Month: October 2014

Named, unnamed

I don’t want to write about Jian Ghomeshi.

Yet I find myself reading, tweeting, commenting endlessly. Not even about him directly, but about all of the reactions to him and the story he crafted. What our collective responses mean, how this news brought the words Rape Culture into mainstream media. How that carefully crafted statement drips with the venom of language used in service of an agenda, which it always is, but this one is so, well, apparent.

Who speaks, and who is silent?

For the first time in a long time, I’m at a loss for words. The only words that I can reach for aren’t exactly words, but descriptors that I’ve enlisted to take the place of names. Common male names that I’ve chosen to replace, because dragging those around and being reminded of them on a daily or weekly basis just wouldn’t do. A conscious trick of the mind, take away the names, perhaps take away the power?

Even nameless, I can’t forget the fact that I still carry around a list. The drunken violent one. The cutely coercive one. The roofie guy. I can’t un-name them out of existence, and their half-erased faces are lurking around in my memory this week, stomping all over the words I was saving for other things.

The women who will not give their names for fear of retribution had a list too, a list one name long or many names longer. They took that one name on their list and they shared it publicly. Now we all watch the responses coming in, and those who have words close at hand weave them together into gorgeous pieces, shouting all those thoughts and statements usually reserved for whispers.

Women with wise words ask for caution: Think about how you respond. You probably won’t know if you’re in the company of a survivor of sexual assault, so act as if everyone you’re talking to is potentially a survivor.

Women with wise words warn others: Watch what you say. There are more of us than you think, and we are standing in the wings, maybe crying softly, maybe stone-faced. We’re watching your response, considering whether or not it’s safe to step forward.

Women with wise words are explaining, sometimes patiently, sometimes rightly less so, why anonymity is the only real form of safety, even if it won’t sate your taste for facts. It’s safer than a key-fist or a whistle. We know that those are decoys, tactics of diversion, covering for the Nice Guys, the Famous Guys, the Charismatic Guys, the It Couldn’t Possibly Be Him Guys.

Because it can possibly be one of those guys, it was, it has been, and it will be again, as long as they remain names or stand-ins for names to be added, silently, to another woman’s list.

I’m surprised at how long it’s gotten, my list, 20-odd years in the making. I don’t want to write about the name that’s trending and all the names still unspoken, but for once, at least, I’m not alone.

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Fellow travelers and other obstacles

I fell back as we turned the corner to the apartment’s side door. I knew that there was still a short hallway to pass through and an elevator ride – more than enough time to sneak a page in. I flipped open the latest Babysitter’s Club and picked up where I had left off in the car, trusting my feet and peripheral vision and no-longer-novel act of walking to carry me safely along.

Was it the subtle rustle of pages that alerted my mom, or a near-automatic reflex: Check on daughter, is she reading? She’d instruct me to get out of bed and get ready for school, and then return to find me sitting in my pyjamas, book in hand. Put it down, get ready.

She wasn’t there to remind me on the bus, and I’d be surprised by the long turn signaling end of the line, two stops past school. Or at recess, hiding under the stairs, then poking my head out to find an abandoned schoolyard. Bookmark in, jump up, run.

The in-between moments that were perfect book times to me were always (apparently) designated for something else. But walking didn’t take much attention, and it was one of the rare times I didn’t need to be getting dressed or going to school or watching bus stops. So I fell behind a few steps and found my bookmark’s trusty spot.

Mom looked over her shoulder. Don’t read and walk, you’ll fall. 8-year-old sigh, bookmark replaced. Feet still working without me, my eyes drifted over the bare pink walls instead.

– – –

I step onto the bus and scan for a spot. The seats are all full, rows and rows of heads leaning towards screens in laps. There are no eyes to accidentally match gazes with, no friendly people to fill the ride with small talk, which suits me just fine. I take a wider stance by the back door and hook my elbow around a pole: Three anchor points to hold me up for this short haul.

I instinctively reach for my pocket, to bow in kind before the small screen, thumb-scroll through short missives or filtered pictures. Then I remember the latest issue of Room stashed in my backpack for this exact window of bus-time. I dive into the world of words and come up for air just as my stop is approaching. Out of hurry or habit, I step off the bus with book still in hand. I stop and hesitate for a moment, do I really need to put it away?

The bus is emptying, ripples of passengers dividing around me as I’m still as a statue, holding my book in the air as if to proclaim the fading virtue of bus-reading. But I’m barely affecting the current. Elbows are bent, heads still bowed to screens as well-trained feet carry them off towards the mall. There are no mothers here to take up the familiar reprisal, Don’t read and walk, you’ll fall.

Maybe at 8 I was preparing for a future none of us had seen, honing the skill of moving forward and inward at once, fragmenting my attention and portioning it out with careful divisions: a smidge of hearing for oncoming traffic, a sliver of vision to the path below my feet, a microsecond allotted for eyes to dart up at the end of each sentence, to watch for fellow travelers and other obstacles.

I have two pages left, and a parking lot to cross. I set my feet in motion and flip the book back open.


Rehearsing tough

There is a line that I draw, and redraw, and redraw, between what is tolerable and what is not. It shifts with my expectations, my confidence, my priorities. It shifts with my mood. It shifts with the seasons.

In Winnipeg, we always talk about the weather. Are we special? No, every place has its own set of atmospheric vagaries that shape our movement, fashions, habits, routines.

What’s exceptional about our weather (as much as it pains me to write those 5 words, which, standing on their own, read as the most mundane declaration in the prairies, but stay with me, please!) is the yearly range, the distance between extremes. Well past 30 above in the summer, often beyond 30 below in the winter. But we don’t jump about too much, we adapt in little shifts.

As we descend, each 5 degree drop comes with a twinge and a resigned sigh. Last week, in the mid-teens, I replaced screens with storm windows and packed up all the open-toed shoes. Today I pulled my hood up to defend against tiny hail droplets, but took comfort in the fact that we hadn’t yet moved into full-on hat and mitts territory. The cold approaches and I retreat at first, scaling back further into my house and piling on blankets. Then I acclimatize, re-bundle, and wander out again, smiling at the sun on my face even as the wind blows more and more bitterly.

It’s not winter yet, but it will be. And I know that when -30 comes, I’ll look back at these flirting-with-zero days with a mix of envy and desperation. Winter’s approach feels certain; Spring can’t ever be trusted.

Here, we complain, joke, mythologize the weather. Our city’s rich music scene, often credited to the months spent in half-hibernation. The warmth of our personalities. Our resilience.

I worry that strength and resilience are misread into a much harsher reality: Expecting the cold, and facing it with a sad, cynical smirk. The blunt bravado behind what won’t kill me will make me stronger.

This strength comes at a price, as it always does. To steel my cheeks, unflinching in the face of 60 km/h hail-speckled wind, may lessen my suffering for the dark months, but it’s harder to just flip the switch back come July: The air is kinder, it’s time to feel now. It’s more than the weather that seeps deeper inside, reinforcing a kind of permafrost.

After spending the longest part of every year rehearsing tough, it takes more than a short spurt of relative warmth to truly thaw.