Tag Archives: history

The Past Is A Foreign Country

2 Dec

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep, etc.

And then God created the Garden of Eden, and made a dude out of mud to be in charge of it. Then one day when this dude, Adam, was sleeping God took one of his ribs (ew) and from that rib magically made Adam a lady-friend, Eve. Then Adam and Eve lived in paradise for, like, three days, until Eve, the original third wave feminist (she embraces diversity, change and choice!), took some bad advice from a phallic symbol serpent and ruined everything.

And we’ve been nostalgic ever since.

Sometimes I think that nostalgia is the human condition. I mean, we’ve got a minimum of three major religions based on this yearning to get back to a past that none of us remember or even understand; the most we know about it is that Adam thought it was awesome. Then again, Adam also thought that wearing fig leaves was awesome, and was married to someone who was basically his clone (I mean, is that how it works? what with the rib and all? what’s the science here? anyone?). Anyway, what I’m trying to get at is that I’m not sure how reliable of a source he is.

I mean, here’s the thing: I am the queen of nostalgia. Ask anyone – I basically get nostalgic at the drop of a hat.

(Hey, remember that time you dropped a hat? How great that was? How much fun we had? Why don’t we ever have good times like that anymore?)

I don’t just moon over actual things that I’ve experienced either; I spent a good chunk of my childhood feeling nostalgic for just about any time in history, from the ancient world all the way up to The Great Depression (I blame a combination of having an aunt who is an egyptologist, reading excessive amounts of historical fiction, and watching Annie on VHS until the tape wore out). I used to drive my mother bananas by whining at her that I should have been born in the Victorian era (in response to which she would usually remind me of my fondness for indoor plumbing), and nearly every elementary school class photo shows me decked out in some kind of puffed-sleeve Anne of Green Gables floral-printed nightmare, grinning like a Cheshire Cat.

If there was a book at the public library with a picture of a girl in a laced-up bodice and peasant skirt, I’d read it. If there was a weirdo food mentioned in something I’d read (blanc mange, I am looking at you), I’d tried to find a recipe for it. After learning that people seriously believed in fairies until not that long ago, I began to (non-ironically) leave food in our backyard in case the fair folk were hungry for chocolate-covered graham crackers and milk. And you know what? To be honest, my adult self is not that different, although nowadays I would probably eat the cookies, fairies be damned.

What I’m trying to get at here is that I’m totally guilty of romanticizing the past. Totally! That being said, I don’t use that as an excuse to hate the present. I mean, I like flush toilets and computers and being able to vote and science-based medicine and all that good stuff. I am pretty down with modern life (although I am sad that I don’t get to wear bustles or hoop skirts). I guess what I am trying to say is that I am confused by people who think that living a middle-class existence in the western world is basically the worst, ever. I’ve heard women bemoaning the fact that feminism has ruined womanhood (is that even a word? my spellcheck thinks it’s a word), and the fact that women can now vote, own property and work after marriage is somehow preventing them from being stay-at-home mothers or housewives or whatever. I’ve heard people complaining about the “chemicals” in antibiotics, and saying that they only do homeopathic or herbal treatments – nothing “unnatural” or doctor-prescribed. I hear people talking wistfully about the days when science didn’t exist and everything was just natural and wholesome and wonderful.

People talk a lot about “authenticity” when it comes to objects and experiences. They don’t want Walmart to exist; they want everyone to buy things from farmer’s markets and local mom-and-pop pharmacies and department stores. They want to drive to Mennonite country to buy hand-made furniture and hand-dipped candles. They want to practice yoga at sunrise on a mountaintop with someone who has studied in India and can read their chakras. When they travel to South America, they don’t want to go on a guided tour; they want to see the unspoiled part of the rain forest, want to see the “real” locals who are unspoiled by contact with the west. We’re obsessed with our idea of what’s “real”; these days, people worship at the temple of the real.

Sometimes I think that our desire for authenticity has a lot to do with our love of nostalgia. We think that the people who came before us lived lives that were somehow more “real” than our own.

But you know what guys? The past is a foreign country, and so on, and so forth. We don’t know what it was like back then; all we can go by is what we’re told, or by deciphering what’s been left behind. We will never be able to understand how people felt or lived back then; their circumstances, though not totally alien to ours, are different enough that we will never fully be able to grasp their emotions, or beliefs, or the ins-and-outs of their daily lives. We just have to trust that yes, being a woman before feminism was a raw deal, and yes, modern medicine saves lives, and yes, science and modernity serve some kind of purpose. I’m not saying, let’s not be critical of society; what I’m saying is let’s keep pushing forward and trying to make things better instead of daydreaming about a past that we can never get back.

I’m not saying that Walmart is amazing, or that any of the things I mentioned up there are bad in and of themselves, just that it’s hard to have some kind of moral superiority about where you shop when there are kids who would probably starve if there weren’t discount stores where their parents could get a cheap meal. I’m also not saying that our society isn’t obsessed with consumerism, because we are; we’re consumerist as hell. But you know what? People in the past didn’t own less things because they were better than us; it was because they couldn’t afford them. If you want to live a life of simplicity where all you can afford is a mattress on the floor and one change of clothes, then by all means, please go ahead. However, don’t kid yourself that you’re being more “real” than the next person.

Sometimes I think that the appeal of history is that we know how all the stories end. We know who wins the Battle of Hastings, and whether or not Julius Caesar crosses the Rubicon, and whether or not the Titanic will ever reach New York (spoiler: it won’t). And yeah, a lot of history was scary and bloody and downright awful, but at least we know what happens. I mean, better the devil you know, right? Our modern lives terrify us because we don’t know how anything will end; sometimes it seems like we’re careening towards our own destruction, running full-tilt at things like global warming and nuclear war and widespread poverty and famine. I’ve got news for you, though: if these things terrify you, all the hand-dipped candles in the world aren’t going to save you. If you’re scared (and you probably should be), then get up and go do something, for God’s sake. Sitting at home wishing that you lived in Elizabethan England is going to accomplish exactly nothing.

I mean, except reminding you how awesome those giant ruffs were. Can we bring those back, please?

Bustles - the best, right? Baby got back, etc.

Bustles – the best, right? Baby got back, etc.

Saint Catherine’s Day

26 Nov

Today is the feast of Saint Catherine, a fact which really means nothing to me now that I’m a bonafide adult living in a secular, anglophone world. When I was a kid attending French Catholic school, though, St. Catherine’s Day was one of my red-letter days. Back then, every month seemed to have a holiday or feast day; these little celebrations and diversions helped us make it through the long school year. For anglo kids, the big November holiday was probably Remembrance Day, but for those of us at École Cardinal Léger, November 11th was always overshadowed by November 25th. This was true for one reason and one reason only: candy. Lots of candy.

Saint Catherine of Alexandria is mostly famous for the terrible way she died. Born to the (pagan) king and queen of Alexandria, Catherine converted to Christianity at the age of 14. The reason for her conversion was a mystical vision in which the Virgin Mary gave Catherine to Jesus as a wife, and the two of them joined together in a holy union – I mean, you know, the usual. Catherine went on to convert hundreds of pagans to Christianity which, naturally, angered the Roman emperor at the time, Maxentius. Maxentius, a big fan of persecuting Christians, decided that the solution to his problem was to marry Catherine. When she refused (because she was already married to Jesus, duh), he tried to break her on the wheel. God, naturally, destroyed said wheel, so Maxentius just beheaded Catherine instead. I’m unsure as to how God could destroy the wheel but still allow her to be beheaded, but, um, I guess he works in mysterious ways?

Naturally, you want to know what the hell this all has to do with candy.

Relax. I’m getting to that.

The key to our modern celebration of Saint Catherine’s Day is Marguerite Bourgeouys, a nun who came to Canada in the 1600s. Marguerite opened a public school for girls in Montreal in 1658 (yay!), which marked the beginning of public schooling in Montreal (double yay!). She then decided that the First Nations children should also attend her school (problematic?) and began to devise ways by which she could lure them to her schoolhouse (definitely problematic). Her solution was to make taffy and then leave a trail of said taffy all the way from the local First Nations settlement to her schoolhouse (SUPER PROBLEMATIC). Oh, and apparently she made this taffy on St. Catherine’s Day, and young French Canadians have been doing so ever since.

I mean, at least her intentions were good? That has to count for something, right?

Marguerite Bourgeoys and her First Nations friends: 99 Problematics

Anyway, Marguerite Bourgeoys is a saint now, so at least she’s got that going for her.

My sister was born on November 24th, 1988. I remember the day of her birth pretty clearly; my mother came into my room early in the morning to tell me that she was going to the hospital to be induced, and then my principal pulled me out of class around noon with the news that I was now a big sister. My principal let me sit in her office and make my mother a card, probably assuming that I would produce the standard “YAY BABY” Hallmark-type fare. I, naturally, had other ideas in mind. Most likely influenced by the fact that Christmas was only a month away, I ended up drawing my mother as the Virgin Mary and my new sister as the Baby Jesus. Being a student at a Catholic school, I, of course, had heard the term virgin thrown around. However, being only six years old, I had no idea what it meant. I thought that “virgin” was synonymous with “good person”, which helps explain why, on my card, I wrote, Maman, tu es une vierge [Mama, you are a virgin]. I think I remember indulgent smiles from the grown ups at my school; at any rate, they didn’t immediately seize my card and burn it, so it couldn’t have been too blasphemous.

That night, I went to visit my mother in the hospital. There was an earthquake while we were there; a small one, but big enough that it made the glass tremble on my mother’s bedside table and the tacky framed prints sway on the wall. My parents laughed, and joked that it was an omen portending that my sister would accomplish great things. That one remark was a watershed moment in my life; for the first time, I experienced that complicated, emotionally charged state that we call sibling rivalry. What did they mean that she would accomplish great things? Had they said the same thing about me at my birth? What had my omens been?

I asked if there had been an earthquake the night I was born. No, my parents said. How about a full moon? A thunderstorm? Anything? My parents just rolled their eyes and laughed. Meanwhile, I glared at my fat, red, wrinkled nemesis.

The next night, when my father brought me back to the hospital for another visit, I proudly announced that we’d celebrated St. Catherine’s Day at school by making candy. My parents, who hadn’t yet come up with a name for my sister, gave each other this look like, WHOA, ARE YOU THINKING WHAT I’M THINKING? WE ARE FOR SURE GENIUSES.

Needless to say, they named her Catherine.

Catherine, which I thought was probably the bossiest name I’d ever heard.

Catherine, the perfect name for someone who would accomplish great things.

As if to rub salt in the wounds, my parents insisted on telling everyone that my sister’s name had been my idea. Whenever they said this in my presence, I would yell, THAT’S A DAMN LIE, I WANTED TO NAME HER SOPHIE, and then, naturally, immediately get sent to my room. I spent a lot of time in my room after my sister’s birth, mostly because I couldn’t understand how my parents could equate my casually mentioning a name in their presence with suggesting it as the word that we would ever use when referring to my new sibling. In retrospect, I’m sure that my parents were trying to help me adapt to having a sister after spending more than half a decade as an only child; at the time it just seemed like they were wilfully ignoring everything I had to say.

When Catherine started school, her teachers went out of their way to make St. Catherine’s Day a big deal for her. They would make her a paper crown, and spend the day treating her like a princess. At the end of the festivities, she would bring home a bigger pile of candy than anyone else.

Did I have a special saint’s day that gave my the chance to wear a crown and bring home an exceptionally large pile of candy?

No. No, I did not.

Probably because I wasn’t destined to do great things.

Throughout Catherine’s early years, I found various ways to torment her. I stuck clothespins in her hair. I called her ridiculous names. I made faces at her at the dinner table. Nothing I did was overly terrible, but then, it didn’t need to be; Catherine threw tantrums as if she had a calling for it. Catherine screamed and kicked as if it was her vocation; she once had a legendary meltdown over the fact that her toast was cut  vertically instead of diagonally. This meant that it was both easy and satisfying to provoke her.

When I entered my teen years, my mother developed a fascination with mediums and psychics. She began having her tarot cards read on a regular basis.

“The psychic says that Catherine is the Queen of Pentacles,” she told me once in the car, as she was driving me to a dance class.

Naturally, I was more interested in what she’d had to say about me.

“Oh, she says, you’re boy-crazy,” my mother replied dismissively, “as if I didn’t already know that. But she says that Catherine is the Queen of Pentacles.”

“What does that even mean?” I asked

“I don’t know, but I’d better not hear you making fun of her for it,” my mother said in her most threatening tones.

Why would I make fun of her for it? I knew exactly what it meant. It meant that she was destined to do great things, while I was destined to be a pathetic, boy-crazy teenager forever.

Catherine and I continued to have an adversarial relationship throughout the rest of my time in high school, and my first few years of university. I can clearly remember bringing Matt home to meet my family for the first time, and whining to my mother about how Catherine was being rude to him. I don’t remember what she was being rude about, mind you, just that I didn’t like the way she talked to him. Catherine told me constantly that I was old and boring, and that my music sucked. While I was nearly always single and lonely, Catherine had a steady stream of boyfriends from the time she was 13. Instead of abating, our rivalry seemed to be heating up. On top of all that, I was deeply embarrassed by that I was jealous of someone who was six years younger than me.

This continued on for several years, until, sometime in my early twenties, we had a fight. Like, a big fight. I don’t even remember what it was about, I just remember yelling, even screaming at her. I was furious. Beyond furious. Somehow, having run out of things that actually had to do with what we were fighting about, I got around to the anger and jealousy that I’d been harbouring all these years.

You don’t even like me,” I yelled at her. “Why do you even bother talking to me? You don’t have anything to talk to me about! You think you’re better than me! You think you’re going to do great things!”

At this point, Catherine burst into tears, which, if you knew her, you would know how highly unusual that is.

“What do you mean I don’t like you?” she wailed. “I love you! You’re my big sister! I look up to you for everything!”

That stopped me dead in my tracks. How could it possibly be that my sister, my destined-for-great-things, Queen-of-Pentacles sister could ever look up to me, failure that I was, for anything?

That night was a turning point in our relationship. We’ve been close ever since; she even lived with us for a few months this year. Now that she’s back living three hours away, I miss her, even though we talk all the time.

I hope she had a good birthday.

I hope she knows how proud I am of her.

I hope that this year she continues to do great things.

I hope that she had some candy today, in honour of St.Catherine.

Catherine with her cat, Chairman Mao

Happy birthday, little sister.

p.s. Here is a recipe for St. Catherine’s Day Taffy, if you want to try making it yourself.

I can’t do yoga (and other lies people tell me)

21 Nov

I honestly can’t tell you how many times I’ve had this conversation:

Person I Just Met: So, what do you do?

Me: I’m a yoga teacher.

Person I Just Met: Oh, neat! Where do you teach?

Me: Right now I’m mostly just subbing, but I teach a regular weekly class at [local studio]. You should come!

Person I Just Met: Oh, um, yeah, maybe. We’ll see!

Me: It’s pay-what-you-can and all levels. I would love to have you!

Person I Just Met:  I can’t do yoga. I’m just really not flexible. Sorry!

Here’s the thing: anyone can do yoga. I honestly believe that. I have taught a yoga class to a room full of octogenarians who stayed seated in comfy chairs the entire time – if they can do yoga, then so can you. It doesn’t matter how flexible your body is – any and all poses can be modified to meet you where you are. And really, if you want to try yoga but lack of flexibility is your excuse, how will you ever improve your range of motion without first taking up something like a regular yoga practice? Everyone has to start somewhere – why not start now, today, whatever shape your body is in?

Having said all that, I know there are a ton of reasons why people shy away from yoga, and most of them have nothing to do with flexibility. Part of the problem is that the yoga culture in the west is kind of fucked up.

Yoga is an ancient Indian discipline dating back several thousand years. The first definitive text on yoga, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, is estimated to be about 2,000 years old, and the practice itself is even older than that. Yoga is one of the six astika, or orthodox, schools of Hindu philosophy, and in its original form was mainly a mental and spiritual practice with some physical elements.

The second sutra in Patanjali’s book pretty clearly outlines what was, at the time, understood to be the main goal of yoga. This sutra reads, yogah citta vrtti nirodhah, which is typically translated to mean something like, “yoga is the cessation of the movements of the consciousness”. In short, yoga is all about getting your brain to shut the hell up so that you can enjoy a little peace and quiet, for once. Yoga is also about moving past the busy, restless, endlessly nattering part of the brain, the one that Buddhists often refer to as the “monkey mind”, and towards the purusa, which I will loosely define here as a sort of universal consciousness. Yoga is meant to help you see clearly, and one of the things yoga philosophy tells us we need to learn to see is that all beings and all parts of nature are interconnected. We are all part of the same larger pattern, and we are all part of each other. Realizing that is the original, ultimate goal of yoga.

Here in the west, though, we view yoga mainly as a form of physical exercise. Although we chant OM at the beginning and end of every class, and although as part of our practice we often perform surya namaskara (sun salutations), movements whose original intent was to honour the Hindu solar deity Surya, the way we view yoga is pretty much totally secular. Oh sure, some people will tell you that it makes them feel “spiritual”, but most don’t think about the religious aspects of what they’re doing. There’s a lot of cultural appropriation that goes on in western yoga, a lot of white people wearing mala beads and chanting in sanskrit without really understanding what any of it means. In my time in the western yoga world, I’ve seen so many examples of people exoticizing Hinduism and Indian culture, but not many attempts to learn more about what all these words and symbols mean.

I could go on and on about cultural appropriation in yoga, and maybe someday I will. Right now, though, it’s mainly the above-mentioned white people that I want to talk about. See, yoga in the west has, for the most part, become the domain of young, skinny, upper-middle-class, heterosexual white women. I’m not sure how this came about, as, up until just a few generations ago women were forbidden from practicing yoga, but, well, here we are. And I, a young, skinny, white, middle class, heterosexual white woman want to tell you that this is a problem.

The main issue is that people feel intimidated not necessarily by yoga itself, but by the other students in the room. In a worst case scenario, people might feel unwelcome, even unwanted. The message that the yoga community often sends out is that students have to look a certain way, wear certain clothes, have a certain body type and a certain sexual orientation in order to practice yoga. There’s a lot of privilege going on in the western yoga world, and not a lot of yogis who are willing to acknowledge it. And you know what? That’s not cool, because yoga should be for everyone. Yoga is for everyone. Rather than ignoring or dismissing the problem, we in the yoga community need to sit up, take notice, and ask ourselves how do we solve this?

One way to help solve this is to create safer spaces for different types of students. For example, I love Kula Yoga’s Positive Spaces Initiatives, which include classes like “brown girls yoga”, and “queer yoga”. I think that we need more classes like this, more safe spaces catering to the needs of different groups. We already know that some people prefer specialized classes – prenatal yoga, for example, or yoga for seniors – so why not expand this idea? How about yoga for fat chicks, or yoga for trans folk? After all, yoga should be for everybody, not just a select few.

We also need more pay-what-you-can classes, which most studios call “karma” or “community” classes. The average cost for a yoga class in Toronto is between $16 and $20 – paying that amount even just once a week is not manageable for some people. We need to find a way to make sure that yoga is affordable to everyone, not just those with a steady income.

Mostly, what I really think we need is for people to realize that yoga isn’t about how you look, both in terms of poses and clothing, and is really about how you feel. As my (very wise) friend/teacher Charlene recently said, “Yoga isn’t the series of poses and movements that you do during class. Yoga is how you feel after the class.”

The thing is, I honestly believe that yoga has changed my life for the better; that’s why I teach it, so that I can hopefully share that experience with other people. I’m not saying that everyone has to do yoga, or that it’s going to have the same effect on other people as it’s had on me, but I do honestly believe that everyone should have the opportunity to have a regular practice if they want one.

After all, as yoga teaches us, we are all equal and all part of the same greater system.

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.