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.

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


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


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 will 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.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Travel Blog: Savannarchy!

      It wasn't supposed to be like this. Savannah was meant to be a footnote; a waystation on the journey from Altanta to Jacksonville. Andrew had told us how profoundly boring it was. Nicole was worried that she wouldn't have anywhere to set up her computer. I was convinced the place was a sleepy tourist trap. Boy, were we in for a shock!

      Our experience in Savannah has been, if not transformative, at least restorative. All the accumulated cynicism of my post-Occupy years, built up like plaque in the valves of my heart, dissolved. At the risk of sounding a little too enthusiastic, I am forced to admit that our time in Savannah has been a sort of spiritual thaw. I feel capable, at long last, of opening myself up to the world. I am hopeful for the future. None of which I would have believed was possible about a place called 'Savannah Tribe Intentional Community'.

      That's two cringe words right there. I had instant visions of burned out white hippies whose accumulated bad trips had left them unable to do more than cook quinoa and mumble feebly about universal love and togethers. The tie-dye mannequin on the front porch did little to instill confidence in my wary mind. I was all set to disapprove of what I found.
      That should have been the first warning sign. That was just how I went to Occupy, wasn't it? Crossed arms and a disapproving glare at all the disorganized nonsense milling about in front of me. I was so sure that the whole thing would be an unmitigated disaster managed into obscurity by the usual suspects. Next thing I knew I was sitting behind a table sipping hot chocolate and drawing up a list of donations the camp needed to grow. All it took was one invitation to join in snuggles and I was lost forever. So I should have known that my cocky disapproval was a red flag.

      Instead of whatever dismissive fantasy my pessimistic mind could conjure, I found one of the healthiest activist communities I've ever seen, populated by a rich and varied collection of actual human beings. Far from the insularity and groupthink so often characteristic of socially minded communities, Nicole and I wandered unwittingly into a riot of diversity in opinion, taste, background and experience.
      I feel moved to give up writing fiction by the experience. How could I summon up a cast of characters from my imagination who are equal to these real life figures of literary interest? The indigenous mother and house matriarch, trailed inevitably by boisterous children and an incredible history. The weathered Vietnam veteran and ex-priest converted latterly to anarchism by disappointment in Saint Barack. The former tour guide and topless dancer touring around in her motor cycle, her tiny dog swaddled against her chest. I will refrain from elaborating any further on this motley but inspiring crew in the interest of getting on with the article.
      The main point is that this is not your typical group of black-clad 20somethings in the process of sleeping with each other and taking each other's drugs until they fall out over petty jealousies. Here is a group of people diverse in age and background, sharing only an interest in social justice and a belief in anarchism as the vehicle for pursuing it. In the main, they have little notion of anarchist orthodoxies but have very strong anti-authoritarian instincts that serve them better.

      This wonderful community can be found in the sprawling confines of a house down the street from paradise. Beneath the bending bows of old trees stooped by the weight of Spanish Moss, this two-storey mansion has a spacious verandah and balcony fronting it. Savannah is a city of trees and parks, with wide streets shaded by the stooped dignity of live oaks. It is a majority black city in a metro area of some 300,000 people. 30% of people live below the poverty line. The crime rate has risen with poverty and still the public conversation is one about arming the police with assault rifles. Sigh.
      The house at Savannah Tribe (I do still cringe at the name) is an unlikely sort of anarchist HQ. It's all hardwood floors and high ceilings, with a fire pit in the back yard and a kitchen on both storeys. The first floor is home to a living room and public dining room where every week there is an A-Cafe. This is only one of the building's public uses. It also serves as a meeting room for organizing done by folks in this nascent anarchist community.
      Here is a place where 'community' is not just a word for a group of people who see each other at protests. The folks that live in this house are persistent in saying 'hi' to their neighbours, taking the kids down to the local parks, knocking on doors and handing out flyers and otherwise persisting in becoming a part of the community. They do not fret anxiously about how they might be gentrifiers while silently gentrifying the community. They are doing their insistent damndest to put down roots. That is not an easy thing to do. It is an ideal anarchists aspire to when they set up shop in poor communities – an ideal that is seldom realized. It was inspiring to see it in Savannah.

      Inspiration is a good word for our experience. You have hopefully already seen our comic about the Martin Luther King candlelight vigil we attended. It was small but folks from the neighbourhood came by and spoke their piece after the planned speakers. When was the last time you saw that happen at an activist event? And I don't mean some flake took the megaphone and laid some ridiculous trip about 9/11 being an inside job. People from the community spoke plainly about their frustrations and what they saw as possible solutions. Yeah, that's inspiring.
      So too was the MLK march. We arrived early on a cool morning, picking our way through a sea of floats representing Baptist churches, white Bernie supporters and tax accountants (you can't have change without change, apparently). Then we crossed over the parade grounds to find our people. We moved through crowds of soldiers, cadets and marching band uniforms. The panoply of American militarism was on display on this the most inappropriate of days. What would the late Dr. King have made of the army's presence, noted pacifist that he was?
      But there between the cheerleaders and law students was our little knot of activists with a coffin containing King's dream, and a banner: The system isn't broken, it's designed this way. Little by little I talked myself into cheering up in spite of desperately needing to pee. Then the march got going and I saw that it passed past endless city blocks lined with black folks in portable chairs. There we were in an endless serpent of apolitical or overtly conservative appropriations of King's radical legacy. I was very self conscious as a white person in a group that a little more than half white, there in the middle of that overwhelmingly black parade. I began to feel nervous – did we really belong there?
      Nicole noticed first that people would catch sight of the coffin and nod solemnly in agreement. Then I noticed people began to raise their fists and cheer as we went by. As the chants got more confrontational (No justice, no peace, no racist police) people grew more enthusiastic about our passing. It's hard to read a crowd you're passing by so quickly. If I had to guess I feel like people must have felt some type of way about this thoroughly apolitical event commemorating the life and work of a deeply political man. Maybe they saw in our imperfect, inadequate little display of militancy an echo of that memory. I hope so, anyway.
      That doesn't happen in Canada, as most of you know. Crowds don't turn out for political marches most of the time and when they do, people tend to stand there staring or filming on their cameras. The raised fists and supportive cheers are still echoing around my heart. It's been four years since the last time I felt that way. It was a good feeling.

      I should end on a personal note. Georgia is separated from the coast by a chain of barrier islands. Tybee Island is the one outside Savannah. Nicole and I drove out there to walk down the mostly empty beach. There on the boardwalk, grumbling about the price of food in tourists districts, we got engaged. Nicole proposed, of course, that's only proper in this modern world of ours. But we are very excited to plan a mostly DIY wedding and to see all the lovely people we have met on this trip, and those we left at home, in August 2017. I'm writing this in the cool afternoon air of a New Orleans Sunday and thinking to myself how sweet home will be. See y'all in May.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Goodbye, Atlanta

It is easy to get so caught up in life that one forgets to write about it. I never really forget, though, not completely. It is a sort of gnawing guilt in the back of my mind that I somehow owe it to the world to tell them about the waffles I ate and the adventures I had. I think this is part of the necessary narcissism of the writer – even if you are producing fiction, you are spilling so much of yourself onto the page that it is an inescapably vain pursuit.

Atlanta was very good to us. Our host, Andrew, is a model of southern hospitality. Maybe not a perfect model, since many southerners I have met assure me that it masks a lot of nasty prejudice. Andrew doesn't have any prejudice, except against liberals, and frankly who can blame him? We stayed amidst the high trees of his suburban Decatur apartment block. The earth is a deep red there, stained by iron in the soil. It has a primeval feeling even in the midst of the city which one does not often find.

Atlanta sprawls. Its skeletal system is MARTA, the private train service that runs along the four cardinal directions, and the 285 highway that runs a perimeter around the outside of the city. The terrain is impossibly hilly and downtown often hides behind the tall trees. It is very like Toronto in some ways – a major transit hub, host to a thriving film industry and migrant communities from all over the world. But it did not seem to be a city of neighbourhoods in the same way, preferring a model of winding suburban streets cut up by major roads lined with restaurants and places of worship. The streets follow no plan whatsoever and the very concept of urban design seems quite alien to the city.

We were lucky enough to be taken down to the coast to meet a friend of Andrew's, who runs an Autonomous Research Institute for Social Ecology and Direct Democracy. Andrew laments that if his friend had left off the last part, it would have ARISE for an acronym. Regardless, we were forced to arise early to drive down to Saint Augustine, Florida in order to see the museum built on the former site of Fort Mose. 
This is the first free black settlement in North America. Incited by the Spanish to abandon servitude and embrace material freedom in exchange for conversion to Catholicism, many enslaved Africans made a new life for themselves as guards at the border of Spanish Florida. Although it was eventually burned, records of Fort Mose survive, and the museum there bears witness to a fascinating but little known chapter in the history of black liberation struggles here on Turtle Island.
I had my own liberation struggle later when I tried to free myself from the torpor brought on by eating at two buffets in a row. There is literally no end to the things that Americans will fry in batter, coat in chocolate or cover in sprinkles. I don't know how anyone manages to feel patriotic about a country that is very obviously trying to kill you every time you sit down for dinner. But it is a delicious way to die, I will grant them.

We returned to Atlanta to enjoy the company of a technophobic pal who works at Atlanta Vintage Books. This is a sprawling new and used book store in the suburbs where you can buy a copy of 'Drawing the Line: Indian Women Fight Back' if you are into that sort of thing. Our friend also curates an increasingly impressive radical literature collection / infoshop. If you are in Atlanta you should stop by to check it out and rub your face against one of the six cats who live there. Unless you are allergic to cats, in which case I am not sure what you really have to live for.

Everywhere we go, anarchists have cats! It is wonderful. Hemmingway said that cats were natural anarchists and that is the only thing he ever wrote that seemed true to me. Beast, Andrew's cat, was a surly colossus who couldn't stand the sight of a coffee mug or cereal bowl on any surface other than the floor. He bore the numerous indignities of being manhandled by disrespectful apes with scowling severity. 
Life is not all cats, though. We did two events while we were in Atlanta. The first took place at an Indian restaurant where Nicole presented on 'Drawing the Line: Indian Women Fight Back'. This was hosted by Raksha, a South Asian women's group which works with survivors of domestic violence. There was a very spirited discussion of the role comics can play in outreach and education and also samosas. Life is good.

The other was a panel discussion on the role of comics in changing the world, with Nicole, Joseph R Wheeler III, the founder of Onyxcon (an Atlanta comic con devoted to comics by and about the African diaspora) and Dawoud Anyabwile, creator of 'Brotherman'. Although it was an altogether lively affair, the highlight was a story where Dawoud described spending years collecting Marvel comics only to burn them all in his fireplace when confronted with their racist depiction of black characters. In hindsight, he noted, he ought to have kept and sold them.

That is a good metaphor, though, for this trip. Sometimes it is important to give up material things, things of great value, in order to save your soul. Nicole and I could be a little bit better at this, as anyone who looks in our overstuffed car is likely to observe. But to shed our apartment, much of our furniture and even our beloved comics collection has helped to liberate us. The things we own, even the good things, ultimately weigh us down. Whatever their value, there is something liberating in casting them aside and taking flight.

I used to say I wanted to travel because it was the best way to know the face of God. I am not sure I believe in any Gods. But to look on the face of the world: to run my hands over its gnarled bark, crush seashells underfoot, breathe deep the fresh sea air, cringe at parasite infested Spanish Moss and cover my face in its barbeque sauce? It is all to know the Earth, and in a world where we make our own meaning, that is meaning enough for me.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Urgent – Requires Immediate Attention

January 1, 2016
Atlanta, Georgia.

       Meet the New Year. Same as the old year. Last night I stuck my head out a skylight and watched fireworks spread across the skyline of downtown Atlanta accompanied by the echoing booms that bring them. This is a city of six million people, one of the busiest urban centres in North America. As I watched the fireworks, I imagined the teeming crowd at Five Points, watching them as though nothing had changed. As though much of the United States hadn't been flooded in torrential downpours, rocked by unusual earthquakes or – in the case of the Southwest – covered in unseasonable snows.

       It's a funny thing, I thought, our capacity for denial. That the signs our world is changing forever are all around us and we may not survive, but we go on setting off our fireworks and drinking our cheap champagne like the world never changed. George Bush told us more than 10 years ago that if we didn't go shopping, it meant the terrorists had won. I guess that people have embraced this message with gusto – even the most radical among us carry on for the most part as if it's not all about to come crashing down around us. Where is the sense of urgency that should shatter routine? Why don't we fight like our lives are at stake? They are.

       I am reminded of an exchange I saw in the midst of the folly of Occupy Montreal. A tattooed career criminal, his shaved head inked with abstract designs, was rebuking a former carpenter. 'Go home', he was telling him in French, 'be with your children, they're the most important thing.' But the former carpenter – he had thrown all his tools into the sewer when he came to Occupy – refused. 'I am here exactly because of my children. What kind of a future will they have if I do nothing?' That urgency was everywhere at Occupy and for a brief, fleeting, beautiful moment, I thought it might carry the day.

       Of course, it did not, and things returned to business as usual. Occupy naifs learned to sharpen their knives and stick them in the backs of their comrades with all the self-righteous treachery of the rest of the left, or they didn't last long. Many of those old friends are in a kind of anguished hiding, conscious of the condition of the world but unengaged in any struggle to change it because it is hard to know where they fit in. I can't really blame them.

       Driving across the continent is a good reminder. There is something poignant about the burned out houses and abandoned factories. Here is a country that has exported war to every corner of the earth. A country that hasn't seen a war on its own soil for 100 years or more. But a country where the cities are blighted, people are starving and the land itself is poisoned. All because they make war on themselves to turn a profit and preserve the rule of the powerful.

       It's not so obvious when you are sitting in a Waffle House poking at the greasy mound of American processed cheese, jalapenos and shredded potatoes you decided to have for breakfast. It is an entirely normal experience, filtered through a faint gauze of surreality. The ruin of America is easier to see from the road, where every mile brings a fresh scene of devastation. This a country at war with itself.

       Canada has traditionally done a little better but it is certainly catching up. From Chemical Valley to the tailings ponds of Alberta, to the mighty roar of raw sewage rushing into the Saint Lawrence, we are poisonining our own lands. With tasers and starlight tours, we are making war on our own people. With every new trade deal we are promising to submit to exploitation at the hands of the free trade arbitration boards that have served us poorly in the past. 

       I ate half a tub of chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream in the past couples days. This is separate from the milkshakes, coca-cola, sweet tea, southern barbeque and cream puffs that have assaulted my innards. Is it nihilism? More of a coping mechanism. I am giving up drinking. Three weeks in Champaign nearly killed me and not just because of Miller High Life, the Champagne of Beers. My liver is not interested in a vacation. It insists that I switch careers entirely.

       We're all coping. We're all kidding ourselves about the magnitude of the problem. I know this must be true because if we could grasp it completely we would not content ourselves to glue signs to sticks and wave them in the general direction of the powerful. We would not content ourselves with symbolic gestures but throw ourselves into whole-hearted, full-throated revolt. When I was staying still it was easy to deceive myself.

       But now that I am travelling I am painfully aware. It is not only America that I'm watching pass me by. It's our future. Luckily, I am in DeKalb County, where they have everything, I'm told. So I'm fixing to go looking for a revolution. If I find one, I'll holler at y'all.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Travel Blog Slog - Goodbye, Champaign

Today is Christmas, a day that I think should be about family. I have not always been about family. Even by the standard we apply to teenagers, I was a very selfish teenager. When I was 18, I imagined that I was in love with a very clever young woman with sunken eyes, an angular hair cut and directorial aspirations. We watched the sun come up on her very last day in Ottawa, and then she was gone. When a chance came to drive to Wisconsin to camp by her family's summer cottage, I leapt at the opportunity.

I rounded up as many friends as were willing to join me on this fool errand and we set out with my father and little sister across the endless sprawl of stunted pines that defines so much of Northern Ontario. We were only a few hours past Sudbury when my father took a phone call that would put an end to the trip. My grandfather had been hit by a car. He was in the hospital. We needed to go home.

It's not accurate to say he was hit by a car, actually. In fact, he was caught under the wheels of a taxi as it rolled down a hill without its parking brake. He was dragged several blocks and sustained friction burns on much of his body. He was helping my grandmother out of the car when the car started to roll. As they loaded his stretcher into the ambulance, he said “Take care of my wife. Call my daughters.” Those were his last words.

My first response to this news was to ask if I could go on to Wisconsin on my own, somehow. I was so stupidly consumed by infatuation that I saw none of the seriousness of the situation. Maybe I didn't want to see it. I was young and thought that everything lived forever or at least until it got boring. But I was made to accept that I had no way of going on alone. This was just as well. The young woman I was traveling to see had already fallen in love with a friend of her sister's.

I spent the drive back to Ottawa sinking deeper and deeper into a self-pitying mire. My epic romance – a romance that existed almost entirely in my mind – had been severed. I still saw nothing of the seriousness of the situation. Old people, in my mind, had accidents. They went to the hospital. I don't think I had really registered that my grandfather might die. That was before I saw him in the hospital, covered in friction burns and scars from various surgeries, a respirator over his face. That was the last time I ever saw him alive.

When we got back to the house and my father unloaded the car, I went upstairs to find my mother sitting in their bedroom with the blinds pulled. My mother is a woman with a titanium will but she looked shaken. Drained. Vulnerable. I hugged her and told her that her father was proud of her and everything that she had done, and that he loved her. For the first time in my life I felt like an adult. And I understood the importance of family.

I understood it a little better when I saw my normally jovial, unbeatable uncle weeping for his father in law at the funeral. I saw it in the then-ressurected memory of my dad crying when his own father had died; very nearly the only time I had ever seen him cry. I understood how fragile we all are and how desperately we all need each other to face the world.

This is a thing it can be hard to see in the everyday. When we are fighting over directions or where to go for dinner or whose turn it is to put the laundry on we may not realize how much we mean to one another. Maybe there is no saying so. But family is so very, very important. And so I count myself lucky to have spent these past few weeks in Champaign with Nicole's family. After all, if I am lucky, they are to be my family too.

This trip is supposed to be an adventure and three weeks in Champaign, Il. are not an adventure; not even a stimulating outing. The town sometimes seems like an endless sprawl of steakhouses and submarine sandwich chains. It has the same kind of cute little downtown a dozen other college towns have. It also has a barber shop covered in newspaper clippings devoted to the college's racist mascot. Where men advise each other that they should keep that gay sounding story to themselves or people might get the wrong idea. Where you are advised that if your back hurts, that nice Oriental man Mr Sung or whatever it is does pretty good acupunture, but don't let him sign you up for a payment plan, that's how they getcha.

There have been bright spots. When you are waiting to pick your niece up from kindergarten, you don't expect to see a dude in an IWW hoodie. You certainly don't expect an invitation to address a gender studies class. If someone tells you that you're going to drop by the Catholic Worker house and meet a fellow worker whose grandfather was in the Wobblies and who was a Boston punk in the 80s, you probably laugh in their face. This is Champaign, after all. But there are extraordinary things in even the most ordinary seeming places.

We are not in Champaign for the extraordinary moments, though. We are here because this where Nicole's family is. There is nothing extraordinary about cutesy card games or Miller Lite or 'A Very Murray Christmas Special'. Not when you take them one at a time. But all together, bound by the glue of cheeky exchanges and drunken bonding moments, they congeal into the best kind of love you'll know.

Heady notions of impossible romance may push you across hundreds of miles. The idea of the 'one' may intoxicate you til you can barely stand to be apart from the object of your desire. But the best love is the love of family. I mean the love of kinship, however you understand it. Between all the snapping, grumbling, veiled insults and snide remarks, beneath the restlessness and impatience, is love. Not the heady love that you see in blockbuster romantic comedies starring Hugh Grant's immacutely coiffed 'do and Julia Roberts' perfect smile.

The love where the blinds are drawn and you come face to face with your mortality. The love where you realize how fragile it all is, and how desperately we really do need each other. The love we quote too often at weddings and not enough at funerals:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”


Oh, and Merry Christmas, everyone.