Rampant with Memory

David Hume on birthdays


David Hume (1711-1776) mausoleum
David Hume (1711-1776)

Eighteenth century philosoper David Hume learned he was dying and so within an hour wrote an essay called “My Own Life.” It begins with comments on age and the elements.

“Last night I dreamed about mercury — huge, shining globules of quicksilver rising and falling. Mercury is element number 80, and my dream is a reminder that on Tuesday, I will be 80 myself.”

Elements and birthdays were intertwined for him since boyhood, when he learned about atomic numbers.

“At 11, I could say “I am sodium” (Element 11), and now at 79, I am gold.”

All this spins me off in a couple directions–first, into the countenance of age; the measurement of human life and lively celebrations of birth.

We are all moving into mercury and many of us have already arrived. Some finish before; some go no further. And it’s common, these day, to smash the barrier into a higher number.

David Hume mused on mortality and perhaps so should each of us.  Because musing stops us dead, so to speak, allowing us to take stock of our own lives in a human–and Humean–fashion.

[As well as being an element, Mercury was the Roman god who escorted people into the Underworld.]

It also moves me toward philosophy itself. I have lightly, only lightly, studied it and pleasantly tangled myself into the cobwebs both as an adolescent and adult: two shockingly different ages and approaches to the discipline.

I want more time, always, to savour what I find. Reading philosophy requires slowing down mighty slow, slow like walking on the beach to a roar of water, or meditating high upon a solid cushion.

The art in the thought that is philosophy arrives as a gift. Hume knew this and offered it to us a handful of years before the French Revolution, when Europe leaned forward more deliberately onto the world stage and into history.

Tomorrow I turn 57. My birthday is July 14th: Bastille Day. I have always loved being a revolutionary baby–willing myself to storm the great walls obscuring my life.

Tomorrow I attain Lanthanum on the periodic table. This element means: To Lie Hidden. And for me, reading philosophy means rising up and stepping out from the cloud of sleep.

Tomorrow will be time to read philosophy.


A traumatic tour of Europe


How did this happen? Twenty-four years ago I birthed him and now I’ll watch him tour Chernobyl. Not with me, since he is grown up and plans his own travels, but I will imagine him there–there without his mother’s hand to hold; without the security of another box of crumbly goldfish crackers and tippy cup of juice.

How did it happen that he desires Chernobyl as a tourist destination–not one of the Seven Wonders of the World but one of the world’s greatest man-made disasters?

Greenpeace concludes that among the billions of people worldwide who were exposed to radioactive contamination from the disaster, nearly a million premature cancer deaths occurred between 1986 and 2004

A writer at the World Nuclear Association called it  “A direct consequence of Cold War isolation and the resulting lack of any safety culture.”

How did it happen that, in 2016, Chernobyl has become a tourist destination, like Auschwitz, another site my son will visit, no doubt chatting with guides in flawless German.

I remember the day the Dantesque blast tore though my relaxed radical life in Vancouver, silencing my work on other issues like stomping down the patriarchy; shouting slogans at demos.

Patriarchy-smashing returned, as it must, and so continues, but Chernobyl redirected our energies to The Hell that is Other People. Toward the Massacre of the Innocents. (With thanks to Sartre and Rubens here and apologies for my mixed art history references.)

When I spoke with Toto yesterday and learned of his plans to visit this city, and I expressed shock, he said he likes to view urban decay. I thought: Well, there is Detroit. No glibness intended.

And Auschwitz?

Furthering my son’s education on Nazi Germany is an important link to his ancestry. His father was born in in Germany, and while Angela Merkel generously welcomes refugees fleeing Aleppo and elsewhere, learning about that particular war was something I insisted upon as soon as Toto was resilient enough, resilient enough to learn about atrocity.




A tree, a robin, and Shakespeare



The buds, the buds. The robin, the robin.

Both are of today and now let me elaborate.

It is mid-March, nearly the Ides of March and the day that, 24 years ago, I gave birth to my son Toto in Vancouver’s St. Paul’s hospital.

“A born philosopher,” said my friend Claire as she saw him wheeled out of the operating room after his emergence–squeezed like a tube of toothpaste–from my belly, born like the great emperor Julius Caesar.

Or like MacDuff in MacBeth who was “from his mother’s womb/untimely ripped.”

In Shakespeare, March 15 was the Ides of March. Julius Caesar was warned by a soothsayer not upon his birth but upon his death circa 44BC.


Who is it in the press that calls on me?
I hear a tongue shriller than all the music
Cry “Caesar!” Speak, Caesar is turn’d to hear.

Beware the Ides of March.

The day was correctly predicted to be the one on which Caesar was assassinated in the streets of Rome by a group of conspirators, including Brutus and Cassius.

My son, though, was born a philosopher and I love him twenty times twenty zillion times more than I ever loved the great poet or any of his doomed men.

And the buds? And the robin?

Both stepped into the path of my morning walk along the beach. I exalted in the coming of spring and remembered that on the edges of this new season is the best kind of prophesy for the Ides: a celebration of a beloved young life–a poem to me–who was, very much indeed, of woman born.



A bit of life while pondering death


All set to write a blog post, I arrived home and discovered that I had locked myself out of the house. No one with a key nearby. What to do? Well, obviously, head to the local French bakeshop for a strawberry scone with Devonshire cream. Then what?

Thinking about the blog post, I dusted crumbs off my lap, boarded the next streetcar and headed to Heather’s office to snatch up her key.

This story–the one I’m now writing, back at my desk –is a story about life while pondering death.

On the 504 streetcar: I was elbow to elbow, heartbeat to heartbeat against life. Toronto excels at life and it looks so remarkably different each time.

So my eyes cast hither and thither (great to use “hither and dither”), from the folks on the car to the folks on the street; bodies clutching parcels, children, bags, transfers, or hands; bodies perambulating (also a capital word) along Queen Street into shops, out of shops, chatting with neighbours or similar to me just watching, always watching.

And the death part that also preoccupied me?

It was a book that I’m reading and plan to discuss in a later posting. I thought I’d get to it today until said locked-out incident shifted my plans.

The Inevitable: Contemporary Writers Confront Death. 

“Birth is not inevitable. Life certainly isn’t. The sole inevitability of existence, the only sure consequence of being alive, is death.” J.M. Coetzee’s wrote.

Yes, true, oh yes but there I was stationed among all these lives. There I was with no key but a home to return to and a partner not too far away willing to rescue me from my foolhardy predicament and gently encourage me to “make a list of things you must not forget,” including my ring of keys.

While riding the streetcar I listened to a conversation between two men, around 30 years old, who just happened to sit beside each other in the back row of seats.

Man #1 (unsteady English): “I come from Italy but mostly I live, my family live, in Eritrea.”

Man #2 (steady English): “Yeah? Kind of like me. My mom is Jamaican and my dad is white and grew up here. Hey! We’re the same!”

I smiled. I love Toronto. And felt as though I was handed the key to the city.

Beyond the shutters

“Everything we say about death, is actually about life,” Kyoki Mori writes in an essay about her mother’s suicide, included in the new anthology The Inevitable: Contemporary Writers Confront Death.

How does this single line resonate in my life and with my death blog? I slow things down and think about this. Think about nothing else but this. I pause to slide my eyes along the windowpane still pondering and watching cats all padded and puffed for winter.

Seems I say quite a lot about death–but not really. The “I” that writes is alive and well; the “you” that reads is also, I’m hoping, both these things. We are on this exploratory path together and we’ll lie in the same place once it’s over. Indeed, there is life in this activity.

Night sweats come and night sweats go.

They are less about my shifting hormones and more about my fears; fear related to the dueling subjects of life and death. Predictable fears of loss overwhelmingly flood one such as I, a middle-aged woman with parents in their eighties and seven siblings still living.

My four sisters: Kathleen, Heather, Teresa, Frances.

My three brothers: Sean, Kevin, Tim.

All this love. And the fear of loss is a gigantic terror.

So I keep this death blog. I turn off everything else so that I can Think, Noreen! Think! About it.

Today I heard someone on the radio speaking about how we need solitude in order to write. And so I purchased a bit of freedom with a new Apples app. It shuts down my Internet time to zero for whatever duration of minutes I need in order to deaden distractions and dive into the verbiage of my mind. For me, this means doing philosophy.

Philosophy. Thinking and writing on death while allowing the flow of lives to cross the threshold of memory; the padding of lives beyond the shutters.

David Sealy, PhD

David Sealy
David Sealy

I’m editing a PhD thesis for a student who is no longer living. He died within weeks of delivering the thesis to his advisor at the University of Toronto. It’s an eerie and painful thing to tamper with the highly developed and intelligent thinking of a man who likely split his guts open to formulate these thoughts, but who isn’t alive to reap rewards for his hard labour on the academic front.

Eerie and painful to not have him plot out the edit with me from the other end of a telephone. No one to answer my questions regarding his idiosyncratic style. No one to help unfold a roadmap toward greater clarity: the why’s, wherefore’s, and what-the-hells of probing academic arguments.


The author of this PhD thesis was David Sealy. Here is the range of his knowledges: post-Marxist, post-colonial and post-structuralist theory, urban studies, legal studies, criminological studies…

[Take a breath.]

…popular culture studies, gender studies, race and psychoanalysis, and black diasporic, black Atlantic and black transnational studies.

His family has established a memorial scholarship in his name to assist students working in the field of black studies and social justice.

The Graduate Department of Criminology at the University of Toronto hired me to provide these editing services so his thesis can rest alongside other theses at Library & Archives Canada. One of the first things I did was research this man. I discovered that he was eulogized on CBC Radio’s The Late Show. 

“David Sealy’s life was a celebration of ideas, pursued with dogged delight,” they said. “His influence on his fellow scholars and students was immeasurable… and imparted through the spoken word, in the rich tradition of stump speakers and Socratic riffs.”

Stump speaker? It comes from 19th century America when political candidates stood upon a sawed off tree stump to deliver a speech. This person would usually write a single speech to be delivered at most public appearances. The beginning of the speech is usually tweaked to include mentions of local elected officials and campaign staff, with local references sometimes peppered throughout, but most of the speech remains identical from day to day.

Socratic riffs? Sorry, I can’t come up with one of those that quickly. But if David were still alive, I could ask him and he would tell me. The only Socratic quote comes to mind is that old, stale one about what a bloody waste of time it is to live an unexamined life.


Grand Dame of Philosophy: Philippa Foot


Philippa Foot died on October 3, 2010. Her ninetieth birthday. She was an Oxford-educated philosopher. She was Iris Murdoch’s best friend and sometime lover. Yesterday a tweet alerted me to an excellent obituary published in the Guardian, written by Jane O’Grady. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/oct/05/philippa-foot-obituary

For Philippa Foot, virtuous meant well-rounded and human. She condemned moral faults as “the kind of timidity, conventionality and wilful self-abnegation that may spoil no one’s life but one’s own.”

She pooh-poohed prissy moralistic tones that lost touch with real life. “I do not know what could be meant by saying that it was someone’s duty to do something, unless there was an attempt to show why it mattered.”

Foot was a philosopher who challenged the Oxford orthodoxy by stating that the grounding of a moral argument is ultimately found in the facts about human life.

She said arbitrary moral strictures are subjective, capricious, and might just as well extend to “the wrongness of running round trees right-handed or looking at hedgehogs in the light of the moon.”

Foot was a life-long socialist and labour supporter. She voted, along with only three other academics, to prevent President Harry S. Truman (architect of Hiroshima) from having an honorary Oxford degree.

Before yesterday’s tweet, I hadn’t heard of Philippa Foot. Nor had I read Iris Murdoch’s 1968 novel The Nice and the Good, in which her friend is portrayed. Yesterday’s tweet, in fact, was only the second tweet I’ve ever received. It’s a brave new world to me.

I’ll end this posting with one more comment by Philippa Foot.

As a philosopher, she once said, she felt like a geologist tapping away with a tiny hammer on a huge cliff. If you replace the word philosopher with social networker the quote works excellently for me as well.

Thanks to my new twitter friend for mentioning the obituary and thanks to Jane O’ Grady for writing it.

And happy birthday to Philippa Foot. I wish you were still around to enjoy it.

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