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.

Work Less, Contribute More

[Just to preface: I really love my job–that is, the work I do for money. I love it because I like my co-workers, I like what I do, and incredibly importantly, I love that I work 26 hours a week, have every Monday off, and still make enough to add a decent chunk of change to my household’s income. I’m not writing this post to brag–I’m writing it because I am one of the lucky ones, and my case really shouldn’t be so unusual. I believe my current department benefits almost as much as I do from this arrangement, and it should be more common.]

William Morris textile print

William Morris textile print

Work isn’t “work” anymore.

Work isn’t “a good day’s work” anymore.

Work is a Holy Grail for those who don’t have it, and an abusive partner to those who do, telling them, even if their job demeans and short-changes them, that they’re so lucky to have it, because who would take them if they left?

Work is not productive. It rarely “produces” anything of value.

Work no longer defines you–work is divorced from your personality. Work is a thing that takes so much of your humanity from you you must have expensive hobbies and Instagram just to know who you are.

Most of what we call “work” is of little benefit to society, and of no direct benefit to ourselves. We are not growing the food we eat, we are not building our homes, we are not weaving our clothes. Those of us who are employed to benefit our communities in the most direct ways (i.e. those on the public payroll, like teachers, nurses, garbage collectors, public works crews, etc.) are often resented by us for “stealing our tax dollars”.

Now, work means “making money”. If you can make money by taking someone else’s money (or a surplus of your own) and multiplying it through investments or interest or the stock market or some other jiggery-pokery, you are among the most highly respected and well-to-do members of society, even though the janitors in your office probably have to put in a much harder day at work than you do. We accept this as fair even though deep down we know that it’s not.

Work is not fair.

Work is not healthy–work sickens us, mind and body.

Work is not the best thing for your family–you hardly get to see them.

Work does not connect us–if it did, we wouldn’t need so many “team building exercises” in our workplaces. Meaningful work is a team-building exercise in itself, but most of us are not engaged in meaningful work.

Simply working is not an end in itself. If we have worked enough to accomplish whatever it is we need to accomplish, we should be able to stop and go home for the day. If we have become so efficient that we can do what we need to do in less time than we used to, our reward should not be additional work. Our efficiency should not be a reward to our employers, who can now gain more work from less people.

“Jobs” are not natural. If they were, how can we explain the many people in North America working more than one full-time job to support their families? If a job is a natural part of the human-societal contract, i.e. you have a job and in return you are given what you need to support yourself and your family in society, how is it that any full-time job can exist which DOES NOT support you?

Employers profit in bad times. Their salaries and bonuses do not change. They can lay off employees and blame the economy. The remaining employees are scared. They will work more hours for less money. When the good times come back, the employer now has a lean workforce, overworked and underpaid, chained to the employer by fear. They will not raise wages. They will not bring back the permanent full-time jobs they cut. They will accumulate the difference.

Work does not enrich our lives. Work cheapens us, keeps us poor, and makes us dependent on the cheap labour of others in order to afford the things we need and want.

“Growth” is a misnomer. “Growth” is a decline. Our economy does not need to grow for the sake of growing. We are growing our civilization into an early destruction because the planet we live on is not growing with our avarice and ambition.

So what do we do? We’ve moved away from a social and economic structure in which we produce the necessities of our survival. It is unrealistic to expect a widespread return to a time of growing all of our own food, making all of our own clothes, building our own homes, and meeting all of our other needs within our local communities. Many of us don’t know how to “make” things, and so cannot live directly from the products of our labours. Most of us are inextricably linked into a system that involves selling our labour and time to our employer.

So.

Governments should stop being the plaything of wealthy corporations dangling “jobs” in front of them like a bone in front of a dog. Governments should not be compelled to provide subsidies, or green-light environmentally destructive projects, or keep cancer-causing asbestos mines open, just to provide “jobs” to more people.

We don’t need that many people working. We need less people, working less, and making more.

The minimum wage should be a living wage. Those who work the least desirable jobs should make the most money, since they are bearing a burden the rest of us disdain to take on.

There should be no reason for both parents in a family to work unless they want to. There should be no reason for parents to have to leave their children in childcare all day unless they want to. Employers should pay their employees enough to support their families, the way the employee is expected to support their employer.

And what should we give our employers and society in return for this increased financial security and free time?

We should give them what I give mine. I have always been a good, honest, and reliable employee and have striven to do my best in any job I have had, whether I actually liked that job or not. But since my switch from a full-time job to a part-time one, I have realized that I previously had not been everything I could be.

I am more engaged. I spend more time trying to anticipate my department’s needs and trying to become better at what I do. I feel that my department takes good care of me and I want to return the favour.

I am more productive. I work less hours, but the hours I do work are spent working, not refreshing my e-mail. Not waiting for the phone to ring.

I get sick less often than I did when I was working full-time. I have more time to recharge, be physically active, and sleep well, and eat well. I experience less stress. I can go to appointments on my day off, instead of taking time from work for them. I rarely need a sick day, and I rarely experience being sick at work.

And outside of work?

Because I work less, I can go outside more. I appreciate my community more. I appreciate the beauty of this incredibly beautiful province more.

Because I work less, I can pursue a masters degree, and, as it turns out, my liberal studies program is teaching me to be a better person.

Because I work less, I can be a better friend, and a better wife.

Because I work less, I can volunteer many hours of my time to a theatre company that makes art I believe in.

Because I work less, I can write this blog.

Because I work less, I can march for climate justice, and go to Burnaby mountain, and have the time to conceive of a world that is not all about dollars but is instead about common sense. Money will not help us on a dead planet, but you might not have time to care about this, because everyone who works a full-time week works too damn much.

When we work less, we can contribute more, to our families, our communities, and ourselves. But only if we’re paid what we are worth.

We are better than we feel we are, when we’re busy and stressed and all our running just keeps us in the same place. There’s nothing wrong with us. We’re doing everything we’ve been told we’re supposed to do to be happy and thrive, but instead we’re just surviving, and that is not our fault. We are good. But maybe our work is not. We’ve been lied to about work.

Maybe work just isn’t working anymore.

[Endnote: though I haven’t read it in a while, this post likely owes more than a nod to William Morris’ “Useful Work versus Useless Toil”. His vision of work was radical, but also beautiful. To anyone who dismisses labour reform simply because it is “radical”, consider how radical the Industrial Revolution was, with families ripped from the land and forced to live in squalour, working in factories for just enough to keep them from starving to death, all in the name of the “progress” and “capitalism” many consider to be so natural.]

Marcus Aurelius Knows What’s Up

GLS_Marcus Aurelius_Meditations011After making a new year’s resolution to be kinder (and a more personal one about worrying less), Marcus Aurelius’  collected Meditations could not have come up in my liberal studies curriculum at a better time. Sometimes considered one of the original self-help books, it really only falls into that genre if you consider self-help in the truest sense of the word: the author wrote to help himself, not to instruct other people. Unlike today’s self-proclaimed self-help gurus, Marcus Aurelius was an emperor of Rome and had no need for either wealth or fame. He never intended for his meditations to be published, and had nothing to gain by recording his personal thoughts and philosophies, except actual Self Help, that is, he wrote down his thoughts to reflect on his character and to help himself in his never-ending struggle to be a better human being. Marcus Aurelius more or less tried to follow a Stoic philosophy, and though I’m not 100% convinced that kind of philosophy is for me (I’d rather wish for a loved one not to be ill, for example, than to wish that the illness of a loved one didn’t bother me), the humility and sincerity with which he recorded his private meditations make for a deeply personal read, and many of the struggles he returned to again and again are struggles I am familiar with myself (even though I am not a 70-year-old Roman emperor and seasoned general leading military campaigns in Germany).

Being concerned with your own goodness, not other peoples':

What ease of mind a person gains if he casts no eye on what his neighbour has said, done, or thought, but looks only to what he himself is doing, to ensure that his own action may be just, and holy, and good in every regard. Do not look back to examine the black character of another, but run straight towards the finishing line, never glancing to right or left.

– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.18

When people endeavor to be kind they often set out to extend themselves beyond the narrow sphere of their own lives. They endeavor to consider the lives of others, whether these “others” are halfway around the world or just around the corner. Kindness is often synonymous with an expansion of awareness of and concern for the lives and actions of other people.

This is fantastic stuff, however, “thinking about others” isn’t always a good thing. Sometimes when I think about others, I end up thinking about climate change skeptics, and Stephen Harper, and Vladimir Putin, and ISIS, and MRA groups, and oil companies, and rotten CEOs who take home huge bonuses while their employees take home pay cuts. I also think about rude people on the bus, or trolls on the Internet, or acquaintances whose behaviours/opinions I disapprove of, or an argument I lost a year ago that still cheeses me off. And it’s not helpful. Teachers used to say “Keep your eyes on your own paper,” and I think I need to do a bit more of that, figuratively speaking. It’s not that other people don’t matter, it’s that my own behaviour does not, and should not, depend on what they do.

Not worrying about dying/when you’re going to die:

There is a stream of things entering into being, and time is a raging torrent; for no sooner does each thing enter our sight than it has been swept away, and another is passing in its place, and that too will be swept away.

– 4.43

All that you see now will very swiftly pass away, and those who have watched it passing will swiftly pass away in their turn, and he who dies in extreme old age will be brought to a level with one who has died before his time.

– 9.33

Whether it happens in sixty days or sixty years from now, I am really afraid of dying. I’m afraid of being in pain or being scared, and I’m afraid of making the people I care about sad. I am afraid that if this life is all there is (and there is so little, or perhaps no, evidence to show that it isn’t), that I will not make it count.

Marcus Aurelius didn’t worry about death, or at the very least, he made a repeated and concerted effort to make his peace with it (and he kind of had to considering he was old and in ill health and waging a war far away from home). Whether you die old or young, virtuous or not, you have lived all the life you are going to live, and after that there’s just nothing to worry about. Marcus Aurelius saw trying to be good as a way to live your life to the fullest while you were here, by acting on and developing the natural goodness he believed existed in every human being. After that–no worries.

[Unfortunately, the Meditations offer very little comfort to those who are afraid of the deaths of other people. Marcus Aurelius did lose several children, and of course he did grieve them, but he tried to avoid dwelling on it–it’s more sensible to try not to be sad about the death of a loved one than to wish it hadn’t happened, and Stoic philosophy considered the welfare of your loved ones, incredibly, to be “indifferent” to the question of your own happiness. Which I don’t agree with. But at least I can try to come to terms with my own eventual death, so, you know, that’s one less thing to worry about.]

Not worrying about achieving fame, praise, or other external measures of success:

Cast everything else aside, then, and hold to these few truths alone; and remember, furthermore, that each of us lives only in the present, this fleeting moment of time, and that the rest of one’s life has either already been lived or lies in an unknowable future. The space of each person’s existence is thus a little thing, and little too is the corner of the earth on which it is lived, and little too even the fame that endures for the longest; and even that is passed on from one poor mortal for another, all of whom will die in no great while, and who have no knowledge even of themselves, let alone of one who has died many long years before.

– 3.10

Does an emerald become any worse if nobody praises it? Or gold, ivory, purple, a lyre, a sword, a blossom, or a bush?

– 4.20

All is ephemeral, both that which remembers and that which is remembered.

– 4.35

Somehow the encouraging phrase, “You can do anything”, which I have heard and read so often in my lifetime, has given birth to the sneaky subconscious follow-up, “Therefore, whatever you do should be Great,” suggesting that a “regular” life is now something of a failure. The reality is that most of us will NOT do something capital-G Great in our lifetimes, that is, something for which we’ll gain recognition. Most of us will live and love and die without anyone outside of our acquaintances ever knowing we existed. At our funerals people will say, “He had a great laugh and he loved practical jokes” or, “She always loved music,” and that is just fine. Not having done something Great does not make what contributions we did make any smaller.

I should point out that the few quotes I’ve included are just examples of Marcus Aurelius’ writings on these issues, when in fact, the Meditations in their entirety repeat these thoughts over and over, in various permutations. If you read the Meditations as if he wrote them for the benefit of others, you’d think that the author had completely accepted death, and bad things happening to loved ones, and bad people existing in the world who will never see the error of their ways (or as I put it to TC, “Some people are going to die never knowing what assholes they really are and I have to be okay with that”). When you remember that Marcus Aurelius wrote for himself, you realize that he returned to the issues of death, and recognition, and his relationships with others again and again because he struggled with them. He would not have written about these issues day after day after day if they weren’t on his mind.

And so what Marcus Aurelius gives me is permission to struggle with life, while at the same time acknowledging that nothing is preventing me from doing my best (my best being whatever I can do before encountering an obstacle that is outside of my control). Throughout, Marcus Aurelius reminds himself that all the retreat he needs from the cares of everyday life can be found in his own mind. And reading him I find, for myself, a serenity that wasn’t there before.

Dispatches from the Rehearsal Hall: Nordost

This spring I have the privilege of acting as production dramaturg for the play Nordost, by German playwright Torsten Buchsteiner (translated by David Tushingham). The director, Aliya Griffin, and I are good friends and co-artistic directors of Aliya’s performance society brainchild, The Troika Collective (which is to say these dispatches will be somewhat self-serving since obviously I want to spread the word about this amazing show).

This room is "the skinny", where the cast was rehearsing yesterday!

This room is “the skinny”, where the cast was rehearsing yesterday! (This photo is a few years old).

It’s been a couple of years since I’ve been involved in a rehearsal process and I must confess my theatrical muscles have gotten a bit stiff lately. This makes me somewhat wistful, remembering a time when life was pretty much one long loop of rehearsing and performing and I got to move and shout and experiment and collaborate and create with my friends a few times a week (there really was something lost when I decided not to make performing a priority anymore). But it’s kind of invigorating too–waking up old sensibilities, watching the creative process unfold, and having it feel fresh again, rather than being the same old slog (which does happen, as much as I enjoyed performing). I think production dramaturgy is a good fit for me, and a fortunate one–not every director will work with a dramaturg (and some who have dramaturgs foisted on them don’t listen to them anyways). There’s something very attractive about dipping my toes in the process but not getting fully immersed. I get to see something different from what the director and cast are seeing (because they are seeing the everyday of it, and I am seeing more like time-lapses), and that’s kind of special.

But still very daunting. In the past, The Troika Collective has created the work we perform, and you’d think mounting a show that has already been written and performed successfully elsewhere would be easier for us, but it really isn’t. When the challenge of writing a new piece is removed, the challenge of working within textual constraints (and with expectations, if the play is well-known) replaces it. Our production will also be the North American premiere of Nordost, and that is a pretty big responsibility, especially when the subject Nordost tackles is so solemn.

Which brings me to the challenge of content. All plays, no matter their subject matter, should be rehearsed and performed with rigour and intention. That being said, some demand this rigour more than others and we are currently rehearsing a pretty rigourous play. From the perspectives of three different women (a Russian mother of two, a Latvian-born paramedic working in Moscow, and a Chechen widow-turned-militant), Nordost tells the story of the 2002 hostage taking of the Dubrovka Theatre in Moscow by Chechen rebels/freedom fighters, and about the Russian government’s duplicitous and bungled response, which left all of the hostage takers and plus 129 Russian civilians dead by Russian actions. This is a heavy play.

So how do you tell this story in a theatrical space? How do you bring such a terrible event to life in a way that engages, rather than exhausts, your audience? How do theatre artists engage with this material for several hours several days a week without becoming nervous wrecks?

Thankfully, Buchsteiner has written a a great deal of strength and humanity into his characters. There is grief in this story, and anger, but also incredible resilience. In many ways, doing the play justice will mean getting out of the story’s way a bit and letting the audience experience it for themselves. As for the artists working on the show, I feel safety and camaraderie in the rehearsal room and that goes a long way. Rehearsals can still be incredibly pleasant, even fun, in spite of the seriousness of the play being worked on.

There are also formal challenges. Nordost will be performed in the round, which I think is one of the more difficult stage configurations. Unlike a proscenium stage, in which the scenes are really moving pictures in a frame, a round stage offers no place to hide and requires each stage picture to be dynamic and interesting from all angles. It’s a configuration not to be taken on lightly, but when it informs the work (as I think it will), it can be a rewarding artistic choice.

Challenges aside, I am getting pretty excited. Everyone involved directly in the show is an excellent person with commitment and vision and it’s sort of like going on a long road trip with your friends–you know you’re going to get tired sometimes but you know it’s going to be so much fun.

Mark your calendars! Nordost will be performed at the Havana Theatre on Commercial drive March 4 – 7.

Kindness (My New Year’s Resolution)

I have noticed a hardness.

I have noticed a hardness in the way I speak about people, and the way I think about them.

I have noticed that while in many ways I am accepting, or at least tolerant, of difference (and hopefully occasionally downright welcoming of it), there is a hardness there too. Human weakness, which should inspire my compassion, is often met with indignation and impatience instead.

I have noticed more and more a desire to turn off and tune out. I have noticed that this is not so I can embrace the world beyond the screen but instead so that I can hide from it. I am intelligent and educated enough to understand that the lifestyle systems I am a part of tacitly permit suffering (human and ecological) and I am using this same capacity for reason to try to justify it.

I have noticed that it is hard to forgive.

I have noticed that everyone seems to be shooting or bombing or beheading each other all the time and at a certain point a human death becomes just another one on the pile as long as it’s not in my backyard.

I have noticed an insufficient presence of goodwill in many of my undertakings.

I have noticed that it is much easier, and often pleasurable, to complain.

I have noticed a pettiness, and a need to feel superior.

I have noticed all this can exist in my character, defiantly, almost gloatingly, even as I feel exceptionally fortunate for my myriad blessings and wish to be more deserving of them.

And I have doubts. Doubts in my conception of myself as a good person. Doubts in my desire to have children (why bring them into this world? Why do we need more witnesses for the apocalypse we’re actively unleashing?). Doubts in my conception of my own spirituality and philosophy and what I consider to be true, good, and worthwhile.

And there is, sometimes, an emptiness.

Perhaps my heart felt a bad wind rising and squirreled itself away and it’s under a tree somewhere, in amongst the roots, and it’s holding its breath and listening to each groan as the tree swings back and forth, caught between resisting and letting go and achieving neither end.

Perhaps I am the tree, boughs and branches becoming stiffer the older I get, already firmly rooted in my opinions and beliefs and ways whether the soil will hold or not. Perhaps it’s just that I’m not as good at swaying with the breeze as I used to be. And now I’m waking with every creak. Shaking with every storm. Mourning every leaf that withers and falls, because it happens too fast now, far too fast, and is it just me or are the seasons different than they used to be?

And so–kindness.

For me, goodness will not be found in perfection. I will never be without my flaws (in fact, if I am honest with myself, I find them interesting most of the time). Perfection is paralyzing. It’s all-or-nothing. It is not in my grasp.

But kindness is. I would say it’s not that hard to be kind, but that’s not always true. Sometimes kindness is difficult. Still, kindness does not require of me any resource or special capacity that I don’t already have. Someone who is poor can be just as kind as someone who is rich. The powerless can be kind, as well as the powerful. The foolish can be as kind as the wise. Kindness does not need the light to survive–it can be found in the darkest of places or the darkest of times.

And the spirit of kindness can be found even in those beings who are, like me, imperfect.

And so I have found my New Year’s Resolution for the year ahead; just a small one:

I want to be kind.

Photo: Brayden McCluskey

Photo: Brayden McCluskey

London Sightseeing on a Shoestring

Chim chim che-ree!

After a Christmas spent pleasantly in Ontario, TC and I are in London for a few days, ringing in the new year and toasting my big sister and her soon-to-be husband.

While I must admit that my first day of 2015 was spent napping and watching Mary Poppins on BBC One, we have been able to fit quite a lot into those days in which we have been out and about. One of the nice things about London is that you can actually do and see a lot of nice things for free (plus the cost of public transit of course). This can help offset the generally high prices of everything when travelling in Britain, and especially its capital. I’ve started to prefer NOT having too many specific goals when I travel, and if you can keep yourself relaxed (even amidst the press of the Christmas-holiday crowds), London has a lot of experiences in store.

The British Museum (admission free, donation encouraged):

My only real complaint about this museum is that its major attractions are set front and centre, meaning in order to get to anything you first need to push through dense packs of tourists craning to see (and photograph) whatever it is that is considered a big feature. When I first walked into the halls that housed the Egyptian sculpture collection, I thought, oh no, there’s going to be huge crowds around every damn rock. And then my dad told me I was looking at the Rosetta Stone. Fair enough. The crowds thin as you move farther into the side corridors and there is a lot to see–more than you can do justice to in a day, and certainly enough to keep you interested for a couple of hours. The placards beside each exhibit are pretty informative and you actually learn things on your visit.

LDN_EgypianHead

British Museum. Photo: Brayden McCluskey

 

I quite liked the large collections of Egyptian, Assyrian, and Greek sculpture, the Victorian jewellery, and the general splendor of the museum with its covered courtyard and high-ceilinged halls. I was not as into the mummies (I don’t know how I feel about looking at actual dead people) or the artifacts from very early civilizations (or, as my mother calls those exhibits, “pots and pots and pots”).

Covent Gardens (totally free to browse!):

Full of buskers (silver men, the Mad Hatter with a tea party and a mouse, unicyclists, etc.), food stalls (roasted nuts and mulled wine at this time of year), and curiosities for sale, Covent Garden’s atmosphere makes it worth a visit even if you don’t end up buying anything. I went back to the discovery I made on my last London visit, Benjamin Pollock’s Toy Shop. It’s full of toy theatres and shadow puppet sets, paper dolls and puzzles, and although it’s a bit pricey (and the toys, many of them little works of art, would be hard to transport back to Canada), I still love this shop, because toys SHOULD be little pieces of magic and wonder, not just rectangular screens that do all the thinking and imagining for us.

Trafalgar Square (free):

Like a lot of famous places in London (Picadilly Circus, for example), Trafalgar Square’s not really a place where you can DO anything, but it’s got nice big sculptures of lions, more of the aforementioned buskers, and nice views of the London landscape (including Big Ben) from the steps of the National Gallery.

From the steps of the National Gallery. Photo: Brayden McCluskey

From the steps of the National Gallery. Photo: Brayden McCluskey

The National Gallery (admission free, donation encouraged):

We didn’t have a lot of time in this particular gallery (really just a quick run through some of the halls on the main floor), but I like art galleries better if I DON’T make a beeline for whatever is famous and it’s interesting to catch sight of a familiar-looking Renoir or Monet on the walls as I saunter around. Particularly arresting was Paul Delaroche’s The Execution of Lady Jane Grey because although I’d seen a poster of it before in the history wing at SFU (as well as other places, I’m sure, when I studied Early Modern literature), I had no idea how incredibly massive it was. I also loved the equally large Bathers at Asnières by Georges Seurat.

The Tate Modern (admission free, donation encouraged):

I’ve been to the Tate Modern before but it was really nice to go again. After three years it’s interesting to see some of the same works I saw before, and take note of the ways in which how I see them, and art in general, has changed. The last time I was in London, Salvador Dali’s Metamorphosis of Narcissus was on loan to another gallery. When I finally clapped eyes on the original for the first time, I must confess I was a little disappointed. It’s kind of small! And the frame overwhelms it. But it’s still an incredible achievement so, you know, I guess it’s alright.

I liked Max Ernst’s Moon in a Bottle and the painting Marguerite Kelsey by Meredith Frampton. I don’t understand sculpture at all.

Walking (free):

Quite simply, London doesn’t look like any city in Canada. It looks like London. Which makes it a great place to walk around. Parks are cherished by the British and many of London’s parks are huge and very well-maintained (Holland Park is a nice one and my parents really like Hyde Park). Walking across one of the Thames’ foot bridges gives you lovely views of Parliament, Big Ben, the London Eye, and St. Paul’s Cathedral, depending on where you look. A walk across the bridge and along the bank just before sunset it quite romantic, if I do say so myself.

Double decker bus (under 2 quid if you’re not going far):

There are, of course, double decker bus tours in London which often include a guide and go by all the famous sights but if you don’t want to pay for that and you’re not too fussy about what you see it can be nice to take a break from hoofing around and just take a little ride on the top level of a public transit bus. There are sometimes better views up there than you’d have walking on the street and sometimes I just like watching the pretty things go by.

Though I’m beginning to get a bit sleepy and worn out by all the hustle and bustle, on this trip I’m liking London more than I ever have before, and I think it has a lot to do with relaxing and just enjoying having family around and my TC by my side.

A Visit from St. Blockbuster

argo-pic-1

‘Twas the night after Christmas, and all through the house

Not a creature was stirring, not even my spouse.

The stockings were hung by the mantle for show

The presents were open; there hadn’t been snow.

The in-laws were chatting and drinking some booze

And looking at smartphones and reading the news.

And TC in his sweater and I in my smock

Were draped on the couch watching holiday schlock.

When on the TV there was shouting and guns–

Time to watch “Argo”–fine holiday fun!

Up to the flat screen I gave my attention

Ready to hold disbelief in suspension

(I’ve seen “Argo” before and I know it has flaws

But that’s kind of what happens when Ben Affleck is boss).

And what did my baby blue eyes now espy

But six Yankees holed up with a Canadian guy,

And a CIA agent with such lame “hero affect”

I knew in a moment it must be Ben Affleck.

More rapid than pigeons the actors they came;

We ate jujubes and heckled and called them by name:

“Now Affleck, now Cranston, now Arkin and Goodman,

Now Garber, now Denham, now Clooney* and Cochrane!

From the top of the Oscars, to the top of the Globes

Congrats to you, all of you Hollywood folks!”

For a story as bold as an InTouch exclusive,

Where the celebs are all named but the source is elusive,

To the power of entertainment did history bow,

Accurate facts are a drag anyhow.

Audiences forgive these exciting transgressions,

When “based on a true story”, truth’s just a suggestion.

And just as the hostages were accused wrongly of spying

A beep told me my laundry was ready for drying.

A quick moment’s pause, then time for proceeding

John Goodman and co. were arranging a reading.

With a bunch of old Hollywood tricks in his pocket,

Alan Arkin played someone who knew how to hock it.

His eyes–how they twinkled! His bald head, so shiny!

How he hit on the actresses, and looked really slimy!

He’d a grumpy demeanor, but much like the Grinch

He came through when he had to, a bonafide mensch.

Back in Tehran things weren’t looking too swell

For the American hostages life was a hell

And for the six who’d escaped and gone into hiding

They had to leave soon–it was time for deciding.

It was sad to be them but I felt a bit blah

America probably shouldn’t have propped up the Shah.

With a glint in his eye and a beard on his head

Affleck told the six hiders they’d nothing to dread;

He gave them fake passports and got straight to work

But that one guy, Joe Stafford, seemed a bit of a jerk.

But due to some hotheaded Hollywood drama,

The mission was go, no thanks to Obama**.

They went to the airport, and with some good luck

The guards believed they were all just film-making Canucks.

And the stewardess said, as to safety they flew–

“We’ve left Iranian airspace; we can now serve you booze!”

 

* George Clooney did not appear in “Argo” but was a producer.

** Jimmy Carter was actually the U.S. president during the Iranian hostage crisis; obviously it was not Barack Obama.

 

Merry Christmas to all! And to all a good night!