Unreal city: a black hole of dazzling light

A picture of the unreal city at night.

I remember the moment, but I can’t place it in time.

We were returning to Waterloo from Toronto. It was night. The stream of lights heading east on the 401 was an endless milky way.

It struck me: behind each set of quivering headlights, there was at least one person. It struck me: on one side of this narrow strip of highway, heading east towards a moderately-sized metropolitan city, there was a galaxy of human experience, unique distinct breathing and, like me, living at the centre of its own universe. It struck me.

At high school in Ottawa, I remember it often felt like I was surrounded on all sides by unknown, colourless, cardboard people, who reappeared over and over again like the recycled backgrounds of a low-budget cartoon. Many years later and long after the moment of dread on the highway heading west from Toronto to Waterloo, it struck me: I was as colourless and unreal to the unknown others as they were to me.

I now live in Toronto, a city as unreal as Eliot’s. From my window, I see towers and towers of existences. When I walk to and from work, there is always a hornet’s nest of activity. When I shop within minutes of my home, I see faces that I know I will never see again. Like a shovel of dirt from a wild and healthy field, these few blocks of my existence are teeming with life.

If I reflect for too long on the scale of life in this city and on this planet, it obviates me. If I focus instead on the energy, colours and details of this urban microcosm, I am dazzled by it all, and happy to play the role of cardboard cutout to the unknown universes of life booming and buzzing around me.

Oh, unreal city, at the centre of a black hole where all light is trapped, could it be as dazzling as this?

The lottery of life: the not-so-secret to my (sort of) success

Believe it or not, I have spent much of my life not fully aware that fitting-in and ingratiating oneself to a group is the key to success.

I understood, of course, that currying favour was a thing that people did to succeed, but I probably thought (or hoped) that it wasn’t a necessary condition of success. It has finally truly dawned on me that social acceptance is the key driver of everything we humans do or don’t do, whether we are successful or not.

Because this now seems to me to be such an obvious and simple truth, I can’t help but wonder — out loud, of course — why it took me so long to figure it out. The answer to that question also now seems pretty obvious too: privilege.

I was able to overlook the very obvious and essential role of social acceptance in human achievement only because I am a white, able-bodied, cisgendered, heterosexual, settler male who is reasonably tall. Society is pretty much designed to accept people who look and talk like me. It is baked right into the system. To be accepted, I only need to exist. As a result, it was very easy for me to take it for granted. Like fish everywhere, I overlooked the very stuff I was awash in.

It also occurs to me that I have been able to play out my adolescent fantasy of being a L’etranger-philosopher-king-without-a-cause only because of that baked in social acceptance. I can “take risks,” “blaze my own path,” and “speak truth to power” precisely because I’m not really ever putting myself at risk. Society has always got my back.

At this point, I can imagine one totally reasonable response to this “discovery” and my decision to share it: “Well done, Dr. Privilege, you finally figured out what people have been telling you for decades. What do you want? A hero biscuit?”

I hope not. My aim here — I think — is to acknowledge the lottery that I have won simply by being born. I also want to flag the idea of privilege for people who might be similarly naive. If I overlooked the full impact of privilege in my life — and I am a reasonably well-attuned to issues of social justice — I’m sure that I’m not alone. We all have our blind spots, I suppose.

If the concept of privilege is new to you, this is a good introduction:

Privilege 101: A Quick and Dirty Guide

If the concept is familiar to you and you know some good introductory resources, please share them below. I am sure I have more to learn.

Another utterly mundane conclusion: my place in our history

Some of my ancestors were Irish, but I am not Irish.

Some of my ancestors were Indigenous, but I am not Indigenous.

That is the utterly mundane conclusion I have reached, after reflecting for some time on the history and heritage of my ancestors.

I may be a product of their genetic material, their choices, and their histories, but my identity is not their identity, and my community is not their community.

I am that I am because of the life I have lived and the communities I have been a part of, and I have never been a part of a Irish or an Indigenous community.

So what am I?

I am Canadian, I suppose. I was born in Canada. I am recognized by the state as Canadian, and other Canadians recognize me as Canadian. I have benefited tremendously from my membership in this community, and I have contributed to it as well.

True, I have no particular attachment to the Canadian community, broadly construed, or to what is sometimes said to be our Canadian identity, but my personal feelings are irrelevant.

Membership in a community isn’t determined by the feelings one has for it. It is determined by the relationships one forms and maintains. I may not feel any particular affinity for my community, but it does not change the fact that I am a part of it.

Until I am rejected by Canadians or accepted by some other community, I am Canadian, a settler, and all that it entails — for better and for worse.

Disco Polo Music: a reminder from Warsaw

I’m in Warsaw, Poland. A world apart. One more world apart. One of many.

I have discovered Disco Polo Music. I am entranced by its congenial, hyper-sexualized tribalism. It evades banality because it is paradigmatic, pure, and distilled.

A minority linguistic community created and championed this style of music because it mirrored and championed the minority linguistic community.

I am reminded: it is Disco Polo Music all the way day.

*

On the train from Berlin, I passed through lives and worlds and histories. Hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions: full, complete and unencumbered by my existence.

As I watched the vast flat fields and imagined the millions of men and women who have marched east west, west east, and back again, I felt and knew and saw the futility of living a life in the hope of being a story in future histories.

I am reminded: writing is hubris — but so what? From the perspective of history, living is too.

*

Some time ago, I diligently journaled every day for a year. It was stream-of-conscious, pure and distilled.

Some time after, I reread it, hoping for insight. Instead, it was mundane, banal, repetitive.

At the time, I was disappointed. It amounted to so little. Now, I understand that it had provided an important insight.

Without the discipline of an audience, real or imagined, my thoughts, my mind, my identity, they are mundane, banal, repetitive.

I am reminded: there is no value without valuers and fame is its prophet.

*

I sometimes think that my conversion to atheism was the ultimate career-limiting move.

There is nothing I have written or thought or done that couldn’t have been dressed up in the clothing of theology — and, in so doing, groomed it for a vast community eager for meaning.

Even now, I could dress up my words, thoughts and ideas in the comforting clothes of theology. My actual beliefs are irrelevant to the meaning that others draw from my words. Writing in the name of God would be no more false or untrue than the plausible deniability of fiction and the implausible truth of non-fiction. It would be a lie no worse and no better than the lie at the heart of everything.

I am reminded: I am that I am.

In the mirror of history: a reflection of colonialism

220px-frankensteins_monster_boris_karloffNine months ago, I finally understood that I am one of the Adams of our planet’s colonial history. The penny dropped when I realized, thanks to an Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, that the English first perfected the tricks of their colonial trade in Ireland long before they plagued the shores and lands of Turtle Island. Colonialism, I realized, defined and disfigured the lives of my ancestors on both sides of the Atlantic. It is the warp and woof of my identity too.

Today, I’m reflecting on this new self-understanding at the Rosemount Public Library in Hintonburg, a gentrified and gentrifying neighborhood in Ottawa, our nation’s capital. I sit at the very same worktable where, twenty-eight years ago, I did my homework or read one of the very many books I borrowed from these shelves. The cozy children’s section seems to me to be almost unchanged. The front desk, the adult fiction and nonfiction stacks, and the worktables are located exactly where I remember them too. There are computers now instead of card catalogs and a few other concessions to the latest technologies, but the geography of this place is exactly as I remember it.  

From the age of ten to sixteen, Rosemount Public Library was my land and territory. It was in these book stacks that I found the words, ideas, and culture with which I would compose myself. I started in the children’s section, moved on to the young adult section, and eventually found myself, perhaps a little too quickly, in the adult section. I easily remember The Great Brain series, everything by Gordon Korman and Judy Bloom, the Dragonlance series, David Eddings, Michael Moorcock, Alan Dean Foster, The Chocolate Wars, Agatha Christie, Ian Fleming, Not Wanted on the Voyage, George Orwell, and Kurt Vonnegut. There are a host of other books and authors lost to my memory, but they are all preserved somewhere in the thicket of my identity.

Growing up, I thought of myself proudly as the “Great Canadian Mutt” because I was an uncertain mix of Irish, French, Algonquian, and, possibly, Scottish. Canadians, as any Canadian will tell you, don’t have much of anything like an assertive national identity. We have a few positive totems, like hockey, universal healthcare, and peacekeeping, but, for the most part, Canadians define themselves through negation. Not-American. Not-European. Not-as-bad. Not-as-radical. In a way, I thought of myself as the prototypical Canadian because I had no ties to any culture or history. I was a not-anything.

My pride evaporated and my identity was turned on its head when I read An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, a book I stumbled across during an online catalog search at the Rosemount Public Library. Thanks to that book, I realized that my white-washed, ahistorical, acultural, and English-speaking identity is the very aim of English colonialism and has been ever since Henry II first asked the Pope for permission to conquer the pagans of Ireland. The colonial wave that swelled in Ireland surged westward across an ocean and engulfed Turtle Island, clearing the lands of its peoples, languages, cultures, and communities.

Raised in the thick cultural vacuum of colonialism, I had thought of myself as the high watermark of our progressive liberal democracy because, despite being raised on welfare by a single and very unwell mother, I am well-educated and unencumbered by any particular culture or history. Now, I realize, thanks to An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, that I am, in fact, the nadir of our colonial history. I have a language, a culture, and a history, but they tie me to no one and no one to me.

I am, nevertheless, white and assimilated, as the colonizer intended. I’m also a heterosexual cis male. The perks and privileges that come of my skin, gender, sexual orientation, and assimilated identity are tangible but, ultimately, empty — a sugary substitute for that which the colonizer has always intended to take from people like me. The ties of community that bind us — land, language, and a shared identity — also empower us to stand against those who are driven by domination and exploitation. Once the ties of community are severed, the acultural human is isolated, vulnerable, and, at best, a complacent and easily replaced cog in the colonial machine.

It’s fitting, I think, that I came to understand the true nature of my colonized identity through a history of the United States. Canadians have long resisted, cherished, and exploited the kid brother persona we have adopted for our national identity. We like to define Canada against our swaggering sibling to the south because it allows us to characterize ourselves as a peaceful middle power that took a less assertive and destructive path on our long colonial march from ocean to ocean to ocean. Admittedly, Canada’s genocidal habits have been slightly more subtle, but they have been as destructive, devastating, and detestable. Our collective capacity to ignore our shared colonial history is almost too much for me to believe, but I then remind myself that I was only able to see my own place in that history when I caught a glimpse of it reflected in the broken mirror of America’s colonial history. Some truths, it seems, can only be caught out of the corner of one’s eye.

I can’t overstate my gratitude to the Rosemount Public Library. It was and remains vital to the slow and steady excavation and reconstruction of my identity. I’m also certain, nevertheless, that it was and remains vital to my identity only because my family, broken by hundreds of years of colonial history, had no land, language, stories, or culture of their own to share with me. I also suspect that I am not the only person, young or old, who has found refuge, identity, and hope in the cultural commons of a public library like Rosemount. It is my hope, I guess, that some of them, after this glimpse into the broken mirror of my colonial history, might catch — out of the corner of their eye — a glimpse of the truth of their own place in our colonial history.

Two Lines of History: Parallel or Converging?

img_20150130_213626By blood, I am much more Irish than I am Indian.

My paternal grandparents, as far as I know, were both Irish. My father described himself as Irish. His surname, which I share with him, is also Irish.

In contrast, my great grandmother, Angélique Kaponicin, was the last “full blooded” Weskarini in the genealogy of my family’s history. She was probably the last person in my family to have lived some part of her life traditionally. She lost her Indian status when she married a French man, Frank Maheux. If she lived on reserve, she probably didn’t live on it for very long. She eventually settled in Ottawa.

And, yet, despite the quantum of my blood, I don’t feel any more Irish than I feel Indian. The distance between my identity and the cultural identities of my ancestors on both sides of my family feels about the same: intangibly distant.

There is, however, one important difference.

On my mother’s side, there are places, artifacts, people, and stories that connect me to a rich history and a cultural identity.

On my father’s side, in contrast, I know nothing of my paternal grandparents and their families. I don’t know where in Ireland they came from, when they emigrated, or how they came to settle in Ottawa. I don’t even know where in Ottawa they lived. A history exists, but I have no personal connection to it.

For a short time, thanks to the historian Desmond Morton, I thought I was a little more Irish than I previously thought. In the footnote of an article, Morton incorrectly describes Angélique’s husband and my great grandfather, Frank Maheux, as Irish. Morton, I eventually learned, was wrong, Frank was French, as my mother’s family had always said, but, during the time that I believed Morton’s claim about Frank ancestry, I had a new, sudden, and strong desire to learn about the history of the Irish both in Ireland and here in Canada. I had a personal connection to it.

As I dug into the history of the Irish, I was immediately struck by the parallels between the Irish experience of English colonialism and the First Nations experience of it. Crucial to both are the theft of land, the murder and displacement of peoples, and the sustained assault on language and cultural identity. The English, it seems, invented their own unique brand of settler colonialism in Ireland and strove to perfect it in Canada and the United States.  

Of course, the displaced Irish who survived the crossing from their colonized lands to the newly colonized lands on the other side of the Atlantic themselves became agents of colonialism in their new world. This in itself is no great surprise. Colonialism has often managed the oppression of one people by giving them a supporting role to play in the oppression of another. Dividing and conquering is a tactic as old as conquerors and conquered. We also see it at work today in the colonially created divisions between status and non-status Indians and those who live on reserve and those who don’t.

Although there are strong parallels between the Irish experience of English colonialism and the First Nations experience of it, when I look at the history and non-history of my parents’ families, I don’t see parallel outcomes. It seems to me that the English were far more successful at colonizing and killing the Irish in my father’s family than they were at killing the Indian in my mother’s family.  

Optimistically, the difference between my families may highlight the resilience of indigenous identity on this side of the Atlantic. More ominously, the difference between my two families might be a forewarning, a sign of what’s to come. Perhaps, the identities of my families are different only because the English had a several hundred year head start on the murder of the Irish in me.

A Small Act of Grace: A Story We Can Tell

Frank MaheuxI don’t remember my Aunt Grace — technically, my great Aunt — the same way that I remember my grandmother, Ethel. Grace was our next door neighbor for three or four years, but somehow her presence during my boyhood seems less tangible. Perhaps, it was because she lived close to us only when I was quite young.

I do, however, remember her cottage. I remember its smell, its layout, and the land it was built on. I remember the old and the new outhouse. I remember the barrel that collected the rainwater from the roof. I remember playing thirty-one by the light of an oil lamp in the inky dark of night.

I also remember the short walk to the nearby lake. I remember the spot where we’d wade into it to swim or launch the canoe. I remember the shape of the lake, and the spot where we’d collect spring water. I remember the low bridge, a short walk from the lake, where my brother and I would fish a shallow creek for trout.

I don’t remember how often I went to Grace’s cottage when I was a boy, but the depth and clarity of my memories seems to suggest it was reasonably often. I do know that, in my adolescence, I went to the cottage on my own a few times. The solitary time away was regenerative.  

It was Grace who donated Frank Maheux’s war letters to the Public Archives of Canada — now the Library and Archives of Canada. I can’t be sure why she did it, but I seem to remember that she understood the historical value of her father’s letters, which had reached her mother, Angélique, uncensored. I suppose there might have also been a measure of vanity in the gift. Once the letters were accepted by the Public Archives, we were a family with a relative who was institutionally recognized to have been historically significant. We had a place in Canada’s history.

All of that is probably true. I also wonder if the decision was motivated by another kind of hope.

I have read that the land, for indigenous peoples, is a kind of encyclopedia of stories. Plants, animals, places and activities are all cues to tell and retell the stories that remind them of their place on the land, their connection to each other, and the knowledge that makes all of it possible. The land — just as effectively as the letters, words, and sentences of any book — helps a person, a family, and a people remember the stories they tell and retell to know who they are.

When I was in grade school, I went to read my great grandfather’s letters in the Public Archives. I wrote a short speech about his experiences for Remembrance Day and won an award for it. I recently learned that my brother also went to read the letters when he was a teenager. A few months ago, when I returned to the letters as an adult, I found a note slipped in among them. It was written by a relative, unknown to me, who had also gone to read the letters at some point. It stated simply that he, Christian Maheux, had visited the letters and that his grandfather was Frank Maheux.

I don’t know much about the other descendants of Frank and Angélique Maheux, but I do know we are all connected to each other through those letters and the stories we tell about them. Not everyone of us who visits the letters will blog about the experience or leave notes behind, but, every time one of us visits those letters, we create one more story that connects all of us to each other. Our family no longer has a traditional territory, sacred places or the daily routines of life to prompt our collective story-telling, but we have those letters.

And I suspect Grace might have had something like that in mind, when she donated Frank’s letters to the Public Archives — the letters of my great grandfather and possibly yours.