Back to School (the magic and the whimsy)

At the risk of sounding very, very odd indeed, I must confess there is a cupboard at my office that is my “favourite” because of the way it smells. It is a wooden cupboard that contains office supplies–pens, pencils, markers, paper–in neatly organized piles and packages. Now, I consider almost any neatly organized cupboard to be a thing of beauty, but the reason I love this particular cupboard so much is because it smells like Back to School.

Does “Back to School” have a smell? Yes, it most certainly does. It smells like pine wood, pink erasers, and writing utensils that have not yet been used. It can also smell like fresh Hilroy notebooks, the clean plastic interior of a new pencil box, or that cool autumnal snap that floats in strands on the lingering summer air. Oh yes, Back to School has a smell, and it is one of my favourites.

My birthday is in the spring, and the year I finally turned five years old I was appalled to learn I would still be going to preschool until the end of June. For ages (it seems to me) I had asked my parents, “When will I go to kindergarten? When do I get to go to kindergarten?” and they had told me, “When you’re five.” Well, I was five now so what the heck was my dad doing dropping me off at the Good Shepherd Anglican Church for another day of preschool in the basement with the babies? Apparently, my parents had not told me the whole truth. Yes, I was going to go to kindergarten when I was five but not until the fall. What a rip.

Not pictured: yellow Sesame Street lunchbox

That’s me! (not pictured: yellow Sesame Street lunchbox)

When the magic day finally arrived and I posed for a photo on the front steps with my new red backpack, only two things could dampen my enthusiasm: the first was that my mother, in the wisdom she had gained through her experience teaching small children, had chosen to dress me in nice new jeans instead of a dress or a skirt which I thought would have been more appropriate for such an important occasion but maybe not so easy to play in. The other was that my new lunchbox (an object I had craved, that to me conferred the same kind of authority and gravitas as a leather briefcase) was YELLOW and had SESAME STREET on it instead of being pink and having the Muppet Babies, like my older sister’s lunchbox. [For some reason, I was so sore about this that when a grade 12 boy on my bus kindly said to me later in the year, “Hey, Sesame Street, cool!” I thought he was making fun of me so I huffed, “Go away!” while burying myself in the corner of the bus seat.] Minor setbacks aside, my first school bus ride (three of us sharing a seat!) was everything I could have hoped for.

In kindergarten, we learned how to tie our shoes (not me though, my dad had to show me a cheat because that one-eared rabbit was having a lot of trouble finding his second ear in that loopy hole; I still cheat to this day) and what sounds the letters make and not to push people or scream indoors and all sorts of important things like that, but the first new thing I remember learning in kindergarten was that there were years. Everyday our teacher, Mrs. Hamilton, would say something like “the date today is September _ _ , nineteen-ninety-one.” And I would think, “I KNOW it’s September, you fool, I’ve been waiting for this since May, but what the heck is this nineteen-ninety-one business?”

Years. YEARS. This September will be my 24th since that first month in kindergarten, and once again I am going back to school (this time for the second year of my masters degree). In elementary school (and let’s face it, even junior high and high school) I could not contain my excitement. When the back-to-school flyers came in the mail I would spread them out and practically weep over the beautiful coloured pens and binders advertised in the pages. Every year meant at least one “back to school” outfit. Every year meant maybe THIS year I’d be top of the honour roll (never happened due to lack of Math and Phys Ed skills), maybe THIS year I’d be popular, or finally grow boobs, or have a boyfriend, or whatever. The night before my first day of grade seven (which is the first year of high school in Saskatchewan) I couldn’t sleep–I had too much adrenaline coursing through my veins, and too many soaring expectations (I did not have another sleepless night like this again until the night before my wedding last year). Every school year brought the promise of learning things and doing things and seeing my friends and having fun.

And every school year brought some disappointment. Now that I’m an adult, I’m not entirely sure why I found so many of my classes to be so tedious (at this stage in my life I’d jump at the chance to spend each and every day receiving a free education with no worries about paying for food or housing), or why I cared about the opinions of people who weren’t my friends, or why I would have wanted a scrawny, khaki-wearing, squeaky-voiced junior high boyfriend had the opportunity for having one presented itself to me. But did care about those things, SO BADLY, and so of course, being the strange, sensitive, hyperactive young grasshopper I was, whose wild expectations far exceeded the realities of both her location and her talents, I would find myself disappointed. I wanted to return to school each year a superstar, and instead, I’d return as just another normal kid.

BUT. Every summer brought the promise of change, and every summer would bring the quiet excited whispers on the cooling breeze: This year will be different. This year will be different. I couldn’t help myself. I loved to dream.

And you know what? Each year was different, of course, though not in the ways I usually expected, and each year was also the same. There were fun days and boring days and hard days and easy days and days where I would write angrily in my journal that nobody liked me and my skin was disgusting and days I could have leaped up a mountainside I was so happy. My friendships were so strong then and my dreams were too–untethered, touchable, breathable. They felt like when you close your eyes in the morning and the sunlight warms your lids. They smelled like frost and iron stair railings. They buzzed like empty hallways buzz, when all the other kids have gone home and you’re waiting for drama practice to start or for your teacher-dad to finish whatever he’s doing so you can get a ride home with him instead of taking the bus, and you feel alone but also courageous and full of promise.

Education (not just the act of learning but the physical institutions and accoutrements that accompany it) has been one of the most influential forces in my life. Although I’m a little wistful that my long, quiet summer is almost over, I’m not very surprised that I decided to keep going to school, or to find myself back here once again, quietly humming, This year, this year.

Fighting Chance presents “Jesus Christ Superstar”

Jesus Christ Superstar presented by Fighting Chance Productions in association with Renegade Arts Company at the Waterfront Theatre (Granville Island), now until August 22.

Photography by Tegan Verheul.

Photography: Tegan Verheul.

Whenever a popular show, especially a smash hit, is resurrected, directors, producers, and critical viewers like myself must ask themselves, “Why this play? Why now?” When the show in question is over 40 years old, enjoys worldwide popularity as both a theatre production and a film, and is presenting one of the most pivotal moments in the Christian faith to an increasingly secular audience, this question becomes even more pertinent. Why Jesus Christ Superstar, I wondered, why now? My first exposure to Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s gospel-based rock opera was during a North American revival in the 90s–my parents went off to the city to see the show and came home with the soundtrack, singing “Hosanna” in the living room and generally failing to impress seven-year-old me. Having been unable to shake my own original impression of Superstar as a fuddy old relic, and being aware that the show has, over the last four decades of popularity on stage and screen, amassed a following with deeply entrenched ideas of what it should look and sound like, I was intrigued by a relatively young company’s decision to mount such a well-known production, and one so potentially burdened with expectation.

Fortunately, Fighting Chance’s Jesus Christ Superstar does not feel dated at all, nor does it make any attempt to reproduce the iconic performances of Ted Neeley and Carl Anderson (who played Jesus and Judas in the film version of the show and in the 90s Broadway revival). Rather than set the story of Jesus and Judas in 4 B.C. Jerusalem, directors Ryan Mooney and Anna Kuman have placed it in a world and time very much like our own, in a distinctly urban setting (represented by metal scaffolding) where social media, smartphones, and selfies not only exist, but help play into the “rise and fall” celebrity culture in which Jesus and Judas find themselves entangled.

I must confess I was skeptical at first when I saw the screens mounted on the scaffolding, and read about the directorial vision to include 21st-century technological trappings in the show, but it works. The presence of media in this production presents a direct challenge to Judas’ assertion (in the song “Superstar”) that “If you’d come today you could have reached the whole nation/ Israel in four B.C. had no mass communication,”  the assumption being that an increased ability to spread his message and have his motives understood could have saved Jesus from crucifixion. Fighting Chance’s staging of Jesus Christ Superstar isn’t so sure (and neither am I)–when we look at the way celebrities of today are worshiped one day and vilified the next, stripped of their privacy, legacy and livelihood by the social media mob, do we really think a Christ-like figure would have any chance of escaping our scrutiny, caprices, and, eventually, our wrath when they fail to meet our extraordinary expectations? The result of this directorial choice gives Fighting Chance’s Superstar an authenticity that a more faithful visual reproduction would not have had and allows it to reach for what the original Jesus Christ Superstar was always meant to be–a refreshing vision of an old story, and an examination of the ways celebrity can destroy our best intentions.

And the music! It’s just SO GOOD! As a lyricist, Tim Rice’s achievement is not to be understated but Andrew Lloyd Webber is a bloody genius. In true (rock) opera form, Jesus Christ Superstar has no spoken text, but it hardly matters when the music is so electrifying  and expressive–the subtle shifts into minor harmonies in otherwise joyful pieces like “Hosanna” foreshadow the fickleness of the mob and the enormity of the burden they are placing on one man. And indeed, the Jesus of Jesus Christ Superstar, whatever connection he may have to his unseen god, is never more than a good man, and Judas, whatever the outcome of his decisions may have been, is never less. As our troubled world waits for the next revolution, we would do well to remind ourselves how often we destroy those who would be our saviours, and how easily they, or we, can be corrupted.

As for the performances themselves, they leave little to be desired from a vocal perspective. A colour-and-gender-blind casting process for Fighting Chance’s Jesus Christ Superstar gives us Hal Wesley Rogers (an actor of colour with an incredible falsetto) in the title role, and actresses Sara Mayer and Lisa Ricketts as Peter the Apostle and the High Priest Caiaphas respectively. Lovers of the film version may take issue with Caiaphas’ low notes (heard in the film in Bob Bingham’s surreal bass) being bumped up a couple of octaves for Rickett’s menacing and sometimes shrill soprano portrayal, but for me it worked. Vocally, I thought the entire ensemble was strong (together with Rogers, Ray Boulay as Judas and Vanessa Merenda as Mary Magdalene made for a dynamic and engaging trio), but I did want to give props to three cast members with smaller roles that I thought delivered outstanding performances not only vocally but also dramatically in bringing their pieces of the story to life: Sean Anthony, required to fight his better nature in order to uphold Caesar’s law as Pontius Pilate, Riley Qualtieri as the bombastic apostle Simon, and Myles McCarthy as the deliciously sinister and slithering High Priest Annas.

As much as I enjoyed the production, I did not leave the show without regrets. The first is that the live band was not visible onstage but instead played the show from the wings. I know the scaffolding of the set took up a lot of space and that staging a singing and dancing extravaganza like Jesus Christ Superstar in a smaller theatre requires tough decisions and sacrifices, but if the show is ever remounted, I would love to see the band incorporated into the visible stage area. Live music in theatre really adds something special to a performance and I hate to see it hidden. My second complaint is an issue I have experienced in a couple of other Fighting Chance shows–audibility. Off the top of the show, the sound levels seemed a little out of whack, especially in Judas’ more instrumental numbers (with the band often drowning out Judas’ words), and there were some microphone issues in both acts. It’s frustrating as an audience member to see a performer singing the hell out of something, and be able to hear how great their voice is, but be unable to make out what they’re saying. The plot of Jesus Christ Superstar isn’t exactly unfamiliar, but it would have been nice to have had a more full appreciation of Rice’s take on this ancient story. I sincerely hope that for future endeavors Fighting Chance will be able to obtain whatever resources they need to overcome these sound issues (more tech time? better mics?) because these kinds of barriers to audience enjoyment or comprehension undercut the otherwise incredible work being done on the stage.

Apart from those issues, I enjoyed myself immensely. The music has been in my head ever since the performance and it seems that despite my childhood first impressions of the musical, Fighting Chance’s Jesus Christ Superstar has definitely made a convert out of me.

Jesus Christ Superstar runs until August 22 at the Waterfront Theatre on Granville Island. Tickets can be purchased online through Tickets Tonight.

Disclosure: I attended the opening night performance of Jesus Christ Superstar courtesy of Fighting Chance Productions.

Federal election 2015: Fight their money

The bell has rung, the gates have opened, the flag has waved, and they’re off! Four federal political parties running neck and neck towards the grand prize, a four-year mandate to govern this country we call home (well, three running neck and neck and one trailing behind in a really heartbreaking underdog story, and technically the Bloc also running but more for the sake of biting the other parties’ ankles and stirring shit up). It’s time for Canada’s longest (and most expensive) election campaign in over a century. Time for our parties’ leaders to dust off their folksy sweaters, firm up their “meeting the average voter” handshakes, and let the attack ads and photo ops fly. Feel the excitement! Feel the thrill!

I’ve never made a secret of my disdain for Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative government, and I simply could not suppress a cynical snort when I read our incumbent PM’s rationale for calling an election campaign so far ahead of the fixed October 19 election date:

I feel very strongly…that those campaigns need to be conducted under the rules of the law. That the money come from the parties themselves, not from government resources, parliamentary resources or taxpayer resources.

Harper was ostensibly talking about the opposition parties, however, given that his is really the only party with access to government resources for partisan advertising (which the Conservatives have continually made use of for years under the guise of keeping Canadians “informed” about government activities, like their boondoggling Economic Action Plan), he is certainly well aware that HIS party was the problem. It’s also pretty brazen to invoke the rule of law, given that members of the Conservative party have been found guilty of breaching election spending rules in 2006 and 2008, as well as committing straight-up electoral fraud in the 2011 federal election (voter suppression via the now-infamous “robocalls”). Almost everything the Conservatives have told us about what is happening in our country in the last few years and about their own actions and intentions is so blatantly and purposefully false that I’d be tempted to call it some sick kind of joke, except I’m pretty sure Stephen Harper is not in possession of a sense of humour, just as I’m sure the many Canadians whose lives are negatively affected by the Conservative’s various ill-supported policies are not feeling too hilarious right now either.

As for the claim that parties should be spending their own money on their election campaigns, that much is true, and Harper knows his party can easily outspend any of their rivals (it’s not too hard to raise donations when your supporters are typically well-to-do corporate elites; it’s a little harder when your party is trying to appeal to the working poor and struggling middle class families). Far from ensuring a fair fight, Harper’s early election call ensures he can control as many angles of the game as possible, and ensures that his party’s particular strength (garnering donations, if not actual popular support) will be a key factor in the campaign (as it stands right now, none of the opposition parties can afford to run an election campaign for this long; Harper can). Former head of Elections Canada, Jean-Pierre Kingsley, was quick to call out Harper for “gaming the system” and for saddling the Canadian taxpayer with additional costs (a 37-day election period, the usual minimum, costs Elections Canada approximately $375 million to administer; the election campaign we are now in will last 11 weeks).

Increasing the campaign length isn’t the only trick Harper has up his sleeve. Bill C-23, the shockingly-named “Fair Elections Act”, has made it harder for thousands of Canadians to vote, and has prohibited Elections Canada from encouraging voting. Again, not a joke. The federal body responsible for administering elections in Canada is no longer allowed to encourage Canadians to vote. They can tell you where the polling stations are, they can tell you how to register as a voter in your riding, but actually saying, “Hey Canadians, please consider exercising the democratic freedom many people worldwide continue to die for and cast your ballot for your preferred candidate at the next election”? Not allowed.

harper-not-careSo what can you do, if you don’t want the Harper Conservatives to win the next election? They have the money, they’ve controlled the message for years, and they’ve had the power to change Canadian election laws in their favour, so what can you possibly do?

For starters, you can fight their money with your money. Though the Conservatives have a bigger war chest than the other federal parties, all parties are bound by campaign spending limits. The Tories could have all the money in the world but after a certain point, they can’t do much with it during the election. This means that anything you can do to help the opposition party of your choice close the funding gap not only helps that party get their message out, but also weakens the comparative power Harper’s sizable piggy bank gives him. And every little bit, even $5 if you have it, helps. [Another nice thing about donations to political parties is that they qualify for a pretty generous tax credit–up to 75%–so a donation of $100 would usually only end up costing you $25 after you file your taxes.] You can donate to the NDP here, to the Green Party here, and to the Liberal Party here (and in case you’re wondering, yes, I listed these links in the order in which I personally like the parties).

If donating to a particular party isn’t your thing, but you do want to support a cherished political cause in its fight against the current regime, that is certainly an option. For example, if you don’t want oil tankers navigating coastal waters in BC and just want to make sure that whoever wins the election isn’t in favour of more of them, you might want to support the activities of the Dogwood Initiative. If your main concern is the Harper government’s erosion of Canadian democracy, you could consider a donation to Leadnow. The Internet has allowed concerned Canadians from coast to coast to come together in unprecedented ways. A Google search should help you find the activist community deserving of your dollars. [Note: sadly, these activist organizations usually do not qualify as registered charities for the purposes of tax credits, but you’ll probably get some good karma.]

Can’t stomach the thought of another four years of the Harper Conservatives but can’t afford to make any political donations? That’s okay too. You can fight their money with your time. Both political parties and non-party political activist groups like Leadnow rely on dedicated armies of volunteers to get the message out. Donations can buy a lot of advertising, and a lot of annoying phone calls from strangers, but there really is no replacement for people power, especially the power of local people to stand up for their own communities (remember last April when Enbridge had an unlimited budget to spend on promoting a “yes” vote in a Kitimat plebiscite on the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, and the “no” side still won with 58%? People power!). No riding should ever be considered “safe” of course, but your time might be best-spent in areas that usually vote Conservative or where the current non-Conservative incumbent is not popular. If you live in a non-Conservative stronghold and you are able to travel, consider volunteering for the party at large, or for a riding association where you still have some roots or connection to the community where you’ll be canvassing (your old home town, for example).

If you have neither time nor money, fight their money with your voice. The Internet makes this ridiculously easy to do. If you have a blog, blog about the issues. If you’re on Facebook, or Twitter, or Instagram, or Tumblr, or whatever you crazy kids are into these days, share articles, share memes, share information, share your opinions. Challenge political comments you don’t agree with, politely and with facts. Read up on the issues. Get into discussions at parties. Your opinion matters. YOU are a “regular Canadian”. YOU are jointly responsible for what happens to this country, and YOU are jointly in charge.

And then of course, most importantly, fight their money with your vote, and convince others to do the same. Unlike Elections Canada, we’re allowed to encourage our fellow Canadians to exercise their democratic freedom and civic responsibility, and none of our money, time, or voices will make a difference unless Canadians register with Elections Canada and show up at the ballot box to demand change. Not sure if you’re registered to vote? You can easily check right now on the Elections Canada website.

Humanity, Recognition, and Interiority

Illustration from

Illustration from

A couple of weeks ago my husband and I were in the car together and I asked him who he “talks” to–you know, who he’s traditionally turned to when he was upset, or his heart was broken, or things in general just weren’t going well. My husband and I have a very communicative relationship and we talk all the time (on our first date I was impressed by his excellent conversation), but he certainly doesn’t psychologically “dump” on me the way I sometimes do on him, and the way my sisters and childhood best friend and I have long “talked out” our disappointments, problems, and fears.

To my surprise and discomfort, he said he doesn’t, or at least not with any regularity.

My first impulse upon hearing this was sadness; I felt that my fun and social and considerate husband was somehow missing something important in his life. But TC says he doesn’t always need to “talk out” the way I do. His friendships aren’t built using all of the same blocks as mine (verbal sharing of Costco-sized amounts of psychological/emotional weight is not the only way to maintain strong bonds, as it turns out), and his emotional needs are, quite simply, different from mine.

So now my feeling is weirdness and discomfort. Intellectually, I accept that different humans are different. But it’s weird. Weird because for me talking (and, by extension, writing) is almost a medical necessity–I’m fairly convinced that if I didn’t share whatever is on my mind at some point, even good happy very exciting things, they would fester and eventually choke me. Discomfort because apparently it’s not the same for TC, and I don’t know how to process that. How can a need that is so significant and vital to me be almost non-existent in another person, especially a person that I usually feel so emotionally in tune with?

It’s especially discomfiting because despite my attempts to curb my natural self-interest, I sometimes have a hard time remembering that other people have inner lives, and that their inner lives are just as deep and rich and important as mine. For me, talking (or writing) is a huge part of the expression of my inner life–it’s how I remind the world, and myself, that I’m here. But some people don’t feel the need to prove the existence of their inner lives, or instead find other ways to express them. And I am so wrapped up in my own perception (one that sees through the lens of my inner life) that I fear I am sometimes in danger of assuming that an absence of expression (in a language I readily understand) equals an absence of interiority.

Recognizing the interiority of others is incredibly important. Not only does it make us better partners, family members, and friends, this recognition is vital to the way we treat each other as human beings. Many an injustice has been perpetrated against specific “other” groups of people by using the excuse, “They just don’t feel the way we do.” For examples of this excuse in action, we could look to former U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. William Westmoreland’s statement that “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner” in the Vietnam war documentary Hearts and Minds, or Voltaire’s many and virulent assertions that the Jewish people, due to some inherent racial shortcoming, do not possess the capacity for generosity, decency, or hospitality (as you can imagine, Voltaire’s opinions on this subject gained a lot of traction with infamous anti-Semites like Adolf Hitler and continue to be quoted with glee in extremist fanatic corners of the Internet). When we present others as lacking interiority, we present them as “sham” people–hollow pretenders who deserve our hatred and prejudice–rather than as people whose experiences and pain are as legitimate as ours.

Humane treatment of others requires us not only to recognize the interiority of others as legitimate, but also to assume interiority even when it is not, or cannot, be expressed. Failing to do this has, historically, had serious implications for our treatment of non-verbal and/or non-communicative people, including the mentally ill, people with cognitive or other medical disabilities that prevent traditional communication, and infants. Did you know that as late as the mid-1980s (in the U.S. at least, but likely in Canada too), doctors erroneously believed that infants could not feel pain, and serious surgeries were routinely performed on babies without anesthesia? Apparently, their cries, grimaces, and physical attempts to push away painful stimuli were considered merely “reflexes” and though infants were given a muscle relaxant to prevent these “reflexes” from getting in the surgeons’ way, they were awake and aware for every excruciating moment of their medical procedures. If someone did this to an adult, it would be the very definition of torture, but because babies cannot verbally communicate their pain they way we do, it was assumed they couldn’t feel the way we do either.

It should be common sense to us that any human being, when cut with a scalpel for example, would feel pain. Our reason should tell us that this is the case regardless of the age, gender, race, religion, class or culture of the person involved. The problem, however, is that despite the earth being peopled for tens of thousands of years with folks whose biology, physiology, and psychology have remained relatively constant, the definition of who qualified as “human” has, until very recently, only included adult white males. Children were not human beings. Women were not human beings. People of colour were not human beings. Because these marginalized people were not considered “human”, it was assumed they did not have the same rich interior life as a white man (Freud, for example, despite the fact that most of his patients were women, did not actually believe women possessed complex psychology and so his theories were actually written exclusively for/about men). This lack of perceived interior life was then used to defend the inhumane and demeaning treatment women, children, and people of colour received (though of course a white woman or child would have been and usually still is a lot better off than a person of colour). It’s worth considering whether or not the fact that these “non-human” people weren’t usually ALLOWED to express themselves has anything to do with the perception that they had nothing to express, and the ways in which prejudice (and the mistreatment it engenders) is self-perpetuating.

The fact that the Western world eventually (and begrudgingly) extended the title of humanity to the poor, women, children, people of colour, and people with disabilities isn’t too much to pat ourselves on the back about. Recognition of our shared humanity was not given out of beneficence–it was wrested from the hands of the status quo by marginalized people (or, in the case of those who could not speak for themselves, by their passionate advocates) after long, difficult, exhausting, often violent, sometimes deadly struggles. And serious injustices continue in the present day, although slightly less overtly. At the same time, some formally very marginalized groups have gone on to oppress others in turn (white feminists, for instance, have frequently been accused of throwing women of colour under the bus to further the aims of a feminism they find more palatable). We aren’t done yet–we still fail at recognizing others’ humanity in so many ways.

I’d like to believe that most of us aren’t monsters. But many of us find it difficult to see the world through another person’s eyes. Most of us, for example, probably grew up believing that gender binaries were pretty simple and set. Boys were boys and girls were girls and though boys could be “girly” and girls could be “tomboys”, everyone seemed to agree on who was who and what was what, just as we agree the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. But we were wrong. Gender is NOT that simple, and not that set. We know this because it turns out that for people who are transgender, our assumptions didn’t add up. We know this because trans* people have TOLD us this is so, and TOLD us who they are. And yet, for some reason, many of us believe the reality of others is something we can have an opinion on, or that we need to agree with in order for it to exist. As if trans* people do not have a legitimate enough inner life to KNOW who they are, and to KNOW whether or not the gender they were assigned at birth (based on their physical characteristics) was correct. As if trans* people do not feel as threatened and humiliated as a cis-gender person would feel if they were forced by society into using the wrong gender’s bathroom. As if the countless indignities experienced (and recounted) by trans* people don’t exist, simply because we’ve never experienced them ourselves.

These attitudes are just plain silly. I’ve never had cancer (and hopefully never will), but that doesn’t mean cancer doesn’t exist, or that cancer patients are either lying or simply “confused” about their condition or the pain they’re in. We shouldn’t need to experience something first hand to accept that it is real, and to extend support wherever support is requested. Unfortunately, our inability to acknowledge and respect the interiority of others isn’t just silly. It’s dangerous, and it causes pain and suffering. Trans* women are raped and murdered at alarming rates. Gay teens kill themselves at alarming rates. African American men are shot and killed by police at alarming rates. Women are sexually assaulted at alarming rates (and then repeatedly asked if they are sure an assault is what really happened, if they are sure they didn’t want to have sex with their rapist). Even children, for whom we often claim we would sacrifice anything, are commonly treated by adults as if they are possessions, not persons; empty vessels for their parents’ or governments’ ideology, rather than thinking beings in their own right.

At the end of the day, it comes down to respect, whether it’s respect for the inner experience of your friend or loved one, or respect for the inner experience of a stranger, even a stranger whose culture, experience, orientation, and existence in the world is completely different from yours. Respect for those who have told us who they are and what they need, and also respect for those who haven’t, either because they lack the ability or because they simply don’t want to. An interior life can be just that–interior. Hidden. The red cells flowing through the artery, under the skin. No one owes us proof that they bleed and hurt just as we do, and the world would be a much better place if we could offer our respect without demanding to see the scars.

[Note–the debate about whether or not the recognition of an interior life can/should reasonably be extended to animals is taken up in J.M. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals, and though the book itself reaches no particular conclusions it is a great addition to the discussion.]

The forests are burning (your children are burning)

Photo: Brayden McCluskey

Photo: Brayden McCluskey

Sometimes I wonder why people still have children. I wonder when the sky fills with smoke and the air tastes like ash, when the heat comes in and sits, indifferent to the presence of the sea, indifferent to the ceiling fan, indifferent to everything that should shoo it out again. I wonder when I start to describe the blue sky as “relentless”–another day without rain. Another day without rain.

I wonder when I hear how many of these wildfires were started by discarded cigarettes, one person’s slow careless suicide ripping like a whip-crack across the tinder-dry grass and into a forest of–firewood, now–hot coals, now–charcoal, now–ash, now.

And still the heat envelopes me in bathwater arms, hot dishwater arms, drowns me in dry air, and still the sky, behind the smoke, relentless. Blue.

I wonder at our gleeful march towards death, our species hell-bent on fashioning this hell-scape on earth. And I know, we did this. We’re doing this. I wonder why I should have children. I wonder, if I did, what they would grow to see–their childhood home, consumed by the flames? Their spiral-shelled shorelines slick with the entrails of tankers, slick with the oil that should have stayed in the ground? And, if they live to be old, the sunny backyard where their parents were married, submerged in the rising sea? The ice caps are melting. The ocean’s expanding. We’re doing this.

Do you, you avaricious elders, deserve my children, deserve their flesh (my flesh) and their hope (your hope) and their bright new shiny spotless souls? When I was a child you told me that I was the future. You–teachers, government–told me that what you were doing was for me, for my own good, for me and my children and my children’s children. But I am grown up now and no one has saved the planet for me. And when I say, I want to save it, please help me try, you say I am naive, you say we all need jobs, you say “dollars and cents”, that we need to pull the oil out of the ground because it is worth too much, we need to ship the oil and sell the oil and burn the oil, you say money is more important than life.

Your children can’t eat money. We can’t draw money cool-sweet from the ground and drink it. Money can’t buy us rain or stop the hot beating of the blue sky, relentless.

Come now, you rich people, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. [James 5: 1-4]

Show me, wasteful citizens of a wasted planet, that you deserve my children. Convince me that you will not throw them into the flames as you have done with yours. Promise me you will not tell them that their hunger, their thirst, their choking for a clean gasp of air is naivete. Show me that you need them as more than just a bandage made of hope, as more than just a witness to our final ashy breaths.

The “play” is the thing

I can't find any images of children at here is a picture of a goat.

I can’t find any images of children at play…so here is a picture of a goat eating dandelion leaves.

Though not an educator or a parent myself, like most adults (especially those adults who want to have kids sometime) I have Opinions about education and childhood.

I have Opinions about Kids These Days and What Are Teenagers Thinking?! and No One Respects Their Elders Anymore, etc. etc.

So when the idea of year-round school (essentially cutting out summer vacation and replacing it with one to two week holidays dispersed throughout the school year) is floated around, as it was in 2012 when the B.C. government introduced legislation allowing school districts to set their own calendar as long as they meet a specific minimum of teaching days, I have Opinions about that. I’m not for it. (Although there are a handful of B.C. schools that do operate on a year-round calendar, this has not been adopted province-wide or even district-wide anywhere to the best of my knowledge).

When all-day kindergarten was implemented across the board in B.C., I wasn’t for that either. I consider it a Band-Aid solution to the very real challenge of unaffordable childcare in an economic landscape that tends to require two working parents to support even a modest household. I do not agree there is any solid educational basis whatsoever for keeping five-year-old children in a classroom setting for twice as long as they used to be. According to the wisdom of the government, B.C. children were “falling behind” (this is also the government’s position on summer vacations, which is why although they are not forcing districts to adopt year-round schooling they encouraged it). But falling behind whom? Falling behind cultures where children go from morning lessons to school to tutor to night school and live in constant competition with each other and constant fear of disappointing their parents? Is that a lifestyle we really want to emulate? Besides, if all-day kindergarten were truly an educational imperative, kindergarten itself would be mandatory in this province, but it’s not. If you send your kid to kindergarten, you have to send them all day, every day, but if you decide to keep them at home for another year and just plop them into grade one when they’re six, apparently that’s completely okay and there’s no government hand-wringing about how far your kid has “fallen behind”. Can’t see the logic in that. [Note: I am not in any way passing judgement on the quality of kindergarten teaching in this province; I’m sure the teachers and support staff teaching the all-day kindergarten curriculum are absolutely fabulous, but the quality of the education is not the point.]

Children are not little adults. We don’t need to prep them for the labour market just yet. Kids should play. And I’m not talking about “play-based learning” in the classroom or whatever pedagogical buzzwords the Ministry of Education decides to throw around this year. I’m talking about unstructured, totally for fun, (mostly) unsupervised play. I’m talking about two months of swimming at the lake and camping trips and running through sprinklers and building forts and watching your dad stain the deck (and maybe getting to help paint ONE board). I’m talking about fishing grubby change out of grubby pockets and heading with your friends to whatever nearby store sells candy/ice cream (when we were in town that would have been “Susan’s Place”, but at the lake, etc. it would have just been the concession) and playing on rock piles and in the bush.

As it turns out, concerns about limiting kids’ play aren’t just rooted in nostalgia–Maclean’s just ran an excellent interview with injury-prevention expert Mariana Brussoni (June 29, 2015 issue), in which she  discusses research that demonstrates that not allowing children to engage in unstructured, rough-and-tumble play is actually detrimental to children’s health outcomes and social development. Risky outdoor play not only encourages physical activity and makes children familiar with their own physical limits, it also promotes the development of skills like conflict resolution and setting boundaries (which is very important if you want children to be empowered enough to say no to drugs or to practice safe sex). According to Brussoni:

In supervised activities, there’s somebody else guiding the activities; [children] don’t have to set the goals for what they want to do and how they want to engage in it. When they’re out in the neighbourhood [on their own], they’re deciding, “Okay, let’s build a fort. Let’s play prisoner. Let’s play capture the flag.” They’re negotiating back and forth to decide what the rules will be, how it’s going to work, who’s going to do what.

So basically, when we let kids play on their own, we let them develop the skills they’ll need to be adults. Without confining them to a classroom for another three hours every day, or forcing them to sweat it out in school in the middle of July or August instead of being on summer vacation. Huh. I should note that Brussoni was mostly talking about the detrimental effects of “anxiety-based caregiving” as it pertains to parenting and playground infrastructure (which Brussoni says is now too safe and too boring and not as good as a tree or some bushes), but it’s not hard to see how the B.C. government’s positions on all-day kindergarten and year-round schooling are rooted in and play to an anxiety-based methodology of teaching and caregiving. While there are absolutely cases in which some kind of summer programming can be beneficial to kids (children who don’t speak English in the home, for example, may risk losing a lot of newly-acquired English skills over summer break), special cases should not shape childhood experience across the board or indefinitely (once kids who benefit from summer programming acquire the skills they need I’m sure they’d love a summer vacation too), and it’s important to consider what kids lose when we take away their opportunities for play.

Just because play cannot be measured like grades in a report card, that doesn’t mean it is without value. Just because we aren’t keeping children in formal educational settings 24/7, and telling them exactly what they should notice and investigate and pointing their head in the direction we want them to look, that doesn’t mean they aren’t noticing and investigating the world around them. We need to give kids the same chances we enjoyed ourselves (and maybe a little push to take those chances, a push like limiting screen time). Children are naturally curious (that’s why they poke around and ask weird questions I assume). Why can’t we trust them to learn? Do we really think they’re so stupid, so inept, that their lives require elaborate choreography every second of the day? Is a skinned knee or a ripped coat (or even the occasional trip to the hospital for stitches or a broken arm) really such a bad thing if your child is confident, capable, and curious?

I believe in public education, and I know that formal education (especially getting a good grasp of reading, writing, and numeracy) is an incredibly important part of a person’s learning experience. But it should NEVER be confused with the actual act of learning, which is ongoing and unending and absolutely limitless.


Tallinn’s NUKU Puppet Museum is Creepy as F*ck

I like puppets. I like their colourful costumes and emotive faces. I like the magic that happens when a seasoned puppeteer (or even a passable amateur) interacts with and animates a piece of wood or clay or plaster or cloth. One minute you are looking at a toy–the next, a living object. I like the blurring of the line between the mind/personality of the puppeteer and that of the puppet. It can be creepy, I suppose, but deliciously so. [Note – my admiration of puppets excludes ventriloquist dummies, as a strange veneer of exploitation has always soured that particular puppet-puppeteer relationship for me. The dummies are also scary-looking]. Over the years, I’ve taken an amateur’s interest in puppets and their history (specifically Punch and Judy) and, well, I just think they’re neat.

Three weeks ago, on a sunny afternoon in Estonia’s capital city of Tallinn,  my husband and I were wandering the twisting cobblestone lanes of the Old Town and having a lovely time. On the corner of Nunne and Lai, just out of the shadow of the hilltop area of Toompea, we found a cheery yellow building with a cheery orange sign–the NUKU Theatre and Puppet Museum. We thought about going in, in fact, I even popped my head in to check out the price of admission (5 € for an adult ticket), but for some reason we decided to move on and continue enjoying the exteriors of these medieval buildings, gorgeous in the pale Baltic sunshine, rather than enter the comparative gloom of their interiors. Travelling is like that–full of small choices about what to see or not to see, the gentle violence that occurs as you pursue one possibility and eliminate another. And so it goes.

But fate apparently had a hand to play in favour of the NUKU Museum. Although the sun had set the night before in a pink and cloudless sky (we know because we watched it from our hotel’s 8th-floor relaxation centre), the next morning rain was hurtling onto the city, scuttling our plans to visit the Estonian Open Air Museum (and so it goes). Instead of braving the rains and the open skies of an outdoor museum, we popped into a nearby cinema to watch Mad Max: Fury Road (English with Estonian/Russian subtitles; it was great), and by the time the film was over, the rain had stopped and it was after 2:00 p.m.; too late, we felt, to see the Open Air Museum (which probably would have been extremely muddy after a morning of rain anyways), but certainly enough time to revisit the charming medieval Old Town we had enjoyed so much the day before.

And so that’s how we found ourselves once again under the walls of Toompea, once again on the corner of Nunne and Lai. The Puppet Museum beckoned. Why not?, we thought, so we went inside the yellow building with the orange NUKU sign, paid our admission, and slipped through a narrow hall behind the cashier.

After taking us by an immense and empty cloakroom, red stickers placed on the floor directed us through the dim and empty lobby of the NUKU theatre, where a huge model of the purple dragon from Shrek (I assume from a previous production of Shrek: The Musical) was displayed. Though its website refers to the many interactive exhibits at the museum (both electronic and human), I think we must have been visiting during an off-period. What I mean to say is, on the whole, the museum was empty. The only other visitors we saw that day were a tired looking couple dragging their disappointed toddler away from the light-up buttons he’d been playing with, and of the few NUKU personnel we saw, most appeared to be working for the theatre, not the museum, and their eyes passed right over us as if we were little more than shadows.

Speaking of shadows, the museum was dark. Really dark. After the lobby, the red dots directed us downstairs and into what I assume are the medieval cellars that run beneath the theatre. There, dim blue lights displayed an example of shadow puppetry (the silhouette of an elaborate city on one side of a screen is revealed on the other to be just a collection of carefully arranged junk), and also a “wishing” well, which according to the signage, was part of the original structure of the building. A slit in the well’s plexiglass top allowed visitors drop in coins to make wishes, which TC and I did (in hindsight, perhaps I should have wished to be visiting a less creepy museum, but it’s too late for that now).

Farther along the passage (and again, in what was almost total darkness) there was a small screen mounted in the wall and surrounded by an array of a hundred or so buttons (these were the buttons the toddler was so upset about leaving, and this was the only interactive display that actually worked). Pressing a button would display a video clip of Estonian puppets/puppeteers at work (usually on Estonian children’s television shows, and usually juxtaposed with shots of the bewildered-looking faces of the children in the studio audience). We watched three or so clips and when we stopped, an animation of the NUKU logo appeared, beseeching us in his little Estonian voice to continue pressing buttons. I hope this display was motion-activated, as I hate to think of the poor NUKU logo all alone under the theatre, trapped in his small screen, calling to absent visitors in the dark.

At the end of this passage we found an adequately-lit stairwell (hooray!) taking us above ground into a small atrium (housing a couple of large puppets on display), and presenting us with a choice: go right, and see displays of puppets from different countries and also puppets used in shows throughout the theatre’s history, or go straight, through a black doorway and down a winding staircase into what a small NUKU sign called the “Cellar of Horrors: The sanctuary of unhappy, evil and scary puppets.” A sign like that is more like a dare than a warning–besides, what could possibly be scary about a children’s museum in the middle of the afternoon?

As we descended towards the Cellar, the staircase twisted down into the darkness as long strips of black fabric, hung lower and lower the farther we went, brushed the tops of our heads and arms. We stooped to avoid them and, at the bottom of the stairs, found ourselves in a low vaulted room with a stone pillar in the middle, dimly lit by small halogen lamps and by a single shaft of sunlight that entered the room through a small window near the ceiling (it looked as though this window was actually supposed to be blocked by a piece of cardboard, as the only other window was, but luckily for us this cardboard had fallen off). Though the room was small, the darkness and the pillar meant we could not see all of it at once, and so we did walk slowly around the circumference of the space to see which unhappy, evil and scary puppets had made their home here.

As we stepped out of the stairwell, we heard a whirring and clicking noise to our left, and a light began to flash. It was a three-dimensional zoetrope, motion-activated and fairly sensitive. A circular glass cabinet contained luminescent green stick puppets, dancing as the zoetrope spun and its strobe flashed, occasionally appearing to be missing arms or heads. The machine would begin again every time we moved, even on the other side of the room, and it scared me every time.

Many of the inhabitants of the Cellar were the expected goblins, vampires, and devils. They were small and cartoon-ish, propped up in little coffins, and they didn’t seem that scary. What I found more creepy were the puppets that looked perfectly normal–a sad-looking old woman, a giant face leaning against the wall, a little postman who, on closer inspection, had his feet on the wrong way, but seemed otherwise very ordinary. What are they doing there, I wondered, What have they done? I don’t think I saw every puppet–they crowded in the shadows, tucked into corners and along the walls, hard to see on first glance. Were they there before? I wondered. I really didn’t know. With each step the whirring and clicking and flashing of the zoetrope would begin again, confusing our vision, and as we took no pictures in the Cellar of Horrors, I can’t even say with certainty what was down there.

What I do know is that once we decided to leave the Cellar, we did it fairly quickly. I wouldn’t necessarily say I “ran” back up the stairs, with no concern for the fate of TC, who was following, but it would probably be an accurate statement. I’m nearly 30 years old but I’m not ashamed of not wanting to spend a great deal of time in a sanctuary for unhappy, evil, and scary puppets, especially one where a ghostly machine full of faceless green stick-men sits in the dark, waiting for an unsuspecting visitor to walk by so it can dance its ghoulish dance.

The rest of the museum, being empty of visitors and staff, could not shake the eerie feeling that had crept along our spines down in the catacombs. Life-sized dolls perched on windowsills and around corners. Non-working display screens flashed at us, or made futile clicking noises as we walked by. Everywhere there were eyes peering from behind glass panes. Everywhere seemed abandoned, like a room where children used to play but don’t anymore.

And then it stopped. The museum just stopped. There weren’t any more rooms or anymore passages. To leave we had to go back through the display halls we’d just been in, past the doorway to the Cellar of Horrors (gaping like an open sore in the stillness of the atrium), down the other staircase, back into the tunnels with the buttons and the wishing well and the shadow display, up the stairs again, past the dragon and the empty cloakroom and the girl at her cash register and–phew! Into the sunlight.

I’ve no doubt that on a different day, when it is full of children and their parents and staff leading the puppet-making workshops and holding small puppet shows, and the puppets in their cases have an audience that appreciates them, the NUKU Museum is a neat and magical place. But when it is empty, and dark, and just waiting, the NUKU Puppet Museum is creepy as f*ck.

The following are some of TC’s photos from our visit and his captions, which I found quite amusing:


We went to a bizarre puppet museum. There were some extremely unsettling puppets in the “Cellar of Horrors”. I took no photos there. The following puppets somehow did not qualify for “The sanctuary of unhappy, evil and scary puppets.”

not terrifying at all

Not terrifying at all.

not scary in the least

Not scary in the least.

Nope, not evil.

Nope, not evil.

[Lauren’s note: this last one is Punch, one of my favourite puppets actually.]

Baltic update: Riga and Tallinn


Sveiki! I feel that a post about my Eastern European travels is long overdue, however, though opportunities for writing have presented themselves, I have found that I have been either too jet lagged (last week) or having too much fun visiting with family (this week) to make productive use of them. Downtime is an important part of travelling, and one that I have usually used to journal or blog about my experiences, but this time I simply haven’t found myself alone often enough to really be able to frame my thoughts or articulate my impressions.

What I can say now is that the three days TC and I spent in Tallinn (the capital city of Estonia) last week were incredible. It was the only leg of the trip we were going to be on our own so we splurged and stayed at the luxuriously comfortable Nordic Hotel Forum a stone’s throw away from Tallinn’s Old City. Since we were there both in mid-May and also mid-week, there weren’t very many tourists around and the winding streets crowded with medieval houses unfolded as if they were just waiting for us to turn the corner before revealing yet another delightful point of view. Tallinn’s Old Town is very compact (the boundary, for the most part, is clearly marked by the old city wall), and very consistent (there are very few modern buildings to be found once you pass between the guard towers of the old city gate and venture up into the city). We got fairly lucky with the weather and generally speaking, the small area we saw of Tallinn seemed clean, bright, relaxing, and romantic. Just what a vacation should be!

The Latvia leg of our trip has been vastly different. It’s not that Riga isn’t beautiful or romantic (what with its art-nouveau edifices and cobblestone streets), but returning to a place you lived in nearly 20 years ago is not the same as experiencing a new city for the first time. Instead of simply going out to see what we could see, my family and I have been going out to see if we could see what we saw in 1995. Sometimes we found it, sometimes we couldn’t. Overall I am left with the sensation that what I had taken with me 20 years ago were parts of Riga–snapshots of this building or that monument. I don’t recognize the city as a whole and I don’t really know my way around it. Nostalgia is great but when it competes with new experience it’s just…different. Which Riga is better, the one I’ve spent the past week enjoying, the one that is much safer and in in much better repair than the Riga of 1995, or the city I remember, which was both bigger and smaller, more frightening but more marvellous? How is it that I can be disappointed to find something the same, proof that it was real after all?

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, 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.]