Rampant with Memory

Not less radical but more so

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“As we grow older we should become not less radical but more so.”

A thoughtful dissection of these words and next an attribution to the writer.

As we grow older…

Images rise within me, as I rest on these words, beginning with my arthritic big toes that step painfully onto the curb while once they tore though beach sand following upon the heels of other children.

And

A fresh etch on my chin that wasn’t there when I went to bed –that one, there, next to the newly sprouting hair.

And

Whence once I stood, now I sit: “Would you like a seat?” The young man asks me on the streetcar. “Thank you,” I say, appreciating his kindness more than I do the seat. I try not to shout at him: Why would I? Don’t you know that I go to the gym three times a week where I deadlift, benchpress, and sweat?

And

Ah, there surely are endless ‘Ands’ only to be many more. Stay tuned; stay alive; they will come.

We should become not less radical…

Should. Become. We must fully become and then let go. And what do we do during that becoming? Fight like hell to climb that hill.

When I was pregnant I carried my belly during the heat of summer up to my Vancouver loft. I was 32 and my ankles swelled and my toes were fine. But it was a still a fight and now many another.

I was radical then. On the vanguard of gay parenting where I faced assumption, rejection, ridicule, and scorn. Since then, I strive to excel in radical but other preoccupations sometimes threaten best intentions.

Now I am an almost-old-woman ignored. My hands hold the back end of a shopping cart instead of a placard. Maybe someday they will hold a grandchild’s hand. Ah, but inside my heart and thought I am as radical as always.

…not less radical but more so

Margaret Laurence wrote that quote, the one that awakened a flood of words. She also inspired me to name this blog long ago when she gave voice to Hagar Shipley in the opening lines of The Stone Angel.

Laurence wrote that one small sentence but she couldn’t endure old age and killed herself instead. She tried twice, in fact, succeeding only once. Cancer struck her out. Which of her books remain unwritten? Was her final act also radical?

No answer because she can no longer speak it. We are held prisoner, wrapped in the mystery of her life, her death.

But let’s honour her words and fight on.

 

Kinesis means movement

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I never married but I changed my name nearly 30 years ago. I did this after asking my grandmother how she’d feel about my borrowing her name and she said, yes, she would like that. Her name was Mercedes Shanahan; I took her first name too.

Back then, I became a writer while working for a feminist newspaper called Kinesis; that was where I posted my name change as well as in the B.C. Gazette.

Kinesis: News About Women That’s Not in the Dailies. That was our masthead.

Changing my name from Howes to Shanahan was, I suppose, a feminist gesture and one I never regretted. I killed off my old name because I loved my grandmother and once she died the name would die with her. So I took it–I gave it another life.

The old Howes half of my name will carry on: I have six siblings, most with children named Howes, so it’s safe. I love that name, just as I love them, very much, but Shanahan, now isn’t that better suited for a writer? Doesn’t it sparkle in a byline?

A while back I posted about my spinster great-aunt Mary Shanahan. That was after I visited the family cemetery and noticed that as an unmarried woman her tombstone only included “Mary,” dropping that last identifying name.

Sure it was her father’s name but Mary and Mercedes, and their four siblings, were raised by their widowed mother Sarah.

And I? I am another spinster Shanahan to follow Mary’s footsteps into the 2000s. It’s a tale of women, identity, and independence–spanning three generations.

“Kinesis” means movement. During the 80s and 90s when I wrote for that paper and honed my skills was also a time when the women’s movement thrived.

It was a time when our intrepid journalists exposed issues that are only now hitting the mainstream and raising the public’s consciousness.

We wrote about: PTSD; reproductive rights; sex selection in the Indian community; appropriation of aboriginal children; “comfort” women–who were abducted during the Second World War and systematically raped by servicemen.

We were also the first to report on missing and murdered aboriginal women. In fact, in 1986 I shot the cover photograph of a demonstration organized and led by prostitutes in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. These women lost sisters; they lost mothers and lovers; they feared for their lives. It was a generation before anyone listened to them.

Several of these missing women were slaughtered by Robert Picton. A name we won’t soon forget and wish we never knew.

A tree, a robin, and Shakespeare

 

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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.

Caesar:

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.

Soothsayer:
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.

 

 

The task of un-glowing

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A friend asked me whether it’s difficult to un-glow a glowing life.

He didn’t say it like that exactly but that was how I understood it. He meant in the context of writing an obituary about an exceptionally noble subject such as Diane MacKenzie. She was a social activist who lived and worked out west.

“Whether she was recruiting doctors to care for the people of Haida Gwaii, procuring healthy meals for the homeless of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, or teaching in Ghana…”

That’s the lede. Where to go from there?

As well, Ms. MacKenzie had a severe debilitating illness that caused extreme burning in her lower extremities. She worked with her feet in ice buckets and travelled about on a scooter.

A colleague asked why she wouldn’t take a disability leave.

“My feet would still hurt and I wouldn’t be doing the good work,” she responded.

She eventually had both her legs amputated then the disease spread to her hands.

It’s hard to un-glow Diane MacKenzie. But somehow it felt necessary. Otherwise I write glib and congratulatory–a platitudinous eulogy.

Superficial storytelling tinged with falsehoods because lives simply do not come that way. And yet Diane MacKenzie stamped a critical truth into my words that left me not cringing with shame.

I had to dig deep to find flaws. The best I could get was that she didn’t cook Christmas turkey at home for her children. Instead she dragged them out with her to feed the homeless at a local shelter.

Oh, but did I mention that she helped establish the first safe injection site in the Downtown Eastside? That 800 people come in off the streets every single day to use the site? Turkey be damned. Let it burn, I say.

It is challenging to un-glow. That’s what I said to my friend. Kind of like dissing a particular shade of orange on a butterfly’s wing as it floats through it’s brief life.

Please read Diane below.

Diane MacKenzie – activist

Never give up the protest

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A jolt happens each time we steady our feet in the path toward death.

Contradiction: jolt and steady. But that’s the best way to describe it, with the caveat of an explanation. Vancouver, 2014, differs from the Vancouver I discovered in 1984. I had moved to that city from Toronto in great distress and sought a safe landing, which I found, within a feminist community in the east end. As the story went, I blossomed. And now? Can I really be so cliche as to add—and now I wilt? That was then and this is a whole other life.

Having lived in Toronto again for several years, I returned to Vancouver last month to settle in among this same small crowd of women whom I quickly grew to love thirty years ago. It was wonderful and frightening. We are becoming old women before my eyes. jolting, steady footsteps.

Heather and I decided to help our friend Pat plan her 65th birthday garden party. It was a chance to not only show our love for her, in celebration, but to gather with many others out in back by the tomato bushes and zucchini plants, lawn chairs, rickety tables with umbrellas stabbed into them, champagne glasses cradled for better balance, as women with small plates of food stepped along the periphery. A lovely, August afternoon when the sun belted down on our shoulders.

These women and I once danced together in crowded, rental living rooms to “Free! Free! Nelson Mandela.” Gloria’s “I will survive.”

We hoisted placards and pinned protest buttons on our shirts.

We made Birkenstocks fashionable.

And now–still birks? Yes, some women were such shod. Others, though, weren’t walking anymore at all. I helped commandeer one friend’s wheelchair up the slope. Another friend, draped in a blanket toward evening, seated in her own motorized vehicle, spoke about her history of modelling lesbian erotica back when it shocked, long before the gay-marriage whoop-dee-doo days.

Many, many others of us bulged and belched and blathered on about ailments and doctors and that was when I felt the jolt.

I love our ageing selves, truly, but I despair of the end of the garden party days on blistering August afternoons. Carpe diem indeed. And never give up the protests!

Warm to the touch

This is my family circa 2013

Renaming–the subject of my last post, landing on art, as it did, neglected to add that I also grew a new identity with a new name and it was also in an effort to save my life. Neglected to tell why? Because it was trapped like so much else tends to be, cob-webbed and haunting from the tomb of personal history.

There is a faint, very faint analogy with Norval Morriseau in that the result of my name and identity change was a new “signature” on my art, on my writing. Nothing as dynamic and vibrant as his Copper Thunderbird moniker but Shanahan, Shanahan also bore a story and an important cultural history to me.

My grandmother was Mercedes Shanahan and I loved this woman. She married at 30 because she wanted to forge a career and did so, working in a Sudbury mining office in the early 1920s, the only woman there scattered among young men, competing with them for sales and once beating them out. I remember her telling me that she signed letters using only her first initial to pass herself of as a man.

Yes, she won a $100 prize for the most sales and her boss immediately reduced it to $50 because she wore a vulva into the office and not a penis. So Nana split the fifty dollars into tinier packages and handed it out to the secretaries in the office.

I changed my name to Shanahan when I was 23 and fresh from a stay in a Toronto psych ward after nearly becoming dead. I was let back onto the streets and bought myself a ticket to Vancouver where I stayed for the next decade. I wanted to be alive and it seemed easier under a new name and looking out the window onto a new landscape. I wanted the courage of my grandmother and then I began to write. My father’s name had failed me.

I had forgotten all about this when writing the last post and then it struck me: oh yes, that was my experience too, although no parent slipped me into another woman’s arms and asked her to rename me in order to stave off death. At least not literally. But I bear my grandmother’s name and wear her courage and remain, these many years later, warm to the touch.

My best creation: My family circa 2013

A toast to James Pon’s grandfather

James Pon’s grandfather filled my mind during this rail trip from Montreal to Toronto last month. It was he, along with hundreds of other Chinese workers, who built this railway–although on the other side of the Rocky mountains.

Last month, I wrote an obituary on James Pon.

PON, James G&M April 17, 2013

To promote awareness of the Chinese contribution to our country, he established a group to erect a statue commemorating the unification of Canada through the building of the railway by Chinese workers.

James was actively involved and became the symbol for the Canadian Government’s 2006 Redress for Head Tax and the 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act.

While researching James’s obituary I came across this Earle Birney poem. The excerpt wouldn’t work on the page in the Globe so I’ll share it here instead. And I’ll remember sitting by the window, watching the landscape shift into green, and toasting the Pons.

Towards the Last Spike

by Earle Birney 

They tickled her with shovels, dug pickaxes

Into her scales and got under her skin,

They lowered them with knotted ropes and drew them

Along the face until the lines were strung

Between the juts. Barefooted, dynamite

Strapped to their waists, the sappers followed, treading

The spider films and chipping holes for blasts,

Until the cliffs delivered up their features

Under the civil discipline of roads.

Differences in labour and the need for choice

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Sometimes I sleep among the dead. Anxiety stirs me in the night, often after I file an obituary with the Globe & Mail.

I can be lost to all worldly cares, softly purring, tucked away all feline-like in bed when suddenly a thought punctures my dreams and chiseled words come to mind; words I’ve erroneously left missing in my piece clamour to slip into my consciousness before a thump lands the paper on my doorstep in early light, boldly presenting me with: ERROR! ERROR!

Last night I managed to scramble my laptop awake and dash the correction in to my editor before the neglected words vindicated me for journalistic sloppiness.

Former labour leader Cliff Pilkey is my subject. He was president of the Ontario Federation of Labour from the mid-80s to mid-90s when a lot happened in this province. Those were the days when abortion clinics were bombed and Henry Morgentaler was breakfast chatter.

I worked for a feminist newspaper in Vancouver called Kinesis back then and covered the clinic from there, not being as familiar with Ontario’s goings-on as I am now, living here. I’d heard of Pilkey but lacked knowledge of the finer points of what was to become his legacy.

During a 1982 OFL convention women delegates lobbied hard for free-standing abortion clinics, speaking across a hall filled with a few thousand mostly male delegates. Some  brothers cat-called and heckled them, ordering the women to sit down and shut up. They said that reproductive rights–get this–that reproductive rights is not a labour issue.

While in Vancouver I missed this news from that notable convention:  In a sudden, shocking gesture, Cliff Pilkey joined the women at the microphones. He spoke in support of a woman’s right to have an abortion.

“It was the time that the labour movement became a feminist movement,” said feminist activist Judy Rebick.

“Pilkey was the president,”  “He could have said, ‘well, I’ll be supporting you girls.'”

But he didn’t.

Instead he spoke about his mother’s several pregnancies, miscarriages, stillbirths, children. He spoke about her poverty and the forced restrictions on her life. His mother, he said, had no choice.

In supporting the women delegates at this labour convention, he was supporting a movement that gave this choice to women, and to hell with all the cat-callers and nay-sayers and hey–let’s throw our weight behind these women.

What I had incorrectly phrased, the seemingly insignificant few words that spiked me awake last night were these:

In my obituary, I had written that Pilkey “stepped down from the stage” to throw his support at the microphones.

I meant to say he joined the women on the floor of the convention.

A subtle but significant distinction.

To Min love Lucy

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Postcard to Miss M. Judd, 2 Clifton Road, Folkstone.

August 5, 1914: 

Dear Min. I am so glad you are having a nice time. Isn’t the war dreadful? My brother and his chum have volunteered for the front, starting this morning, so I don’t feel very bright over it. I’m just going to see them off. Much love, Lucy.

This postcard Lucy-to-Min was found stuffed in our basement like insulation. Against? It hadn’t stopped the next war from happening, other brothers to send off to die. We unearthed this message, written to Heather’s great-grandmother, while searching for answers to other, slightly more current questions about her uncle’s estate. He died a year ago in Vancouver, at 82.

I was on my way to sleep the other night when Heather read these words to me. They had the effect of wiping clean petty concerns just like that: who cares, I thought, that we don’t have enough milk for coffee in the morning; what difference does it make that I lost that latest bid for work at the University of Toronto; so what if arthritis is aching my big toe and it’s such a drag to wrap tensor bandages around it every day then stumble up the street for a chocolate & coconut macaroon treat at Bobbette & Belle Bakeshop.

She kissed her brother and chum goodbye, knowing she might never see them alive again.

Folkestone was a major embarkation point for troops travelling to and from Europe during the Great War. Thousands of soldiers marched down to the harbour on foot. Folkestone erected a war memorial at the head of the road leading to the harbour.

The pedestal bears the inscription: May their /Deeds be /Held in / Reverence

On the postcard, a rough, battering sea illustrates her thoughts, perhaps, as she plucked this particular card from a stack somewhere, this Lucy woman, and why did she choose to write to Min at such a time? What must it have been like to interject as though a hiccough the news of war: “isn’t the war dreadful?”

On the postcard that once slipped into both Lucy’s and Min’s hands, King George V peers westward on a halfpenny postage stamp.

Conrad Black and the art of the obituary

I have Conrad Black and Sue Vohanka to thank for my renewed interest in the craft of writing obituaries. Here’s why.

With Sue, it’s because last month she handed a copy of Canada From Afar: The Daily Telegraph Book of Canadian Obituaries. Sue is a great, long time friend. We used to shake marinis together in the Ontario bush.

She retrieved the book from her car just as we were about to stroll across the 50 meter high Lynn Canyon suspension bridge, in North Vancouver. She gave it me, I thanked her, and then forgot about the book until this afternoon. It had slid behind my bed and I pecked it free an hour ago while napping. And now onto Conrad Black.

Sue: dear old friend. Conrad: infamy and ridicule. I think about his stealth caught on camera in the alleyway behind his 1 Toronto Street office, in-the-dead-of-the-night carting off evidence that would later claim him. My partner’s office building overlooks this site. Once, while picking her up after work, she pointed it out; it came back to me in a flash, with all its spectacular hush.

Before the troubles, when Conrad was a lowly media baron Lord, he wrote the foreward to this book, unfettered praise of Canadian obituaries and hats off to the noble obit writers.

“Because of the intimacy of [Britain and Canada] during the Second World War, when for over a year they were the only organized combattants against fascism and Nazism in the Northern Hemisphere,” he wrote, “there was widespread British interest in accomplished Canadian war veterans.”

“It is this group which now, unfortunately, has reached an age likely to attract the obiturists attention.”

The anthology gathers treasures from the vault of now-deceased editor of the Telegraph, Hugh Massingberd. As the story goes, Massingberd met the challenge of revamping obituaries so they’d be sharp, witty, and wise; they’d portray a person as a mixture of strengths and weaknesses which were developed by character and circumstances in the course of a unique life.

“He or she should be not only assessed, but shown as the person the reader would have encountered. None of this has much to do with death, it should be noted, and this book contains no litany of a deceased’s last six months in which the progress from one minor illness to others more serious is gloatingly traced to an inevitable conclusion.”

That last bit, including above-noted sentiments, belong not to Sue Vohanka, Conrad Black, Hugh Massingberd, or me. They come from an obit writer at the Telegraph back in the 90s, David Twiston Davies. Man oh man he knew his stuff.

My next few blog postings will excerpt specific Canadian obituaries from this book–the ones the Brits especially loved. The final obituary in the book is on Roger Marshall, “the bad boy of Canadian climbing,”

In Marshall’s story, unlike the others, death was a key detail: he died, alone, on Mount Everest.

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