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April 5, 2018

Love and rope and goddamn determination

“If there is wisdom, it’s nothing I know. It’s all just birds and storms and hauntings. We look behind and scoff, as if those ahead aren’t doing the same.” —Rachel Lebowitz, The Year Of No Summer

I’ve been thinking this week about conciliation, about reconciling disparate things. All week I’ve been reading Ausma Zahanat Khan’s latest Esa Khattak novel, A Dangerous Crossing, which takes place in communities of migrants and refugees in Lesvos, Greece, who are hoping to be in transit to elsewhere. The thing about the book is how Khan shows how civil war has undermined notions of community. A point I’d never considered—how Syrians arriving in Canada don’t necessarily want to live among other Syrians, because after a Civil War there’s no longer an assumption that these people are your neighbours. The notion of a camp in Turkey for refugees who are dissidents from Assad’s regime, and who need to be protected from other Syrians who were brutalized and traumatized by these very forces. And then in the Greek camps, Greek Neo-Nazis on the fringes—there’s a terrifying scene of a group torching one of the camps. All the other countries being stingy about helping people in need, and amongst those people in need will inevitably be some who are corrupt and criminal—particularly since these are qualities that would help one survive in a war zone. And there will be rotten people in every population—including amongst the NGO and aid workers, those there to help but who instead are preying and abusive. How far go the waves of people’s capacity to be broken and awful?

I’ve also been listening to the CBC Podcast Finding Cleo, by Connie Walker, this week, another story of violence and trauma, improbable connections, and the ways in which abuses are replicated over and over. I’ve got three episodes left, but have been riveted by the story telling, by the personal stories, but also how the personal stories stand for what happened to thousands of Indigenous children across Canada for generations (and keeps happening today). A failure of systems, just like in Khan’s novel, and a failure of humanity. All these broken parts—how do we make something out oflf the pieces? Conciliate. Not to make a story, as Connie Walker has done so brilliantly, but instead to create something tangible that offers more than a promise that the story we tell in the future could be a different one.

I became unnerved on Tuesday evening after commenting on a Facebook thread (I know: why?) about my recent essay on family and abortion. This reminds me of a comment I’d heard years ago with Gloria Steinem in conversation with Jian Ghomeshi (I know, right?) about how when she first woke up to the message of the women’s movement, she thought creating change would be as simple as just explaining things so people would understand. Which was my intention with the essay, really. I will lay it all out and people will get it. Or if they don’t get it, they will still comprehend that there are things beyond their understanding—what a thing. But no.

I hope that some readers did come away from the piece with a different understanding of abortion than they had before, but these weren’t the ones posting on Facebook. I decided to leave polite comments anyway, thinking that even some dim awareness that the person who wrote that piece was a human being could represent progress. A tiny light bulb. I said, “Thank you for reading. I hope you might have learned something from considering my point of view.” But no, again.

“I have learned nothing,” one person responded. “I’ve just had it confirmed that we live in an evil world where people try to justify murdering children.” And sigh. Because what do I do with that? Furthermore, I know that many people who hold these beliefs do so because of deeply entrenched personal experiences—parenting a disabled child, experiencing miscarriage. These people’s convictions are so fundamental to who they are—I understand that. But what do we do with that? How do I, as a person without religion, reason with someone who tells me that one day I will have to atone to God for what I’ve done? And what does that person, for whom faith is everything, do with the fact that my own beliefs undermine the foundation of their moral universe? I could see how that would rankle. How do we put these pieces together? (Although the other person would posit that we don’t, that it’s the next world, the world I don’t believe in, in which all the pieces will finally fit.)

Can you see how my sleep on Tuesday night was restless and uneasy? And then I woke up on Wednesday morning and the weather was calling for high winds, and we were to beware of falling trees and flying objects. Which seemed, as my friend Nathalie put it, like perfect pathetic fallacy. I’d been wary of such things all week, metaphorically speaking, at least. And how exactly is one supposed to take care? Even wearing a helmet won’t suffice, and also wearing a helmet would be totally weird.

I was still thinking of my exchanges with the pro-lifers, the one who could not comprehend what I meant when I said that my daughter had really only existed when she was a five week old fetus because I was visualizing her as a baby, the one I desperately wanted and already so desperately loved. Because a five week old fetus is almost literally nothing, is what I meant, physically speaking. Pregnancy at five weeks is overwhelmingly perilous, but even still, I bought my daughter her first book when I was five weeks pregnant and read it to her before she had ears. But no. The woman on the Facebook thread didn’t get it. I’m not going to go back and recall what she said, but it was something along the lines of how horrifying it was that I’d be so narcissistic as to think that a person’s existence was determined by my perception alone. Which was ironic, because this person had no qualms about thinking that a person’s existence could be determined by her perception alone. Which was kind of my point all along, the way that one person’s embryo is another person’s baby. But this person was not in the mood for duality; she didn’t understand at all.

I was still thinking about this exchange when I read my All Lit Up Poetry Cure for the day (I’ve signed up to receive a poem a day in my inbox from All Lit Up Canada for National Poetry Month). The poem was “Five Weeks” by Rob Taylor (and aren’t they doing an uncanny job of very specifically curing our existential ailments; who planned that?):

Anonymous. A lima bean, they say.
No eyes or brain beneath
the flesh and blood and membrane
of my wife. But O my burning baby
anchors love within me.
One day
you’ll wonder if any of this matters,
if you and it share a common bond,
if Love’s a word we pin to things
thin-skinned enough to pierce…

And here is where I thought perhaps there were answers. That I could send this poem to the woman on Facebook, and say, “This! This exactly.” Though I feel as though she’d appreciate the poem just as much as I’d appreciate her advice about what to tell God when I finally get to heaven.

While my own heart was mollified with the “Five Weeks” poem, it was still very windy, and I didn’t know how to watch out for falling trees and flying objects, let alone to make sense of the tragedy of Syrian refugees and cultural genocide. But then another poem arrived via one who knows well that poems are an everyday necessity—Vicki Ziegler. The poem was “Problems with Hurricanes,” by Victor Hernández Cruz:

A campesino looked at the air
And told me:
With hurricanes it’s not the wind
or the noise or the water.
I’ll tell you he said:
it’s the mangoes, avocados
Green plantains and bananas
flying into town like projectiles.

How would your family
feel if they had to tell
The generations that you
got killed by a flying

Which is just it precisely, reconciling the miracle and and amazingness of life itself with the absurdity of flying bananas. Later, “If you are going out/ beware of mangoes.” Always, I am aware of mangos. Of the strangeness, the sweetness, the awful violence, the golden flesh, the miracle of life, the inexplicability of everything.

“You think sometimes that things are holding still, or that just one thing is happening. That the volcano is erupting. That the Thames is freezing. That these men are fishing. That this couple here is drinking coffee, and all that is happening is the coffee in the cups, but all this time, the earth is changing, the babies and men and women are blowing off the cliff, or being held on by love and rope and goddamn determination.” —Rachel Lebowitz, The Year Of No Summer

One thought on “Love and rope and goddamn determination”

  1. Alice says:

    Great post, Kerry! Wish I’d known about flying bananas yesterday when the neighbour’s fence collapsed into our backyard after swaying for a few hours in the wind. I needed some perspective.
    I haven’t commented on your essay on abortion because I simply agree–we’re on the same page–but I should remember that it’s important sometimes simply to agree or like.
    ps I love lima beans.

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