Back to Latvia

Wearing a crown of daisies at Jani, Latvia's midsummer celebration

Me in 1996, wearing a crown of daisies at a Jāņi celebration.

For me, it all started with an episode of the 1990s television program Travel Travel. My mom loved watching Travel Travel (we only had two channels so there wasn’t much choice) and when I was eight years old the program aired an episode on Latvia. It was pretty exciting for me because I knew that my grandparents were from Latvia and that my uncle had recently moved there after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the restoration of Latvian independence in 1991. Though I could never speak Latvian, it is my mother’s first language and Latvian phrases and folk songs had always been a part of my life. The country looked great on TV too, with a picture-book castle poking out behind a green forest (it was probably Sigulda Castle featured in the show). Watching the Latvia episode of Travel Travel is the first memory I have of my parents saying, “Wouldn’t it be nice to live there for a year?”.

And then we did.

It seems weird to think of now, almost like a magic trick, the way the pieces fell together to facilitate this adventure. In reality, it wasn’t at all easy and I know my parents had to do a lot of research and phoning and faxing and writing letters in order to obtain jobs and visas and housing and the rest of it. But I’m still mystified by the way it just sort of worked. My parents applied for teaching positions at the English-speaking International School of Latvia and were hired (my mom,who taught elementary music, was even given a budget to order instruments for the school). My sisters and I were able to attend the school free of charge. My mom applied for a year-long leave from her current teaching position and got it. We needed someone to rent our place and take care of our pets for the year and a decent renter was found. Now, the idea of looking at a map and saying, “I want to move my family here” and actually DOING IT is astounding to me.

So my family spent my 4th-grade year living in Latvia. And it was one of the most wonderful and important experiences of my life. Not only were we living in another country, our school that year was housed in an old seaside mansion in Jurmala and everywhere we went we saw castles and palaces, ancient springs in the country and colourful buildings in Old Riga, huddled over cobblestone streets and dripping with art-nouveau detailing. Though newer, Soviet-style architecture (like the gargantuan concrete apartment complex we lived in) was both ubiquitous and ugly, my imagination was always busy erasing those details, taking me into the past and furnishing splendid palaces in my mind.

My Latvian-ness, which had seemed a somewhat intangible thing growing up in rural Saskatchewan (where you will find many folks of Ukrainian descent but not many people who had even heard of Latvia), became real to me when I was able to visit the farm where my grandmother was born and where my great-aunt now lives (as a young woman, she’d become separated from her family as they fled to England and was sent by the Soviets to a work camp in Siberia, where she met her Ukrainian husband and started a family) and to which my great-grandmother had returned to spend the last years of her life (I was lucky enough to meet her that year, even though I wasn’t able to do more than say hello and sing a couple of folk songs in Latvian). I started to understand that leaving a place is one thing, but being forced to leave is quite another–it leaves an ache that never goes away, even if you eventually make a new life for yourself somewhere else (as per his wishes, a Latvian flag stood beside my grandfather’s coffin at his funeral last summer, and he had been adamant, the week before his death, that we attend the Jāņi celebrations at the Latvian centre in Toronto, even though he couldn’t go himself).

Zolitude

Zolitude, where my family lived (the little blue X was our balcony).

And there were souvenir shops selling amber and “Latvian mittens” and amusements parks blasting techno and tiny shops selling “Mars-bar” ice cream on Jurmala boardwalks. So many things, though strange and sometimes scary (and perhaps in real life even brash and ugly, some of it) seemed kind of fantastical to me. No wonder that year is like a dream now–everything was different from what I had known before and nothing had the benefit, as many other parts of my childhood did, of being later seen and understood through adult eyes. [I did go back once, for Christmas when I was 14, but it was absolutely freezing cold and I don’t remember much apart from staying inside at my uncle’s house, visiting and playing with my little cousins. It was simply too cold out to see the city and besides, Christmas isn’t really about being a tourist anyways.]

Which is why it will be so interesting to go back. Tomorrow, my husband and I will board a plane and late Monday night (after a looong stopover in Frankfurt), we will be in Riga. This trip is a wedding present from my grandmother and once again, the pieces have fallen into place to allow my whole family (grandma included) to join us there for parts of it. I’m nervous and excited and worried that too much will have changed. I want to be able to step back in time and catch a glimpse of my nine-year-old self, blonde hair and red coat disappearing through the trees or around the corner of a twisting cobblestone lane. I want to find what she found. I want to show my husband, and myself, “This is who I am.”

On death, adulthood, and atheism

Lately I am beginning to feel like the older I get, the more people die.

Which of course is not true. More people are not dying than when I was younger (the most recent statistics I have read show that average life expectancy is actually going up across the globe). The difference is that as I grow older I become more aware of the deaths that happen around me and more aware of my own mortality. I am also more likely to experience the death of someone I know personally, and to watch friends and families be impacted by deaths.

When I was in kindergarten, Dr. Seuss died. It was reported on the radio during breakfast and either my mom or my dad repeated the information. I remember knowing that Dr. Seuss had died. Before the end of my kindergarten year, my paternal grandfather had also passed away. And that was my experience of death as a child: Dr. Seuss and Grandpa Fred (along with Duke the dog and Ashes the cat). I now know that death was as present then as it is today–the 90’s had their share of horrors, from the Yugoslav wars to the Rwandan Genocide. And I had no real concept of any of it.

It’s not because my parents tried to hide death from us, not at all. The radio was always tuned in to the CBC in the morning, and had I listened I would have heard about murders, disasters, wars, and accidents–they weren’t kept from me. And I distinctly remember being nine years old and asking my dad a question which resulted in him referencing Rwanda to explain to me what genocide was, but I don’t remember the question or why the answer would have required explaining the concept of genocide. I do remember hearing my dad say “Hutu” and “Tutsi” and thinking he was just making up words to use in an imaginary example. I was much, much older (possibly an adult) before I realized my dad was talking about Rwanda, and that everything he was trying to explain to me had happened only a year or so before this conversation had taken place.

And yet even then death was not far from my consciousness, always a step or two behind me. The year I was nine was the year my family lived in Riga (Latvia), the first time I could ever really remember living in a big city. My family began to think I was a slow walker because I was always lagging behind everyone on the way to school, but I’m actually very fast. I walked behind my family because I wanted to see all of them; wanted to make sure nothing would happen to them. Nine is the year I began to have nightmares about someone in my family dying, and twenty years later this fear, while more controlled, is just as present. Perhaps the maturity I gained through the culture shock of our year abroad (actually a great thing for kids I think) had more subtle, and less fun, consequences. Perhaps as I opened my eyes to the new and incredible things around me, I also opened them to the possibility of danger and tragedy. Perhaps as my concept of my nine-year-old self developed, I also developed a concept of my relation to the people around me, the people I love, and what it might be to lose them.

Like most people, I am afraid to die. For a long time, I told myself I was afraid because I was afraid of how much my death would hurt the people who love me (which is still something I feel and fear). I didn’t really think about being afraid for myself, even joking with my best friend in high school that when we turned 100 we should buy a convertible and drive it off a cliff like Thelma and Louise, because, y’know, that seemed like a cool way to go and we’ve all gotta go sometime.

Yes, we do all have to go sometime, and the older I get, and the more I see, and hear, and read, the more I realize that grappling with this fact is the hardest and bravest struggle many of us ever face. I understand that death must exist in order for life to exist–but I don’t want to do it. I am afraid of being aware in the moment, and afraid of being afraid. There is no way to prevent it, whether it happens sixty seconds or sixty years from now, it will happen. The moment I was born, the moment I opened up my lungs and accepted my first breath of life, I was signed up for death. No refunds. No backsies. No changing my mind.

This is a psychologically tormenting thought, capable of crushing any thinking person under its weight. In this context, it is no surprise that religion has such a strong hold on those who believe. Sure, there are contradictions and hypocrisies galore and squiffy parts about stoning adulteresses and owning slaves, but when I feel the breath of mortality on the back of my neck, I can begin to understand why reasonable people would be willing to brush all of their doubts aside for the chance to hear “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” and truly believe that one day, one trembling and glorious day, there will be an end to death.

My amorphous agnosticism (coupled with my good luck so far) has allowed me, for many years, to avoid thinking very hard about what happens after we die. When asked, I would sometimes tell people that I liked to believe that people who died went to wherever they needed to go or became whatever they needed to be that would provide the most comfort for their loved ones. That is, if you believe Grandpa is in Heaven, he’s in Heaven. If you believe your lost partner dwells in your heart, they are in your heart. If you believe your mother has become part of the stars and moon and the sun that warms your face, she is twinkling and shining and giving you light all your days. It is a very comforting thought, and a thought that is easy to have when you’re talking about other people, and other people’s losses. But what could ever comfort me?

As I grow older my fuzzy agnosticism is replaced by skepticism, stripping me of my ability to cling to metaphysical comforts, to the talismans I’ve created for myself to ward off bad luck and sorrow. I could almost be an atheist except my sense of skepticism is so strong that as much as I am now having difficulty believing there is meaning in the universe beyond what intelligent beings create for themselves while they are alive, I am also too skeptical to believe that I know with certainty that there is nothing after death. If I can no longer take comfort in the belief in a pleasant after-life scenario, I wish I could take comfort in the idea that this life is all there is, like comedian and humanist Stephen Fry, who narrates a kind but terrifying animated video “What should we think about death?” on behalf of the British Humanist Association:

In the spring of 2011, an incredible Vancouver blogger named Derek K. Miller died. I never knew him, but I did follow him on Twitter and admired his bravery and bluntness as cancer took his life. On his blog, I read about the realities of his illness, about his “living wake” (a huge party where his friends could celebrate his life while he was still there to enjoy it). One day, which surprised me even though it shouldn’t have, I saw his last post. It was written in the past tense. It said, “I’m dead” because now he was, and his family and friends had honoured his request to post his final message after his death. In this post Mr. Miller talks about meeting his wife, having his kids, experiencing life. Derek Miller’s last post may be the most beautiful (and heartbreaking) thing I have ever read.

And also the scariest and bravest. Because Miller acknowledges in this post that he is gone. He didn’t believe he was going to a better place–he didn’t believe he was going to any place. Though he knew his words would still be there, Miller was emphatic that he would not be. People sometimes like to say with a chuckle that no one’s an atheist in their final hours. But Derek K. Miller, like the British philosopher David Hume, seems to have been able to face the inevitability and immediacy of death without holding the hand of any god. And, Miller wrote upon his death, “The world, indeed the whole universe, is a beautiful, astonishing, wondrous place.”

Perhaps this is not a grace that comes easily. In fact, I am sure that it is not. And so I continue the struggle to find meaning in this world, a justification for continuing to take the risks required to truly use the life I have instead of hiding out in a bomb shelter armored in bubble wrap in a futile attempt to stave off the inevitable. To know in the core of my being that the world is beautiful and full of love and yet to have no regrets about having to leave it would be, in my eyes, a crowning way to end a life well-lived. To be able to say, as Steve Jobs did, “Oh wow.”

[But I’m only 28. So I’d be very content, if possible, to wait to have my “Oh wow” moment until I’m a very wrinkly very old lady.]

Theatre Terrific presents “I Love Mondays” April 17 – 26

One of the downsides of living in an artistically-active city like Vancouver is that there is so much out there, it can often take me a while to explore theatre companies whose work I haven’t experienced before. I am therefore delighted to have finally fulfilled a theatrical goal of mine to check out Theatre Terrific, Western Canada’s oldest inclusive theatre company. From their website:

Theatre Terrific pioneers inclusive opportunities for artists of all abilities to develop performance skills and collaborate in the production of theatrical works. […]

Vision

Supporting artists of all abilities in the rigorous creation of provocative theatre.

Mandate

Theatre Terrific brings together artists who would normally never work together. Our diverse ensembles include professional and emerging artists with or without developmental, physical, or mental health issues, gender or language challenges.

Good art is often art that examines and challenges our assumptions about the world we live in and the people with whom we share our time on this planet. Issues surrounding race, gender, sexuality, ability, and mental illness are often explored onstage, and yet, the theatre world remains structurally exclusionary in many ways (as a basic example, I was lucky to audition for and be accepted into one of the few theatre programs I knew of that didn’t have set intake numbers based on gender–many schools will only accept a set number of men and women each year, despite the often much higher numbers of women auditioning). Many performance spaces are not fully accessible, and ones that have an accessible front of house often don’t have that same level of accessibility in their backstage areas. Performers are expected to meet certain expectations of physical and vocal ability, and it’s rare to see disability onstage unless the disability is written into the script as a particular aspect of a character, and even then, the character is more often portrayed by an actor who doesn’t have a disability than by one who does.

All this is to say that for a company like Theatre Terrific to have been operating in Vancouver for 30 years is fantastic, and it’s important, for artists and audience members of all backgrounds and abilities, that their work continue to be supported, seen, and enjoyed.

Jonah Killoran and Darlene Brookes. Photo: Alanna Milany

Jonah Killoran and Darlene Brookes. Photo: Alanna Milaney

Theatre Terrific’s current professional production is I Love Mondays, adapted by director Susanna Uchatius from the script by Pamela Boyd and playing at Studio 1398 on Granville Island. I was delighted to receive an invitation to attend their opening night.

Both in form and in theme, I Love Mondays is a quiet play, a story of two isolated people finding in each other the friendship and support they need to pursue their “best dreams”.  While Darlene Brookes (who plays Peggy, a divorcee and visual artist) is a well-known Vancouver performer, her co-star Jonah Killoran (who plays George, the developmentally challenged man Peggy is hired to work with), is an actor with cognitive differences whose experiences and path in the theatre are likely much different from those of most actors. Staging a play with an inclusive cast is certainly a challenge, and one that does require letting go of some of the performance conventions we’re used to.

At first, it may feel that watching I Love Mondays requires a little bit of patience. The pace is a little slower than the clippy, rapid-fire exchanges we tend to associate with a “tight” show. The important thing is that the actors are fully present and the dramatic intentions are all in place in every line, even if some actors need to take a little more time in their delivery than others. I quickly settled into the rhythm of the show and allowed it to take me on its quiet, and ultimately quite rewarding, journey.

What struck me the most about the way in which Theatre Terrific has staged I Love Mondays is the incredible gentleness displayed between the characters in the play and between the actors on stage. It is rare, very rare, I think, to sit in the theatre and see that the performers care for one another, and are taking care of one another in various small ways throughout the evening. As I watched I allowed my preconceptions to fall away, and I realized that just as some of the characters onstage were being limited because of their differences, I had been limiting some of the actors in my mind, and when they emerged, butterfly-like, beyond the boundaries of the limitations I had unconsciously imposed on them, I was both delighted and a little embarrassed of myself. What I mean to say is this: what is happening between the characters onstage is also happening between the actors, and between the actors and the audience. The characters who gain our respect as people in a story are also actors who deserve our respect as performers onstage, whatever their path into the theatre has been.

Theatre Terrific has been pushing beyond its own boundaries in this first-ever production from a scripted play (previous professional productions were collaborative creations), and the result is a unique and gentle story, told in a unique and gentle way. I urge you to challenge your assumptions of what theatre can be–art, and its creation, belong to everyone.

I Love Mondays will be playing at Studio 1398 (1398 Cartwright St., Granville Island) until April 26. Tickets can be purchased online at Brown Paper Tickets.

Disclosure: I attended the opening night performance of I Love Mondays courtesy of Theatre Terrific. I was not asked for a review.

On discourses, public transit, and wondering what the heck we know

If you currently reside in Metro Vancouver you’ve likely heard and read a lot about the current ongoing transit plebiscite (i.e. the plebiscite asking Metro Van residents whether or not they are willing to see a 0.5% sales tax added to the PST on goods and services sold in Metro Vancouver in order to pay for a major public transit upgrade). Whether you normally consider yourself political or not, it’s unlikely that you’ve been able to avoid taking a side and wading into the debate either in conversation or on social media.

Votin' yes.

Votin’ yes.

I myself have already voted “Yes” (and I urge you to do the same, for the sake of our city’s health and for the overall benefit of the planet), and have had my share of participation in a handful of these online debates, often squaring off against people whose opinion I usually respect and with whom I normally tend to agree (and sometimes against opinions I don’t respect as well). As I thought about perhaps writing a post advocating for the “Yes” side (as in “Yes, I want improved transit even if I’m not looking forward to paying more sales tax and I definitely hope Christy Clark isn’t our Premier after the next election because framing whether or not to improve transit as a ‘Do you want to pay more tax?’ question is completely disingenuous considering major road projects that benefit car-drivers are initiated without so much as a how-d’ye-do”), I started to become interested, and a little perturbed, by the sheer amount of information being thrown into the debate from both sides, and I started wondering how on earth we can possibly know the things we’re talking about.

On the No side, for example, the following arguments are fairly common:

  • “We already pay too many taxes” (this is sometimes accompanied by “The government should pay for transit improvements with the taxes they already collect” and sometimes “I don’t care about people who ride the bus; they can pay higher fares if they want better service.”)
  • “Voting No is not a vote against transit improvements” (i.e. a No vote sends a message to Translink and the provincial government that they need to do a better job at providing transit with the funds they have)
  • “Translink executives make too much money.”
  • “Translink is in cahoots with Christy Clark and the Mayor’s Council and they’ve launched a multi-million dollar campaign to promote the Yes vote”
  • “Translink is an inefficient disaster.”
  • “An increase in the PST in Metro Vancouver will hurt vulnerable families the most.”

Meanwhile, on the Yes side, the following arguments have been used:

  • “Metro Vancouver’s population is predicted to increase by 1 million over the next __ number of years. Without improved transit, this will mean hundreds of thousands of additional cars on the road and 26 (!) freeways will need to be built to tackle congestion.”
  • “Voting No is a vote against transit improvements” (i.e. a No vote will only send the provincial government the message that we don’t want transit and this will lead to cuts; it WON’T send the message to Translink that they need to do better)
  • “Executive/administrative pay is only 2% of Translink’s budget”
  • “Christy Clark is in cahoots with oil companies to discourage transit improvements and increase road infrastructure that supports more individual cars on the road.”
  • “Translink is one of the most efficient transit systems in for its size in the world.”
  • “Cuts to transit or an increase in transit fares will hurt vulnerable families the most.”

Since I’ve generally been paying more attention to the Yes side than the No side, I’ve also heard that the transit tax is supported by groups like the David Suzuki Foundation and paramedics and Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and that a win for the Yes side is required to protect the environment and that without it at least 20 additional minutes will be added to the average commute EACH WAY (and also that most of the No rhetoric has been supplied through an intensive smear campaign initiated by the Canadian Taxpayer’s Federation, who generally oppose any increase in tax no matter how small the increase or how noble the cause).

Now, in addition to just arguing on Facebook, I’m sure I’ve read all these arguments somewhere more “legitimate”. I’m sure I’ve read them in articles and op-eds and materials for the Yes side and materials for the No side. And yet, I can’t really remember why I KNOW any of them, and I suspect a lot of other people participating in the debate would have to say the same. And even if we KNOW that we read such-and-such in the newspaper, let’s say, how do we know why that journalist knows what they know? Before these facts/factoids make it into our arguments, they journey through several layers of discourse, and become further and further from being things that we can actually claim to KNOW.

Let’s take the claim that “executive pay is only 2% of Translink’s budget”. I have seen this number quoted in several articles, and considering public transit in Metro Vancouver is an absolutely MASSIVE operation and since the CEO of Translink makes less than half a million dollars per year, I feel pretty good assuming it is true. Even so, it’s important to remember that between me having this fact and the actual truth of the matter, there are quite a few layers of discourse operating.

To work backwards:

  • I am saying, in this blog post, that administrative pay is only 2% of Translink’s budget. This blog post is MY discourse.
  • I probably originally read the “2%” number in an article like this one, in the Vancouver Sun. This is the columnist’s discourse (which is part of the Vancouver Sun’s overall discourse on the transit tax issue). The columnist in turn may have taken this number from another article (i.e. another layer of media discourse), or directly from Translink. At any rate…
  • At some point, SOMEONE likely gleaned this “2%” number from Translink’s 2014 Business Plan, Operating and Capital Budget Summary or a similar document (if you sit down with a calculator and page 15, administration does indeed work out to just under 2% of the total expenses for the 2012 numbers, though it’s closer to 3% for the 2014 projections). This is a document compiled by Translink ostensibly for reading by the public. This is part of Translink’s public discourse.
  • Bear in mind this document is called a “summary”, meaning that it is in fact a clarification and summarization of what is likely a vast plethora of NON-public documents (like memos, spreadsheets, reports, etc.) that have somehow been transformed into to the neat and tidy PDF linked above. Each of these documents can also be thought of as discourses that contribute to the overall discourse of the corporation.
  • And where do these spreadsheets, reports, and memos come from? They come from studies, meetings, and consultations, the results and transcriptions of which are discourses as well.
  • Which eventually, after quite a lot of paper probably, brings us to the root idea that preceding all of these discourses (which, as Michel Foucault liked to point out, are really just language and are no more representational of the actual truth than anything else) can be found a reality in which the administrators of Translink cash paycheques that are equal to 2% of the corporation’s budget.

And this is just one, small, quantifiable fact that was easy to locate in a publicly-available budget report. How do we know the others? How many layers of discourse are involved in the formation of our opinions?

This is not to say that any of our opinions are wrong (though, of course, I tend to think in terms of the plebiscite the Yes side is more right than the No side), or that any of the facts we have used to defend our positions aren’t true. What I am saying, in my own discourse, is that every article or report we read, every discourse, about anything, is simply a representation–it’s not the thing itself. So it can be interesting to think about what you think you know, and why you think you know it, and be critical about the information we consume and share.

I’m more afraid of C-51 than terrorists

Let’s get one thing straight: I am definitely afraid of terrorists, and I am afraid of militant religious fundamentalists like ISIS. Images of terrified men in orange jumpsuits kneeling before masked militants, knowing they’re going to be beheaded in gruesome fashion and that the whole world (including their families) will be able to see video footage of it on the internet, fills me with a revulsion and a sense of panic that I must make a conscious and sustained effort to keep in check.

But I do keep it in check, and it is important to keep it in check. Because thankfully, in the whole entire population of the earth there are really very few people who want to hurt me simply for not believing what they believe, and it is quite likely that I will never actually know of anyone who has concrete plans to. Of course I am afraid that I, or someone I love, might be the victim of a terrorist attack. If you watch, read, or listen to the news, it’s hard not to be. But in order to live a full and happy life, I need to try not to be afraid, and it really shouldn’t be that hard, given the odds human beings already live with (illness, accidents, etc.).

What I mean is, I acknowledge that there are terrorists out there. I acknowledge that there are people committing atrocious and murderous acts in the name of religion or politics or personal revenge. I hope upon hope upon hope that neither I nor anyone I love will ever come into contact with any of them. But at the same time I acknowledge that the rest of us, whether Muslim or Christian, Jew or Gentile, liberal or conservative or pacifist or gun-lovin’, are, if not perfect human beings, at least not in any kind of mind to kill innocent strangers. We don’t need to be watched. We don’t need to be bullied into not being terrorists. And we, in Canada, certainly don’t need a bill with powers as sweeping and unregulated as bill C-51 (the Harper government’s new Anti-Terrorism Act, not to be confused with the bill C-51 of 2008, which made amendments to the Canadian Food and Drugs Act).

If you want to know why I am against bill C-51, despite the fact that I, like most people, really don’t want Canada to experience any terrorist attacks in the future, the BC Civil Liberties Association has compiled an excellent list that pretty much sums it up.

Of their eight points of serious concern, two really stand out for me:

Bill C-51 drastically expands the definition of ‘security.’

When you think of being secure, you likely think of being safe from physical danger. But Bill C-51 defines security as not only safeguarding public safety, but also preventing interference with various aspects of public life or ‘the economic or financial stability of Canada’. With this definition, a demonstration in favour of Quebec separatism that fails to procure the proper permit, environmentalists obstructing a pipeline route or a peaceful blockade of a logging road by an Indigenous community could all be seen as threats to national security.

It will severely chill freedom of expression.

It’s unclear even to experts exactly what kinds of speech and protest activity may be considered threats to national security if the bill passes; the average Canadian has little hope of feeling confident that their legitimate political activity hasn’t inadvertently crossed the line. Bill C-51’s expansive language means that Canadians will likely choose not to express themselves even in completely legal ways rather than risk prosecution. Legitimate speech will be chilled, and our democracy will be worse off for it.

Last autumn, I went up to the Burnaby Mountain Conservation Area and joined those protesting Kinder Morgan’s drilling and testing activities (FYI, Kinder Morgan is a wealthy, Texas-based oil company that wants to put an oil pipeline through a conservation park on Burnaby Mountain). At the time, I seriously deliberated “crossing the line” (i.e. crossing the police tape that surrounded the Kinder Morgan work site and therefore voluntarily accepting arrest for violating a court injunction). In the end, I held back, afraid of what the minimal, but still very real, legal consequences could do to my future ability to travel, pursue various career avenues, etc.

If bill C-51 passes in its current form, with its current vague and broad definition of what constitutes Canada’s “security”, it would be entirely possible and dare I say likely that a pipeline project like Kinder Morgan’s would be considered essential to Canada’s “economic security”. Those who crossed the line into Kinder Morgan’s work site, or who organized civil disobedience activities designed to delay or halt pipeline construction, wouldn’t necessarily be treated merely as trespassers in contempt of a court order; it’s probable they would be considered a threat to Canada’s security and imprisoned as terrorists. More than a hundred brave people crossed the line last fall (and, in a strange turn of events, charges were dropped for most of them as Kinder Morgan had designated the boundaries of the injunction site incorrectly). They asserted their rights as Canadian citizens to go wherever they wanted in a public park, and to defend values they believed in. Very few will cross the line once C-51 is passed, and the Harper government knows this.

The government knows too that people are afraid of terrorism the way I have described being afraid, but instead of calming our fears, instead of exhibiting leadership and refusing to sacrifice our Charter of Rights and Freedoms to knee-jerk anti-Islamic sentiment, they are busy stoking it, counting on it to distract people from the state of the economy and the quagmire tar sands development (the cornerstone of Harper’s economic policy) finds itself in. In short, Harper is counting on our fear (and the thinly-veiled racism lurking beneath it), to win him the next election.

From Maclean’s Martin Patriquin’s article “Stephen Harper and the niqab gambit“:

Since the terrorist attacks in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, the Prime Minister has taken to peppering his speeches with the words “jihad” and “terrorism,” whether speaking in Montreal or British Columbia or Brisbane, Australia.

[Remember who else liked to pepper his speeches with words about terrorism? Was it George W Bush? Oh, that’s right, it was. And what did he want? To invade Iraq. And did he find any weapons of mass destruction there? No, he did not. And are America’s actions implicated in ISIS’s current ability to sweep across that destabilized country? You bet.]

The Prime Minister’s recent declaration of “offense” at the idea of a veiled woman taking the Citizenship Oath (even after privately verifying her identity with a government agent), is all part and parcel of his ploy to bring out the worst in us–fearful, xenophobic, irrational–and to exploit these negative qualities for political gain (his caucus, for its part, are doing a good job flying the xenophobic flag, hence Conservative MP Larry Miller’s comment that women who want to wear niqabs when taking the Oath should “stay the hell where [they] came from”) . I’m not convinced that Stephen Harper is truly afraid that a Canadian-born jihadist group will carry out a large-scale attack in Canada, but I know he wants us to be.

The fact of the matter is, we are literally one thousand times more likely to be killed in a motor vehicle accident (inferred from the statistics cited in the Maclean’s article above) than by a home-grown terrorist. Notice that Harper is not giving CSIS sweeping powers to make us drive more carefully.

w-moose_s-2It should also be noted that as Canadians, we are (as noted in Scott Gilmore’s “How to end the fear economy“) more likely to be killed by a MOOSE than by a terrorist. Curious that I haven’t seen any government MPs gravely intoning that moose dwell in every Canadian forest, lurking along every highway. Considering I was in a close shave involving a car and a moose two Christmases ago (we were very lucky to have been going fairly slowly and only to gently nudge its hind leg with our side-view mirror), I’d be interested to know what Harper is going to do about the very real threat of moose-caused vehicular fatalities.

Answer: nothing. Because bill C-51, as currently written, isn’t about keeping Canadians safe. If it were, Conservative MPs sitting on the committee reviewing the bill would be listening to the very legitimate concerns of environmental and civil liberties activists, Muslim groups, and constitutional experts about the serious and democracy-eroding ramifications of the bill in its current state. Instead, Conservative committee members are asking their expert witnesses if they are terrorists (the argument being that if you weren’t a terrorist, you wouldn’t be worried about this bill). If the Harper government ACTUALLY cared about keeping people safe, they would hold an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women, and they would look into long-standing claims that tar sands activity has negatively impacted the safety of food and water in Albertan communities. But they aren’t doing any of these things.

Because the government doesn’t care about keeping Canadians safe. With bill C-51 and the government’s focus on “jihad” and “Islamic extremism”, it’s clearly all about playing on the politics of fear, and on the racism rooted in these fears. With its broad and sweeping powers in terms of surveillance, search, and seizure (CSIS only needing to make sure they don’t kill anyone or “violate their sexual integrity”), bill C-51 is also about making dissenting Canadians afraid–afraid to speak out, afraid to protest, afraid to question rather than immediately condemn that which the government calls a “threat”.

Harper wants his voting base to be afraid of terrorists. And he wants the rest of us to be afraid of him. And it’s working.

 

 

The Troika Collective presents “Nordost” (March 4 – 7)

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Opening night is finally here.

We spent our tech weekend and dress rehearsals doing what we normally do on tech weekend and dress rehearsals–doing everything we can to make a good show great. We often talk about the “magic” of theatre, as if the nitty-gritty details of putting a show together are just unfortunate necessities (boring stuff like working out blocking, memorizing lines, and fine-tuning technical cues). But preparation is vital in the theatre. We prepare and prepare and prepare so that when we step out onto the stage (or into the booth, or take our seat in the audience, critical eye and notebook at the ready), we can lose ourselves just enough to take our audience with us.

Our phenomenal cast is prepared. When the lights came up on them at last night’s dress rehearsal, magic happened. They’d moved from knowing what they needed to do as actors, to understanding their characters’ motivations, to embodying three brave women trapped in horrific circumstances. It’s in them–in their faces, their voices, their bodies, and their hearts.

Obviously, as the production dramaturg for Nordost and co-artistic director of the Troika Collective, my opinion is extremely biased, but I could not be more proud of these actors, our director, or our designer. What these women gave of themselves to bring this show to life in Vancouver (a North American premiere, no less), is beyond my ability to thank them. I have no idea what good deed I must have done to deserve to add my name to the program alongside them but I could not feel more privileged. This is a damn good show.

And an important show. In the buzzing silent moment after the dress run and before the cast had taken their bows (it’s good to practice them, even with no audience), I couldn’t help but reflect on Nordost‘s story of trauma, terrorism, and desperation, and think, “And we’re doing it all again.” The world is not so different now than it was in 2002–except maybe we’ve become used to things we shouldn’t be used to, and maybe we haven’t learned as much as we should have. This play is serious, yes, but also necessary.

And it’s a great show.

Nordost will be playing at the Havana Theatre (1212 Commercial Drive) March 4 – 7. All shows are at 8:00 p.m. Tickets are $20/$17 and can be purchased online at Brown Paper Tickets or at the door (cash only at door).

David Tushingham’s English translation of Torsten Buchsteiner’s Nordost was originally commissioned by Company of Angels, London, and first presented at the Salisbury Playhouse Studio in April 2013.

Please Stand By – Nifty Going Biweekly

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The sad day has finally arrived–the day on which I finally admit to myself, and confess to you, my much-appreciated readers, that weekly blog posts are no longer sustainable. Between work, my masters program, theatre with the Troika Collective, work on my own creative projects, bathroom renovations, headaches, and trying to actually spend some quality time with my husband now and again, I just can’t guarantee I will always be able to write this blog the way I want to. I’ve never wanted to simply “produce content”, and if I don’t have the time to really engage in the world enough to have something to write about, that’s all I’ll be doing. I’m already embarrassed by some of the navel-gazing, nothing-ish posts I’ve churned out during busy times in the past and I owe you, and this blog, and myself, better than that.

Being a creature who loves form and structure, and wanting everything to be clean cut, I do wish I’d been able to hold out for my next bloggerversary (or even my half-way marker, which would have been at the end of May) to make this change. I wish I wasn’t just throwing up my hands in the middle of any old week and saying, “Okay, that’s it, I’m too busy, I can’t do it this way anymore” on February 27, of all days, a day that means nothing in terms of anniversaries or counting my achievements in a neat and tidy way. My aesthetic sensibilities are chafing as I write and I would almost rather quit the blog altogether, except that when I floated this idea by one of my most loyal fans (i.e., my mother) she said no, and told me to try switching to biweekly posts instead. Seeing as how my mom hasn’t steered me wrong yet, I’m giving it a try.

So you won’t be hearing from me as often anymore. And I’m sorry. I feel like I’ve failed to come through on a promise but please believe me when I say it really truly needs to be this way (and that’s not to say if I’m ever feeling especially inspired I won’t write on an off-week just for fun). Though I don’t always know who’s reading my posts, or how often, please know I am always flattered by and grateful for it, and this is actually breaking my little blogging heart.

So please stand by. I hope it just gets better from here.

[UPDATE: Upon publishing this post, WordPress informed me that it was my 230th post. So I guess I DO get a nice, clean-cut benchmark for weekly posting after all.]

Women in Canada can wear what they want (and that includes niqabs)

(Hopefully) soon-to-be Canadian citizen Zunera Ishaq has recently won a court battle allowing her to wear her niqab (a veil, worn by some Muslim women, that covers most of the face) during her public citizenship ceremony. Prime Minister Stephen Harper called Ishaq’s wish to take the oath with her face covered “offensive”, and his government is currently appealing the federal court’s ruling.

Before I offer my opinions on the matter, some background (which you can also obtain by reading the article linked above):

  • Though Ishaq wants to wear her veil during the public swearing-in ceremony (at which a large number of people and photographers are usually present), she says she has no problem uncovering her face with a government representative in private to verify her identity before taking the oath. Therefore, the wearing of a niqab during swearing-in would not be a security concern.
  • Since 2011, a law introduced by then-immigration minister Jason Kenney has banned face-covering veils such as niqabs in citizenship ceremonies. This is the law which has been struck down and this is the law that the Harper government is trying to maintain.
  • Canadians’ right to religious freedom protects the wearing of religious garments, even in situations where such clothing would normally not be permitted. It is on these grounds that the government’s policy is considered by the courts to be unlawful.
  • According to Ishaq, wearing the niqab is her personal choice. She is not being oppressed or pressured by anyone to cover her face.

The issue of extremely modest religious garments like niqabs being worn in a secular country like Canada is one that it has taken me an incredibly long time to form an opinion on. I must admit that there was a time when I was against them–I saw face veils as symbols of misogynistic oppression based on sexual control rather than religious devotion, and I couldn’t understand why any woman who was NOT being coerced or oppressed would voluntarily choose to wear one. Then I realized that I don’t have to understand–it is not for me to decide what is appropriate for another woman to put on (or not) when she leaves her house.

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Maclean’s cover, January 2012

I have said before that I believe in a woman’s capacity to decide if and when she would like to be seen as a sexual object (without assuming she is being controlled by some villainous pimp, etc.). This may not seem related to the issue at hand, but my point is this: if I am willing to accept that women would sometimes make themselves sexual objects of their own free will, it would be hypocritical of me NOT to accept that there are also some women who voluntarily choose a course of extreme modesty. [Obviously, there are opportunities for exploitation and oppression at both ends of this spectrum, and that is never okay.]

In the case of Ms. Ishaq, wearing the niqab is not only an expression of her modesty, it is an expression of a deeply-held religious belief, and part of her identity. Whether or not she wears one as she takes the citizenship oath should be of little consequence to the rest of us–once she is a Canadian citizen it seems extremely likely that Ms. Ishaq will continue to be veiled as she goes about her daily life. Her face, even mostly covered, will be the face of a Canadian citizen. It will be her right, as a Canadian citizen, to keep her face covered on the street and at the grocery store and in the post office if that’s what she wants. She has been here since 2008. Hers is a Canadian face now, and we need to understand that. Muslim children are born in Canada all the time, and the Islamic faith is no longer an “import” to this country–it is a part of our Canadian landscape, a landscape that includes many cultures, many religions, and many ways of being spiritual (or not). Why would we, as a country, choose to degrade and humiliate a woman at the very moment she is becoming a Canadian citizen?

Instead of just admitting to an Islamophobic bias (which really seems to be the root of the issue), the Prime Minister is trying to appeal to some kind of sense of decency–the way he’s telling it, of course it’s just “offensive” to cover your face when you take the citizenship oath (even if your identity has been privately verified so there is absolutely no security concern), it is, in Ol’ Steve’s words, “not how we do things here.”

Now, I could point out that muzzling scientists, calling law-abiding Canadian citizens who like the environment “radicals”, cutting services for veterans, turning Question Period into a sad farce, making partisan Senate and judiciary appointments, jumping in on America’s wars, committing election fraud, and being embroiled in scandalous cover-ups has traditionally been “not how we do things here,” but apparently the Prime Minister’s sense of Canadian decency extends only as far as your clothes and whether or not his fearful, aging, conservative Christian voting base is afraid of Muslims.

I must agree with Ol’ Steve that clothes are important, and they do send a message about a person’s respect for the honour they are about to receive. This is why I am sure Prime Minister Harper sought a legal appeal when drunk-driving pop sensation Justin Bieber showed up to receive his Diamond Jubilee Medal wearing baggy denim overalls, a backwards ball cap, and a wrinkly t-shirt. To be given a medal (which most recipients earned through years of volunteerism or public service) on behalf of our head of state, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, by the most powerful man in the country, and not even bother to do up both overall straps is certainly NOT “how we do things here”. If anything is offensive to Canadian values and decorum, that surely is.

But Justin Bieber is a celebrity, a Christian (believe it or not, he has actually thought about a hot-button issue like abortion for long enough to be against it), and a rich white guy. Which means he can wear whatever the hell he wants and the Prime Minister will smile and shake his hand.

I hope Ms. Ishaq will be able to take her citizenship oath soon. I hope she will be allowed to wear whatever she wants (though I assume no matter what she will be nicely and respectfully attired). Given how much she has fought for the religious freedoms enjoyed by all Canadians, I know she will not take the privilege of citizenship for granted. There are many ignorant people out there who will say things like, “If she doesn’t like our rules, she can go home,” and they have not a damn clue what they’re talking about. Ms. Ishaq DOES like our rules, and OUR rules, as enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, say that she can wear what she likes. It is OUR rules she is fighting to preserve. Niqab or no niqab, Zunera Ishaq is already home–in Canada, a woman can wear whatever she wants.

Nifty’s “F*ck It” List 2015

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Fancy bucket!

 

At the beginning of this year, I made being kind my New Year’s Resolution. In an external sense, this has not changed much about my day-to-day life or my day-to-day actions. From the outside, I am more or less the same as I was in 2014–a nice person, I hope, who tries to be a NICER person, but certainly no saint. Instead, my resolution to be kind has so far involved more of an internal shift in concentration, and a constant reminder to focus on my own actions, rather than the actions of other people. If I can help, I should help, if I can’t help, I shouldn’t despair over it, and if other people are either refusing to help or are actively contributing to a problem, f*ck ’em.

Strange words perhaps, from someone who wants to be a kinder person, but I don’t believe being kind and saying “f*ck it” to a few things are mutually exclusive. In fact, I think the ability to say “f*ck it” is one of the essential traits of people who are living their lives well (I believe Jesus referred to this as “turning the other cheek” but I have a bit of a profane streak).

Many people have bucket lists (i.e. lists of things they’d like to see or do before they kick the bucket), but I find those a little too high-pressure (after all, I could be hit by a bus tomorrow and I hate when items on to-do lists are left unchecked). Instead of thinking about what I need to do before I die, I’d rather consciously decide what not to worry about, in the hopes of living a life that is happier and healthier and more kindly towards my fellow humans.

I have called this list the F*ck It List:

  1. Any bucket list with an age stipulation. As someone who will be 29 in a few months, I’m tired of seeing lists in my Facebook and Twitter feeds telling me what I must do, what I must see, and places I must travel, all before I’m 30. Why does experience stop when you reach a certain age? When I’m 30, will my arms and legs and eyes suddenly pop out of my body, leaving me incapable of watching a sunrise over the Mediterranean, hiking to Machu Picchu, or kissing someone in the rain? WHY DIDN’T ANYONE TELL ME MY ABILITY TO EXPERIENCE THE JOYS OF LIFE WAS GOING TO END SO SOON???!!! Bullshit. When TC and I went to the Galapagos Islands a couple of years ago, one of the couples on our boat was in their 70s (if not 80s). They participated in all the activities (though I believe the wife sat out of the snorkeling), had an amazing attitude, and a wonderful time. And who are the people writing these lists anyways? Short-sighted fellow Millennials who work as writers for clickbait websites, who truly believe the sun rises and sets on their youth and can’t fathom a life after it? Why are these people the experts on MY life’s needs? And can a fulfilling life really be distilled into a list of generic (and often cliche) enjoyable experiences? Many people I’ve met who have bucket lists of some kind are amazing, open people who embrace their desires for adventure and experience as part of a full and varied life. But some people completely miss the bigger picture which is that bucket lists should enrich your life, not take it over. And also that your 20s are (likely) only one small fraction in the entirety of your life. It’s fine to leave some experiences for later. If I die tomorrow, I want only two things: one, to be fully confident that the people I care about know I love them; and two, to be fully confident that they know that I know that they love me. As long as I can maintain that, the rest is gravy, and nothing to get anxious about. So I’ll turn 30 without ever seeing a monkey in the wild (which I’d really like to do)? F*ck it, that’s okay.
  2. Winning. I really, REALLY like to win. Especially arguments. I want to be right, but more than that, I want my “opponent” to KNOW I’m right, and to admit that I’m right. The idea that someone might go to their grave being wrong about something I TOLD them I was right about makes my skin crawl. And that’s not their problem, it’s mine. F*ck winning–lately I’ve realized that winning often means NOT having the last word. And at that point, it’s not winning, because there is no contest. It’s just living. Too many people want to win, and it’s screwing up our province and our country and our planet because no one will extend a hand or admit that perhaps they don’t know everything.
  3. Online comments. F*ck ’em. I know I should never read the comments on online articles, but sometimes I do, and it destroys my faith in humanity, so I should really just stop forever.
  4. Money. It drives too many of our decisions and it’s just something we made up. People worry about it, people fight about it, people kill each other and the planet for it. I have never yet regretted parting with money if doing so would make me happier or healthier. (Of course, I am lucky that I had enough of it in the first place that I could make the decision to part with some. Obviously, if you don’t have enough money to support yourself or your family I understand why you can’t say “f*ck it” to money but those of us who can, should. Some of the people who worry about money the most have more of it than they need).
  5. Worrying about the future. Obviously, it’s good to be prepared and I definitely believe in insurance, health benefits, and retirement savings, but I often worry about crazy hypothetical situations like what if my future, currently non-existent children are criminals, and also more probable and therefore anxiety-inducing hypotheticals like what I’ll do when my parents are older if they are unhealthy, or what would happen if I became paralyzed or something (for whatever reason). There’s nothing I can do, in this moment, to prevent any of these possibilities, and worrying about them is useless. The grasshopper in the Aesop fable probably shouldn’t have sang ALL summer (a bit of food-collecting wouldn’t have been a bad idea what with winter on its way), but I think he was on to something about not delaying too much joy and contentedness for a future date. This is not a contradiction of my above point on ageist bucket lists being stupid. I’m just saying it’s always a good time for peace of mind.
  6. Guilt. It’s not the best reason to do anything good, and if you aren’t going to do anything good with it, you may as well say “f*ck it” to feeling guilty about stuff. Of course, if you do something wrong you should feel remorse, apologize, and try to learn something, but letting guilt keep you up at night? F*ck that.
  7. Mainstream media outlets, and the way they choose to tell stories, and the way celebrities’ lives are depicted as more important or newsworthy than the lives of “regular” people, and the way the relative “merits” of certain (usually female) body parts are discussed in magazines and online as if you can choose what kind of ass to have the way you’d choose which model of dishwasher to buy, and the way some people are called terrorists and monsters and others are just “lone wolves with mental health issues” or “separatists” or “freedom fighters” and the difference between them is usually just their skin colour or religion. I don’t have to buy that crap.
  8. Wasting my time on the Internet. I’m on here way too much. Spending too much time on the Internet makes me think I have to know everything, and sometimes, it makes me think I need to say everything, or not even everything, just ANYTHING. And saying anything just to say something isn’t good enough. So with that in mind…
F*ck it. I’m tired of looking at the computer screen so it’s good-bye for now. Please feel free to make your own F*ck It Lists, as knowing what you DON’T need is sometimes just as important as knowing what you do. Maybe. I dunno, I’m not the boss of you. F*ck my opinions, and their little blog too.*
(*That’s a Wizard of Oz joke, sort of.)

 

Dispatches from the Rehearsal Hall: Nordost 2

The online ticketing page is up, the press release has been sent out, and the Troika Collective continues rehearsing for our upcoming production of Torsten Buchsteiner’s Nordost (translated by David Tushingham).

Chelsea MacDonald, Elizabeth Kirkland, and Randi Edmundson. Photo: Liam Griffin.

Chelsea MacDonald, Elizabeth Kirkland, and Randi Edmundson. Photo: Liam Griffin.

After my last dispatch, I received an inquiry as to what a “dramaturg” does. “Is it like an editor?” people sometimes ask. The answer is sort of, and also, it depends. When the dramaturg is a script dramaturg or a new play dramaturg, they will often work with a playwright to bring the playwright’s vision to fruition and prepare the script for production, so yes, it could involve helping a playwright craft a script the way an editor may help an author craft a novel, but not always. So that’s the “sort of” part.

But it depends what kind of dramaturgy we’re talking about. When the dramaturg is a production dramaturg on an already-written play, as I am on Nordost, the dramaturg is there primarily to assist the director with the crafting of their vision. In this role the script is a constant and will not change. In some processes, the dramaturg will supply the director and cast with research materials about the play or the time period or the historical event, etc., but I find I’m not really that kind of dramaturg either. I like to be another set of eyes, generally. I like to attend rehearsals and take notes and occasionally have good-natured fights with directors for or against specific artistic choices. Until recently in this process, we were still blocking out the show (which is very very difficult in the round), so I was making a point of sitting on a different side than the one Aliya, our director, was on, and occasionally pronouncing that I was “seeing a lot of backs of heads”. It’s good to be useful.

Last week we gathered around Aliya’s laptop to watch a video of Nord-Ost, the Russian musical that was being performed in the Dubrovka Theatre when it was taken hostage (the siege itself becoming the premise for this play). Some funny stylistic choices aside (lots of jazz hands), it was rather chilling to think about an audience of nearly 800 watching this play, enjoying the dance numbers and getting involved in the story like any other show, with no idea that a real-life nightmare would begin in the second act. The unsuspecting audience were like passengers on the Titanic, laughing and having a good time while the ship sped towards an iceberg. Like the books the cast has been reading, this slightly sentimental musical will become part of each actor’s internal background, shaping and informing the text as they lift it from the page, bringing it into their voices and bodies.

The weight of the subject matter is always a presence in rehearsals. Levity in the process and jovial interpersonal relations can only take you so far when the words being spoken are so serious and emotionally charged. As a more occasional observer (I don’t attend every rehearsal), it is my privilege to watch these incredible actresses develop this telling of the story, and return to this material again and again, finding nuance and subtlety in rather heavy-handed realities. Both the actors and their characters are finding their resilience, and I know I say the word “exciting” a lot when I talk about this process, but it really really is.

Mark your calendars! Nordost will be performed at the Havana Theatre on Commercial drive March 4 – 7. Tickets can be purchased online at nordost.brownpapertickets.com.