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When I was little and my family lived in the city, there was a crossing guard who used to taunt me on the way to school.
“I’m going to report you for jaywalking.”
I was a compliant boy who wouldn’t dare do anything to offend my elders with or without their knowing. I never lied, stole or jaywalked. There were eyes and spies everywhere and in the clouds, and the crossing guard was one of them. He must have recognized and picked on my timidity. I was terrified something bad would happen to me. I might even get the strap.
I told my mother about the mean crossing guard. She sympathized, but the situation didn't change. She would often walk me to school, but of course when she was with me he spoke nicely. Nobody told me how to stand up to him. I believed if I told teachers, I would be the one in trouble, because the crossing guard was older, bigger and had more authority.
I began leaving late for school so I could run down Victoria Avenue when the guard and other students were gone. Sometimes I even jaywalked, cutting through the alley to avoid his corner.
There used to be a common saying: "Little children are meant to be seen and not heard." I don't believe my parents really subscribed to it, but neither did they dismiss it. I certainly understood and put it into practice, which was convenient for them. Usually it was given as an admonishment not to be noisy and disruptive, but not hearing goes much deeper than that. Children were seen as extensions of their parents' lives, not individuals with unique desires and personalities of their own. Actually children are meant to play, explore and learn how to be what they are.
North American Aboriginal people believe their sense of who they are is inseparable from the land and their sense of place. When you take away their land you are killing them in a way, or at least destroying their identity. Recently I heard a Native speaker say that for anti-colonialism to end, everyone must get to know their own indigenous selves. People might interpret that to mean that we all have to learn to think like Indians, but that isn't what the woman meant. We all need to find the place where we are grounded in culture and community.
I'm broken down this morning. Family matters have dug in, torn away my drive and passion. I remember all the places where I lack, where relationships have fallen flat. I wonder where I am grounded. Without rootedness there is no power.
I spent two hours on the phone yesterday with Marian, my older daughter. When I talk with her, of all people, I feel a sense of common values and understanding. Our ideas flow back and forth, exchanging.
And tonight I will hold my gentle, sweet man for the first time in almost three weeks.
It's a place to start.
Isn't it strange how one day a simple thing can seem impossible? And another day the energy changes, opportunities open, and you see the solution to the problem clearly? The fog of fear lifts. It is not an act of will, not a cognitive choice; it is internal weather. It can come from as little a thing as someone else's mood changing. One day he is a closed door. Another day he seems in a mood to listen, and that is enough to tell you it's time to resolve what has been unresolved for five months. You find your voice.
True justice has not much to do with punishment. It is the prevention of injustice. It means empowerment. So no one will be victimized, abused, trodden upon, knocked down, killed prematurely or exploited. It depends on everyone having a voice.
Some people think they know better. That is one of the roots of injustice, as long as their voice is given more value.
Some people think their voice doesn't matter. This comes from having their ideas discredited enough times that they don't believe in themselves anymore. But at a certain point everyone has to rise above the lies.
Yesterday I spoke to someone about something that had been bothering me for weeks, and resolved a problem. It made me tremble.
Still, many other problems pile on top of that one. I've spent too much time avoiding them, and they have washed over me like layers of sediment. I am a buried fossil. When I come to the light of day my reality is an artifact of something long gone, fascinating to others but no longer alive.
Resolving that one problem, did it make me any happier? Not really. But I must keep digging. There's no other way out.
Genuine power comes from knowing where you belong. We need to belong somewhere in relation to Earth and other people. Gangs, churches, armies, corporations and pyramid schemes provide power structures.
Buffy Sainte-Marie's song "I'm going home" says, "See up there, it's not the same. They know your name and I'm not afraid to need it." Indigenous culture is rooted in land and community.
I don't know where I belong. My family has drifted apart, and I'm not good at finding people to fill the void. I live alone in an apartment. Last night I called Danny and cried hard.
I can hardly believe it. I spoke up about some negative stuff going on at work. It had to reach the point where I was so stressed I could hardly concentrate from day to day, but I did it. A couple friends told me it was a brave thing to do, but usually when I do something brave it's because I have no other choice, except to do something incredibly self-destructive, like drinking every night to wash away my anxiety. I'm just afraid this has shifted the old, stable, dysfunctional balance, so who knows how things will fall now?
The Karpman drama triangle describes a model for common dysfunctional behaviour in which people fall into the roles of victim, perpetrator and rescuer. The rescuer here is not genuinely trying to help people, but has covert motivation to achieve his or her own payoff. The triangle provides the structure for archtypal mind games. The game is broken by figuring out how to deprive the players of their payoff.
I've allowed myself to play the victim to other people's rescuer. I shield myself from persecution. This hinders the difficult process of inner change.
The solution is to identify power within myself.
We may be victims ourselves, but If we fail to recognize our power, if we fail to speak and act on behalf of others when they are subject to abuse, we contribute further to injustice.
Justice can be a shady issue. During the G20 Summit in Toronto, when protesters vandalized police cruisers and smashed windows, I wondered why small businesses were targeted besides corporate stores.
Protesters argued in the streets.
"This is a small jeweller. Why are you breaking his windows?"
"These are blood diamonds."
A valuable discussion, but at whose expense? Arbitrary actions. Who assumes power to pass judgment?
Justice means different things to different people.
For some it's a response to crime and abuse. It involves taking away privileges, freedoms or lives of people who wrought harm. You will frequently hear the families of murder victims declaring, "I want justice for (the dead person)."
Murder victims don't get justice. They're dead. What people really mean is they want someone else to suffer (probably the perpetrator) for what has happened.
For others, this same form of justice serves to deter wrongdoing.
Destruction of property during the G20 might be seen as a deterrent to big business and governmental summits.
Lynne Forrest writes, "...most of us react to life as victims. Whenever we refuse to take responsibility for ourselves, we are unconsciously choosing to react as victim." Victimization creates a sense of shame and resentment, paralyzing action. We count on the powers that be, perhaps even a higher power, to propel our lives forward.
Justice, viewed from a much different angle, has little to do with punishment. It means empowerment, creating a society in which opportunities are not based on privilege but on our inherent, equal value as human beings. It challenges everyone, because we must stop reacting as victims.
When I was one year old, my family bought a cottage property on Lake Erie, a 45-minute drive from Windsor. We spent all our weekends there. Mom and I also spent summers there, while my father and older brothers commuted for work and school. By the time I was eight, my brothers had left home for university. My parents sold the house in Windsor and we moved permanently to Poplar Bluff. I started grade 3 in a small town school. While my family were city people, I grew up deeply connected to the countryside. It was my constant companion.
My earliest memories are of running through lush grass on summer days, poplar leaves trembling in the breeze high overhead, cicadas droning, and in the near distance the constant thrum of waves on the beach. That background lake sound added a deep bass note to the rhythms and themes of my early life. On warm nights I lay in bed listening, and sometimes crept outside to see the moon laying silver paths across the vibrant freshwater sea. By day I gathered junk along the beach and built miniature cities in the sand.
I have always needed the proximity of water.
Cutting trails through the undergrowth on the bluff overlooking Lake Erie, growing herbs and vegetables from seed, identifying and studying wild plants, I developed an intimate relationship with nature. But the adults around me, all several generations removed from living on the land, had no deep-seated knowledge of it. I lacked an Earth-based culture that might have taught me to read the sky, track wildlife and understand the behaviour of birds. I learned many things by keen observation and reading, but one person can't learn in a childhood what a whole rooted community can pass through oral tradition.
I remember a series of outdoor epiphanies over the years, moments when experiences of nature affected me profoundly, philosophically. One occurred in the temperate rainforest of Pacific Rim National Park, where I realized all Creation was rotting in anguish, waiting for God to enact the Apocalypse and bring His plans to fruition. I was 23.
I would describe these as religious experiences. No matter how powerful they felt, I don't claim the ideas impacting me were true. Whatever I believed before, nature provided perceived evidence to galvanize conclusions. We must be careful how we allow any influence to convince us.
Generations of naturalists have turned to nature for the revelation of truth. Emerson wrote:
"I go to the god of the wood
To fetch his word to men."
It's hard to confront the universe for long without experiencing some kind of mystical ecstasy. Pinned beneath the inscrutable purple of an autumn dusk, gold leaves flushed overhead, their voices whispering, we can all be forgiven for believing they bear words of intense mystery.
Actually, the mystic is a kind of lover. These experiences when the eyes feel open wide, when everything seems to take on profound, universal meaning, are infatuation. It's addictive.
We can't escape subjectivity in describing our experiences of nature. This shouldn't stop us, but we must be mindful of it.
When I walked in the Pacific Rim temperate rainforest, the mystical infatuation I experienced convinced me of things I already believed at the time, namely that the Apocalypse was imminent. Now I realize the conclusion was irrelevant, ridiculous.
How do I avoid making the mistake again? I've entertained similar epiphanies in the years since, like the one in which I realized I no longer believed in God.
Keep open minds, though it won't necessarily lead us to common perspectives.
A recent study published in Science demonstrated that our perception of human interaction is influenced by temperature. If you meet someone in a warm environment you are more likely to perceive him or her as a friendly person than if the encounter occurs at a cold temperature.
So the truth is filtered.
We don't have enough time in life to keep second-guessing ourselves. You must go to the river, draw your inspiration, follow your gut and hope that your instincts will bring out the best possible outcome. Sometimes they don't, but nothing good can come from constantly holding back.
When I silence my own voice, it comes back to bite me.
Autumn languor has been creeping upon me. Over the weekend I felt like going for a nap, but naps disrupt my night sleep and we had things to do anyway. Yesterday I felt like a lump.
At 11:45 I took a book to bed. Reading usually knocks me out within 10 minutes, but no. When I finally turned out the light, my brain turned on, replaying a grudge continuously.
I got four hours of sleep, woke with a migraine and had to call in sick.
Power is what we tell ourselves. It is waking up, opening our eyes, letting in the light and embracing the world. It involves connecting with other people in meaningful ways to effect positive change.
For what purpose?
Recently I participated in some visioning meetings for Out On The Shelf. When you come up with a vision statement for an organization, the thing you're looking for is what you ultimately want to achieve in society. The ultimate achievement puts you out of a job, because the job is done.
Empowerment itself isn't the goal. Why do we need to be empowered?
The goal of justice is that every individual will be empowered to become a contributing member of society, in roles we choose for ourselves. Everyone will know what they do is valuable. The voices raised will be diverse, and the community will be strengthened by its diversity.
When I am self-absorbed, I forget to listen properly to other people. I become paralyzed by my own private dramas.
How do people with mental health issues fit into the mosaic? The Icarus Projects suggests madness is an opportunity for brilliance. Anxiety, depression and delusions often go hand-in-hand with creativity.
I've started freelance writing web content. So far I've written two stories for a website that handles orders for clients. It takes some getting used to, two or three hours to write a 300 or 500 word story. Ultimately, I will need to churn out three or four per hour to make it worthwhile. It's like a puppy mill, and these are sick stories. I can't believe I'm using my talent to help corporations sell things I don't want or need.
So far, I managed to throw a little message about reducing carbon emissions into both stories. My little voice.
My father used to get up at 5 a.m. and go into the work room, under my bedroom, where he would proceed to scrutinize and cut articles out of the newspaper: snip-snip-snip.
He used the breakfast table as his soapbox for political issues. These were not conversations; they were lectures. My father believed immigrants were taking away Canadian jobs. He doubted that the Holocaust had occurred, and read books written by deniers.
Sometimes I would go upstairs after breakfast and throw up in the toilet. I started dawdling so I could eat after Dad left for work.
There were no words for my anger towards this racism. I didn't understand what was wrong with his reasoning, but it offended me. It was like schoolyard bullying, but not. It was the polite kind of racism that did not prevent my parents from behaving diffidently toward the black men who dumped rock to protect our eroding bluff, or Tracy, my playmate two doors down, whose father was black. I couldn't describe it. That made it a secret.
It was a secret like the indescribable strangeness within myself. I wanted to see other boys naked and get close to them.
We went and saw Never Let Me Go, a devastatingly beautiful movie about a dystopian society in which (spoiler alert) certain children are raised to become organ donors for the rest of society. It brought me to tears, and the ultimate message was, "Live your life to the fullest, regardless of what injustice is dealt to you." I woke up this morning worrying about the movie. I am disturbed by how the characters accepted their plight. They were too distracted by their own private quests for love and meaning to raise any voice for justice. Do I make this mistake?
This is the problem: when we see ourselves as victims, we need somebody to blame. That's the underlying cause of racism and bigotry. We see Other People as taking away our jobs, taking away opportunities, and breaking down our society. Once in a while an individual gets carried away and sets out to mete his own justice, like Mark Lepine murdering 14 women at the Ecole Polytechnique.
It is not enough for me to take responsibility for my own life. I must resist the tendency to see myself as a victim, and take responsibility also for the wellbeing of others.
It has always been easier to find my voice in writing than in speaking. Written words offer an opportunity to rehearse what I want to say. When I'm writing, nobody can interrupt me.
The challenge is extracting truth from confusion. We have to go deep. Our fingers and pens allow us to circle around, again and again, approaching the hidden meaning, the embryos of ideas growing inside our minds.
It reminds me of my friend Elisabeth's concept of pre-birth communication. A writer speaks to his ideas before they're born, as if they're already fully formed. It's a long gestation.
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