Tag Archives: history

Pete Seeger, or How Teenagers Listen To Music

29 Jan

I’ve had a weirdly emotional reaction to Pete Seeger’s death. Like, way more intense than I would have imagined. I mean, he was 94, right? That’s a good run. A really good run. And I haven’t listened to his music in years and years. Maybe not really – not seriously, anyway – since I was a teenager, back in the days when I wore daisy chains in my long, ratty hair and fancied myself to be some sort of hippie. Later, I abandoned him when I grew what I thought was a more sophisticated taste in music; his stuff started to seem too plain, too openly earnest, too babyish.

Today, though, I’ve been listening to his songs non-stop, and nearly every single one of them has made my eyes well up. These days, I’m all about plain and openly earnest. I’ll take someone who really means what they’re singing over the clever kid with the hollow, dead-eyed lyrics any day.

I guess I’ve always loved Pete Seeger; at the very least, I’ve been listening to his songs my entire life. When I was a little kid we sang “Where Have All The Flowers Gone” in Brownies and Girl Guides. When I was a bit older I liked “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and “If I Had A Hammer”. As a pretentious teenager who loved all things indie and underground, I fell in love with “Guantanamera” after it was used in Don McKellar’s 1998 film Last Night.

Last Night takes place during the final six hours of the world, which is about to end in a very polite Canadian apocalypse. The movie follows various story lines of characters, their paths often crossing and re-crossing, trying to make their last moments significant (or not). Sandra Oh plays a woman who’s desperately trying to get home to her husband, having gone out to buy the guns that they’re going to kill each other with just before the end comes – a sort of fuck you to the current circumstances, a way of taking control of their own deaths. But she can’t get home, because people are rioting in the streets, so she winds up at the apartment of a man played by Don McKellar. She asks to kill (and be killed) in lieu of her husband, as a way of keeping her word to him even if she can’t be with him. He agrees. And so the movie ends with them on his patio, guns pressed against each others’ heads, waiting until the last possible moment to pull the trigger. “Guantanamera” plays in the background.

But instead of shooting each other, they lower their hands, lean in, and kiss. And that too is a form of resistance, a way of saying fuck you to their circumstances.

And then the sun flares into an obliterating white, and everything stops.

I can’t watch it without crying. Still. Sixteen years later.

That scene might have been my first lesson in the ways that protest and resistance can look so different from how we might imagine them. It also may have been the first time I really understood that just because you know that there’s no possible way out, you still need to go down fighting.

Those were things that I learned from Pete Seeger’s music, too.

When I was a teenager, all music held some sort of lesson. I listened to music differently back then, in a way that seems uncomfortable, maybe almost painful now. There was an intensity of focus, a dizzying, full-body absorption that is almost totally lacking now. I studied songs that I loved as if they were going to be on the final exam; I learned them backwards and forwards, parsed their lyrics for meaning (especially meaning that seemed to apply specifically to my life), wrote them out over and over in the margins of my schoolwork. I lived those songs in a way that I just don’t anymore. I’m not sure when this stopped – sometime in my early twenties, I would guess – and I miss it. But maybe you just can’t sit with that kind of emotional intensity forever.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the ways that kids – teenagers especially – listen to music. And it’s almost like at that age, we listen as a way of learning how to interpret the world around us. Pop songs are, for teenagers, a sort of crash-course in understanding major life events that they haven’t yet experienced. I’d heard hundreds of songs about heartbreak before I ever had my heart broken; I’d listened to songs about death, about war, about inequality and resistance and protest long before actually living through those things. I sang along with songs about love, about its joys and its frightening fragility, years before falling in love. And so maybe that’s where the intensity comes from – we’re studying these three minute lessons packed full of unknown and highly romanticized human experiences, wanting so badly to know just exactly how they will feel when they finally happen to us.

When I was a teenager, I thought every song was about me. Even the ones I didn’t understand.

Pete Seeger’s songs seemed to be about me, too. Or at least about the great things that I would do – stand up against injustice, lead the charge against the oppressors, save the world. I wanted to be the girl who walked up to the line of soldiers, their guns, cold and oiled and gleaming, pointed straight at her, calmly offering them a daisy. I wanted to be so unafraid, even though I couldn’t imagine a time when I wasn’t always afraid of something or other.

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And maybe I am that girl now, just a little bit. And if that’s true, then it’s at least in part because of songs, like the songs of Pete Seeger, and theatre and art and literature and oratory that have stirred my stupid sluggish soul and made me believe that I could and should be doing something more than I am. Because that’s the magic of Seeger’s music – that it can create community where there was none before, move the crowd to action, and actually affect change.

Music, if properly wielded, can start a revolution.

And maybe tonight I’m listening again with that same intensity that I used to have. And maybe I’m learning all over again about subjects that I know nothing about; subjects that yesterday I might have thought I was some sort of expert in.

So thank you, Pete, for all the revolutions, big and small, that you are responsible for. Thank you for the big thoughts framed in simple rhymes and simple chords. Thank you for the music you gave to the labour rallies, the civil rights movement, the anti-war protests. Thank you for reminding us that sometimes the written word can be ten times as powerful than a punch or a kick or a bullet. Thank you especially for your earnestness, because these days what I want more than anything is to be earnest. Thank you.

I hope it’s warm and peaceful wherever you. I hope that it’s dark, and that you’re finally able to take your rest. You’ve more than earned it.

This machine surrounds hate - Pete Seeger's banjo-8x6

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Hiroshima, 1945

6 Aug

It’s my birthday. I’m thirty one years old, and although I’m still not sure whether I feel like a grownup or not, I’m now far enough in to this new decade to be able to say with confidence that I’m in my thirties.

It’s also the 68th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, a fact that gives this day a complicated patina of heartache, remembrance and a funny thankfulness that, in spite if everything, this dear old planet and I have managed to complete yet another whirl around the sun. I’ve always felt a little haunted by the hundreds of thousands of people who died thirty seven years and half a world away from my birth. I’ve always felt a sort of funny debt to them, as if I owe something to them, though I’m not quite sure what. You would think that as the Hiroshima dead fade further and further into the past that their weight would begin to feel lighter, less real, but instead, the reverse is true – the more distant this event becomes, the more the bombing of Hiroshima colours and shapes this day for me.

Where do you even begin to try to figure out what happened in Hiroshima? You could start by bring the camera in as close as possible, fiddling with the settings and watch as shapes dissolve into other, smaller shapes, the image adjusting and readjusting until finally the atoms themselves are in focus.

The physics of nuclear fission sound more like poetry than science – a single neutron is fired at an atom, in this case an atom of uranium-235, and splits the nucleus apart. Out of each split nucleus will fly several more neutrons, which will smash into other atoms, which will, in turn, split and release their own neutrons. The fracturing of each and every atom releases another tiny bit of heat and radiation; when a chain reaction like this occurs in the millions of atoms that make up a pound of uranium-235, the resulting explosion is enough to lay waste to entire cities.

All of this can be much more simply and elegantly expressed in one neat equation:

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Now pull the camera back, watch the atoms coalesce into more recognizable shapes, objects and buildings and people, until your view is that of the Japanese sky a few hours after sunrise.

At 8:15 am on August 6th, 1945, the Enola Gay flew over Hiroshima, releasing Little Boy, a gun-type fission bomb. Little Boy missed its intended target of the Aioi Bridge, and instead detonated directly over the Shima Hospital. The hospital was destroyed, the staff and patients reduced to a pile of bleached bones by the heat of the blast. The centre of the city was destroyed, an estimated five square miles turned to scorched rubble. 80,000 people died that day, and another 80,000 more died over the course of the next few months either from the effect of burns, radiation sickness or other injuries.

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One hundred and sixty thousand people.

Because of one bomb.

I’m not sure how old I was when my parents told me that the anniversary of my birth is also the anniversary of this annihilating atomic flash that was responsible for so many deaths; it feels like something that’s always been a part of my personal mythology. I remember poring over the entry for Hiroshima in our battered green family encyclopedia, nauseated by the descriptions of peeling flesh and charred bones but somehow unable to stop reading. I checked books out of the library about atomic bombs, books from the adult section with mostly incomprehensible text and lurid, technicolor photographs of fiery mushroom clouds. Someone gave me a book when I was seven or eight called Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, about a little girl whose blood cells, irradiated and mutated by the bomb, developed a form of leukemia.  Remembering an old Japanese legend that said that the gods would grant any wish to a person who managed to fold a thousand cranes, Sadako began frantically making cranes out of every scrap of paper she could find. She died in October of 1955, after folding only 644 cranes.

After that, I learned how to make paper cranes.

It seemed like the right thing to do.

Because I felt like I had to do something; I felt like I had some kind of responsibility to the history of this day that gave me my first breath, my first sunrise, my first wailing cry. I still feel that way. And though I’ve all but given up on origami, I try to find other ways to honour the dead.

So I spend an hour or so every birthday looking at pictures from Hiroshima – the survivors with their twisted limbs and thick, ropy scars, the cityscape smashed flat and littered with debris, the shadows burned into walls and sidewalks, marking the places where people stood looking up at the sky during their last moments on earth.

I look at these pictures and take the time to consider that these are the things that we do to each other. These are, in fact, the cold, calculated atrocities that humans perpetrate against other humans. These people are the people who died because of us, because of the endless machinations of our stupidly cunning species. The wards full of children lying helpless as the atomic leukemia slowly, agonizingly leaches the life from their bodies? That was us. The old man bloated and swollen from radiation sickness, the raw skin peeling off his face and hands? That was us. The people vaporized in an instant who left nothing behind, not one single thing to be treasured by those who loved them? Still us. The groaning, bleeding, charred mass of people who lingered on for months and months, each day a living hell? Us.

As if being alive isn’t difficult enough, as if there aren’t enough tricks and traps ready to ensnare our brittle bodies, we have to go and do these things to each other.

I want to remember how easy it is for us to live side by side with these atrocities. I want to recognize that when I go to sleep in my clean, comfortable bed in my safe, comfortable city, somewhere out there are people whose lives are little more than grinding daily pain. I want to know the names of all the Iraqis who have died, all the children in Afghanistan who have become collateral damage in this war, all of the people everywhere out their whose agony is directly attributable to other humans. I need to know and remember these things, because the not knowing and not remembering are so much more dangerous.

I’ll leave you with a poem written by Sadako Kurihara, a survivor of the Hiroshima blast. I’ll leave with the thought, the question, really, of how each of us can be midwives in our own lives. I’ll leave you to, hopefully, take a few moments of your own to remember.

LET US BE MIDWIVES!

Night in the basement of a concrete structure now in ruins.

Victims of the atomic bomb jammed the room;

it was dark – not even a single candle.

The smell of fresh blood, the stench of death,

the closeness of sweaty people, the moans.

From out of all that, lo and behold, a voice:

“The baby’s coming!”

In that hellish basement,

at that very moment, a young woman had gone into labor.

In the dark, without a single match, what to do?

People forgot their own pains, worried about her.

And then: “I’m a midwife. I’ll help with the birth.”

The speaker, seriouly injured herself, had been moaning only moments before.

And so new life was born in the dark of that pit of hell.

And so the midwife died before dawn, still bathed in blood.

Let us be midwives!

Let us be midwives!

Even if we lay down our own lives to do so.

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My birthday last year, making lanterns and paper cranes with my sisters at the Rally for Peace:

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Not That Girl

30 Jul

No, no, please don’t apologize. It was a good joke. Really funny.

Liquid panty remover. Hah. That’s great. I’ve never heard that one before! Oh man, that’s hilarious.

Don’t worry about telling jokes like that to me – I love those kinds of jokes. I’m not really the type to get offended, you know?

I mean, I’m not that kind of girl.

Like, I think that some people are just looking for things to get worked up over. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that, like, rape jokes are funny or anything. Not that I think your joke was a rape joke, because your joke was definitely funny, but, you know, rape-rape jokes for sure aren’t cool. On the other hand, people need to chill out. Like, there are so many things that are so much more degrading to women – I mean, look at the way that women are treated in the Middle East! If you’re gonna be outraged about something, you should be outraged about that, not a stupid joke.

I mean, do you really think that anyone hears a Daniel Tosh joke and goes out and rapes someone? No. That’s just not how it works.

I just don’t get why some people have to suck the joy out of everything. Like, I’m sorry if you don’t like that Robin Thicke song, but that’s you. I’m not going to apologize for listening to a fun pop song just because someone else doesn’t like the lyrics. I don’t see what’s wrong with the lyrics, anyway – people read way too much into everything.

Don’t get me wrong, I think that feminism is great and everything. I took women’s studies in college and I’m thankful for, like, Gloria Steinem or whatever, but isn’t it time we got past all that? I mean, all that negativity and bitterness and victimology – how are those things doing women any good? They’re not. Like, we have to live in the world with men, and that’s something you just can’t get away from. I think it’s better if we all just learn to get along, you know? That’s why I don’t call myself a feminist; that word is just so divisive. I don’t really like labels, but if I had to pick something I would say that I’m really more of a humanist. Because we’re all part of the human race, and we need to start acting like it.

I guess I just don’t feel like feminism does anything for me. Like, I feel way more empowered as a woman without it. I would rather think about how strong I am and all the things I can accomplish instead of blaming men or whatever for holding me back. Women are never going to get ahead if they’re stuck hating half their own species, you know?

And, I mean, I have friends that are feminist. I get where they’re coming from. I just think that some of these radical feminists go too far.

Like, I have friends who were raped. I used to volunteer in a rape crisis centre. I really do believe that rape culture is a thing. But I don’t think you can just wear whatever you want and drink a lot and flirt with guys and not see that as taking a risk. Of course no one deserves to be raped, but, well, rapists are out there and you have to protect yourself. Like even if you’re a good driver, you still wear a seatbelt, right? That’s just common sense. Because even if you drive safely, you can’t guarantee that everyone else will. You have to take precautions – we live in a dangerous world.

Oh.

I mean, I guess.

Yeah, that makes sense. Maybe rape culture is the wrong way to put it.

You’re right, I can see how that was a logical fallacy. Thanks for pointing that out.

No, seriously, thanks. I mean it. I’m not touchy like some girls – I don’t mind if anyone, guy or girl, lets me know when I’m wrong. How else am I going to learn, right?

Yeah, I totally get why you might have thought that I was being sarcastic. Lots of girls would probably get pretty worked up over being called out like that. I mean, Jesus, girls are crazy. I’m not embarrassed to say that, because it’s true. Especially during that time of the month. God, if you think it’s bad being a guy and having to deal with us, try being a girl surrounded by other girls. I mean, I love my girlfriends, but sometimes I just can’t deal with the crazy anymore.

Like, girls are so fucking catty. We’re just really fucking mean to each other. We tear each other down way more often than men do. Maybe feminists should start fixing how women treat each other before they worry about how men see us. I mean, charity begins at home, right?

No, yeah, you’re right. Charity was the wrong word. God I’m so stupid tonight.

Thanks for being so patient with me.

I guess I just meant that we need to fix our own problems first. I really think that that’s what feminists or whoever should be devoting their energy to. But they won’t, because they don’t want to admit that maybe not all of our problems are because of men.

I mean, I love men. Like, this, right now? Sitting with you? This is really great. We should get another drink, I’m really having a lot of fun just sitting here talking with you. Just one of the guys, right?

Yeah, sure, you can order for me. Go ahead and pick whatever, I can handle it.

No, whiskey is great! I love whiskey. On the rocks. Isn’t that what they say? On the rocks?

Aren’t they always drinking whiskey on Mad Men? God, I love that show. I wish I could live back then, you know? I mean, other than the racism or whatever, it looks like it was pretty great.

I just – I don’t get girls who think that things are so much better these days. Like, I guess it’s good to have options, but sometimes I think we have too many options now. I think it would be so much easier just to have to look good and marry someone nice. Imagine how great it would be to be a housewife! And always have men opening doors for you and being polite to you. And oh god the clothes – I could wear the shit out of those clothes.

I mean, I get that it was bad back in the early 1900s when women couldn’t vote or own property, but, like, after that things were pretty good for women. Sometimes I think that women in the 1960s or whatever didn’t know how good they had it.

I don’t think women will ever know how good they have it. Like, I think we’re just hardwired to be dissatisfied. We all just want to have our cake and eat it too. It’s crazy. I mean, you never hear men talking about how they want to “have it all”, you know?

Sorry, you’re right, air quotes are really corny. I have to remember to stop doing that.

No, yeah, you’ve got a good point. This is a pretty heavy topic for a Friday night. We should talk about something else. Tell me another joke!

That first joke was really funny, tell me another one like that.

Make it as offensive as you want, it won’t bother me.

Because I’m not like that. I’m not that kind of girl.

Don’t you think I’m a different kind of girl?

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Mother’s Day

12 May

I’m gonna be totally honest here: Mother’s Day makes me feel weird.

I think that part of it is that I have an automatic distrust of anything that’s gender-specific. Like, why is it Mother’s Day? Why not just Caregiver’s Day? Or Excellent Parental Unit Day? Or, as a friend of mine mentioned on Facebook, Gender-Diverse Parents’ Day? I mean, I get that it’s supposed to be about how hard mothers work, and how under-appreciated they are, but something about this sentiment seems … off to me. We spend most of the year crapping on moms, picking apart their parenting choices and publicly lambasting mothers that we disagree with, but suddenly we’re supposed to spend a day talking about how great they are? It sort of reminds me of the way that a good friend spoke about her ex – he was great at the big things (like buying her lavish gifts and taking her on fancy vacations), but not so much with the little day-to-day stuff. And really, it’s that day-to-day stuff that keeps the world turning, you know?

I guess that part of my ambivalence comes from the fact that Mother’s Day was never a big deal when I was growing up. We would make cards for my mother, and maybe bake her a cake or something, but it never went much beyond that. I mentioned once or twice that I might make my mother breakfast in bed, but she always vetoed that idea, saying that she would be the one left to clean up my mess (which was, to be fair, probably true). Even when my dad still lived at home, we never went out for brunch or anything fancy like that. I think I remember really wanting to make it a special day for her, because school and television and books made me feel like that that’s what I should be doing, but not being entirely certain of how to about that. I realize now that the best gift I could’ve given her would have been a kid-free afternoon or more help with household chores, but those things didn’t occur to me at the time. I wanted to either go big or go home (and I had no way of knowing just how “big” a few childless hours would have seemed to a single mother).

I guess that what I’m trying to say is that I didn’t really understand how HUGE Mother’s Day is for some people until I became a mother myself. Then, all of the sudden, people wanted to know what I was doing for Mother’s Day – they seemed especially interested in what, exactly, my husband was going to buy me. As my first Mother’s Day approached, I heard more and more about all the gifts I should be expecting. What do you think you’ll get for Mother’s Day? people kept asking, as if I had submitted a list of desired items months ago and had only to use my mad deductive skills to figure out which one my husband would pick. When I told them that we would likely go out for a nice family brunch and then go to the park, they seemed disappointed, as if I was somehow missing the whole point of the holiday.

The whole “Mother’s Day is too commercialized” thing has basically been done to death, but you guys? It’s pretty much true. It’s now more about picking out the perfect jewellery or the cutest card or the fanciest chocolates than it is about honouring the hard work your mother does. And to get back to that weird gender thing, why are we so obsessed with honouring how hard our mothers work? Or rather, why are we only interested in thinking about it only once a year, and why is our solution to throw sparkly things and candy at it, and then ignore the issue for the next 364 days?

I can’t help but notice the differences between how Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are marketed. Mother’s Day is all about honouring the sacrifices your mother made for you, showering her with pretty, mostly useless things as a sort of payback for all that she “gave up” in order to raise you. Father’s Day, on the other hand, seems to be about high-fiving your dad for being such an awesome friend, and maybe thanking him for somehow, occasionally having had a hand in how you turned out. Even these lists of suggested Mother’s Day and Father’s Day gifts are pretty telling – a whole lot of stuff to make Mom look and smell pretty (with a few gardening items thrown in), and then a bunch of fun, boozy, outdoor-adventure stuff for Dad. I mean, I’ll be honest – I would way rather read a book on my Kobo while sipping a glass of nice scotch than put on a stupid scarf and spritz myself with floral-scented chemicals. Not unexpectedly, all of the gifts for mothers are about her appearance, whereas all of the gifts for fathers are about going out and having a good time.

I guess that, at the end of the day, what really bothers me about Mother’s Day is this idea that sacrifice is somehow inherent in the idea of being a mother. And also that there’s something sacred about getting knocked up and then giving birth, as if that raises you on a pedestal above all other women. I feel particularly irritated by this image from Indigo’s website:

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Because, you know, everyone doesn’t have the best mom in the world. The ability to be sperminated and pop out a kid doesn’t really mean anything; I definitely know enough people with awful mothers who pretty firmly disprove that rule.

Instead of celebrating how much women have to give up in order to have children, why don’t we look at ways that we can even the playing field? Instead of insisting that mothers have to be the nurturing caregivers, how about finding ways to help promote these behaviours in fathers? And instead of having Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, why not just a day that celebrates all of the people who help make our kids the way they are? Why not have a day that acknowledges the fact that some people owe more thanks to their aunts, uncles and grandparents than they do to their mothers or fathers?

But if we have to have a Mother’s Day, I would much rather celebrate Julia Ward Howe’s proposed Mother’s Day for Peace. I would rather honour the sentiments put forth in her Mother’s Day Proclamation than receive a bunch of flowers that will be dead in a week. Because you know what? This is a Mother’s Day that I can really get behind:

Arise, then, women of this day!

Arise, all women who have hearts, Whether our baptism be of water or of tears!

Say firmly: “We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies, Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”

From the bosom of the devastated Earth a voice goes up with our own. It says: “Disarm! Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.” Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence indicate possession. As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil at the summons of war, Let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel.

Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means Whereby the great human family can live in peace, Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar, But of God.

In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask That a general congress of women without limit of nationality May be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenient And at the earliest period consistent with its objects, To promote the alliance of the different nationalities, The amicable settlement of international questions,

The great and general interests of peace.

—Julia Ward Howe

 

To those of you who celebrate Mother’s Day, I hope that you have a wonderful day. To those of you for whom this day is painful, I hope that it passes quickly and peacefully for you. And if you’re someone looking to give a mother that you know a really amazing gift, consider finding a way of giving her some time to herself. I promise you that she’ll love that more than almost anything else.

And finally, to the amazing kid who came along two years ago and made me a mother: thank you. The same goes for Matt, who does more than his fair share of co-parenting. I’m super lucky to have these two dudes in my life. It’s been a hell of a ride, but I wouldn’t have wanted to do it with anyone else.

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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

My Sister Claire, Or Why No One Should Ever Tell Folktales To Children

12 Mar

Have you ever heard of the myth of the changeling? It’s an old one, woven throughout most of the folklore of Western Europe. The details differ from region to region, but the basic premise is always the same: some kind of fantastical being, usually a fairy, elf, or troll, secretly switches its own offspring for a human child. The switch isn’t discovered until it’s too late.

This exchange might be made for a variety of reasons – some tales tell of fairies and elves taking children as servants or slaves, while a handful of Norwegian myths explain that trolls were left in the place of human babies to help prevent inbreeding (because, of course, we all need a fresh injection of troll in our family trees every now and again). Some stories say that the fairies and elves did it out of a desire for human love, and some, like a few variations of the ballad of Tam Lin, refer to the idea that the fairies must sacrifice a life to hell every seven years. One popular version of the tale tells that fairy children require human breast milk, and so the switch is made to ensure the continuation of the fairy species.

When my youngest sister was born, though, I wasn’t overly concerned with why the fairies had left her in place of the child my mother gave birth to – I was just fascinated by the fact that we now had what I thought was almost certainly a changeling in the family.

It was my Irish grandfather who first put the idea into my head. See, my sister was born with slanted eyes and sharply pointed ears, and although the hospital staff seemed to feel that the shape of her ears, at least, had somehow been stretched or compressed into that shape as she’d passed through the birth canal, my Poppa thought otherwise. I remember him muttering darkly that she looked like she had the fairy blood, something that made my mother laugh. When my four-year-old sister Catherine heard, she started crying, saying that she wanted to be a fairy and it wasn’t fair.

I wasn’t laughing or crying, though. I was paying attention.

When Claire was born, I was nearly eleven years old, and happened to be cursed-slash-blessed with a huge appetite for books, a love of mythologizing my own life, and a day-dreamy streak a mile wide. I’d recently been reading books of Irish and Scottish folk tales, so it didn’t take me long to put the idea of my sister having fairy blood and the myth of changeling together.

It didn’t help that Claire was totally unlike my sister Catherine and I. We’d both been skinny, temperamental babies, chronically underweight throughout our childhoods. Claire, meanwhile, was enormous and placid, constantly ranking in the 99th percentile for height and weight and nearly always in a happy, smiling mood. And while, yes, her ears did round out as she grew older, her eyes kept their epicanthic fold and turned a startling green. On top of all that, my mother gave her an other-worldly sounding Gaelic middle name, one that she’d found in a Maeve Binchy book.

I tried to treat Claire as my very own human sister, but the idea that she was a changeling almost certainly coloured some of the things I did and said to Claire.

Like the time when I told her when she was about three years old that she was actually a Victorian princess stolen from her real family by time-traveling bandits.

I even had evidence to back me up – a picture frame that someone had given us containing a sepia-toned image of a thoughtful-looking woman in a huge, frilly dress. This photograph, I told Claire, was a picture of her real mother. Maybe she would see her again one day, and maybe not. She couldn’t go looking for her unless we told her the secrets of time travel because, of course, at this point, the mid 1990s, everyone she’d known and loved in her own time was dead.

Catherine got in on the act, and my mother laughed a couple of times over Claire’s reactions.

She laughed, that is, until she went to hug Claire, who pushed her away, screaming,

“I HATE YOU. I WANT MY REAL MOTHER. TAKE ME BACK TO MY REAL MOTHER.”

She may or may not be scarred for life. It’s probably too early to say.

It was around that time that my parents separated, and my mother, sisters and I moved into low-income housing. The only benefit to our new living situation was that it was backed by a former land-fill site, nicknamed Mount Trashmore, which was covered by acres and acres of meadows and fields. The landfill, which leaked methane gas but was, naturally, considered safe enough for poor people, was a paradise to us. It was that fact, coupled with the series of books I was reading around that time that took place in Renaissance England, that renewed my interest in fairies. After all, if Queen Elizabeth and Shakespeare believed in fairies, then why couldn’t I?

And it’s not like I really believed, except that I sort of did. Or rather, like Mulder’s famous poster, I wanted to believe.

Did I mention the daydreaming and tendency to mythologize?

I started having my sisters perform little rituals. We would leave food in the backyard for the fairies, and chant rhymes that I’d made up. We built nests for the fairies in the fields near our house. I wove daisy chains for us to wear in our hair, and tried to build a maypole. And while Catherine and Claire and I were far apart enough in age that we were rarely able to find something that interested all three of us, these activities, for whatever reason, deeply absorbed each one of us.

I don’t really know how or why our own personal fairy kingdom came to and end. I guess I outgrew it, or at least became embarrassed by it, once I started high school and discovered boys. I don’t know, either, what effect it had on Catherine or Claire, or if they even fully remember it. I do know, though, that it was a nice time, maybe one of the nicest the three of us had together while growing up.

So thanks for that, little changeling sister. I’m glad we got you, although I would still like to know what happened to the real Claire. If you ever find her, let me know okay?

I love you. Happy birthday. You’re the best (possibly non-human) baby sister ever.

Claire, Catherine and I - see what I mean? Totally a changeling.

Claire, Catherine and I – see what I mean? Totally a changeling.

Patti Smith – Camera Solo

6 Feb

When the Art Gallery of Ontario announced that they would be doing a major exhibition of Patti Smith’s photographs, I can’t say that I was overly excited. We’re members there, so I figured that I’d see it eventually, but I wasn’t going to make a special trip for it or anything.

I have to admit that before today, I didn’t know much of Smith beyond her status as the godmother of punk and her seminal 1975 album Horses. Part of my disinterest in her show probably stemmed from the fact that I often don’t trust artists who dabble in other forms of art – actors who put out an album, say, or musicians who try to be novelists. I guess that part of my curmudgeonry is because they don’t have any obligation to be talented in fields other than their own – some label will release David Hasselhoff’s album because he’s David Hasselhoff, not because he’s good. I figured that Patti Smith and her photography had a similar story.

Then today, I scheduled myself two hours of do-something-pleasant time (which is a thing I’m trying to do lately) between 11 and 1. I decided to go down to the AGO, wander through the galleries, and maybe park myself in the members’ lounge (actually several shabby-chic rooms in a Victorian mansion that’s attached to the gallery) and write in my journal. But when I got to the AGO and showed off me membership card and ID to the woman working at the desk, she asked if I’d come to see the members-only preview of Patti Smith’s show. I told her no. She asked me if I wanted to see it. I shrugged and said sure, because I’d already seen just about everything else in the gallery.

Smith’s show was a revelation. After making a tour of the main room, I sat down in one of the comfortable old wooden chairs provided (tastefully arranged on an oriental rug) and started scribbling in my notebook. The first words that I wrote were, “miniature & melancholy & perfect,” which seem like an accurate way of summing up how I felt.

The exhibition is made up of approximately 70 photographs taken with Smith’s vintage Polaroid camera, presented there as gelatin prints, as well as a handful of personal objects, and Equation Daumal, a film Smith directed which was shot on 16mm using Super 8 film.

The room is bare and white, with the rug and chairs occupying the floor space along with a large piece of artwork constructed by Smith. The photographs that line the walls are tiny (as you imagine vintage Polaroids would be) and are displayed in groups of four or five, sometimes with cases full of related objects underneath.

Some of the photographs are self-portraits. Some are of Smith’s children. Most of them, though, can be summed up by this quote by Smith, which is posted on one of the walls:

I have a strong relationship with the dead, even a happy one. I get pleasure out of having their things and sometimes photographing them.

Some of the dead are people she knew – Robert Mapplethorpe, for example, the well-known photographer and her one-time partner who died of AIDS in the late 1980s. Most of the photographs, however, are of people who inspired her and the various objects they owned.

There’s Herman Hesse’s typewriter. The river Ouse where Virginia Woolfe drowned herself, her pockets full of stones. A stuffed bear belonging to Tolstoy that served to hold calling cards in its outstretched hands. A funeral wreath. William Blake’s grave. Nureyev’s ballet slippers. Virginia Woolfe’s bed. Victor Hugo’s bed. Frida Kahlo’s bed. So many photographs of beds belonging to dead, famous people.

Why beds? I wondered, then realized all the various uses we put them to.

Beds are places where we sleep, yes, and also dream. We fuck in beds. We eat, read, maybe write in bed. Beds are places where we fight with the people we love the most; beds are places where we make up those fights, with whispered reconciliations, skin brushing against soft skin. Sick days are spent in bed, sleeping, Facebooking or watching old movies. Nearly all of us are born in a bed; many of us will die in one, too. Beds are equally places of pleasure and pain, but even more than that, they’re places of transition. Beds are where we make our way in and out of this world, making them a sort symbolic doorway or portal.

There are objects in Smith’s collection, too. Her father’s chipped white bone china mug, a cross that belonged to Mapplethorpe, and a sort of totem Smith made for Brian Jones. There’s a pair of slippers belonging to Pope Benedict XV, the man who canonized Joan of Arc. There’s a stone from the river Ouse.

There’s an entire section devoted to Arthur Rimbaud, photographs of his bed, the path near his house, his grave. There are drawings that Smith has done of Rimbaud, black lines with a few dabs of colour. The large object in the middle of the room is a reconstruction she’s done of the litter Rimbaud designed to carry him 100 miles across Ethiopia, to a place where he could seek medical treatment after falling ill in the jungle.

As I walked around the room, I thought, yes. Yes. I live here. Here, in this grainy black and white land between living and death. I know the holiness that surrounds the grave of a painter or poet that you love. I know the happiness of holding an object that someone I love once cupped in their hands. I know this place. I live here.

The whole exhibit was a sort of communion with the dead. It was about the ways we connect with those we’ve loved and lost, through sight, through touch. It was a reminder that love still exists, even after death. And what do you do with all that leftover love, the heart-searing shit that’s left behind when you lose someone you care about? What do you do with the love you have for a poet or painter or musician who has greatly inspired you but died long before you were born?

You channel it into something, even someone else, I suppose. You put it into your own art, or your work, whatever it is, or into your children or your lovers or your friends. Or else maybe you waste it, let it drain out of you, use it to feed your loneliness.

I’ve been thinking all afternoon of the things that I have that once belonged to people who are now dead. My names, for a start – Annie, after my great-grandfather’s sister who died of tuberculosis when she was 16, and Rebecca, from my mother’s beloved Nana Kelley. I have a scarf that belonged to my Grampy, an old wool plaid affair that’s looking rather moth-eaten these days. I have my grandmother’s father’s Latin grammar book. I have a photograph of my Poppa in his RCAF uniform from when he served in WWII. I have a letter that my father’s grandmother sent to my mother when she was pregnant with me, a note that has my great-grandmother’s name, the date and “Halifax City” written neatly in the upper right-hand corner.

I have things that belonged to people I’ve never known, too . A blue vintage dress printed with purple and orange flowers. An American 1st edition of Camus’ The Outsider. My antique engagement ring. I have all the words of the dead that line the walls of my living room, shelf upon shelf of well-loved books. I am surrounded by the dead.

I still feel breathless, almost light-headed, even several hours after seeing the exhibit. I wish that I had sufficient words to explain how it affected me, but every sentence in this post, though carefully and meticulously constructed, somehow seems flat and emotionless.

I can tell you this: it was lovely. You should see it. And then you should sit down, and think of your beloved dead.

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