Tag Archives: oh canada

The Cold, Gaping Maw Of Winter, Etc.

16 Sep

The winter my mother was pregnant with me was one of the coldest and longest on record. And this was in Montreal, mind you, which should give you an indication of just how deeply the temperatures must have plunged. My mother, who spent her days slogging across the snowy city to work, to doctor’s appointments, to the university where my father was a law student, and finally back home again, used to joke that I would be born with frostbite. When she told me this I pictured myself as a fetus, bobbing along inside of her, my toes and fingers turning blue in spite of the many layers of flesh and fabric that swaddled me. Even then, I imagine, I must have hated the cold.

My memories of Quebec in winter are mostly of the childhood-wonder variety; I was only three when we moved to Ontario, so they really only exist in imperfect flashes, more sensation than anything else. Tottering along on tiny skates at the local outdoor rink, stuffed into a Prussian blue snowsuit so thick that my arms stuck out at an angle. Lying on the back seat of the car and listening he quiet shush of tires moving through sleet as we drove through the twilit streets of the town where my grandparents lived. Stepping out our front door and staring at the walls of snow towering over me, the whiteness neatly bisected by the path my father had shovelled. It was like living in a fairytale forest under some witch’s evil spell; fraught with danger, but still full of magic. Like Narnia, before the downfall of the White Queen; you might be chased by wolves, or you might be invited over to a faun’s cozy little den for tea. Anything could happen.

By the time I hit grade school I couldn’t stand the cold; when I was seven, I thought up a genius plan to help me avoid it. I started faking sick every day after lunch, so that I could miss the long noon-hour recess. Instead of going outside, I would sit and read quietly in the nurse’s office, murmuring a no-thank-you every time she offered to call my mother. I remember being so satisfied, sitting there in front of the blasting heater, flipping the pages of my library book. In that moment, I was sure that I was smarter than everyone I knew.

Of course, it didn’t take long before my teacher caught on to what I was doing. She was beyond furious.

“Did you know,” she said, publicly, to all of my classmates, “that Anne has been lying to us every day so that she doesn’t have to go outside for recess? Did you know that your friend has been lying to you?”

What could I say? After all, she wasn’t wrong.

These days, winter brings out a sort of doomsday fatalism in me, as if the world, silent and blank with snow, existed always just a few grim moments away from the apocalypse. The air has a heartless, metallic taste and sun flickers weakly, as if we’ve been pushed out of orbit and are slowly drifting towards poor old not-a-planet Pluto. Frostbite seems like a exceptionally accurate term, because it so precisely describes the way the cold nips at me, sinking its sharp little teeth into my skin. My joints ache until my body feels like a feels like a sour note inexpertly scraped out of a violin; familiar, but so exhaustingly distant from what it should be that I don’t even know where to begin. The nagging pain drags on and on until it becomes my default state; I forget that it’s possible to feel good in my body, and assume that this fumbling stiffness is my new normal.

The end of this ache every spring is always, somehow, a surprise. I forget that it’s coming – I even forget that it’s possible – so I don’t think to wait for it. It’s like a gift from whatever hairy horned god it is that makes sure the clumsy old clockwork of the seasons moves forward the way it should. He’s the kind of god who should have sacrifices burned in his honour. Every year I am absurdly grateful for spring.

Most of the people I know love the fall – the smell of woodsmoke, the thick woollen sweaters, the sharp, lingering sunshine. Fall is apple-picking and flannel shirts and pumpkin-spice-everything; fall is the exhale of relief after the brutally humid summer. Fall is lovely, except that it also means staring down the cold, gaping maw of winter. Fall is a dark tunnel leading to an underground room with no windows or doors. There’s a reason that November is the month of the dead.

A few years ago, my mother picked out her grave. That sounds morbid, but I guess it’s better that she does it now rather than relying on us to figure out where she wants to spend eternity. It’s not even a grave, really – more like a little alcove on a wall in Mount Royal Cemetery where her ashes will go. Her father is in that cemetery, and so are both sets of her grandparents. All of her cousins and aunts and uncles and even a few great-grandparents are there too. I think she’s got the right idea – when I die, I want to be burned, and then I want to be near my family. At least cremation is warm; I can’t imagine spending the rest of time in an uninsulated wooden box six feet deep in the soil. I want to be comfortable, even in death. Especially in death.

I remember this one time when I was a little kid I was standing out in the schoolyard next to the climber. It was winter, and I was wearing this dorky maroon beret with a picture of Snoopy on it. I tilted my head back to look at the fat, drifting snowflakes, and suddenly I felt like I was falling up and up and up into the sky. I stopped feeling my body. I stopped feeling anything. I hovered there, as pure and weightless as the snow.

Then one of my friends yelled at me and grabbed my arm, dragging me into whatever game was going on, and the moment ended.

Whatever enchantment existed in that moment is gone; I’ve since tried to find my way back to that place, but never have. Probably I never will.

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A Safer And More Caring Society

30 May

I keep thinking of ways to start this post, but I can’t figure out the right words to use.

What do you say about someone whose contribution to your life, and the lives of all women, is invaluable?

I guess that I should start with the most basic fact: Henry Morgentaler, doctor and agitator for women’s reproductive rights, died today. He was 90. His work helped save the lives of countless Canadian women.

Henry Morgentaler was born in Lodz, Poland, in 1923. A Polish Jew, he was sent to Auschwitz during the Nazi occupation of his homeland. He survived. His parents did not. He came to Canada in 1950. In 1955 he opened a family practice in Montreal. He soon began petitioning the government to reconsider their stance on abortion, and opened an abortion clinic in Montreal in 1969. At that time, attempting to induce an abortion was a crime punishable by life imprisonment. Dr. Morgentaler’s clinic was raided, and he was arrested, jailed and acquitted multiple times, both in Quebec and Ontario. Abortion was legalized in 1988, in no small part because of Dr. Morgentaler’s actions. In 2008, he was named to the Order of Canada.

I’m only giving the briefest of biographical details, because I know that tons of other publications will discuss and dissect his life much better than I can. And anyway, that’s not really what I want to talk about right now. I want to talk about how Dr. Morgentaler’s struggle to legalize abortion affected all of us, and continues to affect us to this day.

Full disclosure: I’ve never had an abortion, and I hope that I never have to. Not because I think they’re wrong or bad, but because I try to avoid medical procedures if and when I can. But I have friends, many friends, who have terminated pregnancies. And I know that most, maybe all of them would not be in the same happy, secure places in their lives had they chosen not to terminate.

Every baby should be a wanted baby. I have a son, and I wanted to have him. But carrying a pregnancy to term and then raising a kid is hard fucking work, and those things shouldn’t ever, ever be forced on any woman. My friends who have had abortions are able to live the lives that they do because they had the ability to choose. Many of them have very successful careers. Some of them have gone on to have planned, wanted children since then. Some of them already had children before, and have been able to enrich those children’s lives by giving them the time, care and resources that they worried would be diminished with the addition of another child. For some of them abortion was a difficult, emotional choice, and for others it wasn’t. But for nearly all of them, choosing to terminate meant being able to finish school, being able to work in demanding fields without having to make sacrifices for their families, or just being able to focus on their lives as they were, without adding an additional complication.

Anti-choice groups nearly always talk about what kind of cancer-curing genius any given fetus might grow up to be, but almost no one talks about what a woman might become if she chose to terminate her pregnancy. We already know that it’s basically impossible for the average woman to “have it all,” so really, who knows how many women would have gone on to make incredible scientific discoveries, be brilliant world leaders or do one of any number of things that might have changed the world for the better had they chosen to terminate a pregnancy. Or else consider the number of smart, successful women that you encounter every day  – your doctor, maybe, or your lawyer – who may have been able to get where they are now because at some point in their lives they had to choose whether to have a child, and they chose not to. On a more mundane level, think of how many women would have felt able to leave abusive situations earlier if they didn’t have a child complicating the situation. Think of how many women there are worldwide live in grinding poverty, working two or more jobs just to make ends meet, because they were unable to choose to have an abortion.

Above all, think of how many lives Doctor Morgentaler saved by helping to legalize abortion. First of all, because the legalization of abortion helps Canadian women avoid the same awful fate as Savita Halappanavar, who died because Irish law prohibited her doctors from terminating a non-viable pregnancy that was medically dangerous to her. Second of all, because history has proved time and again that criminalizing abortions does not stop them from happening, it just makes them more deadly to women. Without Doctor Morgentaler’s work, Canadian women would still have to seek back alley abortions if they wanted to terminate a pregnancy, procedures which often resulted in infection, sterility or even death.

Doctor Morgentaler was someone who understood what true lack of freedom was. In 2005, after receiving an honorary doctor of law degree from the University of Western Ontario, he said,

“By fighting for reproductive freedom, and making it possible, I have made a contribution to a safer and more caring society where people have a greater opportunity to realize their full potential.”

He then went on to add,

“Well-loved children grow into adults who do not build concentration camps, do not rape and do not murder.”

Having seen what the escalating restrictions of rights and freedoms had resulted in during the Holocaust, Doctor Morgentaler dedicated his life to giving Canadian women autonomy over their own bodies.

He said, “I felt, as a humanist and as a doctor, that I had a moral duty to help these women.”

Thank you, Doctor Morgentaler. Thank you for fighting for my right to choose, should I ever need to do so. Thank you for working tirelessly so that my friends could have the freedom to do whatever they want with their lives. Thank you for letting working class mothers choose to devote the time, energy and resources that they have to their existing children, rather than forcing them to add another mouth to feed.

Thank you.

Thank you.

Thank you.

Henry

Wet (Or, I Am Acadian)

24 May

Earlier in the week I participated it Write Club Toronto, which is basically like Fight Club, but for writers. Eight writers are pitted against each other in two-person bouts, and whoever wins gets to pick a charity that the proceeds of the evening will be donated to. Each writer is given a topic, and has a little over a week to prepare a seven minute piece based on that topic. My topic was “wet” (my opponent’s, naturally, was “dry”), and I somehow emerged victorious even though I mostly wanted to throw up all over everyone.

I think that my proudest moment was when they asked what my charity was, and I accidentally said the Toronto Ripe Crisis Centre. Go team awkward.

Anyway, if you’re interested, you can find a free podcast of it here.

You can also read the full text below:

My great-grandmother, Alma LeBlanc, was born in this dilapidated old wooden house just outside of Arichat, Nova Scotia. If you’ve ever been to the east coast, you know exactly the kind of place that I mean – peeling paint, sagging walls, everything suffused with an air of grim defeat. The house was on the edge of a cliff on Ile Madame, which is an island off the coast of Cape Breton, and the place where it stood feels like the ends of the earth. When you stand on that cliff, all of North America lies behind you while in front of you the cold, dismal, grey Atlantic stretches on forever and ever. The ground drops away at your feet, and far below you the heartless, grinding waves smash against the rocks.

The climate is damp there, always. Sometimes it’s barely noticeable, just a faint clamminess blowing in off the ocean, and other times it takes the form of a suffocating fog so thick that the droplets of water hang suspended in the air, and it seems like a marvel that you can still breathe. But you can, and you do; you force yourself to keep breathing, you put one foot in front of the other, you keep going. And eventually the damp becomes a daily fact, and you barely notice its presence.

We’re a water people, us Acadians; it’s our element, you might say. This wasn’t always true – not so long ago we were farmers in the Annapolis Valley, that warm, rich, fertile strip of land across mainland Nova Scotia. In those days, our only interaction with water was through the dikes that we built. We were famous for those dikes. In fact, the other day, I did a google image search for “Acadian dykes” and not a single lesbian came up. Our dikes were ingenious, apparently, with mechanisms called aboiteaux that allowed fresh water in from the marshes but kept back the salt water from the sea. Our farms thrived. Things were good.

Of course, this idyllic life didn’t last for long. In 1755 The English rounded up the Acadians and put us all onto boats heading who-the-hell-knew where. Our expulsion officially had something to do with the Seven Year War, French and English politics, oaths we were supposed to swear and the religion that prevented us from doing so, but really, it was about the English wanting to have free run of the east coast.

We could have fought the expulsion, I guess, but that seems foolish when you consider the fact that the English had guns while we had pitchforks and shovels. We don’t come from fighting stock, anyway; most of us are short and pretty scrawny. So we went fairly quietly. But when the English turned us off our land, we threw aboiteaux wide open and let the salt water pour in, our own version of a scorched earth policy. Maybe that was the first time we realized that the water was our ally. A dangerous, unreliably ally, but an ally all the same.

We were split up, families torn apart, and sent off to wherever the English thought there might be room. We were dispatched to places like Baltimore, Boston, Williamsburg – they even built special forced labour camps in England. The boats were little more than prison ships, and over half of us died, but still. We kept going. We had to. And on those ships we learned to tentatively embrace our new home, the water, and treat it with equal measures of fear, love and respect. Thus far we’d thrown our lot in with the land gods, who were by and large fairly gentle and generous. The sea gods, on the other hand, are different. They’re cold, grey and pitiless, and view humans with complete contempt. You wouldn’t make a compact with them unless you had no choice.

We had no choice.

So we became fishermen and shipwrights, we learned to weave nets and build lobster traps. We added widow’s walks to our houses and learned to get used to losing our loved ones to the sea. Some of us straggled back home to Acadia, now called New Scotland, and settled the grim, barren coastlands that no one else wanted. We chose to isolate ourselves from the world around us, with the result that our clothing, speech and way of life didn’t much differ from what would have been found in 17th century France. We grew insular, as a way of protecting ourselves. We tried our best, on the whole, to steer clear of the modern world, and as a result we grew a bit peculiar.

Our names, for example, were peculiar.

I mentioned earlier that my great-grandmother’s name was Alma, but that’s not exactly true. Her full name was Marie Alma, and all of her sisters were also Marie, and all of her brothers were Joseph. Their middle names, though, the names they were called by, are what really fascinate me – Artemise, Evangeline, Sabine, Stella, Napoleon, Casimir, Leander. Strange names, old names, nearly all Greek or Latin; names you wouldn’t think to find among a largely uneducated population. I asked my great-grandmother once where they came from, and she said they came out of the “other” book. Because they had two books, the Bible and the “other” book, though exactly what that second book was she didn’t know.

Alma came from a family of twenty three – twenty three! I can’t even imagine. But as my grandmother says, “My God, Annie, what do you think they did on those long, cold winter nights? They didn’t have tv or radio, and they sure as hell didn’t have birth control.”

What they did have was a farm, and all those children came in handy as free labour. It was impossible to scrape a living for so many people out of that thin, rocky soil, so Alma’s father left his wife and children behind and took to the sea, wrestling the bitter Atlantic waters for whatever he could get. He would leave for weeks, sometimes even months at a time, often returning to discover that all that keeping-warm-on-cold-winter-nights had resulted in yet another mouth to feed. Meanwhile, Alma’s mother oversaw the farm, managed the household accounts and raised their children. Or rather, she did all of these things until she died giving birth to poor Joseph Alfred, unlucky baby number thirteen.

Alma’s father remarried almost immediately, because who the hell was going to take care of his thirteen kids? But like an evil stepmother straight out of a fairytale, his new wife hated her new life, and took out her resentment on her husband’s children. While he was off at sea, she beat them. She starved them. She let them freeze during the bitter winters. She forced one of them, Sabine, who had a bleeding disorder, to walk across sharp grass until her feet bled. The blood oozed out of her for nearly a week, and the priest came three times to give her extreme unction. Somehow, though, she managed to survive.

Survival is the reason that my great-grandmother left Cape Breton as soon as she was able to. Survival is the reason she married an Englishman, had ten English kids with ten English names, and gave up her mother tongue entirely. Assimilation can sometimes seem like the only way forward.

I’m pretty much assimilated. Really, I’m barely Acadian. I’m not even really sure what it means to be Acadian. Is it where you live? The food you eat? The language you speak? I mean, I speak French, but only rarely, and with great embarrassment. I grew up in the wilds of suburban southwestern Ontario, far from any ocean or sea. I don’t know the first thing about dikes or irrigation or anything like that. I can’t even swim, not really – the most I can manage is a pathetic dogpaddle.

Still, though, I’m a water person. It’s in my blood – I mean, both literally and figuratively. As removed as I am from the ocean, it’s still my element. I love being wet. I run outside during thunderstorms and let myself get soaked to the skin. If there’s a lake or river or stream, I have to be in it. Even a public fountain will do, if I have no other options.

Water is where I feel the most like myself.

And when I stand in the spot where my great-grandmother’s house was, and I feel the cold sting of the saltwater on my skin, and I look out into the vast grey Atlantic in front of me, I feel like I’m finally home.

Cape Breton

Cape Breton

Optimism is better than despair (or, What Would Jack Do?)

23 Aug

A year ago today the rest of Canada and I woke up to learn that Jack Layton had died. A man who had worked tirelessly to better our country, who had spent his life fighting for equality for all Canadians, was gone. I was in shock. I didn’t know what to do.

My friend Mandi and I had a coffee date that morning, so I packed Theo up in his stroller and set out for her place in the east end. Did you hear about Jack? I whispered to her, as if it was some kind of secret. As if saying it out loud would make it true.

She lived around the corner from his office, and we had to walk by it to get to the coffee shop. I want to get some flowers, I told her, to leave in front of his office. But there were no flower shops nearby – just a few East Chinatown convenience stores. The only plant we could find was a little pot of stunted bamboo shoots.

He’ll like it, I said to Mandi, after all, his wife is Chinese.

We started giggling and couldn’t stop. It was easier than crying, or at the very least more socially appropriate.

That week I watched in awe as Torontonians came together to share their love for Jack. Our famously cold, unfriendly city began to bare its soul in chalk messages written all over Nathan Phillips Square. When thunderstorms washed away the chalk, the people came back and filled the square with writing all over again. I have rarely seen something more beautiful than that.

I think that what Jack would have loved most of all was the unity among the people of Toronto that week. All of us, from all walks of life, keenly felt his absence. Although many of us might not have realized what we’d had while he was still living, we suddenly realized how much we’d lost after his death.

Tonight I went back to Nathan Phillips Square for Dear Jack: A Celebration. Much like last year, there were chalk messages written everywhere, and there was a large orange-bedecked crowd milling around. Most of the evening was lovely; I enjoyed the performances (especially Raffi!), and it broke my heart in just the right way to hear Olivia Chow speak about Jack. But I was frustrated that some people chose to use tonight as a platform for their political ideologies.

One woman wrote “Dear Jack, Toronto apologizes for Rob Ford. At least you missed that!” And I thought, how is this a response to someone who asked for love, hope and optimism? Or, as my friend Melissa said, we have 364 days a year to trash Rob Ford – couldn’t we use today as a time to get together to mourn, love, and look towards the future?

I’m glad I went, though. Theo enjoyed running around and playing with the chalk, and I loved running into various friends, exchanging hugs and murmurs of I can’t believe it’s been a year.

We miss you, Jack. I miss you. Thank you for everything you did. Most of all, thank you for inspiring us to continue to fight to build a better country, for helping us to believe in a more loving and just world. I think that your true legacy is the group of people who are using what you’ve built as a starting point, and are now running headlong towards the future, spreading love, hope and optimism along the way.

I won’t let anyone tell me it can’t be done. I will change the world.