Tag Archives: history

On Faith

20 Nov

A few years ago, when we still lived on the east coast, Matt and I drove to Prince Edward Island for a long weekend. We booked a room in what was maybe the coziest bed and breakfast of all time, and in spite of the raw, grey November weather we were ridiculously excited by the chance to explore and get lost in a city that wasn’t our own.

Matt was still a student back then, and I was making minimum wage working retail, so little getaways like this were few and far between. This meant that I’d planned for our three day mini-break with the same focus and attention to detail that others might apply to a two weeks tour of Europe. I bought a guide book and filled it with highlighter marks and post-it notes. I spent hours poring over travel websites, trying to plan our every little detail of our trip. I talked to (at?) Matt endlessly about the things I wanted to see, trying to convince him to use the highlighter and post-it notes with as much enthusiasm as I did. My excitement grew to such a level that I was basically banned from mentioning the words “Anne of Green Gables” or “Gilbert Blythe” in his presence.

One place that I knew I definitely wanted to visit was the All Souls’ Chapel, which is attached to Charlottetown’s St. Peter’s Cathedral. All Souls’ Chapel is designated National Historic Site and, I learned from my guidebook, a good example of the High Victorian Gothic style of architecture. I especially wanted to see the interior of the chapel, whose walls feature sixteen paintings by local artist Robert Harris. The only problem was that the chapel was only open during services, and the only service held in the chapel was evensong. We decided to sneak into the back and ogle the artwork during Saturday’s evening service before heading downtown for a romantic dinner.

Late Saturday afternoon, Matt and I fell asleep on our room’s giant, king-sized bed. We woke up to find that it was dark outside, and realized with a start that it was nearly time for evensong. We thought that if we hurried we might still be able to make it. We were wrong, a fact that we realized as soon as we stepped into the chapel’s entryway and heard someone chanting inside.

We peeked in through the door, and before us lay one of the loveliest, heart-in-your-throat sights I’ve ever seen. The room was lit by just a few candles, leaving most of the chapel still in darkness. The flames flickered and occasionally grew strangely, eerily tall in the close chapel air, throwing grotesque, menacing shadows on the painted walls. In the middle of this little cave of light stood an old priest, his long robes faded to a greenish-black and his collar slightly wilted. He was all alone, this priest; no one else had come to evensong. Still, though, he stood in front of the lectern and recited from the huge crumbling book that sat there, repeating the same words he must have said on a near-daily basis for years and years and years. They were nice words, too – the text of the Anglican evensong is strikingly, intricately beautiful, a sort of poetry, in a way.

I thought about this man who, in spite of his lack of parishioners, went on with his service and turned it into a private communion between himself and his god. I wondered what he thought of the words that he was sending out into the darkness, and what personal meaning they might hold for him. I watched this man, who, unaware that he was being watched, slowly wended his way through the service, speaking at length to a god who never seemed to answer him. I thought to myself, this is what faith looks like.

I grew up in a pretty secular household. My mother usually dragged us to the local United Church on Sundays, but that was more boring than it was religious. I spent my time there sprawling out on the shiny wooden pews, making up stories about pictures in the stained glass windows and harassing my mother with whispered demands to know when Sunday School would start. Sunday School meant a craft, a game, a snack, and little else. Oh sure, we would read Bible stories, but they didn’t seem to me to be much different from Grimm’s fairytales, or the stories found in my giant Hans Christian Andersen book. Meanwhile, my father, an avowed atheist, would stay home to sit in the basement and burn incense while listening to classical music on vinyl.

I went to a Catholic school, so I did receive some religious instruction there, but because I was Protestant, no one really thought that it was necessary to indoctrinate me. I was often left out of things, either because my teachers didn’t think it was appropriate that I be included, or because they thought I didn’t care. I was curious, though –  and to be fair, who wouldn’t be when your classmates’ religion means that the girls get to dress up in lacy white dresses and partake in a secret ceremony to which you are not invited? After my class did their first communion, they got to eat the strange, flat, holy bread and drink real wine – meanwhile, in the United Church, there was no special initiation ceremony, and our communion was nothing but regular bread and boring old grape juice. School made the Catholic religion seem mysterious, fascinating and a little dangerous, whereas my time at the United Church had taught me that that institution was the opposite of all those things.

Super secret confession time: I have a thing about churches – a dark, guilty, secular thing. I love churches, especially old ones, especially Catholic ones. The right kind of church makes me feel quiet and awed and sort of holy. Maybe it’s because I love history, or maybe it’s the antiquated architecture. Maybe it’s because I’m a sucker for symbolism and ritual, or maybe it’s my love of Latin. Maybe I’m a closet Catholic. Whatever it is, it made me drag Matt into church after church when we went to Paris; it made me stand in the middle of Sacré Coeur Basilica, eyes closed and totally blissed out, listening to a choir of nuns chanting, well, I’m not quite sure what, but whatever it was, it was beautiful.

If I were Catholic (which I’m not), I would basically be the worst Catholic ever. I’m pro-choice, I use birth control, I had sex before marriage, and I think men and women are equal. I hate the Catholic church’s backward stance on pretty much everything, and I can’t stand the Pope (although, much like Kate Beaton, I have a great deal of fondness for JPII):

You know what’s terrible, though? Even though I know that the Catholic church is awful, even though unspeakable things have been done in its name and its leaders have been complicit in terrible crimes, I still love a lot of things about it. I love the singing, and the smell of the incense. I love the big old stone churches with their colourful windows and dark, mildewy corners. I love the priest’s fancy outfits, and the slow procession down the aisle at the beginning and end of every mass. I love going into an empty church and lighting a candle for the sick, or sad, or deceased. I love the tacky religious statuary. I love communion, even though one of my grade school teachers told me that if a Protestant eats a host that’s been blessed by a priest, it will burn a hole in their tongue. I love the idea of midnight mass, of staying up with a group of strangers until way past my bedtime; there’s something so ancient and lovely about staying awake with a group of people, waiting together amidst wreaths and bows and candles and music to make sure that Christmas Day is, in fact, going to come.

The thing is, if I’m a bad Catholic, then I’m an even worse atheist. Even though I know, logically, that there’s nothing out there, that science and evolution explain life on this planet, not some faraway magical spirit with a beard and a white robe, I still sort of believe. Even though I know that religion is awful and whatever good there is in the world comes from people, not from some godly presence, I still sort of believe. I’ve tried really hard not to believe. I’ve dabbled in other religions; like most people, I had a pagan phase in high school which involved chanting nonsense in the woods and spelling magic with a k. My childhood best friend was Jewish, and I tried my hand at that, too. But I still, embarrassingly, kept coming back to the Catholic church.

Why is this? I mean, the fact is that I disagree with their stance on, well, just about everything. Public religious displays make me deeply uncomfortable, and people who try to preach at me annoy the crap out of me. Once, a few years ago, Matt and I went with his mother to a Good Friday service at the Catholic church in Keswick, and they did this bizarre thing where they brought out a giant crucifix and made everyone line up and take turns kissing it. People were looking at Jesus and sobbing, I kid you not. I wanted to yell out, SPOILER ALERT BUT GUESS WHAT YOU GUYS HE GETS RESURRECTED THREE DAYS LATER. It was ridiculous. But still, I sort of believe.

We had Theo baptized in the Catholic church, and my reasons for this were pretty lame. I wanted an excuse to dress him in a frilly white dress and throw a big party for our family; I guess we could have had a special Baby Transvestite celebration, but a baptism seemed like something my grandmother was more likely to understand. I also know that he will likely go to Catholic school, and I don’t want him to feel left out like I was. Another thing is that in a weird way I think that it’s important to raise a kid with religion, so that they have something big to question later on, when they go through their philosophical existentialist phase in high school. Also, I sort of believe, so there’s that, too.

Sometimes I think about Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, and how Sarah, the unfaithful wife, becomes strangely, almost unwillingly religious. There’s this really beautiful passage near the end of the book, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that it really resonates with me:

I believe there’s a God— I believe the whole bag of tricks, there’s nothing I don’t believe, they could subdivide the Trinity into a dozen parts and I’d believe. They could dig up reasons that proved Christ had been invented by Pilate to get himself promoted and I’d believe just the same. I’ve caught belief like a disease. I’ve fallen into belief like I fell in love.

Mostly I just wish that I believed in something, anything as much as that Anglican priest on Prince Edward Island did.

Plus, you know, Theo looks really, really good in a dress.

Guest Post: Why I Choose To Wear A Remembrance Day Poppy

8 Nov

As promised, here is a post from my friend L, who blogs over at Life In Pint-Sized Form, explaining why she chooses to wear a Remembrance poppy. Thank you, L, for taking the time to put together such a wonderful, informative and heartfelt post.

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Why I Choose To Wear A Remembrance Day Poppy

Remembrance Day is upon us – the day the Armistice was put into place that ended the First World War, and the day that Canadians take a moment at the stroke of 11 AM to remember our veterans, our dead, and the victims and senselessness of war.

Well, that’s what we’re supposed to be remembering. Instead, we have a lot of hypocrisy – people who support wars, who even glorify them, wearing poppies. Notably, our Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, wears a blood-red poppy on his suit lapel while he bids goodbye to the Canadian soldiers going to their fate in Afghanistan.

Makes it kind of hard to remember that the poppy is supposed to represent “never another war”.

Yesterday Annabelle from The Belle Jar wrote about why she chooses not to wear a Remembrance poppy. She states that it’s because she doesn’t agree with the reasons for wearing it. She doesn’t forget, because we as Canadians don’t forget war. It’s on the History Channel. It’s in movies, it’s in popular culture. There’s a show on TV right now called Bomb Girls, about women who helped the war effort in ammunition factories. We don’t forget the wars. We don’t forget the senseless fighting, the history that came out of it and the way we are because of it.

I respect Annabelle’s choice to wear the white poppy, or not to wear a poppy at all. However, I do choose to wear the red poppy of Remembrance Day, and this is why.

An 18-year-old boy left his home on the Melbourne Chippewa reserve to join the Navy. He became an officer on a ship headed for the South Pacific, where he fought against the Japanese in the Second World War. He fought despite the fact that his family lost their culture due to the actions of the Canadian government, that he lost his language, his cultural arts, and his identity as a Native man.

That man is my grandfather.

While we remember the many veterans who fought in the many wars Canada has been involved in, the iconic images of these veterans are whitewashed. We don’t see the people of colour who, despite the treatment they received from our country, fought wholeheartedly for Canada. Stood beside their white military fellows, held the same guns. Manned the same cannons and threw the same grenades. Died in the trenches and on the seas . . . their faces never to be seen again under miles of thick, bloody mud.

Why don’t we see those faces when we remember?

I choose to remember the sacrifices that our citizens of colour made during the wars. I choose to remember that they didn’t give up their lives, they gave up their culture, their language, their right to freedom, and still fought. I choose to honour those veterans, those Native, African-Canadian, Asian-Canadian soldiers. Those ones we never see.

And I wear the poppy not just as a way to remember, but as a statement: freedom doesn’t just belong to white folks. The sacrifices weren’t just made by your English grandfather who manned a gun in World War II. They were made by people who clawed their way back to the surface after our country did its best to bury them through colonization. Who have seen more loss than all of us combined.

I proudly wear my poppy for peace. For sacrifice. For the victims we lost, and for my grandfather and his Native peers.

Lest we forget.

Why I Won’t Be Wearing A Remembrance Day Poppy

7 Nov

It’s early November, which means that our dark, sober winter coats, fresh out of their summer storage, suddenly have bright felt flowers blooming on their lapels. Veterans, dressed in their neatly-pressed Legion uniforms, begin popping up in shopping malls and subway stations, asking for donations. The words Lest We Forget seem to be on everyone’s lips, and my Facebook feed is full of sepia-toned images of baby-faced soldiers and battlegrounds in France.

Poppy season is here, y’all.

For most of my life, I didn’t really give Remembrance Day a whole lot of thought. I mean, it was just something you did, you know? I liked the grown-up feeling of having someone pin a poppy on my coat (although I lived in terror of being stuck by the open pin), and enjoyed the solemnity of the minute of silence. Remembrance Day as a kid often meant assemblies and pageants at school, or else special projects and discussions. Remembrance Day as an adult living in Halifax meant a day off work and school, because it’s a statutory holiday in Nova Scotia, which, hey, why would I complain about that? On top of everything, I’m a sucker for anything historical, so I always enjoyed reading soldier’s accounts of the war, although I have to admit that I preferred learning about the rations they ate and the clothing they wore to hearing about actual, you know, bloodshed. Still, I felt mainly positive about Remembrance Day in general.

Now, though, I feel more ambivalent about it. What, exactly, are we honouring? And, more importantly, why?

First of all, let me just be up front about something: Poppa, my maternal grandfather, is a Second World War veteran. He was in the Royal Canadian Air Force, although he never saw active duty, and he remained a fiercely proud pro-military Royal Canadian Legion member until the day he died. I’ve heard friends and family members say that he was the only man brave enough to walk down a post-Bill-22 Quebec street during the local Remembrance Day parade carrying the Union Jack. This holiday is something he believed in, because it honoured the deeply-held convictions about rights and freedoms that his military had fought for. Honestly, I kind of wonder if he’s rolling in his grave right now over what I’m writing here.

See, the thing is, I’m pretty sure that I don’t want to wear the Remembrance poppy anymore.

First of all, let’s look at the history of the Remembrance poppy. In 1920, it began to be used as a way of commemorating soldiers who had died on the battlefields of World War I; it was chosen to symbolize those soldiers in part because of the poem In Flanders Fields by Canadian poet John McCrae, which describes poppies growing amid soldiers’ graves, and the unrest of the fallen as they wait for their comrades in arms to end the war and bring about peace. The idea for wearing the Remembrance poppy was popularized by American professor and humanitarian Moina Michael, who, in 1918, wrote a poem called We Shall Keep The Faith in which she swore to wear a red poppy in honour of those who had lost their lives in the war.

In Canada, we use the poppy as a way of honouring all the servicemen and women who have been killed since 1914. The Royal Canadian Legion is pretty serious about the Remembrance poppy – they don’t approve of any changes being made to the poppy (i.e. using a Canadian flag pin instead of the usual straight pin), and they have, in fact, trademarked the image. Canadian Remembrance poppies used to be made by disabled veterans, but since 1996 they have been manufactured by a private contractor. Although wearing a poppy for the first two weeks of November is not mandatory, public figures who don’t wear one are often frowned upon and disparaged for not honouring their veterans.

I’ve been wondering, though, why we need to wear a poppy at all. The line that I most often hear from friends and family is Lest We Forget, but honestly, who’s in danger of forgetting? In the wake of the First World War, which was supposed to be “The War To End All Wars”, it made sense to have a symbol to remember the bloodshed and violence. I mean, sure, if you’re not going to have wars anymore, then you definitely need something to remind of how awful and destructive they are; you need a shorthand to explain to yourself why you don’t ever want to go to war again, right? Sadly, though, that dream never came true – there has been war after war over the last century. A rebellion here, a police action there, peacekeeping here, fighting terror there – and, of course, let’s not forget the bigger conflicts like World War II, the Vietnam War and both wars in Iraq. Why do we need something to remind us of how terrible war is when we’re constantly surrounded by it?

On top of that, we live in a culture that constantly revisits, discusses and celebrates war, especially the Second World War. I mean, come on, have you ever turned on the history channel? Every other show is about fighter pilots or Hitler or something else to do with our glorious military past. And let’s not forget Hollywood – how many movies are there about hunky American soldiers going off to fight hunky World War II? Who knew that so many hot dudes were in the war? Not me, that’s for sure!

I also have to admit that I’m tired of memes like the following, which have been popping up on my Facebook feed for a week or so now:

I mean, first of all, you should avoid putting up Christmas decorations in early November because it’s tacky, not because it dishonours veterans. Secondly, I don’t like the idea that the Royal Canadian Legion (this particular image was posted by Royal Canadian Legion Branch 119), is trying to shame and manipulate people about what they put up in their own private residences. Third of all, I don’t think that Christmas and Remembrance Day have anything to do with each other. I have to say, though, that I really enjoy some of the comments left on the post. I especially love this one from Allyson Landry: “The only reason you have the freedom to have Christmas is thanks to veterans”. Er, what? I think that it’s fair to say that if Canada had somehow fallen to the Nazis during the Second World War, we would have nothing but Christmas – it would be the other religious observances, like Chanukah, for example, or Ramadan, that would be missing.

My main reason for abstaining from wearing a Remembrance poppy, though, is that I’m starting to feel like it represents a support for all of my country’s military action, not just the sacrifices made by soldiers in past wars. It’s as if by wearing it I’m giving my tacit agreement to Canada’s activities in Afghanistan, or the ways that women are mistreated in the Canadian Forces. The truth is, though, that I don’t want our military engaged in any kind of action; I don’t want to feel like I have the blood of civilians (or, well, anybody) on my hands. I also feel deeply uncomfortable about a number of things that happen within military culture; in fact, if I’m being totally honest, I don’t like the idea of the military at all – guns scare the crap out of me, and don’t even get me started on bombs or drones or any of that stuff.

Of course I think that we should honour the men and women who died fighting in our country’s military – especially those who were drafted, and didn’t choose to join the war; but I also think that we should be working to end war, instead of perpetuating it. That’s why this year, instead of wearing a Remembrance poppy, I’m going to try to find a white poppy, which, while still honouring the casualties of all wars, further symbolizes the desire for peace. I’ll still make a donation to the Royal Canadian Legion; I’m just choosing not to wear their icon anymore.

The thing is, I guess that’s what it really boils down to for me: choice. Around Remembrance Day, there’s a lot of talk about soldiers dying for our freedoms; I know that freedom, both personal and political, is one of the reasons my grandfather joined the armed forces. I think that he would be happy, then, that, here in Canada, I have the freedom to be a critical thinker. I think he would be happy that I live in a country where I can choose to remember our military veterans however I want, or even not at all. He would be happy that I am free.

Thank you, Poppa ❤

My next post will be a guest post from my friend L over at Life In Pint-Sized Form explaining why she chooses to wear a Remembrance poppy

Goodbye, Old Store

31 Oct

I woke up this morning and logged into Facebook, thinking that I would take a few minutes before work to check and make sure that all of my friends had survived Superstorm Sandy. Instead, I was distracted by the news that the Roots store on Queen West had burned down overnight.

People in neighbouring buildings felt an explosion around 12:30 am, and the force of the blast broke the front windows of the store and forced the back door open. Roots merchandise spilled out onto the streets and, according to witnesses, there were looters grabbing whatever they could get, in spite of the flames pouring out of the second storey windows. Sandy’s winds meant that the fire fighters (over 80 of them) had a hard time controlling the blaze, but by the early hours of the morning they had managed to put the fire out and save the adjacent buildings. Unfortunately, this was all that was left of 369 Queen West:

(c) Torontoist, Ink Truck Media

This Roots store was the site of my first job in Toronto. I’d worked for Roots in Halifax, and when we moved here they offered to transfer me to local store. This Queen street location (there had previously been another one a block down the street) opened not long after I arrived in the city; I loved the Queen West neighbourhood, lived only a short subway ride away, and thought working at a brand new store would be exciting. It seemed like a perfect fit.

I was there to help set up the store, piling sweatshirts on tables and artfully arranging leather bags on shelves that smelled of fresh wood. I was there day they opened, too, a sunny but cold day in the spring of 2007. I worked there for over a year, until, in the summer of 2008, I transferred to the Rosedale store so that I could also work at the Roots Yoga Studio. I’ve been back to visit the old store once or twice, but honestly I haven’t thought about it that much. All day today, though, I’ve been using my spare moments to collect and sift through memories of my time there. It’s almost as if I used to rely on the building itself to hold onto all the things that happened, but now that it’s gone I have to be the one to safeguard my own experiences.

I thought about my old co-workers – there was Kari, the manager and the person I worked with most often, who kept us all entertained and worked her ass off to make sure that things ran smoothly. Elise, an art school student who took amazing photographs. Georgea, the stand-up comedian who taught me how to draw unicorns (the first time I tried I put the horn at the end of the nose, and she explained that it went between the eyes – when I groaned about how stupid I was, she said, well, it’s not really fair because I have a unicorn at home). Lindsay, the smarty-pants U of T student who is now doing her MA in Cinema Studies.

There was Rachel, who became one of my closest friends and played the cello at my wedding. Adam, our token straight male and the dude who explained the “drink and dance” diet to me (hit: it involves drinking a lot of beer and then dancing a lot, and apparently results in losing weight). Sasha, who is now a superstar makeup artist. Alexei, the high school student who had his first real hangover on my watch (he swore that he would never drink again, but pictures on his Facebook prove that he’s a liar). Emily, who was only 16 and was like everyone’s little sister, and now inspires me with her feminist rhetoric and general bad-assery.

I remembered how we used to make candy store runs when summer afternoons dragged on too long, running a block west to Tutti Frutti and returning with giant bags of various gelatine-based sweets for everyone to share. The rickety stairs leading down into the horror movie of a basement. The funny pictures and signs we put up in the staff areas, some of which were still there long after the people who made them had moved on to new jobs:

I remembered staff outings and movie dates, pot lucks and parties. The time we all went to the Ex together and Kari and I ate a million Tiny Tom donuts. The time we went to watch the fireworks down at the Princes Gates and sat in the grass trying to stealthily drink our beer. How we used to hang out in the alley behind the store, sometimes with staff from the Silver Snail next door, soaking up some sunshine on our breaks.

I remembered the time a pipe burst in the basement bathroom, covering the floor with inch-thick black sludge. We had to call a plumber, a little old Asian man who explained that what looked like mud and mulched leaves was actually hundred-year-old poop that had been sitting in the pipe for a century or more. When Kari and I yelled “EW!“, the plumber exclaimed, “No, no, that’s my gold! That’s how I make my money!

I remembered the tiny baby tree that grew through the crack in the wall of the staff room. I remembered the giant centipedes that lived in the basement, terrifying creatures who liked to hide under the boxes we stored down there (RIP giant centipedes).  I thought about how we used to hang bells inside the drawers where we kept the leather bags in an attempt to prevent shoplifting.

I remembered doing good-cop-bad-cop interviews when we were hiring new staff (one potential employee asked to use our microwave at the end of the interview – that’s weird, right?).

I remembered eating a thousand Swiss Chalet meals with Kari, who swore that she would have her wedding dinner there.

I remembered the time Elise got a giant tattoo of geese (or was it ducks?) on her side. The time Emily’s hair turned pink and she had to make an emergency appointment to fix it. The time the owner of the building wanted to sell it and hired a building inspector who showed me the knob and tube wiring in the basement. The day there was a giant snowstorm and we took Kari to see the Nutcracker ballet and Matt fell asleep.

I remembered the time Samantha Bee came into our store, and Kari and I tried SO HARD to be funny but she didn’t even laugh once. When Audra came in, before we were even really friends, and I was like, hey, I think I know you from the internet, and then sold her a red purse. I thought about the many times Emily broke up with (and inevitably got back together with) her boyfriend, each instance a mini drama requiring ice cream and an in-depth analysis of their relationship.

What happens when a building is destroyed or torn down or otherwise ceases to be? What occupies the space where it used to exist, other than open air and the occasional bird passing through? It’s strange to look at that giant hole two storeys in the air and think about how that used to be a place where people lived. A place where they slept, and cooked, and laughed, and made love, and cried, and did all the other little things that make up our lives. What happens to all of those experiences once their physical remainders, all the scuff marks and scratched paint and cracked plaster, literally go up in smoke?

I’ve been wondering why this fire has affected me so much. Am I going to get this nostalgic over every former workplace? I mean, yeah, I’m great at being nostalgic, but this seemed a bit much, even for me. Then I realized that my time at that store has had a huge impact on the shape my life in Toronto has taken. The people I worked with helped me learn to navigate the city, and introduced me to places and events that I might not have discovered on my own. Some of the friends I made there are still a part of my life, and have certainly helped influence choices that I’ve made. Perhaps most importantly of all, working at this store indirectly lead to me becoming a yoga teacher. See, the Roots Yoga Studio offers free classes to all of its employees. If I hadn’t been able to take free classes, I doubt that I would have started a regular practice; knowing me, I would have given up early on due to laziness or being a cheapskate. But the fact that they were free, and that I’d shaped my work schedule around the classes I took, meant that I didn’t have much of an excuse to quit. So I persevered, and I grew to love yoga and, well, here I am.

I haven’t been in the Queen West store in years. Mostly I’m just not hip enough to spend much time in that part of town anymore, and when I am there I prefer to go to stores that I can’t find anywhere else in the city. I haven’t seen many of my former coworkers in a long time either; after we stopped working together, our paths diverged, and now most of us are in totally different places in our lives. We keep up with each other on Facebook, and promise to get together soon, but never do.

I miss them, though. And I know I’ll miss the store, too. Just not the centipedes.

Frida

22 Oct

On Friday night, Matt and I went on a For Real Date to see the Frida & Diego exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Frida Kahlo is probably my all-time favourite painter; I have literally been counting down the days until this show opened.

I have friends who know a lot more about galleries and exhibiting art than I do. They make intelligent remarks like, I wasn’t thrilled with how this collection was curated, or, I thought the lighting in the third room really brought an interesting tone to the whole show. I hope you’re not here to read anything like that, because I honestly know very little about how galleries should or shouldn’t display art. On top of that, I’ve been waiting at least ten years to see Frida’s works in person, so the AGO could probably have held the show in a dank basement room lit by a single 60-watt bulb and I would still have been thrilled.

The Frida & Diego exhibit is an assortment of Kahlo and Rivera’s works, often juxtaposed in interesting ways. The first room is filled with paintings from Rivera’s days as an art student in Madrid and Paris; they’re neat because you can clearly see the time he spent dabbling in Realism, Cubism and Post-Impressionism. That being said, although his early paintings are clearly technically very good, for the most part they aren’t terribly interesting or different.

Three of Rivera’s earlier works

The second room is more still more Rivera, and includes a reproduction of one his most famous murals, The Arsenal, starring Frida as a communist bad-ass distributing weapons to the people.

Finally, in the third room, we begin seeing some of Kahlo’s work. I dragged Matt from painting to painting, drinking in the familiar scenes and pointing out details that I was noticing for the first time. I began to look at the dates of the paintings, trying to slot them into the narrative of her life, and in doing so  I was struck me was how young she was. I mean, I’d always known that she’d died young, but for the first time I realized that she’d been painting masterpieces when she was younger than me.

Frida was born in 1907 (although she often gave her birthdate as 1910 in order to coincide with the beginning of the Mexican Revolution), and was the third of four daughters born to Guillermo and Mathilde Kahlo. Frida’s father came from a German-Jewish background, and her mother was of Spanish and Indigenous descent; Frida was fascinated by her parents’ history, and her own mixed heritage would come to play an important part in her art. In 1927, at the age of 20, she already considered herself to be a professional painter. She married Diego Rivera in 1929.

Her seminal painting Henry Ford Hospital, which depicts a bed-ridden Kahlo shortly after a traumatic miscarriage, dates from 1932. I kept looking at it and thinking, she was only 25 when she went through that. She was only 25 when she painted that.

Henry Ford Hospital, 1932

Kahlo’s 1932 miscarriage (which was the second of three that she suffered) was by no means the first time she’d experienced pain or hardship in her life. At the age of six she was stricken with polio and, although she made a near-full recovery, for the rest of life her left leg remained smaller and weaker than the right. Then, at the age of 18,  she was riding a bus that collided with a tram car. She suffered massive injuries, including three breaks in her spinal column, a shattered pelvis and multiple other broken bones. She was also skewered by a steel handrail, which pierced her abdomen and came out her vagina. She later told her family that the handrail took her virginity (totally untrue, by the way).

Her boyfriend at the time, Alejandro Arias, described the scene of accident to Kahlo biographer Hayden Herrera in gory but also hauntingly beautiful terms:

Something strange had happened. Frida was totally nude. The collision had unfastened her clothes. Someone on the bus, probably a house painter, had been carrying a packet of powdered gold. This package broke, and the gold fell all over the bleeding body of Frida. When people saw her they cried, ‘La bailarina, la bailarina!‘ With the gold on her red, bloody body, they thought she was a dancer.” – Hayden Herrera, Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo

Frida suffered from the effects of that accident for the rest of her life. She underwent 35 separate surgeries in an attempt to repair the damage. The handrail had gone through her uterus, leaving her unable to carry a baby to term; this was especially heartbreaking, as Frida wanted almost more than anything to have a child with Diego.

Part of the reason that Kahlo wanted to have Rivera’s child is that she thought it would bind them together in a way that marriage on its own couldn’t. Diego was a known womanizer, and continued to sleep with other women even after he married Frida. Deeply hurt by Diego’s infidelity, as well as her own inability to carry a child (which would have been Rivera’s fifth, as he had four others by past wives and mistresses), Frida began to have her own affairs with both men and women. Throughout the rest of her life Frida had dozens of lovers, including, purportedly, Josephine Baker and Leon Trotsky.

The fact that both Frida and Diego had numerous love affairs over the course of their marriage (which lasted from 1929 until 1939, then resumed in 1940 and lasted until Frida’s death in 1954), and the fact that both of them slept with women, makes the AGO’s juxtaposition of the two portraits of Natasha Gelman, one each by Kahlo and Rivera, all the more interesting.

Kahlo’s portrait of Gelman, 1943

Rivera’s portrait of Gelman, 1943

In Kahlo’s portrait, Gelman is unsmiling, even stern, while Rivera’s version of Gelman is languorous and sensual, a small smile playing on her lips. Kahlo’s Gelman seems matriarchal, perhaps even a bit masculine, with a square jaw and intently serious gaze. Rivera’s Gelman, on the other hand, takes on a more traditionally feminine appearance, both in the softness of her face and the curve of her hip and leg. Simply put, Kahlo’s version of Gelman looks like a fucking awesome boss lady, and Rivera’s looks like someone he would want to sleep with.

I’m no expert, but I feel like these two pictures say a lot about how Kahlo and Rivera view women, both in general and as prospective partners.

It was also fascinating to see a selection of works by Kahlo that were inspired by her miscarriages hung alongside a series of paintings by Rivera depicting mothers of young children. I can’t imagine how heartbreakingly difficult it must have been for Frida to know that Diego had children with other women; how at times she must have felt inferior and defective because she could bring another “Little Diego” into the world.

Frida Kahlo – Frida Y El Aborto

Diego Rivera – Maternidad

One of my favourite parts of the exhibit was the room that contained media by other people of Frida and Diego. There were photographs on the walls, and a black and white video of the couple was playing on the large screen. Of all the photographs that were included in this show, my favourites by far were those taken by Nickolas Muray, Frida’s former-lover-turned-good-friend.

Nickolas Muray – Frida In The Dining Area Coyoacan With Cigarette

Nickolas Muray – Frida Kahlo on White Bench

In many of Muray’s pictures, Frida is looking straight into the camera. Her gaze is intimate, disarming; her eyes bore into you, and it seems like she’s just about to speak. In some of the pictures, her mouth is quirked into a half-smile, as if she and the viewer share some kind of inside joke. No one else really understands, her expression tells you, no one but you and I, that is. You feel complicit in something, but you’re not sure what.

The video was just as wonderfully intimate as Muray’s photographs. In it, Frida and Diego are shown at home, in the courtyard of Casa Azul. In their every movement, their every look and touch, their tenderness for each other is evident. At one point Frida reaches out to take Diego’s hand and place it on her cheek; her expression when she feels his palm against her face is like that of a cat sleeping in a puddle of sunlight.

On the whole, the show is wonderful. My only issue with it (aside from the fact that several of my favourite Kahlo pieces are missing) is the subtitle, Passion, Politics and Painting. The advertising done for the show, which includes the slogan, “He painted for the people. She painted to survive.” makes it seem as though the politics were all Diego’s and the passion all Frida’s. Even within the exhibit, there is much attention given to Diego’s political activities, and only a few brief mentions of Frida’s membership in Mexico’s communist party.

To say that Frida wasn’t political is a mistake; she was deeply political, and on a very personal level. The way she dressed was political, as was the way she behaved, not to mention her art. In a time when the Western culture and its concept of beauty was beginning to take over Mexico’s cultural landscape, Frida, in many ways, turned her back on it and embraced her Mexican of her heritage. She traded the European clothing of her childhood for traditional Spanish and Indigenous garb. She refused to alter her unibrow, and, in fact, accentuated it and her mustache in her self-portraits. She was known to be unfaithful to her (equally if not moreso unfaithful) husband, and took women as lovers. Perhaps most importantly, she painted and talked about things that no one had ever publicly discussed before: things like miscarriage, infertility, sexuality, violence against women and infidelity.

In many ways, she started conversations that we’re still having today.

Plus, how can you think someone is not political when they paint this on their own body cast?

Kahlo’s Body Cast with Hammer & Sickle and Fetus

I wish I could explain to you how and why I love Frida so much. I keep starting sentences and then deleting them; all the words I pick seem fumbling and wrong, the emotion either overwrought and clumsy or woefully lacking. Even the things that I’ve already written here seem stilted and lifeless, which is the opposite of what writing about Kahlo’s life should be.

I guess that the best thing that I could say would be this: Frida had a really hard fucking life, but instead of backing down, she took all of her pain and heartache and turned it into something beautiful. She lived and she worked and she loved and she challenged and she pushed and in the end, I think, she won.

***

Frida died of a pulmonary embolism in 1954, at the age of 47. I mean, 47. Fuck. She was so heartbreakingly young. Shortly before her death, she wrote the following in her diary:

I hope the exit is joyful — and I hope never to return — Frida”

I hope that wherever you are now, Frida, you are joyful. I hope that you’re finally free from pain. Most of all, I hope that Diego is there with you.*

Frida and Diego ofrendas

The exhibit closes with a pair of ofrenda depicting Frida and Diego. An ofrenda is a type of Mexican home altar, most often built for el Dia de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead). An ofrenda typically represents a dead family member, and is honoured by the living with traditional offerings of food and flowers. On October 24th, Mexican artist Carlomagno Pedro Martinez will construct an ofrenda in the gallery space; visitors on that day will be given art supplies and encouraged to contribute drawings and words to Martinez’s work. The installation (along with the entire exhibit) will be on display until January 20th, 2013.

*And that he’s, like, hanging out with you and not busy macking on angels or whatever (I am JUST SAYING, okay?)

p.s. In case you weren’t sure how I felt about Frida Kahlo in general, and this exhibit in particular, here is a visual aid for you:

The Racist Roots of the Pro-Life Movement

2 Oct

Most people probably think of abortion as being a fairly modern convenience, and imagine that the pro-life movement has probably been around for quite some time. For one thing, people who are pro-life often cloak their message in the Biblical idea of thou shalt not kill, and, you know, the Bible has been around for like forever. With that in mind, it would totally make sense for anti-abortion sentiment to have been rampant and widespread for the last couple of hundred or even thousand years.

Except that it hasn’t been.

The roots of the modern pro-life movement can actually be found in late 19th century America. Laws criminalizing abortion in the United States didn’t begin appearing until the 1820s, and even then they were still fairly rare. In the 1860s (so, during and after the civil war), these laws became more common, and by 1900 abortion was illegal in every state.

Before that, abortion was totally legal up until the “quickening”, i.e. when the mother first feels the fetus move. This was partially because at the time, there was no definite way of knowing that a woman was pregnant until she felt fetal movement; of course there were other signs, such as lack of menstruation or things like morning sickness or breast tenderness, but any of those could be symptoms of conditions other than pregnancy. Because of that, the moment when a woman felt her baby “quicken” (which typically happens in the 4th, 5th or even 6th month pregnancy) was really the moment when society considered her to be pregnant. Before that, she was just a woman with an irregular or disrupted menstrual cycle.

Which is why most advertisements for 19th century abortifacients looked like this:

Most patent medicines promised to do things like “correct irregularities”, or, even more abstractly, offering “relief for ladies”.

Abortion was actually one of the most common forms of birth control in 19th century America. Doctors estimated that there was one abortion for every five or six live births. In fact, the 1867 Richmond Medical Journal reported that,

“Among married persons so extensive has this practice become that people of high repute not only commit this crime, but do not even shun to speak boastingly among their intimates of the deed and the means of accomplishing it.” 

Abortion was so common that classy ladies were chatting up their friends about the best ways to do it.

Probably not what you would expect to hear at a Victorian tea party, right? Kind of amazing to picture, though:

Won’t you please pass the cucumber sandwiches, Priscilla? Oh and did I tell you about this absolutely smashing new way I’ve discovered of aborting unwanted fetuses?

Someone please invite me to that tea party.

So what the hell happened?

Well, people started worrying that if women were allowed to control their own fertility, bad things might happen. Like the end of society as we know it!

Let’s take a look at the historical context: the 1860s were obviously a very turbulent time, especially with regards to racial issues. The fact that there was such an increase in abortion legislation during and immediately after the civil war is quite telling. The aftermath of the war inspired a growing panic among white people that people of colour, who they were sadly no longer able to enslave, might try to take over “their” country. Maybe as payback for all those years of slavery? This panic paved the way for the idea of “race suicide”.

What, exactly, is race suicide, you might ask? I’ll just let my old friend Teddy Roosevelt explain it to you:

” …if the average family in which there are children contained but two children the nation as a whole would decrease in population so rapidly that in two or three generations it would very deservedly be on the point of extinction, so that the people who had acted on this base and selfish doctrine would be giving place to others with braver and more robust ideals. Nor would such a result be in any way regrettable; for a race that practised such doctrine–that is, a race that practised race suicide–would thereby conclusively show that it was unfit to exist, and that it had better give place to people who had not forgotten the primary laws of their being.”

(On American Motherhood, by Theodore Roosevelt, 1905)

That’s right – race suicide is the idea that white people will become “extinct” if they don’t have enough babies.

This fear, that people of colour would out-baby us, is where we find the actual origins of the pro-life movement. It didn’t come out of the idea that abortion was a sin, or the dogma of be fruitful and multiply, but rather the panicked notion that white people might not run the world anymore.

This racism still exists in the pro-life movement, although usually in more subtle ways. I’ve heard of white women requesting abortions and being asked, pleadingly, by medical professionals, if they know how wanted white babies are. And, of course, the pro-life movement is stunningly racist in other ways, for example when they posted this what-is-this-I-can’t-even billboard:

Look, I’m not saying that if you’re pro-life, you must be racist, or that everyone who hates abortion also hates people of colour. But what I am asking you to do is take a look at the history of the movement, educate yourself, and re-examine why you hold the beliefs you do.

I’m also asking you to admit that when it comes to anti-abortion sentiment, it’s not always about God or saving babies or whatever; it’s also about white people, and our xenophobia, and our desire to maintain our death grip on a society that we perceive as being only for us.

ETA: Sadly, the pro-choice movement has a pretty racist history as well. Stay tuned for the next in this series, The Racist History of the Pro-Choice Movement. Racism. It is why we can’t have nice things.

Spem In Alium

2 Oct

Sometimes, when I’m feeling really down, I listen to Tallis’ Spem In Alium, and it improves my life 100%. Like, my house could be on fire, and I’d be all, these harmonies are transcendent.

You may remember Thomas Tallis as the wispy queer composer dude from The Tudors.

He never brushed his hair, could barely form a coherent sentence, and spent most of his time staring dreamily off into the middle distance. Why, you might ask? Because music, that’s why.

Although there is no historical evidence that the real Tallis slept with men, I am happy to tell you that portraits of him (the earliest of which, to be fair, was painted 150 years after his death) make it appear as if he’d actually met a comb once or twice in his life. Which is good, because really – I know The Tudors is pretty much the least historically accurate show of all time, but do you really think Anne Boleyn would have let a dude like the one above hang around her court? NO. NO SHE WOULD NOT.

Probably not really what Tallis looked like, either. Just saying.

Tallis was at court during some pretty violent religious upheavals, and somehow managed to continue to be Catholic and keep his head. This is actually a pretty stunning achievement, considering the times.

The first monarch Tallis composed and performed for was Henry VIII, the king who created his own church so that he could have as many divorces as he wanted. Then there was Edward VI, who only lived until the age of 15 but was still really, really into the Anglican church. Next came Jane, who was queen for about five minutes, which means she probably didn’t have much time to stir up religious shit and/or commission songs. Then came Mary I, called Bloody Mary because she loved killing Protestants so much. Of course, I’m sure Mary was totally cool with Tallis and probably gave him a ton of fist-bumps, on account of how they were both Catholic.

Finally, there was Elizabeth I,  while Protestant, was pretty damn tolerant when it came to religion, at least when compared to her predecessors. I mean, sure, she passed an act saying that everyone in England had to go to an Anglican church once a week or else face a fine, but she wasn’t really killing Catholics, so that was a plus for Tallis.

Spem In Alium was composed during the reign of Elizabeth I, probably in 1570. It’s a forty-part motet performed by eight choirs of five members each (which means that you need 40 frigging people singing 40 totally different lines of music). But even though we know the approximate when of Spem In Alium, we’re still unsure as to the why.

One theory suggests that it was written in response to a challenge issued by the Duke of Norfolk. See, at the time, the Italian composers were doing some crazy shit using a million singers singing a million different melodies at the same time. In particular, people were pretty obsessed with Alessandro Striggio‘s Ecce Beatam Lucem, which was apparently written for either 40 or 60 separate voices. Of course, the English couldn’t tolerate an Italian besting them at anything, so Norfolk challenged English composers to write something similar but even better.

The main reference we have for this story is a letter by law student Thomas Wateridge, which says,

In Queen Elizabeth’s time yeere was a songe sen[t] into England of 30 parts (whence the Italians obteyned ye name to be called ye Apices of the world) wch beeinge songe mad[e] a heavenly Harmony. The Duke of — bearinge a great love to Musicke asked whether none of our Englishmen could sett as good a songe, and Tallice beinge very skilfull was felt to try whether he would undertake ye matter, wch he did and made one of 40 partes wch was songe in the longe gallery at Arundell house, wch so farre surpassed ye other that the Duke, hearinge yt songe, tooke his chayne of Gold from his necke & putt yt about Tallice his necke and gave yt him.

Write an awesome song, get some sweet bling. Well played, Tallis, well played.

If this version of events is true, then it’s likely that Spem In Alium was first performed at Nonsuch Palace, which is maybe the best castle name ever?

Another popular theory suggests that Tallis wrote this forty-part motet in honour of Elizabeth’s fortieth birthday. Get it? Forty voices for forty years. So clever!

A third theory suggests that the Catholic Tallis wrote it to honour the SUPER CATHOLIC Mary I. After all, he did work for her at one point, so maybe he still had some fond feelings for her. Maybe he spent the entirety of Elizabeth’s reign (or the part of it he lived through, anyway) pining for good old Bloody Mary. Seems unlikely, though.

Whoever it was written for, Spem In Alium is one of the most beautiful, other-worldly pieces of music I’ve ever heard. It’s the kind of music that makes my heart beat a little faster because, I don’t know, it’s just so wonderful to live in a world where things like this are created. It’s the kind of music that makes me wonder how the hell man who lived in Tudor England could write something that would make a woman cry 450 years in the future? It’s the kind of music that, for the short time it’s playing, actually makes me wonder if we might live in the best of all possible worlds.

Latin text:

Spem in alium numquam habui praeter in te

Deus Israel
qui irasceris
et propitius eris
et omnia peccata hominum in tribulatione dimittis
Domine Deus
Creator coeli et terra
respice humilitatem nostram

English text:

I have never put my hope in any other but in you
God of Israel
who will be angry
and yet become again gracious
and who forgives all the sins of suffering man
Lord God
Creator of Heaven and Earth
look upon our lowliness

I should also mention that while researching this post I discovered the 97% of men in Tudor England were named Thomas.