I want to believe that she believes her personal feminism is good for women, but I also think there are a lot of rich, white Christian people with power trying to step into the lives of people who don’t have those privileges. And they do all this without identifying any of the social reasons why people might do sex work. Saving people who don’t want to be saved doesn’t work. You can’t indoctrinate your own brand of morals into people who don’t want them.

Anne: How do the new laws impact people buying sex?

Lowell: When they’re caught, they have to go to “john school,” where they’re taught that sex workers are exploited victims. Really, the whole program is based around women being victims. Which is nothing new.

Anne: Yeah, there was a part where you talked to a woman who had been arrested a couple of years ago under the old laws and sent to a similar program for sex workers.

Lowell: These programs teach you sex work is wrong, that you’re a dirty person for what you do, and you must hate yourself. And not only that, but there’s no acknowledgment of sexuality or gender – they’re very one size fits all, all women have uteruses, that kind of thing. Which makes them especially awful for anyone who falls outside their ideas of what women who do sex work are like.

Anne: I really loved that one of the women you spoke to was a trans woman. Was it important for you to be inclusive?

Lowell: It’s an inclusive topic. When it comes to transgender women, women of colour, those are the people affected the most by the law. These women are often not able to work in strip clubs, which in my experience function as a safe place where people can solicit sex. But strip clubs are more likely to hire white, blond [cis] girls, meaning that people who don’t fit into these categories end up being forced to work on the street. The result is that these laws – which are especially unsafe for people working on the street – end up targeting certain races, poverty levels, genders.

Anne: Tell me a bit about the place that you visited in Nevada, and how that was different from how we treat sex work in Canada. 

Lowell: They call the place I visited a “sex resort,” because you can stay there over night. Contrasting with Canada, it was so much better. It’s clearly a safer way to deal with sex work. I saw women there who had been victimized in the past but wanted to continue doing sex work – they were taught how to empower themselves and given the means to do it safely. That’s huge.

But the thing is, when you talk about legalization, it’s complex. You still have people who are running things and it’s still selective and can alienate certain groups. Decriminalization is for sure the safest way to approach sex work, but it doesn’t solve everything.

Anne: When you talked to Joy Smith, she said that only two percent of people doing sex work feel empowered about it. What do you think of that number?

Lowell: I think it must be nice to be a politician and just make up statistics to prove whatever you want. 

The truth is that we don’t have those numbers. We don’t have concrete numbers about how many sex workers are abused, and part of it is that there are lots of barriers to reporting abuse. 

Anne: What about numbers that reflect, like, job satisfaction among sex workers? Like, how many of them actually feel good about what they do?

Lowell: I don’t even think anyone’s ever asked. If we had that data, then we wouldn’t be able to use victim porn as a way to get people to vote for things.

Anne: How do you think we can make sure that all voices are heard in this conversation? I know that one of the biggest concerns about being pro-sex work is that it ignore the people who have been legitimately hurt by trafficking or abuse. How do we make sure those people aren’t being erased?

Lowell: I personally think to make it easier for the average person comprehend by putting an emphasis on the actual rape laws work – how police approach rape, how they approach assault, and trafficking. We need to train the police to work better with survivors.

Blending sex work and brutality together to make it seem like we’re ignoring people who are being abused, but people who are empowered aren’t taking anything from people who have been victimized. Laws like Bill C-36 make it seem like you have to choose who you want to support – the victims, or the people out in the streets who like their work. But you don’t get to choose who has human rights. Everyone has rights. It’s the government’s job to treat every person equally when it comes to safety and their rights.

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Dad Feels – Guest Post by Frances Rae

22 Jun

By Frances Rae

I started going to therapy when I was fifteen. In one session, she asked me to talk about my father, and I just completely drew a blank. I have a hard time with really open-ended questions like that, so I was quiet for a few minutes while I tried to think of what exactly she was asking me. There were so many things I could have said about him that I didn’t know where to start. Before I could, she said, “you know, it’s very telling that you don’t have anything to say about him.” I was so angry at her for presuming to know something, anything about my relationship with him based on how my brain reacts to such a vague request that I went home and thought about how I would answer that question differently once I’d had time to prepare. “My dad is great; we have so much in common. We have the same taste in music and movies, our sense of humour is the same.” Things like that. Those are all still true. Those were things that were very important to me to have in common with anyone when I was fifteen.

As an adult, I have noticed that a lot of men get very excited to have those things in common with me. I’ve dated many men whose priorities in a partner are still to have the same movies and music and humour in common. I think that’s the luxury of being a straight, white, cisgender man; you don’t need to have many political opinions on subjects like race or gender or sexuality, and you certainly don’t need to have your opinions align with anyone else’s. It’s not your identity at stake. My dad taught me about cars and carpentry and plumbing. We watched Star Trek and the Three Stooges and John Cleese. We listened to Pearl Jam and the Smashing Pumpkins. We went fishing. I loved fishing.

My priorities are different now than they were when I was fifteen. I couldn’t care less if someone I love likes a song that I like or has seen a movie that I like. The thing I’m most excited to have in common with a person is their politics and opinions. I can tell when men treat me differently or have different expectations of me because they read me as a woman. I think it’s why many of them get so excited when we have music and movies and humour in common because it’s maybe more typical of other men than of other people they’ve dated. I by no means think those things are superior to the more typically feminine things I’m also interested in, but I know that, on some level, they do.

I don’t want to talk about how I’m grateful that my dad raised me with an ego to rival a dude because I don’t think that’s something to be proud of, necessarily. I don’t want to talk about how he never boxed me in based on my gender or treated me differently because I was a girl because I know that’s not true. I don’t want to talk about how the only things we had in common were things that were socially acceptable for a grown man to be interested in. I have a lot of problems with the way my dad parented. With the ways he was (and still is) a partner to my mom. With the ways he treats me now as an adult. With his politics. With his opinions. I don’t want to wrap this up with an neat little bow of how we may never see eye to eye but we’ll always be able to relate on certain things.

I know my dad loves me and loves the things we have in common; the same things we had in common when I was fifteen. I love him, too. But I know I’ll never feel close to him the way I did then because now we still have his priorities in common, but not mine. Growing up I never really worried about disappointing him. But I never thought I’d grow up to be disappointed in him, either.

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Anxiety and Never-Not

8 Jun

I have never not been a worrier.

I can’t remember a time when the unappeasable spectre of What If wasn’t buried somewhere deep in my brain. It’s been there since before I can remember; certainly before I had any real names for it. Before I had words like anxiety or apprehension or intrusive thoughts, it was there, shivering and electric.

I say never not instead of always, because the former implies the possibility of an absence.

As a kid, I was obsessed with the binary of good/bad. There were good kids, like Heather, who smiled and ate everything on her plate and did whatever she told and never seemed to feel squinched up and mean inside. Then there were kids like Jay, who used art time exclusively to draw pictures of penises urinating some kind of black tar-like substance. It seemed pretty clear to me early on which side of the line I was on: I struggled to behave and do what was expected of me, and also I thought Jay’s dick pics were hilarious. I didn’t want to be a bad kid, but it seemed like I didn’t have a choice; it was a sort of malignancy that grew and grew in me, no matter what I did. I tried not to talk too much or interrupt or fidget, but my efforts lasted an hour or two at most. And meanwhile Heather smiled serenely, secure in the knowledge that she would never feel the impulse to scrawl a pair of hairy testicles across a pink sheet of construction paper.

I wish I could say I accepted my badness with glee, but I didn’t. Instead, I thought about how all of my teachers must hate me. Sometimes it was all I could think about, although that didn’t stop me from doing bad things.

I stopped sleeping the summer I turned seven, because I was sure that I would die in my sleep. I became obsessed with the idea that I might stop breathing and, if I wasn’t awake, wouldn’t be able to think myself into taking a breath again. How was I supposed to trust my fluttering, fragile body to take care of itself through the long, black hours of sleep? I remember the nights stretching out lonely and miserable in front of me and wishing so hard that I could just be unconscious. I didn’t want to play. I didn’t want to read. I didn’t even want to watch TV. I just wanted to not think about dying every time I closed my eyes. I thought up funny ways to try to alleviate my anxiety – like holding my breath until I passed out (which didn’t work), or sleeping in the hallway so that if I did stop breathing one of my parents could find me and quickly resuscitate me (this just meant that I got tripped over a lot). Nothing worked.

And then one day the fear went away as easily as it had come.

I used to love the high that worrying gave me – the hours before a test or a recital when I would ride the wave of glittering panic, my fingers and toes tingling with anticipating. Then I would feel the heavy needle of my anxiety shift into its groove as I sat down at my desk or stepped out onto the stage, and with my adrenaline-flushed cheeks I would outshine everyone else. Worrying made me a superbly good performer. Afterwards I would crash, hard. There was never a moment of triumph, no feeling of success – only a weepy, high-strung post-performance haze.

When I was older, I started making up rituals – they were for “good luck” I said, although what I really meant was that if I didn’t do them I would have bad luck. One of them involved spelling out a series of words in sign language; I would do this either behind my back or next to my thigh whenever I thought about it, which was often. Another had something to do with running from the fridge to the dining room table and back again before the fridge door closed – if I was able to do this even just once while setting the table, then none of the things I worried about would happen. I fully gave myself over to magical thinking, because even thought I knew logically that doing these things wouldn’t change my luck, I couldn’t stop the What If machine in my head. I still can’t stop it – it’s whirring and buzzing in my head as I type this, speeding up my clunking thoughts just as I should be settling down for the night.

I wish I could tell you that there’s an end to anxiety. I wish I could say that I took a pill or discovered the healing power of long walks or learned transcendental meditation, but none of that would be true. Every day this awful beast scoops me up in its huge maw and shakes me until my bones clink together. Some days I can outrun him for longer than others, but there’s never a time when he doesn’t catch me.

I am still an excellent performer, and I still crash and cry afterwards. I jitter and skitter through my days, gritting my teeth through the intrusive thoughts until I can drug myself to sleep at night. By now, this is the only way I know how to manage things; it’s a system of sorts. although it doesn’t offer much relief.

I can’t say what my life would look like without anxiety, but I know that even with it, I’ve managed to create something good. That might sound absurdly hopeful, but I can’t help it. The only way to live with it is to be absurd about it, even in the face of all the known facts. So I pace and cry and don’t sleep and drag myself to therapy and take my pills and believe so hard in never-not instead of always. The idea that this jolting misery could be here forever is unbearable, so I stick with never not when I can.

I have never not lived like this.

But I could someday.

Maybe.

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Mother’s Day

10 May

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This post is for my mother. This is in recognition of the countless hours of unpaid labour she did and continues to do for my sisters and I. This post is an acknowledgement of the fact that I have taken her for granted; she’s given her time and energy to me so freely and generously that it wasn’t until I had my own child that I understood how much this must have personally cost her. She is someone whose love and support I can rely on even when she disagrees with the choices I make.

This post is for all the people who work in childcare and are underpaid because what they do is undervalued by our society. This is for the folks – mostly women – who are often offered minimum wage or less to nurture, engage, educate and love a child.

This post is for all the people who are helping me raise my kid – my husband, my family, my friends. Thank you for being a part of his life. Thank you for being a safe person. Someday, when there’s something that he needs to work through that for whatever reason he feels he can’t talk to me about, he might come to you. Thank you in advance for being amazing when that day comes.

This post is for all the ways our culture simultaneously fetishizes and belittles mothers. This post is for all the women who have been told in the same breath that motherhood is the hardest job they’ll ever have but also staying home with their children is lazy, unfulfilling and un-feminist.

This post is for the mothers who couldn’t afford to go back to work.

This post is for the mothers who couldn’t afford not to go back to work.

This post is for the women who can’t take time off work to care for their sick children. This is for the women who have been threatened with termination if they take one more day off because of their kids.

This post is for my grandmother, who was appalled that I was breastfeeding because for her formula had been a miracle that allowed her a freedom her own mother had never enjoyed. This post is for the women like my Nanny who choose to go back to work a few weeks after giving birth because they love their jobs, but at the same time don’t love their children any less for that fact.

This post is for the mothers who have no choice but to go back to work only a few weeks postpartum because their government doesn’t guarantee them access to a maternity leave.

This post is for the mothers who have no choice but to go back to work only a few weeks postpartum because although they have paid maternity leave, their wage is reduced during that time to 55% of their income.

This post is for every mother who’s had to spend time on welfare or food stamps and has gritted her teeth through ignorant comments about government hand-outs.

This post is for every mother who is doing everything she can to make sure her family survives.

This post is for all the mothers of Black sons who are afraid for their children’s lives. This post is for every woman who has to teach her child to view police officers as people to be afraid of rather than people who will help them.

This post is for all the mothers who have felt ashamed of the ways their bodies have changed during pregnancy. This post is for the women who never appear in photographs with their children because they hate the way they look.

This post is for the mothers who receive endless societal messages about how they should always be sacrificing more, more, more for their kids. This post is for the women who have been told that if they really loved their kids they would breastfeed/stay home/give up caffeine/never check their phone/make all their food from scratch.

This post is for every mother who has been frightened by yet another sensational “study” that somehow proves they’ve ruined their kids. This is for all the women who have lost sleep wondering whether their children have been put at some kind of risk because they had too much screen time or not enough Omega-3.

This post is for the mothers who struggled silently with postpartum depression because they were afraid that if they told anyone, their children would be taken away from them.

This post is for the mothers who struggled silently with postpartum depression because they felt a crushing guilt over the fact that they didn’t love motherhood the way they thought they were supposed to.

This post is for every mother who has complained about some aspect of child-rearing only to be told to enjoy it while it lasts and it all goes so quickly and all the other trite platitudes that just make them feel worse.

This post is for my great-grandmother, who wouldn’t let her kids get after-school jobs because she wanted them to have real childhoods, not like the one she’d spent working under the eye of her brutal stepmother. This is for all the women who have had difficult childhoods and, instead of furthering the cycle of abuse, do their best to make sure their children have time for fun and play just plain being young.

This post is for those of you who are estranged from your mothers and have to endure endless questions and advice from prying strangers, as if it wasn’t a decision you’d properly thought through. I can’t imagine how tricky it must be to navigate holidays like Mother’s Day, when you’re inundated with reminders of your loss.

This post is for the women who wish so badly that they could be mothers, but for whatever reason can’t be.

This post is permission for you to mark this day however you want or need to, in grief or in joy or something in between.

I love you, Mom.

An Open Letter To All Of My Friends Who Take Selfies

5 May

Dear Friends Who Take Selfies,

I want you to know that I love it when you post pictures of yourself. I know selfies get a lot of bad press, but I think they’re rad. They give me a little window into your life, and you’d be amazed at how much I can get out of one little photo.

I love your pictures because I love seeing what you’re wearing – the outfits you build give me ideas about how to mix it up with my own wardrobe, and seeing you work your shit gives me courage to try clothing that I otherwise might have thought was too outlandish or revealing.

I love seeing how you do your hair and makeup. You look like a hot babe and I wish you would make YouTube tutorials explaining how you get your eyeliner just so. I want you to post pictures every time you change your hair, because seeing you cycle through all those neon colours gives me great ideas about what to do next with my own hair.

I love when you take selfies in your house. It’s neat to see where you live. When your place is cluttered, it makes me feel better about my own messy apartment. When your house is neat, it encourages me to get my shit together and do the damn dishes already. I like seeing the things you own and the art you put on your walls, because those things tells me so much about who you are and what you care about.

I love when you take selfies while on vacation. I don’t get to travel often, so your pictures allow me to live vicariously through you. The excitement on your face when you take a selfie at the Trevi Fountain or by the Arc de Triomphe is perfect and beautiful. I’ve seen a thousand pictures of the Louvre Pyramid, but the most interesting ones are the ones with you in it. If I wanted to see a picture of the Great Wall of China all on its own, I could just google the damn thing. You’re what makes those pictures special.

Mostly I love your selfies because I love seeing you feel good about yourself. I love how your face glows when you look like a million bucks and you know it. I love when you celebrate yourself. You deserve to be celebrated.

It’s easy for people to roll their eyes at selfies and make jokes about girls who just want attention, but the truth is that for lots of women – especially women of colour, trans women, disabled women and all the other women who see their existences erased in mainstream media – posting pictures of themselves is a way of challenging our culture’s narrow beauty standards.

Selfies are a way of saying, “I love myself, and I will fight anyone who tries to change that fact.”

Selfies are not a question. They’re not asking “Do you think I’m pretty?”

Selfies are a statement: “I am here.”

I see you.

I love you.

You matter.

Your selfies are inspirational. That might sound corny, but it’s true. When I see you love yourself, it helps me love myself. I suspect the same is true for lots of other people who see your pictures.

So please keep taking selfies. Please fill my Facebook and Twitter feeds with your wonderful face. Every picture you post fills me with so much joy. I love seeing you.

Obligatory selfie because what else would I add to this post?

Obligatory selfie because what else would I add to this post?

All The Gratitude

28 Apr

The past year or so has been a struggle for my family. We had bedbugs for most of 2014, and even though our building’s property management company paid for the bi-weekly sprayings, getting rid of them completely drained our savings account. We had to wash and re-wash every piece of clothing and linen in the house, and every spraying meant hauling our two cats in a cab to a friend’s house because obviously it’s not a great idea to have animals on hand when you’re spreading deadly chemicals around. Sprayings also meant eating out a lot, since we weren’t allowed back in the apartment for several hours after they were completed. On top of that, there were lots of little problems we (perhaps unwisely) threw money at to make them go away. Turns out having bedbugs is a pretty expensive gig! Who knew?

So now we’re kind of broke. I work a bunch of jobs and my husband works full time, but the cost of Toronto rent plus Toronto daycare is making it challenging to get by. We’ve bounced a couple of rent cheques in the past few months, a fact that that 100% makes me feel like not-a-grownup. And speaking of broke, yesterday I broke my phone because I’m a total ding dong. It was one of those things where I was really tired and it slipped out of my hands and also let’s be real it was already cracked a bunch because apparently I am clumsy, and now the screen is full of colourful lines and I can’t unlock it. It’s hard for me to work when I don’t have a phone, because use it to tether when I can’t be at home and don’t have access to wifi, and also, you know, part of my work is tweeting, talking to people, updating The Belle Jar’s FB page, etc.

So I made a Patreon account last night. This is something that I’ve been thinking about for a while, because writing isn’t a super lucrative job. Especially when most of your writing is feminist analysis. I felt weird about asking for money, but, you know, it was just that – asking. I didn’t want anyone to feel obligated to do anything; I just wanted to give them the option to donate if that was something they were into. I do lots of work for free, and I figured that maybe people wanted to help me continue doing that work.

I woke up this morning to find that over night I had gained over $100 a month in donations. That number has now grown to $188 per month. I am so fucking humbled. I don’t even know what to say, other than thank you thank you thank you. I had no idea whether this would work because hey, why buy the cow when you can get the feminist analysis for free, right? But you guys have come through and then some.

So thank you. I cannot say that enough. Thank you. Thank you to everyone who donated, but also thank you to everyone who shows up, everyone who reads my stuff, everyone who takes the time to comment and share and click-to-like. Thank you from the bottom of my filthy little heart. Whenever I find myself wondering what the point is of shouting my claptrap out into the void, I remember you guys, and that makes it all worth doing. Thank you.

If you want to donate to my Patreon account, you can find it here: patreon.com/anne_theriault

You can donate a little as a dollar a month, which is RAD. Unfortunately, the platform doesn’t allow for one-time donations, which some people prefer (for obvious reasons). If that’s something you really want to do, you can message me through the Belle Jar’s FB page and I’ll give you my email address. But if you can’t or don’t want to donate, no sweat. I just appreciate you for being here and reading my stuff.

Much love,

Anne

Photo on 2015-04-28 at 2.54 PM

The Seaport Farmers’ Market and Halifax’s Race Problem

14 Apr

Last week, the Halifax Seaport Farmers’ Market announced that several “prepared food vendors” would be moved from the market’s busy main level up to its mezzanine level. According to the Halifax Port Authority (the government agency in charge of the market, not to be confused with the Halifax Party Authority, which used to be some drunk dude’s house on Hunter street) this will be done to make room for more farmers. Which, fine, makes sense since it is, after all, a farmers’ market. Farmers gonna farm, I guess. Here’s where things get tricky: all of the vendors asked to move were “ethnic” foods, including Mary’s African Cuisine, Viji’s Veggies, Stella’s, Pierogis 4 U, Turkish Cuisine and Amin’s Indian food. Meanwhile, two other prepared food vendors – Julien’s Pastry Shop and The Cake Lady – are allowed to stay where they are on the first floor.

It would be easy to argue that there aren’t any racial undertones to this situation. After all, pierogies fall pretty firmly into the camp of Foods Traditionally Consumed By White People. The argument put forth by the Port Authority that they’d prefer to have all of the farmers on one level and all of the ready-to-eat food on another seems reasonable enough at first glance. And if there are enough businesses operating on the mezzanine, well, won’t that just draw more traffic up there? Plus, the Port Authority is really, really insistent that “Ethnicity has nothing to do with this decision.”

First of all, I think there are probably racial undertones to anything that even just maybe sort of seems to have racial undertones. Secondly, I feel pretty cautious about anyone who feels the need to insist that no, for sure, this decision which impacts only “ethnic food” vendors definitely has nothing to do with ethnicity. Finally, I’m skeptical of claims of not-racism because this is Halifax, a city that struggles with its deep-seated racism. Not only that, but this is the same farmers’ market that a few years ago considered flat out getting rid of the “ethnic” vendors based on the idea that cruise ship passengers shopping at the market are looking for “authentic maritime culture.”

Of course, what they mean by “authentic maritime culture” is: white people culture. Specifically, they mean the pseudo Scottish-Irish-Celtic culture the east coast is famous for. They for sure do not mean M’ikmaq culture (although there’s nothing more authentically maritime than that), or Black Nova Scotian culture (in spite of the fact that there’s been a thriving Black population in Nova Scotia since the 1700s), or any of the other races or ethnicities that been in and around Halifax for hundreds of years. In Halifax municipal government speak, maritimer is synonymous with white and everyone else is a come-from-away. Even if their family has been occupying this land since long before the white people arrived.

I love Halifax. Both of my father’s parents grew up in the north end, and I was lucky enough to visit at least once a year when I was growing up. Later, I moved there for school and wound up staying for nearly a decade. It’s one of the nicest places I’ve ever lived, and has a lot going for it – friendly people, a great local arts scene, a sweet work-to-live-not-live-to-work vibe and a really big hill with a clock tower on it. It’s also the most white supremacist places I’ve ever lived, and I say that as someone who grew up in a city that used to be called Berlin and at one point had a bust of Kaiser Wilhelm in a downtown park.

A big part of Halifax’s race problem is that it doesn’t want to admit that it has a race problem. Ask most people about the destruction of Africville (a predominantly Black community that was literally razed to the ground in the 1960s) and they’ll glibly tell you that it needed to be torn down to build the new bridge and anyway wasn’t it, like, actually a dump? They don’t want to hear about the tight-knit community that existed there; they’d rather not know about how the provincial and municipal governments purposefully placed a prison, an infectious disease hospital, a slaughterhouse, a fecal waste depository and, yes, finally the town dump next to Africville. If you mention the fact that the Africville church was secretly demolished by the city at night to limit protests, they’ll roll their eyes and say that was a long time ago and why isn’t everyone over that by now.

It was not a long time ago. The church was torn down in 1969. The final house in Africville was demolished in 1970. And the pervasive racism that led to the demise of Africville is still going strong in Halifax today. According to Sherwood Hines, three businesses in Halifax have been fined in the last year for not serving Black customers. IT IS 2015 AND BUSINESSES IN HALIFAX ARE FULLY NOT SERVING PEOPLE BECAUSE OF THE COLOUR OF THEIR SKIN. That is literally a thing that is happening and I don’t even know what to say about except: Halifax, you should be fucking better than that.

During the last few years that I lived in Halifax there was a lot of talk about “revitalizing” the north end. On the surface, this seemed like a great idea, especially since there was a several-mile radius that contained no banks or grocery stores or pharmacies. I was like, “Perfect, I can’t wait to not have to haul food all the way from Quinpool road. Bring on the revitalization.” Except, of course, what folks meant by “revitalization” was gentrification. Almost all of the new businesses that have moved into the north end are owned by white people, employ a primarily white staff, and serve white customers. The Black population in the north end no longer feel like they belong in their own neighbourhood.

The movement of the “ethnic” food vendors and the gentrification of the north end are all part of the same problem: cultural erasure and whitewashing. White Nova Scotians are eager to preserve the idea that maritime culture is a bunch of white people singing sea shanties and downing cod, and the folks selling samosas and dolmas don’t fit into that narrative arc. But you know what, Halifax? Not only is that narrative racist, reductionist and completely inaccurate, it’s also played out. YOU ARE BETTER THAN A BUNCH OF DRUNK FRAT DUDES PUKING ON THE FLOOR OF THE SPLIT CROW BETWEEN VERSES OF BARRETT’S PRIVATEERS. Nova Scotia is diverse. Nova Scotia has always been diverse. How about we recognize that and celebrate it instead of tucking away those inconvenient shish taouk vendors and pretending that Black culture isn’t a thing that’s been happening in Nova Scotia for three hundred years?

Halifax, you need to get your shit together. You have an amazing population, and it’s time to start serving all of them.

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