Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Crazy, they call me



I'd like to talk about my experience as a mentally ill person and how I fit into social struggle. I want to emphasize that this is only about my experience and observations. I am not making any universal claims about what the best way to handle mentally ill people in activism might be. I can only remark on what has worked for me and what I think might be useful to keep in mind when organizing alongside the mentally ill. I am specifically interested in talking about what it means to 'listen to' and 'support' me as a person with mental illness.

I have two major, defined categories of mental illness. I am on the autism spectrum at a place called 'pervasive developmental disorder; not otherwise specified.' I also suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder, and unlike autism, suffer is the right word. I have invasive thoughts about suicide, about self-harm, about aggressive acts towards people around me even if I know and love them. I also have some OCD behaviours – I can fixate on things and be unable to stop myself from doing things even if they are harmful or a waste of time. This is exhausting!

Autism, on the other hand, is more of a difference. I can't read social cues like facial expressions or body language as well as most people. I have little to no ambient awareness of the 'mood' of a room and a very uneven sense of propriety. Although it is not personally unpleasant to have autism, it can make organizing difficult. These two conditions often occur together and interact with each other in all kinds of fun (read: not fun) ways. 

These two things affect my organizing in different ways. My OCD is definitely more disruptive. I feel an almost uncontrollable compulsion to talk in meetings. If I am not mindful I will trample all discussion, try to make every point from every side of every issue and get impatient with people for not being able to keep up. Outside of meetings I can get fixated on particular political issues and intervene endlessly in unproductive ways. Occasionally it causes me to needlessly inflame a simmering conflict with people of other political tendencies.

My autism is not so obviously disruptive but it can still be a problem. A good organizer is an empathetic, emotionally intelligent person. Autistic people are capable of empathy but personally, I've had to get there a different way. I need to be very consciously, thoughtfully focused on the behaviour and tone of people around me. If I don't pay close attention, I can easily hurt people's feelings, make them feel silenced or patronized. I have struggled with what my parents refer to as a lecturing tone. A lot of subtle interpersonal tension is invisible to me.

As you may notice, a lot of the behaviour I am describing above is disruptive or counterproductive. It sure is! But it is also an indication that I am either not able to perceive something or that I am actively suffering from high levels of anxiety. So in that respect, I am an oppressed person struggling to integrate myself into a society built for privileged people. Integration is not necessarily the goal of other oppressed people. They may just be looking for space for their difference. 

I want space for my difference, too. I want people to understand that I am sick, not an asshole. I want to be supported as I grapple with my problematic behaviour. I am afraid, always afraid, that I will be read as selfish or privileged and punished for trying to participate in social struggle in spite of my sickness. I think that these are fairly normal anxieties for a mentally ill person to have. But I want to emphasize that I am not asking for people to view my disruptive behaviour as acceptable, just because I'm mentally ill.

It is objectively bad when I dominate meetings. It is objectively bad when I miss social cues and cause offense. It is not just a question of different ways of being – there is a right way and a wrong way of being in social settings in this instance. My mental illness is making it hard for me to see the right way. So when I talk about supporting me as a mentally ill person, I don't mean that people should make excuses when I do fucked up shit.

So what do I think it looks like for people to support me as a mentally ill person? I can only speak from experience. I am blessed with some very good friends and comrades, many of whom struggle with their own mental health issues. They have been supportive of me as I have struggled with my mental health issues, in the best sense of the word.
 
If they notice me acting in disruptive or unproductive ways, my friends check in with me to see if I am doing ok. They patiently explain why they think a particular behaviour is problematic – even if I am not immediately receptive. They help me get outside my head to see things from other perspectives. They show me kindness in an effort to ground me. They challenge me to reflect on my own behaviour.

In short, my friends support me by helping me understand reality. I am trapped behind the walls of my own anxiety, peering out at a partial picture through a haze of stress. They help me stabilize, work to lessen my negative symptoms and improve my environment. And all of those things help me manage my mental illness so I can participate in social struggle in helpful, meaningful ways.

I'm so grateful for their love and support. I think it comes from a place of being in the same boat, most of the time. They know what it is like to lose their grip on reality and need to be pulled back from the brink. Their gentle questioning, their patient explaining, and their kind-hearted encouragement helps me develop not only as an organizer but as a human being.

To me, that's what a positive model of support looks like. And that's great. But I want to talk too about what bad support looks like and where I think it comes from. We can find some of its roots in good intentions but I think that standpoint theory is relevant, too. In brief, standpoint theory is the idea that people have unique insight into their own experience, including experiences of oppression. Rather than letting experts narrate their experience to them, their voices should be heard and elevated in discussions of what to do about that oppression.

What does this mean in practice? In the case of decolonization struggle, it means that we should listen to and accept leadership from indigenous people. It means that feminist organizing should centre the voices of women. It means that Black Lives Matter rallies should be organized by, and amplify the concerns of, black folks. All of this is fairly intuitive, I'd hope.

This gets complicated when we apply the same logic to mental illness. Standpoint theory would normally encourage us to listen, to be ok with not understanding, to trust and believe people when they discuss their own experience. Sounds reasonable enough.

Here's the problem: when I am suffering from mental health issues, I am not a reliable source of information about my own oppression. If I am anxious enough I may insist that I need to be listened to, that I'm only dominating the meeting because things are moving too slowly, that people should be accommodating my autism instead of me listening and learning how to be a more effectively empathetic person. I will be tempted to use my mental illness as a political argument to defend problematic behaviour and I will not even know that I am doing it because, again, I am suffering from diminished capacity as a result of my anxiety.

By its very nature, mental illness is a special case. It distorts the way we perceive reality whether it is through a neurological difference or a haze of psychic pain. Whether it comes from a genetic condition or is brought on by external trauma, mental illness complicates our relationship to the outside world. We are not entirely able to perceive what is going on around us in an accurate or rational way. 

I am always a reliable source of information about my pain and about my experience of anguish stemming from my mental health problems. But the more acutely I am suffering, the less likely I am able to look rationally at what kind of 'support' I need. I may be completely disagreeable in those moments. I may even actively turn the language of mental health allyship against people, expecting them to support me in my moments of anguished irrationality.

In those moments, supporting me does not mean giving me what I want. It does not mean accepting my problematic behaviour or giving in to my demands. Those things are only going to worsen my condition, push me further from reality, deepen the cause of my suffering. It is not good allyship to be an enabler in those moments.

Let me say now that in such moments I would like to be 'supported' by being called in. I would like people to challenge my problematic behaviour and help me deconstruct my irrational views. I do think that as a mentally ill person, I deserve compassion. But I think what is compassionate is to help me ground myself – not indulge my flights from reality.

I have seen a lot of this bad kind of 'support' in my years of organizing. People, struggling to be a good ally, wind up as enablers for problematic of even destructive actions. They convince themselves that to be authentically supportive they must listen uncritically to the demands of the sufferer. 

I'm not convinced we should ever listen uncritically to anyone. But we should definitely not listen uncritically to mentally ill people in crisis. Reality is a consensus based process of discussing and interpreting the world. It does not make sense to suspend your own participation in that process to amplify the perspective of someone whose basic critical reasoning skills are impaired by their illness. 

Some friends of mine are involved in running a venerable music festival. Recently, a very aggressive autism-spectrum dude was stalking, harassing and threatening women who regularly attended the festival. The women appealed to the festival organizers who framed the conflict entirely in terms of this dude's autism. The women needed to understand where he was coming from. They needed to reconcile to him!

This kind of enabling approach is super counterproductive. That dude needed his community to call him in and tell him frankly that his toxic rage was not ok and he could not expect to be a part of the community if he was going to continue to vent it on people – particularly marginalized people. He needed the support to grow as a person. Instead they helped reinforce his own sense of anxious victimhood.

I am absolutely not saying that we should punish, persecute or ignore mentally ill people. I am one! But I think that there is a line between supporting and enabling and I see that line crossed way too often. If someone is in crisis, be kind, be supportive. Don't pick fights with them. Don't try to force them to see things their way. But if you have the emotional energy to do so, help guide them gently towards a more empathetic, holistic perspective. 

Mentally ill people can and should be able to participate in social struggles. We are in a sick system that does harm to us all. Our difference is a part of our strength and people with mental illness have valuable perspectives to contribute. But slotting us neatly into the idea that solidarity is uncritical support is not only unhelpful, it actively harms us on our voyages to develop strategies for mental health.

If you are interested in what this looks like practically, I've put together a list of practical steps:

  1. Create a space where people feel safe to disclose their mental health issues.
  2. If someone is behaving in an erratic way, talk to their friends. Figure out if it's part of a pattern.
  3. Talk to people in crisis but respect their boundaries, too.
  4. Be an active listener! Often just speaking delusional ideas aloud can reveal them for the bad ideas they are.
  5. If someone seems like they are having a mental health crisis moment, get someone they trust to gently persuade them to step outside the organizing space to talk.
  6. Listen kindly but don't feel compelled to agree.
  7. Remember that you're not a doctor. Don't try to diagnose people.
  8. Do your best to make mental health resources available.
  9. Don't push people to do more than they feel comfortable with.
  10. Set aside a quiet space for people to relax.
  11. People experiencing serious mental health issues may ignore one on one conversations. If you can't help them deescalate their crisis it may make an intervention necessary.Know when you're beat. In extreme cases, mental health issues can be so serious that no activist group has the resources to effectively support the person in crisis. When this happens, it may be hard to accept, but you may need to exclude the person from your group until their mental health improves.

    People with mental health issues always reserve the right to disengage and do not owe you anything. If they want to participate productively in social struggle, though, they owe their group the same respect, consideration and accountability that everyone else does.

Monday, December 26, 2016

The Light Indifferent

"We carry a new world here, in our hearts. That world is growing in this minute"  
Buenaventura Durutti



Beneath stooping willow boughs
At that tranquil creek side copse
We sprawl across a checkered blanket
Red and white before the wine spilled
Kisses, toasts and boasts have filled
A cheerful kind of afternoon
Where we've already won

Up the reedy bank along
Our winding dirt desire path
I pass a face I first embraced
Up on the barricades before

Down this rough and rutted track
Past children learning playing as
Teacher shows where shells
Sang screeching through gun smoke
But never detonated, only fell
Sabotaged by factory friends
Direct action did us good

Amidst our ring of cottages
A revelry on stoops and steps
We wouldn't call it market day
You needn't bring your purse
Might sooner bring a hearse
Either one would cast a pall
Wicker stalls, for one and all
Shelving sagging, heavy burdened
Since none take more than needed
We finally have enough

Here a straining fiddle's call
Not a sad song of the fall
But joyous notes, tell all, tell one
The revolution has been won

There actors on the final stage
Perform their scenes of love and rage
That act is done, we've turned the page
To tell another story to ourselves

Each person smiling as they pass
Embraces me with word or grasp
Here we've found a place at last
To fit, and to have purpose

Wind has torn an old roof down
So from the corners of the town
Friends and neighbors gather round
To set the ceiling right

Hammering an errant shingle
Nostalgia and sorrow mingle
Distracted by the ghosts that linger
I drive a nail straight through my finger

Bare walls in my tenement
Reflect the light indifferent
Kettle whistling summons me
Forth from gauzy reverie

Through a window narrow, high
I cast a weary, longing eye
Down on their streets where nothing grows
Where hope and love, too quickly, die
Down in street lamps' sullen glow

That same callous illumination
Stalks the lonely souls that walk
Across concrete still smeared by blood
And last night's curry poutine

Eyes cast down and faces stern
Rushing, pushing, off to earn
A slender pittance for themselves
A fortune for another

No warm embrace or smiles pass
A pervert grabs a stranger's ass
The crowd says nothing, for alas
We are all strangers here

And I above, a stranger still
Can only stare and yearn
Longing just to learn
How can I help them find
The pathway from their solitude
To the village in my mind

Saturday, October 1, 2016

“Revolution Could Happen Today”


This latest injustice cannot stand
And so we all must rise
Can't you see?
Revolution could happen today
If people just opened their eyes

Our drinking class hero is clutching a placard
His typewriter fingers too cold
He feels them shrivel like grapes in a frost
But he's glad to have something to hold

In badly inked letters it boldly proclaims
'Growth for its own sake
Is the ideology of a cancer cell'
A message that makes him conflicted, cause well
After ten years in the movement
it would be nice if something would grow
apart from his lengthening list of regrets
and places he's no longer welcome to go

Over the flat caps and waves of white dreadlocks
He's looking for someone he knows
Protests are rather like nightclubs that way
Only the lonely
Attend them alone

She spots him first, her purple bandana
Hiding a dental plan smile
She's this middle class union staffer
Who he hasn't seen in a while
But they've danced in tear gas
Drowned in a shot glass
Signed all the same open letters
They know what it's like
To be feeling defeated
To wonder if things can get better
Maybe they won't win the class war today
But at least he's bumped into a friend
Someone to see him, to know he came out
And that's all he wants in the end

This latest injustice cannot stand
And so we all must rise
Can't you see?
Revolution could happen today
If people just opened their eyes

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

There are more shops for dogs than for poor people

When I was ten years old, my parents packed up their red brick duplex by the river, and their three young children, and moved the lot to Westboro. At the time, Westboro was a particularly underwhelming place; a mix of pensioners, light industry and the greatest concentration of used car lots in the city.

Today, I have come into Ottawa to help my parents move. A friend dropped me off outside and I saw the door open, but the car away. 'Well', I thought to myself 'one of them must be out.' They were both out. Inside, I discovered an energetic Quebecois woman ritually scourging the dusty furrows of the crown moulding. "Your parents just went out for lunch," She informed me "For your father's birthday." 

It's a good thing she told me, or I would have betrayed my complete ignorance when he got home.

We have never had a cleaning lady. I am familiar with the bizarre upper middle class tradition of cleaning up in preparation for the cleaning lady's visit. We have our own version of cleaning the main floor because company is coming. Our rooms, as private spaces, were exempt. Thank heavens for that, because I always had too many books to impose even a loose semblance of order on them. 

To say that Westboro has changed in the twenty years since we arrived would be a felonious understatement, actionable by anxious realtors. Westboro is transformed, but instead of turning from a sick semi truck into an equally sick anthropomorphic robot, it has turned from a rather run down inner suburb into an apocalypse of gentrification. 

When I was in university I would visit Westboro and play the condo game. I would point at parking lots, used car dealerships and motels of uncertain provenance, and guess how long it would take for them to become condos. They are all condos now, except for the motel, which must be owned by a biker gang because I cannot otherwise explain how it endures behind a brand-new condo tower.

Westboro was never a poor neighborhood; only boring. But I have watched it gentrify and seen it go from a place where people could live boring, affordable lives into a kind of monument to the absurdity of middle-class striving. 

It began with the Mountain Equipment Co-Op. The building was ecologically friendly! It was open concept! It drew aspirational outdoors types out of their cul-de-sacs and second storey walk-ups. And it must have worked some sinister magic on them because they came to transform the neighborhood. And here I am using transform as the same kind of polite, middle class euphemism as 'bowel movement' or 'living outside our means'. 

There are now more yoga studios than I am able to count. First there was a posh Italian restaurant but it has been replaced by a luxe Italian restaurant. There is a store especially for breastfeeding accessories. There are more shops for dogs than for poor people. 

When the first of the new bars opened up in Westboro, I imagined that as pubs proliferated they would come into competition with one another, forcing down prices. This was naive - Westboro operates by a topsy-turvy set of economic laws where businesses compete not by lowering their prices but by raising them. Following a successful book launch I went out with my colleagues at one such bar, and found that we had spent the entirety of our earnings and then some on a few meagre pitchers of mediocre beer.

I have never liked these changes. I am not a posh person. I will buy used what I cannot get for free. I will pack my life into a car sooner than I will spend money on rent. I panic when I see square plates at a restaurant because they mean you are paying for style. I cannot afford to pay for style. 

My parents - eccentric, university educated historians with leftish mores - fit very well into the old Westboro. They were the appropriate kind of shabby-genteel then, and they have grown only a little more respectable with the passage of time. Their house is too full of books. There is more furniture than you would find in the home of someone really modern. Everything looks like it was inherited from a childless Victorian uncle and in many cases, it literally was.

There are corners in this house where the dust has won. Much of the furniture reeks irreversibly of cat pee. The garden does not know if it is ornamental or agricultural but it produces some very acceptable tomatoes every year. Whenever my parents set out to de-clutter, they succeed only in shifting the clutter around. There are boxes of my deceased grandfather's pension performance statements, as well as his childhood toys. 

It is a house for people who live a life of the mind, supplemented by an irresponsibly large cheese budget. It is the kind of house where you grow up without realizing that you are rich because you have not yet been subjected to the brazen daylight robbery of a university book store, and so you do not realize that every bookshelf represents hundreds if not thousands of dollars. 

It was not a perfect childhood home although I think those faults belong to the inhabitants rather than the structure. But it has been an oasis of a kind of unaffected post-Victorian WASPishness for the sort of socialist who hangs a portrait of the late Empress of India while deploring her politics. I have moved from basement suite to roach-infested hellhole without a care in the world because my home has always been here.

But things slip away from us bit by bit. History has a nasty trick of moving whether we mark its passage or not. And so my neighborhood has been overrun by feral packs of yuppies, resplendent behind their luxury prams and immaculately groomed beards. They coo and preen and delight in the cultured decadence of a neighborhood with not one but TWO roof-top patios on which they may sip caesars and discuss pension prospects, mountain biking and the ever-present bugbear of the Phoenix pay system.

Even my parents feel pushed out. They have picked a very fine Victorian home in the country where they can shed their boomerang offspring and finally live in the kind of sentimental gentility that middle class socialists love - surrounded by books and thoughtful people. I can't blame them for wanting to get away.

But it is very strange to come home and see that room by room, our house is losing its excess furniture. That cardboard boxes, having sat unopened on shelves for twenty years, are suddenly hurried away into storage. That the dust and the spiders, too comfortable in their long entente with my parents, are being chased away by the astringent chemicals of the cleaning woman. 

The house is to be sold by a 1980s ski villain with lopsided blond hair. He has told them to take down everything personal - paintings, keepsakes and family photos - and they reluctantly comply. He tells them they will get more than twice what they paid for it, and this seems definitely immoral to my parents. They were hoping to get out of the rental market and maybe have something to retire on. They did not set out to be speculators.

But my parents belong to a different world: an era of steady government jobs, robust social democratic institutions and a boundless optimism that the horizons of rights, freedoms and prosperities would go on expanding in every direction. They have grown up and grown old with a faith in the value of our civilization.

But that world - by no means universal at its height - is falling into the widening gap between rich and poor. Either you are programming apps that put taxi drivers out of work or you are doing the job of a taxi driver with none of the expertise or security. Either you are sub-renting six apartments on AirBNB or you are living in a decaying SRO in some converted hotel. As I said - the logic of the economy in these places is topsy-turvy.

I don't fit in this new version of my parents' house - without clutter or character. It is so depersonalized that I am not even sure of my own personhood. It all seems to cry 'abandon ship' and of course, that is exactly what they intend. But their new home in the country is a retreat into a sentimentalized ideal of their own childhoods, just as their house is a sentimentalized ideal of my own. I cannot retreat into an interbellum nostalgia haunted by the ghosts of Victorian idealism. And I have no hope of hiding any longer in my own childhood, now in the process of being sold out from under me.

When I was growing up I believed the pendulum would swing back. That the world would return to how it was. Stability and government jobs will be had by all, or at least, all of us who live in the first world. I would have a pension and summers in Europe and great comfort in knowing that I was not alone in prosperity. In short, I imagined that the Bush-Harper years were ephemeral, that 9/11 and all its children were a bad but fleeting dream.

But here we still are. The gap between rich and poor keeps growing. The shackles of the security state tighten around our wrists. Pop songs get simpler and louder and we dance harder because we know we need to keep moving. But what are the movements? 

Good riddance to Westboro. Everything I loved about it died a long, slow death. I cheered its death but now the corpse begins to rot and I realize what I was celebrating. I do not want to hang on at the periphery of some colony of the rich in a swamp of urban blight. I am not going to live in a poured concrete box in the sky. 

The death of Westboro is the story of my past. The sale of my childhood home is the ending of that story. But it's time for new stories. Stories about doing things differently, not longing for the past. Stories about pushing back instead of giving up. Stories about winning because do we even know what winning feels like? 

I want to make sure that all of you do, so I promise to tell all the stories I hear. You just have to promise to keep living them.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Greenhouse - A Poem

        Two years ago I was living, if you could call it that, in a run down Victorian rooming house in Parkdale, Toronto. In a typical month I made about $500, which was just enough to cover my food and rent. I had moved to the city to make it as a freelance writer and if by making it, you mean sitting in a bathrobe all day while shouting at Craigslist spammers through my monitor, I had definitely done so.
       When I saw a job ad promising to pay writers for reviews of social justice comics, I didn't believe it. Then I did believe it and persuaded myself that the job was obviously going to go to someone more qualified than me. It didn't, of course, and next thing I knew I had this amazing job.
       More than that I had this beautiful, funny, energetic boss who was perfectly happy to sit across from me in greasy spoons pouring pitchers of cheap beer and spooling mediocre udon noodles around her chopsticks. As we learned about one another I felt inwardly nervous as I noticed how impossible it was to ignore her charm and beauty. But a fella needs to eat, so for the most part, I put it out of my head.       It turned out that I wasn't the only one who felt this way. And if I could pretend the first few signs of her interest were drunken indiscretions, it soon crossed a threshold where there was no ignoring that she was every bit as taken with me as I was with her. Which would have been awkward, falling for your boss, even if she wasn't married.       
       But she was married, and to a good sort of fellow. And so I didn't know exactly what to do with the increasingly obvious romantic tension. I reached a point of feeling like I could no longer feign disinterest. But in the circumstances, I couldn't quite say what I meant. And so I set about to dance along the lip of disaster. To veil my confession in poetry. I wrote Nicole three poems that spring. This is one of them.

"Greenhouse"
Traced in steam on walls of glass
Lyrics to a summer song
Promise that this chill shall pass
That we might feel the sun

Gentle touches turn rich soil
Sequestering seeds in darkness
Will blossoms soon reward our toil
Beneath these hothouse panes?

Beading dew on leaves and skin
Is nourishment, as much as sin
Urging us, give up, give in
It gathers on our lips

Planters overflowing find
They cannot quite contain
Green shoots that long for sunlight
Deep roots that thirst for rain

If thorns should prick our fulsome flesh
And branches droop with ripened fruit
I’ll prune those roses, full and fresh
With patient, longing fingers

Beyond our foggy window walls
Cold licks its lips and snaps its jaws
Snow in its constellations falls
And nothing green may grow

Will heat and light and love suffice
To shut the slavering jaws of ice
That grip us in that frosty vice
If we dare to step outside

Only time, it seems, may decide

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Tarnish - A Poem


'Tarnish'

Into my downstairs 'loo
Some ambitious soul has crammed
A three piece bathroom set

In pride of place we face
'Gold' tap and polished handles
Finest in ersatz extravagance

Except...

Creeping up its spout
In teal swirls
And turquoise whirls
Tarnish has turned out

Not for me the dainty trim
Floral wallpaper wilting under track lights
Its 70s aesthetic makes my head swim
When in I stagger drunkenly on wine corroded nights

It's the difference of the damage though that draws me
How discoloration spreads a merry discord
It's the unintended deviance that awes me
In damage, not design, does beauty dwell



Friday, April 1, 2016

Hope is Everything – But It Is Not Enough

          Some months ago, on Martin Luther King Day, I happened to be in Savannah, Georgia. A land of rolling hills and low, humid swamps, Georgia was at the heart of the civil rights movement. The late Dr. King was born in Atlanta where today the grand old lion of the movement, John Lewis, sits for 5th Congressional District. It is also where, last week, a gay couple were viciously attacked with boiling water. It is where a so-called 'religious freedom restoration' act was passed through the state legislature; a bill that would have allowed religious organizations to discriminate against sexual minorities. It was vetoed by the governor at the last minute after warnings of withdrawal from the film industry.
          So this Georgia, where I found myself in January, is no stranger to struggle. It must be exhausted. The resources of the community certainly so when, the night before the MLK Day march, a little knot of activists gathered for a candlelight vigil. I watched anxiously as our crowd, close to half white in a majority black city, fought to keep their candles lit in the wind. Worried as gunshots rang out in the night. The Savannah natives were unmoved – gunshots, they told me, are a part of everyday life.
          I needed to be hopeful. To believe that more people would come. That even the young people hanging around the park would be drawn over to hear the speakers, men and women with decades of experience with struggle in their communities. A few stragglers did wander over. If I was not inspired by the numbers of the crowd, I clung to their tenacity, to their clarity of purpose. I needed it.

          Recently, some comrades from Texas participated in the disruption an oil lease auction for the Gulf Coast. Until we drove across it this winter, I scarcely comprehended the awful damage that the oil industry has done to the coast. All along the Louisiana coast, family shrimping concerns collapsed. Pelican eggs, mangrove roots and hope for the future were all coated in reddish-orange gunk. Houston is an ecological disaster; an amorphous cloud of toxic shit floating unimpeded by the inconvenience of zoning laws over the city's poorest neighbourhoods. It is past time to fight back.
          These comrades, and hundreds of others, marched in the streets of New Orleans outside the lease sale. Their beautiful banners bore slogans like “To Change Everything We Need Everyone” and “Keep it in the Ground.” New Orleans, with its raucous street culture and vibrant history of popular resistance, was the perfect setting for the march and the subsequent invasion of the lease floor.
There is something about the little girl with the 'Solar Doesn't Spill' placard, about the cluster of fists thrust defiantly in the air, that moves the heart. Video footage of the disruption brings the familiar call and response: 'Tell me what democracy looks like!' 'This is what democracy looks like!' The posts on social media reflected the triumphant air of the protest. Activist media coverage gave lots of space to describe the grievances of the protesters, conditions in the region and the energy of the crowd.
          But buried at the bottom of the coverage, in the very last paragraph, was a telling tidbit. The protest did not delay the sales. Oil leases will move ahead as planned. The whole spectacle, the thousands of person-hours and hundreds of dollars on materials that were poured into it, amount to exactly nothing when it comes to stopping the ongoing devastation of the environment. And this is not an isolated case.

          On the left, we are drowning in inspiration porn. The beaming photo of Rojava militiawomen, AKs slung over their shoulders. The teeming crowds on the streets of Paris, Copenhagen, Montreal. The burning copcars and insurrectionary graffitti. The endlessly recycled stream of Soviet Kitsch. Bernie Sanders' Dank Meme Stash. No one is immune.
          I think there is a very practical reason for this. Conditions are dire. Activists intone with somber gravity that the planet will survive even if we do not. The gap between the rich and poor is still growing. There are 39 active conflicts around the world that have claimed more than 100 lives in the past year. This without counting the war on drugs, which has helped to make America the most incarcerated society on earth – nearly 1% of its total adult population.
          We need hope in times like these. It is so easy to slip into the easy, comfortable silence of consumer narcosis. Not only luxury sedans and suburban homes but craft beer and indie shows are a pleasant alternative to the near-futility of resistance. We struggle to find ways to stay consoled while staying conscious. I think the inspiration porn is an understandable human response.
          It is not confined to the internet. We participate in a largely symbolic politics. We protest, petition, write letters and smash windows in pursuit of a better world. We turn out endless protest songs, radical posters with barbed wire and clenched fists, call outs, call ins and god help me, drum circles. But all the while, things are getting worse.

          In short, we need hope. We are bricks and bare fists against billy clubs and rubber bullets. We are Molotov cocktails against smart missiles and land mines. We are hoarse throats shouting ragged against the megaphones of the media. The odds are long and the stakes are high. Without hope, how can anyone keep the faith under such circumstances?
          Not all our challenges are outside our circles. Our communities struggle with addiction. They are ravaged by sexual violence and drained by seemingly intractable struggles with mental health. Many in our movement lack the benefit of institutional memory. It is hard for people who work full time or have children to find a place in our ranks. Simply showing up to meetings to confront this shit can be exhausting before we ever turn our eyes to the world.
          So all the raised fists, defiant chanting and folk punk songs make a lot of sense. They more than make sense. They are medicine. Red lentil soup for the activist soul. We need to be warm inside if we are to face the cold. They are an integral part of the culture that ties us together. I will never forget leaning against a futon in a south Ottawa apartment, beer in hand, singing along to Against Me with a dozen friends. Feeling like I belonged.

          So hope is essential. We are lost without it. We will lose the will to struggle. Hope is everything. But it is not enough.
          I have struggled to find the words to say this with the kindness and maturity the subject requires. I am so lost in my own despair about the future of humanity – a boot stamping on a human face forever in the handful of self-contained domes that persist against a toxic atmosphere. It has made it hard to say what needs saying with the wisdom the topic demands. I hope I will do a little better here.
Hope without reason is an intoxicant. We cannot allow ourselves to believe that our cultural expressions, our symbolic gestures, our spectacular performances are the same thing as resistance. If they were enough, we would be winning. And we are not winning. We are barely hanging on.
          To survive, we must look on each other with warm eyes – with kindness, forgiveness and patience. These are the essential elements of hope, and without hope we are lost. But we must look on our organizing and the fruit it bears with cold eyes and a dispassionate heart. We must scrutinize the outcomes of our struggling mercilessly and without regard for the pain that comes of acknowledging our failure.
          I am not denying that it is painful. To pour your heart into a protest and watch it amount to nothing is to suffer. I remember from the long, cold nights of Occupy. How completely it consumed me – picking up cigarette butts, sparring with reporters, misleading the police. Those long, cold nights were warmed by the embrace of dear comrades and it all felt supremely meaningful. But how little we accomplished!
          And the world has not been shy about saying so. I remember climbing out of a tent at six in the morning to be confronted with the news that 600 used needles had been meticulously planted in the flowerbeds along the perimeter of the park. I remember suicide attempts and Neo Nazis, police violence and asshole libertarians. Did I, as the great majority of the media would have us believe, endure all that for nothing? It is painful indeed to believe it.
          And that's ok. Pain means we are learning. It hurts because we try our hardest and still we fail. So the temptation to confuse our symbolic actions with concrete gains is very great. It dulls the pain of our suffering world. It soothes our troubled hearts. But if we cannot separate our selves from our tactics, we have already lost. If this is what democracy looks like, a ragged minority shouting at the indifferent elite, then hope is a lie.

          We are waging a war of ideas: Black Lives Matter. Israel is an apartheid state. The climate is changing and we have to do something about it. The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. So it is understandable if we are consumed with questions about defining and communicating these ideas.
          But we live in a material world and our ideas are about material realities: Stopping wars. Dismantling fences. Opening daycares. Growing food and sharing it. These are not abstract, mystical notions. They are practical objectives. They can be measured.
          How many people came to our last meeting? How comfortable did women and people of colour feel in speaking and taking leadership roles? How many people did we feed from our food co-op? How many people did we turn away from that restaurant with our picket? How many people from the community registered their kids in our co-op daycare?
          We aim not only at the spread of our ideas but their implementation. We need to demonstrate that they are possible on a small scale by prefiguring them in our struggles. And where we are opposed to ideas we must move beyond speaking of our opposition and actually manifest it in our actions. Squats show our opposition to private property. Free public meals refuse the puritan logic that the poor deserve to suffer. Blockades and pipeline shut-offs demonstrate our resistance to ecological devastation more effectively than a thousand protests.
          Our interests are in opposition to people in power. Their profit is our peril. We can beg them for salvation, ask permission to be liberated, but they won't give in. We must take power for ourselves – build capacity in everything we do. But as long as we are comforted into complacency by our symbolic actions, we can never accomplish this.

          I am not saying that we should give up on symbolic actions. I am not so callous as to suggest that we should give up the things that make us hopeful. But we cannot treat symbolic action as a narcotic to numb ourselves. We have to be alive to the pain of failure so that we can learn its lessons. So leave your rallies inspired, but don't kid yourselves that they did anything more than lift your spirits.
          I have erred in posing this as an either-or. At least, I should have been clearer. I have seen on my travels that people gain a great deal of hope from their protests, petitions, letters and songs. But I have also noticed how much more energy they gain from their successful projects – how nourished they are by concrete successes. We have grown so dependent on the cheap catharsis of protest that we have forgotten the energy that comes from success, or dare I say it, victory. 

        So let us draw what little hope we can from our grand symbolic gestures. Hope is rare and precious. But let us be honest with ourselves about how little we have accomplished and more importantly, how little we have. We need to build things – farms, houses, union halls and worker co-ops. We need resources if we are going to win this war.
          I'd like to end with another little story. In La Puente, an LA suburb, there is a DIY centre. Our friend took us there telling us it was not an anarchist space but rather was mostly used by people in the community for projects that benefit the community. This not-anarchist space was full of anarchist literature and anarchist art. But what made it important was not its symbolic politics but its practical effect as a community space. It was something they had built together and served as a base of operations for further projects. They did not identify as anarchists, for the most part, but they were putting anarchist ideas into practice.

          Plenty of people are building already. Every sexual assault support centre, collective house, union local and radical magazine represent a concrete contribution to the struggle. But in building our future let's not forget that we must build our hopes on a foundation of sober, critical thinking if we are to have any hope of success. And hope, as I have said, is everything.

Friday, March 25, 2016

What the raven knew

       We left Christina Lake today. It is a kind of paradise if you don't mind being in a place where curry powder is five dollars a bag and the deer won't leave you alone. It was a good time but there are only so many cans of PBR and games of pool one can endure. So today we packed our lives back into our little hatchback and resumed our voyage east.
       I don't like mountains. Shocking, I'm sure. They're alright in the distance, I guess, and if I had to grow my hair long and live as an emaciated ascetic I am sure I'd change my mind. But majestic is not the first word that comes to mind hurtling along winding roads with a 300ft drop and no barricades. Vertigo is probably first, followed by 'Emily Dickinson', as the whole experience makes me want to become a morbid shut-in.
       There was a raven on the highway. It remained still as we raced towards it, pecking with insouciance at some used-up roadkill. Nicole couldn't bear the thought of hitting it and honked the horn. It waited a moment, looked directly at us, and flew away. Nicole was relieved. I was not.
There was something about the way it looked at me. It knew. It knew what I had seen in the heavy, snowy boughs of the pines that dotted the mountaintop. It knew I would not be able to forget. It won't let me.
       It is very strange to come up out of a valley, where it is spring and you can dump out the compost in your underpants and a loose-fitting sweater,is to a mountaintop where it is very obviously still winter. I am not sure how people live near mountains. Or on the prairies, for that matter, where the horizon meets the sky and you are folded into infinity. Really, what I have learned is where I am from.
       I have seen live oaks sag under Spanish Moss. I have driven over endless marshes on elevated highways. I have watched low trees decline into rolling grasslands before finally collapsing exhausted into loose scrub and sandy earth. I have followed the green hills of California through vineyards and spectacular ocean views and I am struck with the worst kind of realization.
       I have a home. I long with a terrible aching in my heart for the low, rolling hills and thick forests of my eastern Ontario woodlands. I miss my rivers. I need my trees. I had long imagined I had no soul but I understand now that it lives in the leaves and vines, the creeks and streams, of my home. All my dreams of leaving Canada to settle somewhere else are dashed by this terrible revelation. I am from the Ottawa Valley, and the valley is my home.
       No longer can I sip cooly at a gin and tonic in some run down sub-tropical dive with an air of easy cosmopolitanism. No more may I stride between skyscrapers in the narrow troughs of city streets and imagine that I belong. Gone forever is the giddy thrill of stepping out of the car into a whole new setting, thinking I might make it my own.
       I can make nothing my own for I am owned by the valley. Its ruined mills and hiking trails are the primordial sludge from which my imagination has emerged. In its low marshes, between the steady hum of the mosquitoes and the intermittent percussion of beaver tails breaking the water, I hear a welcome. Even the ostentatious Gothic arrogance and the aloof laziness of poured concrete Brutalism have a home in my heart.
       I am sure that I will make warm acquaintances and fond memories in the Alberta foothills. I don't doubt that I will laugh easily in the dive bars of Saskatchewan. But when we arrive in Winnipeg, where I have been before, it will be unmistakable. Though it is full of family, comrades, old friends and former lovers, Winnipeg will not be home. I will be a visitor, or God forbid, a tourist. I will look at the Red River and think not of Louis Riel but of the Ottawa, and how much broader it is. I will visit the Forks and complain that it isn't the Byward Market. I will arrive at the human rights museum and...
       Just kidding. I'm not going to the human rights museum. It's an infamous disappointment that shys away from calling our colonial genocide what it was. But it will prickle me, the human right museum, because it is a national museum. But it is not in Ottawa. And neither am I.

       That's what the raven knew.  

Thursday, March 24, 2016

What are we fighting for?


       It eats at you. I hate to admit it, but it does. I used to be a person with what is sometimes described as 'a rich inner life', a polite way of calling someone a complete space case. I floated helplessly through my own life diverted by an endless series of whimsies with only a passing interest in the affairs in the world. Socialism was a hobby in the same way that model trains or philately can be a hobby. Diverting. Middle class. Harmless.
       That's quite impossible now. Not a day goes by when I am not worrying about state of the world, about the bleak future of humanity. There is a gnawing anxiety that no matter how many concrete buildings containing powerful people I may shout at, no matter how many open letters I may sign, no matter how many cheeky statuses I may post on social media, it doesn't make a difference. Which is alright, I suppose, because that's true. It doesn't make a difference.
       I would like to say I am totally satisfied to have changed. That like Plato's proposed philosopher I emerged from a cave of delusion into the blinding sunlight of reality. But I no longer see things that once I saw everywhere. Romance... adventure... serendipity? I know the words. Sometimes I even say them aloud as if to persuade myself that they are still a part of my reality. But I can no longer see them and this feels so completely to be a delusion that I have begun to think that outside the cave there is only another cave.
       If the personal is political then what do I have left? It feels as though every thought, feelings and wayward longing is subject to a little internalized clique of Maoist self-criticism. This is not another denunciation of 'identity politics' which Maoists, after all, do not practice. It is just to say that we run the risk of sublimating our subjectivity in our objective political analysis. We cannot stop to smell the roses without thinking of their carbon footprint. We may permit ourselves to wake up and smell the coffee only if it is fair trade and even then, was the barista in a union?
       It is dangerous territory not because the politics are off but because our good politics can be bad for us. If our dazzling analysis blinds us to ordinary human enjoyment, what are we fighting for? I gave up martyrdom when I stopped carrying the cross of imagining I could be like that Semitic carpenter. I am not in this to die for your sins just because I stopped living for mine. Surely there's a middle ground?
       But I am not talking about 'self care' which is still bound up in a matrix of politics and intellectual justification. I am advocating for putting down the apple, sneering at the snake, and walking back into to the garden where we preserve our innocence, if only a little part of it. I am not proposing we give up on fighting for justice but only reminding myself that those who fight monsters become them if they don't stop to remember how to love.
       So I found myself in a forest, on a mountain top, at the lip of a river canyon. Thinking about ten thousand years of humans who had stood there before me. Feeling an aching, apolitical kinship with all of humanity – the cannibals, pirates, heart eaters and colonizers as much as the revolutionaries. We are all of us imperfect little beings clutched to our mother earth by the gravity of the situation. I am tired of thinking of enemies. I have wayward brothers and sisters who have lost their way, the way of kindness and nurturance. I do not want to kill them. I want to lead them back to the warmth of compassion. Maybe that's impossible. But at least we have to try. 
       I am not sure I will live to see a post-political society. Perhaps it will never come. But I would like to believe that one day the spirit of universal kinship and solidarity will permeate our communities so completely that there will be no more struggle. Only romance, adventure and serendipity. But that place is very far away and the things we will do to get there could very easily take our humanity from us. So I think we need to keep a little garden in ourselves where we cultivate a sensibility – a sensitivity - apart from our politics. Of sorority, not solidarity.

       If we are not fighting for that, I fear we will simply be fighting for fighting. If that is so, then what kind of world will we leave to our children?

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Only Human


     I woke up this morning in Pullman, a sleepy college town in eastern Washington where an old friend from Chiang Mai is working on an MA in archaeology. My body hasn't decided if I am hung over yet. It knows I mixed drinks with reckless abandon: gin, tequila, beer and some kind of fuzzy pink shot that arrived unexplained at the table last night. But it knows I buried that booze in fried pickles and litres of tap water so it can't make up its mind.
     I figure I had better make coffee to be safe. In the kitchen there is a hand-written note that says “Every morning we begin again. What we do today is what matters most.” It's pinned to a board by the sink. Good advice. So I am sitting here looking through real estate listings for eastern Ontario and Western Quebec, planning the rest of my life.
     I had meant to write consistently about this drive across the continent. I mean to do a lot of things, though, that never quite seem to happen. I was doing alright until Georgia and then things began happening at such an impossible pace that I found it increasingly difficult to make sense of them, much less turn them into some kind of pop-literary account of my adventures. Burnt-out anarchists in New Orleans, toxic tours in Houston, it all fuses together into this indigestible mass.
     We stopped to camp for three days in Seminole Canyon State Park. You hear about how cold the desert gets at night but it is something else to experience it. But being curled up in a tent underneath a reflective blanket with some dear comrades did recall fond memories of camping in a particular park. And there are more stars than sky out there in the desert. I think if you imagined that every point of light up there was a hope of one of us down here on Earth, you might begin to get the idea.
The thin brush of the plateau and the thick foliage of Seminole Canyon made me wonder at the precarity and tenacity of life. When an ecosystem is full of trees, vines, shrubs and weeds it can be difficult to process how alive it is. But there in the desert I was aware of every snake, rodent, deer and park ranger eking out an existence.
     We've all got to eke out an existence, I suppose. Capitalism makes the world a desert for all of us. If we do not scramble for every wayward crumb and spot of shade we may easily perish. It has always seemed to come unfairly naturally to so many people – to sell their time and labour and give up so much of their lives simply to survive.
     Not me. I have, from when I first became aware of it, felt crushed by the enormity of the prospect – the awful, fatal certainty of the situation. I have the luxury of feeling crushed by feelings or, I should say, the privilege. It didn't feel very much like a privilege when I was young and worried I would end up starving because I couldn't understand how to submit. But when I see the tired eyes of people who haven't enjoyed the privilege of lazing on second hand couches, sucking hookah smoke and discoursing with lazy arrogance about the evils of capitalism, I realize how lucky I have been.

     I'd like to think there is another way. I am not referring to any grand revolutionary project but to building simple, little alternatives to make life easier for the people I know and love. I will have to begin by making an alternative for myself. So here I am, looking up real estate listings while everyone else sleeps off their hangover.
     The question of a rental is all bound up in my upcoming wedding. We would like to have the reception in the country without being bilked by some country club. So we're delusionally hopeful that we can find a half decent farmhouse somewhere quiet enough to make some noise. A spectacle under the stars – dancing and singing and drinking craft beer til everyone falls into the grass to sleep. Or don't worry. We'll put down a tarp, I guess.
     “Put down a tarp” is a funny way to start a marriage. It certainly anticipates having kids, or making a mess. Life is messy. This tour has been messy, for sure. When you are sitting in Silicon Valley looking over your finances and realize that $1,500 needs to magically appear in the next month, the result is not tidy. And when you pass endless hours together in the car, your guts tend to get on the upholstery as you spill them out to one another.
     
     This tour has cemented something I have long suspected about love. Pop songs are almost never about enduring love. They are about infatuation, or new love, or heartbreak. Romantic comedies are very rarely about couples in their forties who have kids in their teens and still have the spark of love very much alive between them. Maybe people do not find these things believable. Or maybe, in a disposable culture, we think that love too must always be something new and shiny.

     But this tour has taught me with a great deal of clarity that love endures. It is not a a sparkling dew drop that evaporates by noon. It doesn't turn into a pumpkin at midnight. Love is in all the forgiveness, understanding, negotiation and little expressions of warmth that we use to say to one another: “I know you're only human. But so am I.”

     What a wonderful, nourishing thing that is. So if today is the most important day of my life then I will try, as I have tried before, to love in that selfless kind of way. I hope you'll do the same.