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Friday, 17 June 2016

Hatred, Uncles, and Lessons from My Father

The events of the past week have taken their time to sink in. I'm not the first person to watch the news, so I didn't hear about Saturday night's/Sunday morning's events in Orlando until midday Monday, and even then I had to Google the references in friends' social media posts to learn anything about the specific events. Even that took a while, since I had to wade through a sea of reports on politicians' hijacking people's grief to further their own agendas. There even was a case of someone making a comparison to the massacre at Wounded Knee, and twisting those long-ago events into a support for unrestricted Second Amendment rights. (Oh, by the way, this same post was written by an individual who has, in the past, written much drivel with a racist, anti-Native American slant.  No irony there at all.)


But there was more to it for me than merely that. I started thinking about my uncle, one of my father's younger brothers, the fourth of five boys, the seventh of eight children. He was a beautiful soul, a talented musician, multilingual (he spoke six languages and was learning a seventh at the time of his death). He lived at home as an adult, helping to care for his parents and mentally-challenged younger brother. After his father's death, he became, even more than before, the prop and support for his mother and brother. It was he, more than his married brothers and sisters, who would be the travelling companion for his elderly relatives when they travelled overseas to visit my family. He also happened to be gay, in a place and time where that wasn't always accepted.

After my grandmother passed away in 1982, his brother went to live with one of their sisters and her family, leaving him at loose ends. He, who had always been the caregiver, was left with no one to care for. At age forty-seven, he had to re-evaluate who he was. I believe it was at this time that the conflict between his yearnings and his upbringing brought him to a crise de la foi. He spoke to a priest, who told him that nice Catholic boys from good families couldn't be homosexuals, and that he just hadn't met the right woman yet. And that, the family believes, brought about a crise des nerfs. Unable to reconcile the various aspects of his nature, and bereft of the identity that had been at the core of his life for his entire adulthood, he fell into a deep depression and ended his own life.

I only learned much of this information a few years ago, although I had suspected it for years. It was shared by my father, who, I believe, had been particularly close with his brother.


And that, somehow, combined with the nearness of Fathers' Day, got me thinking about my own father and the tolerance and acceptance he showed when telling the tale of his brother.

I'll be honest, tolerance is not the first trait that comes to mind when I think of my father. Particularly to a child, he came across as rigid and intolerant, with little patience for mistakes or foolishness. It took me a while to realize that was merely the outward demonstration of a code of honour so ingrained that it still awes me to realize how deeply authentic a life my father has lived. That code is based on faith in God, self-reliance and a deeply ingrained work ethic, and acceptance of others combined with the ability to think for oneself. What the child I was took as rigidity sprung from his attempt to instill that same code in his children.

Not all of it took. My faith is somewhat more free-form than his, and my work ethic is more conditional - I will work hard when I can't get out of it, and only to get back to my leisure activities. Somehow, I still got more of the faith than my brothers, where they got more of the work ethic. We all, however, seem to have learned the lesson of tolerance and acceptance.

And maybe, that's the most important thing our father taught us.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

The Paralysis of Fear

I found myself in an uncomfortable position today.  

A couple came into my workplace.  The young man was Caucasian, the young woman, Asian.  Her demeanour was stereotypical: quiet and submissive, soft-spoken when she spoke at all.  He impressed me as the kind of guy who lives in his parents' basement until an embarrassingly advanced age; the type who has no real power of his own; the sort of dweeb who, if a member of a Christian denomination, gets into missionary work because he subconsciously craves a power and authority that he has not earned.  

I paid them little mind as they browsed, but, when they came to my service area, I couldn't help but notice the way he spoke to her.  It's the way one speaks to children when they have expressed a desire for something expensive and trendy.  

Are you sure that's what you want?  
Are you absolutely positive?

Except his tone seemed less inclined to provoke consideration of choices than to convey the message that she was incapable of making decisions on her own.  If anyone ever spoke to a daughter of mine that way, I would have to fight the impulse to knock his teeth down his throat.  And I would kick the crap out of any of my sons who dared to treat a woman that way.

I was starting to see red, but I felt impotent.  I really wanted to say something as I witnessed this infantilizing behaviour disguised as support.  I really did.  But what?

Why do you let him talk to you that way?
She's an adult, not a child.
Stop belittling her.
Darling, you're allowed to have a voice.  

In the end, to my shame, I remained silent on the subject.  I did my best to address my remarks to her, since she was the one driving the sale and would doubtless be the one using the purchases. More than that, I felt uncomfortable about doing.  

Something about their interaction, in retrospect, is giving me the willies.  I hope she finds the strength to ensure that the relationship becomes more equitable.  I hope that he can accept her growth.  And I hope that she has the courage to do whatever is best for herself, if worst comes to worst.  

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Ross, Larche, Gevaudan

It's hard to say what hits home the hardest about the recent tragedy in Moncton.  As a Canadian, as someone with family ties to the Maritimes, as the sister of an RCMP constable and the mother of a son also in uniformed service, there are so many layers to the sadness that connect me to these unthinkable events, but I think what makes it hardest is the immediacy of it all.
It is easy to admire military veterans who served in the great conflicts of the past, in part because those events are remote from us in both distance and time.  How can it be any less admirable to know that your life is at risk every time you go to work, and yet go anyway because it is the right and necessary thing to do.
So I just want to say "thank you" to all those heroes who quietly work to keep us safe everyday.  God bless you and the work you do.

Friday, 23 May 2014

"Mean bone": forgiveness is a heavy burden

"She doesn't have a mean bone in her body."
I heard someone say that the other day, and my initial reaction was, "that's nice".  But it's been niggling at me, as random overheard comments sometimes will, and my reaction to that now is succinct.
They used to say that about me, years ago, that and all the other truisms that mean the same thing.
Wouldn't say boo.  Wouldn't hurt a fly.  Big pussycat (or teddy bear).  Heart made of marshmallow fluff.  Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
I actually believed it about myself.  Central to my image of myself was the affirmation that I was a kind person.  All through high school, it was easy to believe.  I was well-liked, if not popular.  I didn't have the right clothes, go to the right church, participate in the right activities for that.  And I liked geeks better than jocks.  Kiss of death for '80s high school popularity right there.
Even when I left home for university, I believed it.  And then I met him.  I had gone to the fall formal with a group of friends, the only one without a date, but that didn't seem to matter.  I was sitting on the sidelines when my friend Jocelyn came over with her date and invited me to come over to their table to meet, as she put it, "some single guys".  That was how I met Greg and Mike and, well, let's just call him JP.
We made awkward small talk as a group, and Jocelyn and her date left to dance, and JP invited me to dance, as well.  Finding him attractive and engagingly awkward, and admiring the courage it had taken to ask me, I assented.  We ended up dancing together for the rest of the evening.  He was everything my romance-novel-reading soul could ask for.  Tall, blond, devastatingly handsome, incredibly intelligent, romantic, thoughtful, a great kisser.  I fell, and I fell hard.  I was in love, real love, not merely high school infatuation, for the first time in my life.  Or at least, that was how I interpreted it. 
I spent the next while on a cloud, even when I couldn't see him as often as I would have liked.  As a romantic young woman will, I was sure that he felt about me just as intensely as I did about him.  Maybe he did, but I imagine that I will never know. 
Then it happened.  It was probably just bad timing, catching him at a bad moment, but I telephoned him and he blew me off, sounding testy, saying "shouldn't you be studying, goddammit".  Well, I had called him because I was finished my homework for the nonce, and I was feeling somewhat isolated, since my friends had all gone out to the movies, for which I did not have the funds.  Instead of making allowances for his bad temper, I took it personally.  Very personally. 
I spent the next two hours composing a four page letter.  Four single-spaced, closely written pages.  Full of every insult and slur I could think of or create.  I attacked his origins, his birthplace, his ancestry, and I laboured long and lovingly over my descriptions of the heartache I suffered because of him and his behaviour.  I don't remember much of the details of the letter, but I do remember calling him a "blue-nosed bastard" and a "Cape Breton conman".  To use twenty-first century parlance, I flamed him but good.  I think the only area I did not attack was his sexual competence, and that was chiefly because a) we hadn't gotten that far, and b) I had no standard of comparison. 
I then signed it, sealed it, and delivered it by sliding it under his dormroom door where he would be sure to find it when he returned from wherever he was out to.  Then I went to bed and slept the sleep of the self-righteous.  I awoke a couple of hours later to the sound of something being slid under my dormroom door. 
It was his response.  Even drunk, sarcastic, and hurt, two things came through.  First, he was disappointed, because he had seen in my "china doll pureness" some form of redemption for himself after a devastating end to a previous bad relationship. (Heavy burden for anyone, let alone an eighteen-year-old romantic, to be someone else's redemption.)  Second, he forgave me.  (Forgiveness unsought, another heavy burden.) 
I couldn't see it then, but looking back, I am in awe at how maturely this twenty-year-old boy handled my childish tantrum, and my subsequent course of action, which could not have been easy for him to handle -- such truly stupid choices as dating his best friend with the intention of destroying him for the "crime" of introducing me to JP (which backfired on me because said young man saw it as an opportunity for revenge on JP's behalf). 
Not only did he keep forgiving me, but he also kept pursuing me, for the rest of that year and the next, whenever he found the courage in the bottom of a bottle.  I wanteed to take the redemption I was being offered, but the burdens of guilt and shame, combined with the blows I had inflicted on my own self-image and self-esteem, kept me from reinstating the relationship.  That, and resentment of the fact that he only seemed capable of approaching me when he was well, traveling under full sail.  Now I realize that he was inoculating himself against the pain of further rejection. 
When I finally realized what I had done and was trying to do, I was devastated.  It's true what they say, that revenge can destroy the one seeking it.  I am living proof.  I have since done my best to rebuild my soul, but it is a haphazard and patched thing, full of scars and pitfalls.
But I have digressed somewhat.  My point is, if the "nice" person I was and try to be can harbour such potential for darkness and meanness, anyone can.  I believe that everyone has a "mean bone".  We can only choose not to indulge it. 
JP, wherever you are, I hope you are well.  I hope your soul is intact.  Our stories are linked, making you a part of me.  I hope that you have found happiness commensurate with your past suffering.  While our story does not have a happy ending, I have found one, at least for now.  I hope you do the same.  They say God has a special openness to the prayers of sinners.  I hope so.  This my prayer for you.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Keeping Abreast

Or: Adventures in Bra Shopping

I've been away for a while. Life sometimes has a way of getting in the way of  the best intentions to write.  But I thought I'd take a break from the introspective navel-gazing of some of my posts and look at some of the challenges of everyday life.  After spending the past couple of days checking out the world of bra blogs (who knew there were such things?), I decided to weigh in with my perspective on things. 

First of all, let's call them what they are: breasts.  Not boobs, boobies, tits, titties, sweater puppies, melons or peaches or plums or cherries or any other kind of fruit, or any of the other demeaning euphemisms that men (and, let's face it, women) have invented for them.  Breasts. 

For further elucidation, here is my dictionary of the proper definitions of those words.

Boob: a stupid person; fool; dunce.  In other words, what many men become when the topic of breasts arises.
Booby: a type of sea bird.
Tit: a type of songbird.  Origin of the word as slang for female breasts is probably a corruption of teat.
Titty: really, there isn't any excuse for using this one, in spite of its having been in use for the purpose since the late 17th or early 18th century.  Some words should be allowed to die.
Sweater puppies: do we really care where this one came from?  It's just plain offensive.  Like titty, no excuse for use.
Fruit of various types: while this usage does have the advantage of  expressing the desirable nature of the appendage, these euphemisms also refer to size, and can be used in a derogatory manner, so no.  They aren't acceptable.
Hooters: if you're trying to sound like Booger in Revenge of the Nerds, go ahead.  But really, who wants to emulate a character nicknamed after dried-out nasal mucus?

But I digress.  Here is my bra story:

I am in my early 40s, and for years I was wearing a 36DD. I hadn’t been fitted since I was in my teens, so I was working mostly on trial and error as my breasts increased during four pregnancies and the rollercoaster of emotional eating. I knew enough to up my cup size instead of my band size (I was a 34C when I graduated high school), but I had resigned myself to only ever finding boring granny bras. My one experience with a specialty shop, in my mid-twenties, had been extremely painful, as the staff would not even acknowledge my presence, seeming to think that I could not afford any of their stock and therefore I was not worth their time and attention.

About six years ago, pregnant with my fifth child, I knew that the bras I had were no longer the correct fit, and started complaining to my husband that I couldn’t find anything that fit at the national department stores. The ladies there had tried, but the best approximation they had available was a 34DDD in a minimizer style, which was too loose in the back and still gave me painful quadraboob in the front.
Shortly thereafter, my husband showed me an advert for a specialty shop in the next town (Forever Yours Lingerie), which I had avoided because I thought they catered only to plus-sized women. My husband quite rightly told me, “You have plus-sized breasts”, and drove me down one rainy Saturday. The shop was busy, but the fitter, a young woman in her twenties (and probably a 30F herself), was understanding of the challenges and insecurities that go along with never having had a proper-fitting bra.  She took my measurements and soon returned with a variety of styles so that I could determine which were my preferred cuts and fits. We soon determined that my preferences were for structured cups with underwire, and I eventually walked out with two bras, one a 32H, and the other a 34G, from different manufacturers. That was six years ago.  I can also recommend Crimson Lingerie in Calgary.

I have since become a devotee of Prima Donna bras, in 32H. They probably run a bit more expensive than some other manufacturers, but for me, the fit is incredible, they make me feel beautiful, and I view the higher ticket price ($120CAD and up) as an investment in my mental and physical health.
With the knowledge I have gained, I hope to pass on to my daughter (14 years old and taller and bustier than most of her friends), that breast size -- large, small, or in-between -- is nothing to be ashamed of, and that it is better to dress the body you have than try to force yourself to be/look like someone else.

So, this is my story. I would love to hear yours.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Webs & skeins: what connects friends

As those of you who read my last post know, I recently experienced a profound sense of connection with a far-distant friend through a shared sense of loss, yet we have not even been in the same part of the country for over twenty years.  That got me thinking and wondering about friendship and why it is that we can feel so intensely connected to someone we haven't seen in years, and yet we might never get beyond the surface of someone we see almost daily.  

After mulling it over, and looking at my long-distance friendships, I began to see certain similarities, almost none of which explained the longevity of these particular relationships.  Many of my friends are parents, but that doesn't explain it, or at least not by itself.  Some are relatively new at the game, while others, like me, have raised at least one child to adulthood.  It's not religion, at least not in the organized, denominational sense of the word.  My circle embraces Christians of all stripes, agnostics and pagans, Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs, Jews and Muslims.  There might even be an atheist or two thrown in for good measure.  Certainly there are shared values, but that only scratches the surface.  I've met many people who shared my values, but precious few of them have become the kind of enduring friends with whom there is a shortcut to connection.  

It's not definitely not education, since I never managed to complete university, and my friends run the gamut from high school dropouts to PhD candidates, and it's not intelligence, or at least not in isolation.  While most of my friends are intelligent, I've met many allegedly bright people with whom I could find no common ground.  And it's not technology in and of itself, although most of us use those tools to aid in building and maintaining our connections.  

What it seems to be is a sense of humour and a way of looking at the world as a series of connections, a series of interconnected stories that need to be told and retold to be remembered, which creates a kinship that has nothing to do with the DNA of our bodies and everything to do with the DNA of a really good story.  Perhaps that is why we all seem to have some sort of creative outlet, whether literary, visual, or musical.  Not that we all make our living through our endeavours, although some of us are fortunate enough to do so.  I am not one of them, although working the front line in the hospitality industry certainly requires the ability to think outside the box. 

I think what I love about all these friends of mine, is that they think.  Deeply, lovingly, sarcastically, with humour and childlike openness, about themselves, the world around them, and their place in that world. 

Whatever it is, it serves to connect me to a lit-loving med student in Manila, a social media scholar in Charlottetown, an historical interpreter, several musicians, and a Toronto-based aficionado of the absurd, among others.  And maybe what it is doesn't matter as much as the fact that it exists. 

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Internet magic: or, loss and memory

I was reading through some older posts on a friend's blog, and came across a post where she spoke of the son she lost as an infant.  It reminded me of the brother I never knew, the one who might have survived had a doctor not been reluctant to wield a scalpel to assist him into the world.  I haven't thought of him in years, even though my parents acknowledged the loss and told my brothers and me about him.  He was always part of our night prayers, the "God blesses", as we called them.  
"God bless Mommy and Daddy, Grandma and Grandpa, Oma and Opa, Anna Catherine, Neil John," etc.  

Neil John.  That was his name, an Anglicization of the historically Latin names that are so much a part of my father's traditional Dutch Catholic family tree.  Cornelius Johannus, he would have been to a previous generation.  

When I was a very young child, he was my constant companion, even more so than any of my living brothers, who were so very different in their interests from me.  Neil, as I pictured him, was just as bookish, maybe a bit less socially awkward, than I was.  When I became a target for bullies in elementary school, I always imagined that he would have been my defender, or at least been the one to share my isolation.  Physically awkward kids with borderline genius IQs generally don't fit in well in small rural schools, particularly if they have no gift for dissemblance, and I suffered the additional burdens of being the only girl in the grade and the only one who had not attended kindergarten (back when it was optional).  

It's odd.  Back then, I pictured Neil as close to my age, even though he would have been sixteen months younger than I, and given the arbitrary nature of school age cut-offs, two grades behind. Now, when I try to remember what he looked like, I get two images, primarily, one overlying the other.  The first is of a blond toddler with our father's curly hair, the hair that none of the rest of us inherited, but which skipped a generation to show up in one of my daughters.  The other image is of a faceless young man, somewhere between twenty and thirty-five, in some sort of military uniform.

Somehow he reminds me of the photos I have seen of "Bobby", one of my mother's cousins who was lost, albeit in a different way.  Bobby was R.C.A.F. during the Second World War, and is still, to the best of my knowledge, listed as "missing in action".  Neither his body nor his aircraft were ever found.  There is only one photo that I have ever seen of him, taken just before he went overseas, somewhere around late 1942 or early 1943.  The only reason I can date the photo is that in it, he is holding his cousin, my mother, in his arms, and she appears to be about two years old.  Since she was born late in 1940, and she is not bundled up to the eyes against a Calgary winter, I would be inclined to say spring or summer of 1943.  I digress.  Regardless of the date, he is lost in another way, but still somehow manages to visit my memory from time to time, particularly around Remembrance Day, one of four cousins who served, and the only one who did not make it home.  His cousin, David, was lost for a time, too, as a POW in the notorious Stalag Luft camps.  Although David's breathing body made it home, I think part of his spirit, too, was lost somewhere in Europe.  Whenever I met him, I got the impression that the connection between his spirit and his body was tenuous, as though he lived his life with one foot beyond the veil.

Maybe it's the time of year, that season when so many cultures celebrate the lives of those who are gone, when the Celts believed that the veil between the living and the lost thinned enough to allow contact, combined with my Scottish ancestry and a genetic connection to the weird.  Maybe.... There are so many other reasons that I could feel this connection, not least what my parents and teachers insisted was an "overactive imagination".  Or maybe it's that Odin's ravens sit on my shoulders, whispering their knowledge into my ears.  How else could I remember people I have never met, and who were barely known by those I knew who had met them?  Who knows?  There are many ways of knowing.  From here, I could go on a half-formed, half-thought-out rant about North American culture and the downfall of  Western civilisation, but I'm not ready to put on the tinfoil hat just yet. 

I'm just grateful for the Internet, which allows me to reconnect with long-lost friends, to read through their past letters to the world, and to connect my friend's lost son with my lost baby brother.  Who knows, perhaps I have introduced two lost children to each other, facilitating a network on the other side of the veil.

Neil, meet Finn.  Finn, this is my brother, Neil.  Look out for each other.  And watch for me when it's my turn to rejoin you.