Tag Archives: halifax

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.

todays-vendor-listing

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Halifax man sentenced to only five years in prison after years of rape and abuse of young girl

9 Sep

TW for rape, child abuse, victim-blaming

There is a story in the Halifax Chronicle-Herald today about a woman who was sexually abused by her mother and her mother’s common-law boyfriend from the age of eleven. It started with the man coming into the girl’s bedroom at night and reaching up under her nightie to fondle her; she screamed for her mother, but her mother was too drunk to respond. When the girl was twelve, her mother – her own mother – coached her on giving blow jobs to this man. The abuse continued until the girl was fifteen, often taking the form of, in her words, a “sick threesome” with her mother and her mother’s boyfriend.

When the girl was fifteen she told her mother’s boyfriend that she would report him to the police. He told her that she couldn’t, because her mother was too deeply implicated. “How could you do this to your own mother?” were his exact words.

After that the abuse stopped. Eleven years later the girl, now married with children of her own, pressed charges against her abusers.

Both the girl’s mother and the man, who separated several years ago, plead guilty. The mother was supposed to be sentenced this week, but her case was adjourned until the end of the month. The man was sentenced recently in a Halifax provincial court to five years in prison.

Five. Years.

This man preyed on a young girl – a young girl who also happened to be his live-in girlfriend’s daughter – for four years. For three of those years he demanded oral sex from her almost every day. From a twelve year old. With her mother’s “help.” As a child – and I cannot emphasize enough that she was a child throughout all of this – she spent four years being raped on a near-daily basis.

I can’t even imagine the toll that this has taken on her. She will live with the emotional and physical fallout of these experiences for the rest of her life.

And him? The rapist? Well, he’ll be free as a bird in five years’ time. 

Why only five years? Because, according to Crown attorney Chris Nicholson, the man was smart enough to plead guilty and he had no previous criminal record.

I’m sorry, I didn’t realize that a person required a previous criminal record in order to receive adequate sentencing for years of abuse and rape of a minor. 

This story has received almost no attention. A friend of mine in Halifax tried to contact the national media, but they just took her name and number and said they would call her back. They never called her back. They either just weren’t interested or else felt that it was too contentious – but given the high-profile treatment other rape cases have received in the media, the latter doesn’t seem very likely, does it? Perhaps they were put off by the fact that the complainant’s identity is protected by a publication ban but, again, that didn’t stop anyone when it came to Steubenville’s Jane Doe, did it? And anyway what’s important here isn’t who the complainant is, but the fact that our court system seems to have so little regard for what happened to her. What’s important is that other young girls (and boys, for that matter) feel safe coming forward with these types of accusations. A sentence of five years will not make anyone feel safe.

The unbelievably light sentencing and the lack of media attention shows how little we value the safety of young girls. I mean, we’re happy to provide them with all kinds of tips on how not to get raped, but when they are assaulted – often, as in this case, in their own home and by someone they know and trust – we check out. We’re done. We stop talking about it. Because maybe she somehow provoked it, or maybe she didn’t fight him off hard enough, or maybe it’s just too sad and uncomfortable and we don’t want to think about it. We don’t want to accept that this type of abuse is the reality for so many kids out there.

Five years in prison, you guys. That is what our court system thinks is an adequate punishment for repeatedly raping a young girl from the time she was eleven until she was fifteen. Five years for a lifetime of shame and hurt, and the media doesn’t care. No one seems to care. 

This is what rape culture looks like. 

Halifax courthouse

Halifax courthouse

It’s Just A Piece Of Paper

13 Jul

I’ve been thinking a lot about my education, or lack thereof, lately.

I’m sure that a lot of this is because of my book; I’ve been editing the shit out of it this week, and it feels like it’s sort of taken over my life. Most of the book takes place in 2003, right around the time that I had to drop out of university. That personal failure, combined with a bunch of other stuff, made that autumn one of the lowest points in my life. In fact, leaving school was a huge part of the reason that I ended up being hospitalized for depression that year.

I’d always known that I’d go to university; there was never any question about that. My father was a lawyer, and my mother spent most of my childhood finishing her Bachelor of Arts in night school, graduating when I was sixteen. I can still remember what I wore to her graduation – a long, sort of shiny black skirt with pinky-purple flowers on it, and a pink tank top with spaghetti straps. Fuck, I can even remember what I had on when my father was called to the bar. I was four years old, and my mother insisted I wear this red flowered dress with a huge white, lacy collar. I hated that dress, because that damn collar made me feel like a clown. After the ceremony, my father took me to meet a supreme court judge. Trying to think up something suitably grownup to say, I shyly said to her, “I certainly admire these burgundy carpets.”

So education was always a big part of my life, and I grew up with the understanding that I would earn at the very least an undergraduate degree. And considering the fact that, after earning her BA, my mother took a leave of absence from her job in order to earn her Master’s of Social Work, I don’t think that it’s much of a stretch to say that my parents hoped I would go on to complete a graduate degree or two as well.

Look, before we go any further, let’s get this out of the way now: I’m smart. I know that. I’m not trying to be vain or conceited; I honestly don’t think there’s anything vain about knowing your strong points. And for a long time, “smart” was the only thing I had – I wasn’t pretty, or popular, or especially talented in any of the ways that I wanted to be talented. The funny thing is, back then I would’ve given up being smart in a heartbeat if that meant that I could have been any of the other things on that list, especially the oh-so-desirable “pretty.” But I couldn’t, so I stuck with being the brainy geek.

In my final year of high school, I applied to a bunch of universities, all of them at least a couple of hours away from home. I knew that there was no fucking way that I was sticking around Kitchener; I’d been waiting pretty much my entire life to get out of there. I was thrilled when I got into my top pick, Dalhousie, and I moved to Halifax in August of 2001.

I was a good student. I got As or Bs in all of my classes, even Astronomy which, by the way, was technically a physics class (although, to be fair, it was a physics class geared specifically towards arts students). I’d thought that I wanted to study English, but in first year I fell in love with Latin and that class, along with Ancient History, was my favourite that year. In my second year, I officially declared Classics as my major, and settled in for the four year slog towards a Bachelor of Arts with honours. And you know what? I loved every fucking minute of that slog. I loved my classes, I loved my profs, I loved the other students, I loved the stupid wine and cheese events my department had, I loved all the nerdy Classics jokes, I even loved studying and writing papers. I loved all of it. Most of all, I loved learning.

Unfortunately, sometime during my second year, things started to fall apart for me financially. My government loan suffered at the hands of a bureaucratic fuck up, and I couldn’t get a student line of credit because I had no one to co-sign for me. I ended up somehow doing a full year of classes without paying for them and Dalhousie, needless to say, was pretty pissed. Then, when I tried to figure out how to register for my third year, I discovered something tricky: you can’t register for classes if you owe the school money, but you can’t get a government student loan if you’re not a registered student.

Can anyone say Catch-22?

So, after spending a month enduring a ridiculous circle-jerk involving various student services employees (with a couple of useless assists from the student aid office), I realized that I had to quit. Finishing my degree just wasn’t going to happen. Not then. Probably not ever, if I’m being totally honest with myself.

That moment, when I went from thinking of myself as a student to realizing that I was now one of the working poor, was one of the most shameful in my life. I can’t think of anything else in my life that embarrasses me as much as the fact that I had to leave school. Even now, it makes me fucking heartsick to think about; in fact, when I was talking about it with a friend today, I started crying. Ten fucking years later, and the memory of having to leave my degree unfinished still turns me into a stupid, mascara-smeared mess.

I guess I’d thought that I would’ve been over this whole lack-of-education thing by now, but I’m not. Oh boy, am I ever not. When I meet someone new, I’ll mention that I went to Dal, and that I took Classics, but unless I absolutely have to, I will never, ever admit that I didn’t finish my degree. If, somehow, it does come up, I will always carefully point out that I had to leave for financial reasons, and not because I failed any of my classes. When faced with well-educated people, I have a borderline pathetic need to prove how smart I am, to the point of being obnoxious about it.

The funny thing is, when I tell people that I wasn’t able to finish my degree, they’ll often laugh and say, “Oh, it’s just a piece of paper.” Which is easy to say when you’ve come out the other side with that piece of paper clutched firmly in your hands. But to dismiss it as being just a piece of paper is to ignore the fact that it’s a very, very expensive piece of paper that has the ability to magically gain respect and open doors. I get that saying that is an attempt to put me at ease, to make me feel like the playing field has been levelled, but let’s be honest: the field will never be level. You and your degree will always been on the higher ground, and I will always, always be down here, feeling small and stupid and mean.

We talk a lot in our society about how education is pretty much a cure-all for all kinds of social ills. Poverty, neglect, abuse, poor health and hygiene: you name it, and a bunch of people will tell you that education is the key. But what we don’t talk about is how fucking unattainable post-secondary education is to a huge part of our population. Oh, sure, there are government loans, but they can be hard to get, and they often fall short. Student lines of credit aren’t available to kids who don’t have someone to co-sign, and working full time over the summer just isn’t enough to cover tuition anymore. And all of that doesn’t even touch on the fact that tuition fees are rising at an alarming rate; I don’t even want to think about what they’ll be like by the time my son graduates from high school.

Higher education is a business, and don’t you ever forget it. We may like to have these misty-eyed ideas that we live in an egalitarian country where everyone has an equal opportunity for success, but anyone who honestly believes that is seriously fucking kidding themselves. Universities and colleges want your money, and if you can’t find a way to pay them, well, they’re not interested in educating you. You could be the smartest kid in the world, but if you’re poor – well, I’m not going to say that post-secondary school is impossible, but I will say that you’ve got a way harder road ahead of you than most. What makes all this even more difficult is the fact that most people who’ve earned university degrees don’t seem to be aware of the luck or privilege that helped them along; they truly believe that it was all their own hard work and sacrifice.

Which is really just another way of saying that poor people don’t work as hard or sacrifice enough.

Whenever I talk about my half-finished degree, someone will inevitably tell me that I’ll finish it someday. But the truth is that I probably won’t. What’s the point? Why shovel tens of thousands of dollars into that hole when all that I’ll get out of it is a piece of paper that says that I’m pretty good at translating things into Latin? I mean, sure, I would love to someday earn my BA, but if I’m being honest with myself, I know that there are so many other things that I would need to spend that money on before I wasted it on myself.

My kid, though? My kid is going to earn that piece of paper. We started an education fund for him when he was born, and we’ve asked our family to contribute to it in lieu of presents. My kid is never going to have to quit school because he doesn’t have enough money. My kid is never going to have to sit through two months of classes without a textbook because his loan hasn’t come in and he can’t afford them. My kid will never have to live off of one crappy cafeteria dinner a day because he had to cancel part of his meal plan in order to pay his phone bill. My kid is going to accomplish what I was never able to.

And once he has his degree, I will never, ever refer to it as just a piece of paper.

women graduates_0

A Love Letter To Boston

20 Apr

Dear Boston,

I’ve never visited you.

I know that that’s a strange way to begin, and of course I don’t mean it as a slight against you. I’m just stating a fact: I’ve never visited you.

I’ve always wanted to, though, and that must count for something, right? I’ve heard great things about you. A bunch of people whose opinions I really respect have highly recommended you. I’ve planned a fantasy vacation (which my husband has nicknamed The Dead Author Tour of New England) that involves you.

I don’t really have any great reasons for not having visited you, to be honest. It just never seemed to be the right time, and our vacations often get eaten by visiting various family members, and travelling with a toddler isn’t exactly optimal.

But still, I’ve always meant to visit you.

The truth is, I think that you might be partially responsible for my existence on this earth. And as much as this life can sometimes be a rocky ride, I’m still grateful that I’m here. I’m the type of person who occasionally likes to consider of all the things that somehow coalesced so that I, this particular me, could happen to be born into this particular time on this particular planet, and the thing is, Boston, you play a small part in that story.

Let me explain.

My great-grandfather, William Cave, had what would be considered by most standards to be a pretty miserable childhood. He grew up poor in Halifax’s north end, living in a flat with his parents, his two sisters, and his grandmother. Things were tough but manageable until the cold, damp climate, inadequate nutrition and limited access to healthcare began to take their toll on his family. When my great-grandfather was nine, his sister Agnes Pearl, aged eleven, died of tuberculosis. The next year, his sister Annie Florence died, also of tuberculosis, at the age of sixteen. In 1915 his mother, Louisa, died, and in 1916 his grandmother, Mariah, died – both of tuberculosis.

My great-grandfather rarely spoke about his childhood. I’ve seen photographs of Agnes and Annie, and I’ve visited their graves, but beyond that, I don’t know much about them. In the picture of Agnes that my grandmother has, she’s very blond, her hair tied back in an enormous bow, and sits in a chair clutching a doll.  Annie is older in her picture, and is standing in front of a white fence wearing a long black coat; she has dark hair and eyes that slant upwards like mine.

In 1917, my great-grandfather was fourteen years old. On the morning of December 6th of that year he was getting ready to start his first day of work at a nearby newspaper plant. He happened to be running late. This fact would prove to be incredibly lucky.

Halifax, like many port towns, tends to profit during wartime, what with all the troops and ships and military big-wigs passing through. On the morning of December 6th, 1917, the harbour and the Bedford Basin were full of big boats, each one crowded with dozens, maybe even hundreds, of crewmen and soldiers on their way to the front. Halifax’s waterfront was packed with people, either working or hurrying to their school or job. Some were just out for a walk, enjoying the nice weather and taking in the excitement of all the ships’ comings and goings.

Every account I’ve ever read of that day has said that it was bright and sunny, the sky clear and the air sharp and bracing.

In order to get from Halifax Harbour into Bedford Basin, a ship has to pass through a strait called the Narrows. On the morning of December 17th, two ships, the Norwegian Imo, which was bringing relief supplies to Belgium, and the French Mont-Blanc, collided in the narrows. The Mont-Blanc caught fire.

What very few people knew was that the Mont-Blanc was a munitions ship carrying TNT, picric acid, benzol and guncotton. Once fire was added to that mix, she became a floating bomb. The captain ordered his crew to abandon ship, and they fled in lifeboats to the Dartmouth side of the harbour. The Mont-Blanc drifted towards Halifax and came to rest at Pier 6, which lay at the bottom of Richmond Street.

As black smoke filled the sky, even more people flocked down to the harbour to watch the ship burn. A few of the dock workers knew what kind of cargo the Mont-Blanc‘s was carrying, and tried to evacuate the waterfront, but they were unsuccessful.

One sailor made his way to the Richmond Railway Yards to tell men working there, Vince Coleman and William Lovett, about the coming explosion. Lovett fled, but Coleman realized that there was a train due in the station within minutes. He stayed behind to send a series of urgent telegraph messages to the train, saying,

“Hold up the train. Ammunition ship afire in harbor making for Pier 6 and will explode. Guess this will be my last message. Good-bye boys.”

At 9:04:35 am, the Mont-Blanc’s highly volatile cargo exploded. The ship disintegrated, and the blast travelled at more than 1,000 metres per second. A mushroom cloud rose into the air and hung over the city. Tremors from the blast were felt as far away as Cape Breton and Prince Edward Island. The harbour floor was briefly exposed, then a tsunami formed as water rushed to fill the void.

Halifax was devastated.

The north end was levelled, with huge brick factories reduced to little more than rubble and wooden houses flattened as if smashed by a giant’s hand. Fires raged everywhere, sometimes consuming entire city blocks. Hundreds were blinded by shards of glass as thousands of windows were shattered by the shockwave.

Fireman Billy Wells, who was thrown and stripped naked by the force of the explosion, described the immediate aftermath:

“The sight was awful, with people hanging out of windows dead. Some with their heads missing, and some thrown onto the overhead telegraph wires.”

That night there was a terrible snow storm, and many people who had survived but been left homeless by the blast had nowhere to go. A city of canvas tents was set up in the Halifax Commons, but the shelter they offered was meagre at best, and anyway, there weren’t enough to go around. People froze to death in the city that had, up until a few hours before, been on fire.

It’s estimated that two thousand people died in the Halifax Explosion and its immediate aftermath, and nine thousand people were injured, six thousand of them seriously. Nearly two thousand homes were completely destroyed, and twelve thousand homes were badly damaged. More Nova Scotian residents were killed in the Halifax Explosion than died in combat during World War I.

And my great-grandfather? Well, he was late for work, which meant that he was out in the middle of the street when the blast happened. As it turned out, this was the best place for him. The newspaper plant where he was supposed to be working was destroyed in the explosion, and his house was a pile of rubble. Had he been in either building, he likely would have died.

His aunt and uncle died, and so did all of their children. A few of his neighbours died. Many of his friends and family were badly injured. He couldn’t find his father after the blast, and had to wait until the next day to learn whether or not he was safe. Miraculously, his father didn’t have a scratch on him.

So what does any of this have to do with Boston?

Well, Boston was the first city to send relief to Halifax. The Boston Red Cross and the Massachusetts Public Safety Committee in particular collected money and supplies to send to Halifax. They didn’t care that the victims of the explosion weren’t Americans; they didn’t care that they were in the middle of a war and resources were tight. They did it anyway, because it was the right thing to do.

And when I imagine my great-grandfather in the aftermath the explosion, homeless and shivering in the sudden storm, alone and not knowing whether his only family member was still alive, I can’t help but think that Boston must have somehow helped him get through that long night. Boston must have been a part of what kept him going through the days and weeks that followed, as he and his father tried to put their life back together.

Boston, who clothed and fed and sheltered Halifax when they were in need.

Boston, who sent help without a second thought.

Boston, the city that now needs our help.

Halifax has a long memory. This is a trait that is, in my experience, both charming and irritating. It means that after you’ve lived in Halifax for a few years, everyone in the city knows your all your business and remembers every single stupid thing you’ve ever done. You can never live anything down in Halifax. If you stay there long enough, an act as simple as walking through its streets becomes tricky, because you feel like even the buildings and trees are passing judgment on you.

But sometimes Halifax’s long memory is lovely. Halifax doesn’t forget the awful things you’ve done, but it doesn’t forget the good ones, either. And Halifax has never forgotten that Boston was there to help first, before even the rest of Canada was able to respond. Halifax sends a Christmas tree to Boston every year, and that tree is lit on the Boston Common. Haligonians traditionally cheer for Boston sports teams. Halifax calls Boston its sister city.

And now, Nova Scotia, the province that can barely afford to feed its own residents, has pledged to donate $50,000 to the Boston Children’s Hospital. While announcing this, Nova Scotia premier Darryl Dexter said,

“When we were in need, Bostonians were there. There is a border and hundreds of miles between us, but Massachusetts is always close to the hearts of Nova Scotians. We will do everything we can to support our neighbours and friends in their time of need. Boston’s resilience and fighting spirit will persevere.”

And he’s exactly right. About everything.

So I guess, Boston, what I really want to say is thank you. Thank you for helping us when we were down. Thank you for saving my great-grandfather. Thank you for my life.

I’ve never met you, but I love you.

The days and weeks ahead of you will be really fucking tough, but I just want you to know that we’re up here, cheering you on. We’re here to help if you need it. We know that your spirit will only grow stronger in the face of this adversity. We know that you will fucking beat this.

And also, we haven’t forgotten.

Hope to see you someday soon!

Sincerely,

Annabelle

My great-grandparents on their 65th wedding anniversary

My great-grandparents on their 65th wedding anniversary

10 Concrete Ways To Help After A Disaster

16 Apr

I was sipping an overpriced americano in a small, aggressively hip coffee shop today when the news broke about the bombing at the Boston Marathon. I’d only meant to sit down for a few minutes, but ended spending over two hours there nursing my cold coffee and obsessively refreshing my Twitter feed.

Sitting there, I had the surreal experience of watching a disaster unfold in real time on social media. What made it even more strange was the fact that I was surrounded by people who had no idea what was happening. Two girls across from me discussed their upcoming Vipassana retreat and had a passive aggressive competition about their current meditation practices. A girl next to me was reading The Feminist Porn Book and occasionally making furious notes in her Moleskine. A young boy and his grandmother seated on my other side tried to figure out his math homework.

Everyone was totally oblivious to the fact that someone was apparently trying to blow Boston sky-high.

I wanted to lean over and poke the Feminist Porn girl and tell her what was happening, because I was suddenly desperate to have a real-life, non-internet conversation about this. It felt so lonely to be the only one in that coffee shop currently living in a world where people were detonating bombs at maybe the most famous marathon in America. But that seemed like it might be a weird thing to do, and anyway, she seemed really happy to be sitting there, alternately reading and scrawling. I didn’t want to be the one to ruin the Feminist Porn girl’s day, and anyway, she’d learn about Boston soon enough.

What happened today in that coffee shop was eerily similar to my experience on September 11th. I was in my first year at Dalhousie, and I’d gone to the Howe Hall student lounge between classes. There, on an oversized tv screen, a crowd of people were watching airplanes fly into buildings.

At first I thought it must be a movie, but then I realized that they were showing the same scene over and over.

“Is this a joke?” I wondered aloud. “It’s a joke, right?”

“No,” said the girl next to me. “Someone’s destroying America and it’s about fucking time.”

I didn’t know what to say to that, so I turned away and walked dazedly to my next class.

I figured out pretty quickly that no one there knew what was happening in New York. Everyone was laughing and chattering about their most recent drunken exploits, or their upcoming drunken exploits, or else how they were going to get money for more drunken exploits. It was as if I’d slipped into an alternate universe, one where no one was jumping out of skyscrapers because they knew they were going to die anyway and they didn’t want to wait until the fire made its way up to them.

I sidled up to one girl and whispered to her that someone had just flown a plane into the World Trade Centre. She just looked at me blankly, said, “Really?” then turned and started a new conversation with someone else.

The thing about me is that I like to do things. When stuff like this happens, I get all jittery and weird, like I need to be doing something concrete, something real, something right now to help whoever is hurt. It was, in fact, kind of lucky that I was in Halifax on September, because there was actually a ton of stuff, helpful stuff, that I was able to do in the wake of the disaster.

After the towers were hit, all of the overseas flights headed for the no-fly zone were diverted to Gander, Newfoundland, and Halifax. The tightly-knit community on our small peninsula suddenly swelled by 8,000 people. The city needed to set up adequate food and shelter, and fast.

Naturally, when trying to find a large, unpaid work force, Halifax immediately thought of its student population. Those of us in residence were recruited to help out in various ways, from collecting donations from local businesses to cooking, setting up house and otherwise caring for our unexpected guests.

Because my residence, Gerard Hall, was attached to the abandoned (read: terrifying and haunted) Old Halifax Infirmary, my friends and I were sent to retrieve the stacks and stacks of hospital mattresses that were left there. I would later revisit the Old Infirmary again with my friend Ali, who would break in so that she could skateboard up and down its smooth, ghostly halls.

Later we were taken by bus out to the Exhibition Ground, where we handed out toiletries, blankets and toys to people who spoke barely any English. Many of them had no idea where they were, and had never, in fact, heard of Halifax. Everyone was very subdued, very still – even the babies were quiet. No one was upset at having to sleep on the concrete floor of a building that normally housed horses; mostly everyone was just happy to be alive.

There was this sort of sense that we were all in this together, and that if we could just keep being nice to each other, we could stop bad things like this from happening ever again.

There was also this sense that if we could all just keep moving, if we could keep doing helpful, constructive things, we wouldn’t have to think about what all this violence and hatred meant.

In the wake of the bombing today, I’ve been trying to figure out ways to help. I want to be like those people I saw in the news footage who ran towards the destruction, not away from it. I want to do something, anything to stop me from feeling like a useless, voyeuristic bystander. So, with the input of a few friends, I’ve put together a list of things that we can all do, no matter where we are:

1. When you are sharing information about what’s happening in Boston, please take a minute to make sure that whatever you’re posting or re-tweeting is accurate and correct. I’ve already seen a few fake twitter accounts promising to donate money to disaster relief for every retweet. I’ve also seen people posting sensationalized stuff that just isn’t true. Before you hit “retweet,” make sure that you are being a reliable conduit of facts for your friends and family.

2. Let the emergency response workers and law enforcement do their thing.Give them the chance to tell you what they need. They will let you know how you can best offer help. If you were at the finish line at the marathon, the FBI requests that you share photos or videos with investigators. Call 1-800-CALL-FBI (1-800-225-5324), prompt #3.

3. Use social media to let others know you are okay or to offer help. Google has created a Person Finder site for the Boston Marathon to help people locate their loved ones. There is also a Google Doc to help stranded visitors find a place to stay or for Boston residents to offer a couch or bed in their own home.

4. Give blood. Or if you can, donate money to theAmerican Red Cross, which is the organization that handles most blood donations in the United States. If the blood bank is all booked up (the Red Cross noted yesterday they were not immediately in need of blood donors), make an appointment to make a donation in a few weeks’ time, when the huge supply they have from people initially responding to the disaster has run out.

5. Look for small but vital local organizations that serve members of the population who might not receive help from larger aid organizations. Look for shelters that need blankets and clothing, or food banks that need non-perishable items. Stuff like that.

6. Refrain from speculating on the race, ethnicity or religion of the perpetrator. Don’t make this political. Keep any remarks about Obama’s response, your thoughts on immigration policy, and the current state of homeland defence to yourself. There will be plentyt of time to dissect these things in the coming days; for now, remember that everyone around you, Obama included, is frightened and upset.

7. Hug the shit out of your friends and family. Remind everyone how much you love them until they’re tired of hearing it. Then remind them again.

8. Take care of yourself. If reading about the bombing or looking at pictures starts to become too much, give yourself permission to take a break and get off social media for a while. The world’s not going to end if you’re not on Twitter.

9. Give everyone else a break. They’re having a hard time too. Remember that everyone mourns or deals with stress in different ways.

10. Eat some chocolate. Read this article. Then read this. Remind yourself of how many legitimately good, caring people are out there. Remember the adversity that the human spirit is capable of overcoming, and remind yourself that, even after something like this, we will rebuild. We have to.

I love you guys.

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Three Memories

17 Mar

1. It’s a grey, dreary Saturday afternoon in early August, 1997. I’m at my friend Liz’s apartment; she’s throwing me a party for my fifteenth birthday. It’s not a big party – more of a get-together, really, with a handful of friends sitting around on Liz’s living room floor. Somebody has brought the obligatory cake, and there are gifts, too, but those are beside the point.

My real birthday present is that Liz has somehow convinced her mother to rent Trainspotting for us. Not only that, but her mother has actually left us alone to watch it.

I have been dying to see this movie ever since it came out the year before. I own the soundtrack (well, I own a taped copy of the soundtrack that my friend made for me). I have postcards showing scenes from the movie stuck on my wall. I’ve cut out every interview with Ewan MacGregor that I can find and pinned them to my bulletin board. My friend Emily somehow saw Trainspotting in theatres (in spite of the fact that she was too young for its R rating), and I’ve made her give me a play-by-play of all of its scenes.

I am so fucking ready for this.

I sit there and watch the fuck out of that movie, my fingers dug deep into the grey pile of the living room carpet. I drink in everything, even, maybe especially, the things that I don’t understand. I don’t flinch away from the achingly awful, sometimes sickening parts that I later won’t be able to watch as an adult. I watch this movie like I’ll be writing a final exam in which 100% of my grade is based on a essay regarding Mark Renton and his life choices.

I am fifteen. I am a virgin. I’ve never even smoked a cigarette, never mind fucking around with heroin. I don’t cut class. I don’t break my curfew. I try so hard to be good.

But in my whole life I have never had something speak to me the way Mark Renton’s opening monologue does:

Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television, choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol, and dental insurance. Choose fixed interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisurewear and matching luggage. Choose a three-piece suit on hire purchase in a range of fucking fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who the fuck you are on Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fucking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pissing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked up brats you spawned to replace yourselves. Choose your future. Choose life… But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life. I chose somethin’ else. And the reasons? There are no reasons.

Because already I know that I’m not going to choose any of those things. I don’t know what I want in life, but the list of things that I don’t want is long and involved. I’m fifteen, so compromise doesn’t yet exist.

I am going to take the fucking world by storm, and I am not going betray any of my values along the way.

2. It’s a bright spring day in 2003. I have recently sort of, maybe started dating my friend. We have been on one, maybe two dates, but we haven’t kissed yet. He comes over to my house and we watch my favourite movie, The Red Violin. I lean against him and put my head first on his shoulder, then on his lap. I am so tentative, so nervous.

I am so in love with him.

Afterwards, he walks me back to the Dalhousie campus. I have to go work at the school call centre, where we try to convince alumni to donate money to the university. We end up wandering over to the stairs leading up to the Grad House (a misnomer of a pub where undergrad students are totally welcome) and I stand on the second step, so that I’m the same height as him.

Suddenly, he leans in and kisses me, then grabs me and spins me around until we’re both dizzy and giggling.

“Well, that makes things less awkward,” he says.

I bury my face in the front of his coat. I can’t stop smiling. In that moment, everything is sharply, painfully perfect. It doesn’t matter that in a little over two months’ time we will end up lost in a blind alley of shortcoming and fears and hurt feelings. It doesn’t matter that our friendship will end, not even with a bang, but slowly, painfully, spluttering and gasping to its death over the course of the next two years. It doesn’t matter that he will break my heart, not just once, but over and over.

It doesn’t matter, because even if someone had told me all of the awful things that were to come, I still wouldn’t have traded that one wonderful moment for a calmer, happier, but ultimately emptier world.

3. It’s a hot, sunny summer day in 2004. I am wearing a brown tank top and a skirt that my aunt bought me for my birthday. The skirt, which hits just below the knee, is cream with a brick-red pattern of swirls on it; it’s made of jersey cotton, which means that it moves with and clings to my body in the best way possible. The waistband is a thick elastic, in the same brick-red colour, and it dips down into a v in the front. I love the cut of this waistband an unreasonable amount.

I am walking next to Citadel Hill in Halifax. I have my discman in my purse, and I’m listening to my roommate’s copy of Hawksley Workman’s (Last Night We Were) The Delicious Wolves. Specifically, I am listening to Striptease. The sun is hot on my face and shoulders. My hair hangs long, dusty, tangled down my back. I am swaying my hips, wiggling my shoulders.

For the first time in a long time I feel perfectly at home in my body. I feel sexy, in a dirty, earthy way. I feel like someone who might be desirable.

I look down and notice that my skirt has slipped enough to show off the top of my black thong. I barely pause for long enough to hike my skirt back up, and then I keep going.

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Nostalgia Machine: On Re-reading Sandman

11 Mar

Matt and I have recently been re-reading Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, something that I’ve been putting off doing for a few years now.

I’m not sure why we decided to dive back into those books now, exactly – I guess part of it might be because I recently started following Mr. Gaiman on twitter and suddenly remembered how amazing he is. It’s also probably due to the fact that we just recently found the last couple of volumes needed to complete our collection for cheap at a discount bookstore. Mostly, though, I think it came out of how much I’ve been thinking about my friend Annie lately.

The thing is, I’ve been missing her like crazy, and I can’t think about the Sandman books without being reminded of her, and vice versa.

Annie moved in with me in the spring of 2004, just at the tail end of my annus horribilis. She was a friend of a friend, someone I barely knew, but I desperately needed a roommate, and she desperately needed a room. Although I’d met her a handful of times, at parties and theatre department events, I’d only ever spoken to her once. At some get-together or other I somehow found myself standing next to her, and I figured that I should try to make conversation. I racked my brains for something to say, and wound up complimenting her on this pin on her bag that said, “Go Fascinate Someone Else.”

She looked at me as if I’d said the most mundane, meaningless thing possible, took a drag from her cigarette, and said in her smoky, vaguely European voice,

“Yeah. I like it too. Obviously. Or I wouldn’t be wearing it.”

What I want to make clear here is that Annie was a super badass who dressed all in black, smoked like a chimney and never refrained from speaking her mind, even when she knew it was going to get her into trouble. She was a brilliant actress with a mysterious Soviet past and a deadpan stare that could wither just about anyone. Half the city admired her, half the city was afraid of her, and half the city wanted to sleep with her. And no, I didn’t accidentally say “half” instead of “a third” – I just mean that there was a lot of overlap between all three categories.

I had no idea why she would ever want to be my roommate.

I would estimate that there are four people who have had an enormous influence on my outlook on music, clothing, art and life in general. The first was Emily, who I met at a performing arts camp when we were twelve and who introduced me to vintage clothing, the Kids in the Hall and, music-wise, everything from Ani DiFranco to Sonic Youth. The second was Kat, who had first hated then later befriended me in while we were at university, and who is responsible for introducing me to pot, Sylvia Plath and the joys of being loud and obnoxious in public. The most recent one was my friend Audra, who has helped shape my take on third-wave feminism, internet activism and dance movies. The fourth, of course, was Annie.

I’m not sure, exactly, how Annie and I became friends. I think that it happened slowly, by degrees, with me making tentative friendly overtures like buying her beer and lending her books. Then she invited me out to her birthday and I went, bravely talked to a few of her friends*, then left early. I’m not sure what time she came home at, but the next morning she was still drunk. When I got up, she was lying sprawled out on our couch, her tank top askew and her already-short skirt hiked up even higher, and she kept giggling over everything I said. I made us both breakfast, and then suddenly, magically, all of my awkwardness melted away and it was like we’d known each other forever.

Mostly it feels like Annie and I have the kind of friendship that twelve year old boys have. I mean, you know that part in Stand By Me when they’re sitting around the campfire talking about pez candies and Wagon Train and whether or not Goofy’s a dog? And then narrator-Gordie says, “We talked into the night. The kind of talk that seemed important until you discover girls.” That’s what our friendship felt like then, and still feels like now. And if you’re an aficionado of Stand By Me in the same way that Annie and I are, I probably don’t have to explain that she’s Chris Chambers, and I’m poor old Gordie Lachance with the leech on his balls.

Anyway, that summer, the summer of 2004, Annie introduced me to the Sandman series. And as I worked my way through them, she re-read them, and together we fed each others’ obsessions. We would sit out on our North End stoop as the late afternoon cooled into evening, drink whatever we had on hand, share Annie’s pack of cigarettes and try to pull apart the Sandman universe. We teased out each layer, or at least the layers that we could find, and laid each thread of plot bare to examine it. We researched everything, trying to figure out which characters were historical figures and which were just plain made up. I think at some point we even made a flowchart or graph to keep track of our discussions. It was perfect.

That summer was like gorging on everything wonderful in life all at once, and if I could bottle it up and sell it, I could be a millionaire, like, tomorrow.

We eventually started casting ourselves and our friends as the Sandman characters. Annie, at the time, was a dead ringer for Death (PUN SO INTENDED):

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And I felt a weird kinship with Delirium:

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I’m not including a picture of myself because I look nothing like Delirium, but when I first read those books, I felt like her. I understood the stuff she said, even when most other people, both fictional and real, seemed to have no clue.

I loved Delirium. Loved her. I think my adoration for her was part of the reason I put off reading the Sandman books again for so long – because, of course, it’s dangerous to revisit anything that you’ve known too well, loved too deeply, or somehow view as having helped shaped who you are. It’s dangerous to expect something to feel the same after years and years of memories and expectations. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, those old books, movies and places are able to stir enough nostalgia to allow you to overlook all of the failings you’re suddenly able to see, but mostly going back to the things that you view as influential and formative is nothing but a disappointment. First of all, they can never live up to the hype that’s built up in your mind for the last ten or fifteen or twenty years, and second of all they’re often just plain terrible and end up making you feel as if a huge chunk of your childhood or young adulthood is somehow tainted.

And, see, Delirium is a character who would be ripe for this kind of adult realization. I was worried that, as a 30 year old, I would find her character to be ridiculous, and my love of her incredibly pretentious. I was worried that re-reading Brief Lives, my favourite Sandman of all time, would leave me rolling my eyes SO HARD at my younger self and her habit of being overdramatic about, well, everything. I was worried that, this time around, I would hate Delirium, or at the very least no longer love her and know her the way I had. And somehow, that would feel like a huge loss.

But you guys? Sandman is still amazing. And Delirium is still amazing.

Maybe it’s because when Annie moved in with me, I was just coming out of a major depressive episode, and I’m in a not-dissimilar place in my life right now. Or maybe it’s because I haven’t changed as much in nine years as I’d thought. Whatever the reason, Delirium still kills me in all the best ways possible. She says things, and I think, ohhhh, I get that. I’ve felt that.

Like this:

“I feel like … I don’t know. Someplace nobody ever goes anymore.”

Or this:

“It all keeps moving and it won’t stop and I just want it to stop and then I think what if it gets worse? You know? What if it gets worse?”

Or this:

“I like airplanes. I like anywhere that isn’t a proper place. I like in-betweens.”

Or this:

“What’s the name of the word for the precise moment when you realize that you’ve actually forgotten how it felt to make love to somebody you really liked a long time ago.”

Or this:

“You’ve never apologized to me. You just act like you know stuff I don’t know that makes everything you do okay.”

Ahhhhhhh (that is a sigh of total satisfaction after having a fictional character explain what’s in my heart)

I’m not really sure how to end this, except to say that I find myself back in the same curious, dreamy state that Sandman put me in the first time. I mean, it’s probably not just the books – it’s probably also the fact that spring is so close that you can taste it, and that my house is clean for once, and I ate some really transcendentally great yogurt today. But whatever it is, I’ll take it. I like this feeling. I’ve missed this feeling. It makes me feel floaty and insubstantial and wondrous in a way that I haven’t felt in years.

I just wish Annie was here to share this all with me, instead of being half a continent away.

I wish we were back on our stoop, eating Rassy’s pizza and drinking Kahlua cocktails and watching the sparrows hopping around eating our crumbs.

I wish I knew what to do with this feeling, now that I finally have it back.

———————

*It was actually only one friend, the nicest guy imaginable who would deliberately seek out shy, awkward people and talk to them at social gatherings. Seriously. The nicest.