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Small Courage: A Queer Memoir of Finding Love and Conceiving Family by Jane Byers – Reviewed by Stephanie Henriksen

Published by Caitin Press, 2020

Small Courage: A Queer Memoir of Finding Love and Conceiving Family is a story that explores the author’s multi-faceted identity: a writer, poet, athlete, mother and lesbian, partner to a loving wife, and a member of an unconditionally loving non – traditional family. Her memoir challenges the popular notion that an ideal family consists of a mom and a dad, inspiring readers to live a life that is honest to who they are and not what society expects them to be. Organized as a series of personal essays with a sprinkle of poetry, the memoir reveals her journey towards finding her true identity, including finding the woman of her dreams and adopting magnetic twins, a boy and a girl, children of colour.

Small Courage offers a refreshing feminist perspective by sharing intimate details of Byers’ experience as a young woman growing up in Ontario in the 60’s and 70’s, discovering she was queer, and keeping aspects about herself hidden because society had yet to catch up. Same–sex marriage was legalized in Canada on July 20, 2005 and the author and her wife, filmmaker Amy Bohigian, celebrated by getting married.

Although this story is not told chronologically, Byers is able to weave together chapters of her life in a way that makes sense, asking empathy from her readers. The adoption process in Canada has systemic biases: Byers and her wife were at one point told they were not the ideal family. The twins, Franny and Theo, were previously fostered by Evangelical Christians who were skeptical of Byers and Bohigian early in the adoption process, but upon observing them as people with real feelings and honest intentions, they changed their opinion. The memoir offers a story of love and resilience; a coming out story that also explores the author’s tumultuous relationship with a member of her very own family.

Byers has spent most of her career helping people with disabilities and injuries to overcome barriers to employment, so while she knows love isn’t always enough, it is certainly a great place to start. For any parent or anyone considering adoption, or anyone who is a minority or just curious about the topics presented in the memoir, Small Courage will make you feel comforted. It will also make you believe in the power of love and adoption; how it is possible to change a child’s life by offering them a home. Overall, this memoir offers proof that diversity in love is a pleasant reality and that usually our greatest lessons come from our family members. 

Available online via Caitlin Press and via your local independent bookstores.

Straight A Student: Evolutions in Researching Myself by Tressa Ford

Résumé:

A brief study of certain adjectives and how they form personality and personhood. This study draws on both dictionary definitions and lived experience.

Research:

Agender (adjective)

-Of, relating to, or being a person who has an internal sense of being neither male nor female nor some combination of male and female: of, relating to, or being a person whose gender identity is genderless or neutral (Merriam-Webster)

A label first suggested to me by friends in high school, a term that felt audacious even then. The linguistics are simple. You start with the prefix A-, signifying “not” or “without,” which is then glued to the base morpheme GENDER. A word that by nature connotes an absent space, a discordance in the “natural” order of things. In practice, it signifies a state of incomprehension, of looking inwards, searching for an internal label that pronounces definitively “male” or “female.” And never finding one.  

My curious mind cannot let this matter rest. I pass people in the street and wonder how rude it would be to sit them down with a recorder and notepad and ask, “Excuse me sir/ma’am, where exactly in your inner constitution does it even say Woman? Man?”

I cannot tell if GENDER is friend or foe, and the antagonism of A-GENDER exhausts me. There’s no place to stand when living in the state of A-, no place to be that’s not in conflict with GENDER. And my quarrel was always with other people’s perceptions of gender anyway. Not gender itself.

I ease away from this term, turn instead to the appealingly modern NON-BINARY. If the first is a battleground, then the latter represents a neutral territory, a safe house located off the map. NON-BINARY doesn’t exclude that mystifying concept of GENDER – only stipulates one that isn’t confined to a binary existence.

Today, I look inside and find no battleground. Only uncharted lands and an internal label proudly proclaiming Here There Be Dragons.

Aromantic (adjective)

-Characterized by or involving no romantic feelings; experiencing or expressing no feelings of romantic attraction or attachment towards others (Oxford English Dictionary)

A term that debuted in my life the first time a boy told me he loved me, and my heart seized with a special kind of dread. “No,” I wanted to say. “No, that’s not going to work out for you. For either of us.” Not out of insecurity or self-deprecation, but the fear of an unhappy future. A future where a relationship is worn down, eroded, through presumptions of sentiment, an unequal meeting of emotion. But how do you tell that to someone?

Not even sure if this deviation is a facet of me, my brain, or my environment, I at first accept the state of A- vs. ROMANTIC. I begin the conflict tactically, attempting to separate ROMANTIC from its mystique. Attempting to turn it into something logical, definable – something I can defeat. But it eludes my grasp, twisting and morphing, until I’m staring down the barrel of the far grander concept of LOVE. And like with gender, I question whether this is really the foe I want to face.

I retreat, turn in on myself, begin drafting the terms of a ceasefire. In the end, I am unable to externalize my conflict with ROMANTIC, unable to lay it at the feet of society and call it a day. The space between A- and its target is a gap fueled by my own confusion – bridgeable, but only when ROMANTIC starts making some damn sense. In the end, I let this label pass from my life.

Asexual (adjective)

1: lacking sex or functional sex organs

2a: involving or reproducing by reproductive processes that do not involve the union of individuals or gametes

b: produced by asexual reproduction

3a: not involving, involved with, or relating to sex: devoid of sexuality

b: not having sexual feelings toward others: not experiencing sexual desire or attraction

4: not having or showing a particular sexual identity: neither male nor female

(Merriam-Webster)

This final piece clicks into place to form a solid triad of dissonance, setting me solidly adrift from the human experiences of gender, romance, and sex. In a sci-fi story, I’m better suited to play a dispassionate vessel of AI than the relatable human protagonist. Still, I’ve got flesh and pulsing blood beneath my skin, so back to the drawing board for those looking to pin down that “Universal Human Experience.”

For many A-SEXUAL is a term exclusive to a textbook or a lab, but the clinical simplicity of this term doesn’t bother me. With it, I flip the narrative, transforming myself from subject to scientist, replacing the minority under the microscope with the majority.

Through observation and the subject interviews, I find that there is an observable force, like gravity, that exerts itself upon the majority of the populace. A force from which an estimated 1% of the population is exempt. Further qualitative research shows that this force is so great that many subjects struggle to imagine a reality in which sexual desire plays no role. What a luxury that must be – to be so comfortable in your normality.

I wrap up the results of my study, concluding that the dissonance is external and not my own. I shed it, gladly. 

Autistic (adjective)

2a: Of the nature of or relating to autism; affected with or characteristic of autism.

b: In weakened use and colloquial (potentially offensive even when used without derogatory intent). Displaying any of various traits which might be considered suggestive of autism, such as awkwardness in social situations, restricted interests, or repetitive patterns of behaviour.

Fittingly, this label arrives last – the alphabet itself acknowledging my hesitation. I cannot attest to a formal diagnosis for this label, nor can I be confident in it while a sign over my head declares Imposer! Imposter!

But what I can attest to is that my brain straddles two worlds – the one I experience, and the one that everyone else does. Each world has its own rulebook, knowledge of which is difficult to ascertain. Information is gathered through careful observation of others, taking notes on things like public comportment and voice inflection. Compiling files labelled “Oversharing,” “Small Talk,” and “Eye Contact.” Social and communication skills are maintained at a passing level through constant revision and self-editing. And every instance in memory where I failed to read a room is archived and analyzed so that the next conversation will go better.

And when my world is rocked with the waves of the other, well… In the privacy of my own space, I don’t have to pretend as hard. I seek comfort in the repetitive motions of braiding hair, the predictability of a favourite episode. Chewing on the same story for months, years even, regardless of what else in my life changes. Though these practices are well-established, new words like “stimming” and “hyperfixation” sneak into the internal dictionary of my world. Words that I can research and understand. Words that tell me I’m not the only one.

But in the end, I retreat to the safe neutrality of N’s once more. This time I find refuge in the fluidity of “NEURODIVERGENT” – a term that is just broad enough to be sure I fit. Good enough for now.

Conclusion:

The final “A” of this study is “Abnormal,” whose effects on personality and personhood require a lifetime of diligent study. The art of taking pride in abnormality even more so.

Submit your story today!

Here at the Black Bear Review, not only do we believe that everyone has a story to tell, but we also believe that the finest form of story-telling is through our art. Art grants us all an escape into a whole new reality, and gives us an opportunity to share our stories in a way that is both beautiful and unique. Whether it be paint on a canvas, words on a page, the perfect camera angle, or the notes in a song…the possibilities are endless, and entirely up to you.

We are officially in gear for another year of the Black Bear Review, and we want to share your stories. We accept a wide variety of art, including poetry, fiction, non-ficton, visual art, and other forms of media such as film and audio works. You can submit right here on our website, or email us your submissions at blackbearreview@gmail.com

The possibilities are endless…What’s your story

Dragons and Castles by Ben Demoskoff

When Ben draws, he doesn’t have a conscious intent, just like when he is enjoying the great outdoors. “But the feeling that Fantasy Perspective [His one panel comic series] gives, is a simple way to come to a conclusion or an answer about anything” he says.  “It’s like saying to heck with it all.  It’s a way to see any kind of life as an adventure, good and bad.”  Says Ben:” it gives me hope when I’m down as I wake up to dragons and castles (work and rent). All artists/creatives have their unique way of moving through the world. Moment to moment some generate their own symbols for things.

“No Brains” [how he signs his one panel comic series] can be a nice thing to say to someone in Russian, says Ben.  Depending on your [the reader’s] perspective, it may or may not help the comic make more sense, but absurdity is part of Life isn’t it? Ben thinks of the movie [Roger Rabbit] when he imagines fantasy.  Ben is not afraid of making things up as he goes, and continues to choose a positive attitude with his fave drawing pen/sword in hand.

Line Those Street With Gold By Gracjan Kraszewski

The man does not say anything. He appears to want more.
I’m happy to oblige.

‘It’s not hard to find people online, upline, or in plain old real life who will tell you at the drop of a hat that nothing is real. I’ve found the reason for the many reasons they give, the various theories and postulations they put forth, usually comes down to sexual license. These people are not as sophisticated as Descartes was—that if there is a res cogitans which I can be sure ofand the res extensa outside the mind, my own mind, which I do not know, then if follows that the unknowable cannot make rules which must be followed. If all in the res extensa, and this certainly includes community-societal standards of sexual morality, is not to be understood than I can do whatever I want because who knows what the right way is anyways, right?—and they do not have to be. It doesn’t take a lot to arrive at: go ahead and have unlimited promiscuous sex. It’s easy to get there, philosophically.

The example I’ll give you, here it is:
the Mandela Effect,
collective false memory.
Instead of applying Ockham’s Razor to the famous Berenstain Bears v. Berenstein Bears thing; ah, well I actually have heard of people named Berenstein before, and –stein, that’s a really popular Jewish surname ending. I actually have a friend named Goldstein. So we’ve collectively misremembered the children’s books as –stein and not the correct –stain because that makes more sense. Just like, going to the origins, a lot of people misremembered Nelson Mandela dying in prison because his imprisonment was a global cause celebre during the Cold War-South African Apartheid-post 1960s America world and so it would have made sense for him to have died while incarcerated and so, sadly, would serve as one more example of a loose end of justice, for we all know how Mandela repented for his earlier heinous actions, going untied.

Ockham’s Razor,
and just plain common sense, works as a nice antidote against the weaponized Mandela Effect—i.e. that’s it’s proof of alternate universes, multiple and coexistent life simulations, UFO infiltration and subversion of globalist and as in universe-wide mind control initiatives, etc., et cetera, you could go on a long time here—but it’s not just that people want to be titillated and feel that pins and needles adrenaline rush upwards from the soles and toes to sweaty palms and jittery fingers. No, it’s usually that this is evidence that things are not what they seem, therefore supposed authorities have no legitimate authority, therefore sexual morality especially is baseless, therefore, go ahead and have unlimited promiscuous sex.

Life is meaningless, probably worse than that, probably being manipulated by nefarious forces who would like to torture you for their own sick pleasure. But, hey, at least you can have sex, sex, sex, sex. No one can take that control, and that pleasure, away from you. Yes, doc, sad to say, such is the shit state of society and philosophy we find ourselves in now, a pit we have not been able to dig out of for centuries now. Because it’s hard to get out of, doc. It’s hard work. Because you have this, what I just described, and people putting up their flag behind it, in support of it, that yeah life is nothing but nothingness but at least you can be ruled with an iron rod by your passions, and then, on the other side of the pit, still in the pit, all these smiling one-time saved Protestants who walk around as if post-surgery for having one’s face permanently contorted into an ear to ear grinning smile assuring you everything is not just okay and not just good and not just great but the absolutely most perfect best and incredible amazing wonderful gloriously awesome possible possibility of all possibilities possible.

These,
them,
they,
they make Pangloss look generally pessimistic. But life is hard. Catholics say life is beautiful, too, but they admit it’s hard, they actually embrace it, avoiding the denials of the smiling self-assured saved as well as the nihilistic screw like rabbits on bonerjuice pills people. They split the difference properly, not in some mediocre on the fence thesis antithesis synthesis of the lowest common denominator way, but the true golden mean of truth and cogent thought. I mean they seem to at least try to be honest, avoid fringe extremism, and in identifying a problem propose a solution. Sometimes you see one of these smiling people and they are just so, hey, friend! I’m a hugger, c’mere, can give you a big old bear hug, one love, right? Life is all, ALL, about this right here, am I right? Just love, just be love. And you might give in and lean in to give the hug, because it’s nice to be respectful and let people be themselves. But during these situations I sometimes would like to respond, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck in a real rapid fire and super annoying way. Because life is hard and sometimes people should just stop, drop the bullshit. Like people who would declare for all the world You, yeah you! Did anyone tell you are special and loved? You are. You are amazing! Never, ever forget that. These people, doc, just arrest them and place them in solitary confinement already. Because, fundamentally, so many character flaws can be reduced to a two-leafed stem of pragmatic mediocrity and prideful narrowness.

Pragmatic mediocrity and prideful narrowness are two sister leaves on the same stem for a reason, they’re kind of two sides of the same coin. Pragmatic mediocrity is an intentional self-stifling for the purpose of career and/or financial benefit which later on gives birth to prideful narrowness when the practitioner of pragmatic mediocrity, having attained the indeed mediocre goal he gave up everything for, compares himself to someone who did not sell out, did not put ‘practical’ considerations and especially money above all else, and myopically exclaims how is it possible that HE achieved that when I, I could never imagine, I mean, how? It’s a fact I’m so much better than HIM so, how’d he do it? The next thought is invariably ‘fuck them,’ because the fruits of prideful narrowness are bitterness, hatred, jealousy and regret. The person who mocked the person spending so many hours studying ‘useless languages.’ They partied, and did the minimum they needed so as to get that practical degree so as to get the practical job with the decent pay, not bad hours, and a modicum of respect swop dolloped on, the self and the societal flavorvariants. Now they see the person they mocked has a cooler job, one that pays more, and an insane amount of well-deserved, hard earned respect because speaking 8 languages fluently is as close to as cool as it gets. And that this has nothing to do with any practicality or pragmatism—but what does it get me?—but has been done solely out of the intrinsic coolness of the matter is not an in spite of  but a because of/along with formulation. All that’s left for the two-leafed stem of mediocrity guy to say is ‘fuck them.’

And you wonder why we have so few Renaissance men and women, so few polymaths, today.

Pragmatic mediocrity and prideful narrownessare unseen, unacknowledged talent killers and resent laden petri dishes that have far too long been allowed free reign, I mean no one bothers to rinse and rough soap scrub the shit out of these disgusting petri dishes, hiding in plain sight and, as anyone with eyes to see would agree, the effects on all of us, individually and as a society, have been devastating.And within this devastating reality there’s another problem. There are some people who are just waiting, itching, for any and every reason to start burning, breaking, fighting, vandalizing, yelling, punching, screaming, torching and terrorizing. And since there is no reason the reason becomes a catch-all, one size fits all, free for all. One Gavrillo Princip, just one match on the powederkeg and these people lying dormant just below the surface pop up ready to explode. Hats of to our true leaders today, to the men and women who not just take on the crushing weight of responsibility in these domains, but actually seek to give people a greater yes amidst all the nos of despairing pragmatic mediocrity and prideful narrowness and things much lower and more awful than these that threaten, at a moment’s notice, to progress from disconcerting to destructive. Men and women who would be truly great leaders don’t just find and exploit—in a good way, upwards, for the common benefit of all—that which unites not divides us. This is too obvious and banal to say even one more word on. What they really do, rather the skill the posses, is to convince people, all of us brothers, that we are brothers and that we have some common noble mission. That’s what I mean by a greater yes. That no matter how much you think your life sucks, it doesn’t. And since there is only one, unrepeatable you we, all of us brothers, are counting on you, we need you, you and your unique contribution. So let’s get to this joyous labor while the iron’s hot with love. Do not take to streets to break and blaze. Let’s line those streets, the streets of our city, with gold. We cannot do it without you.’

I’m Done by Nichoel Sutton

Combining creativity, freedom from violence, activism, and committed parenting takes courage. Nichoel Sutton’s spoken-word series “I’m done” can be seen as part of a poetic tradition called Incantations. Braid and Shreve in their book “In Fine Form” share the Canadian Oxford Dictionary’s definition: “a magical formula chanted or spoken” which comes from the Latin “cantare”, to sing. Although many forms of poetry use repetition, the incantation relies particularly heavily on rhythmic insistence to create an intensely emotional, mesmerizing effect, for magic, ritual, or performance purposes. Like spoken-word, incantation overtly appeals to the senses – especially the ear.” (Braid and Shreve, p.110).

Part 1. I’m done. I’m done with the words that don’t match the actions…
Part 2. I’m done with the meetings where they say nice words…
Part 3. I’m done. I’m done with not being able to protect myself…
Part 4. I’m done with knowing that if I call the police…

Breathing Underwater by Judi Anani

Rabaul, Papua New Guinea (PNG), August 2016  

I am on board a 5-meter-long aluminum dinghy, Miss Ginny, as it unapologetically carves a path through otherwise serene blue waters. Squinting against the sun, three of us propel across the tropical expanse. We allow the shore to shrink behind us until the ever-intimidating volcanic mount Tavurvur becomes a mere wisp in the horizon (1).   

Jonathan, our local guide, sits with a hand casually placed on the tiller steer and stares ahead thoughtfully. Our eyes meet and he smiles genuinely bearing red buai stained teeth (2).   

Everyone I have met on this island nation smiles like they mean it. As if they do not mind at all an arduous trek up the mountain in the tropical heat to access freshwater. As if they do not care that the lime powder they mix with betel nut has eroded their teeth. As if they are not perturbed by foreign-owned mines growing rich from local commodities, while the local economy struggles.   

Nathan, my employer, and scuba companion sits across from me and fiddles with a Go-pro camera. He owns the Golden Sunset, the 30ft sailboat that is our home and my workplace as we sail around Papua New Guinea and the pacific. I watch him grow increasingly frustrated as he struggles to fit a waterproof case on the small device. He looks at me, grins, and lets out a frustrated grunt. His smile seems somewhat less sincere, even if well-intended. In a couple of minutes, he points the camera at me.   

“Smile!”  

I do, but it is a well-practiced smile, even if there was nowhere else I would rather be. Internally, my thoughts race as I come to terms with the confusing events of 2016 so far. (3)    

I have been in PNG for two weeks now and have known Nathan for precisely that length of time. He contacted me, offering adventure, work, and, perhaps what was most needed, a distraction. I answered his phone call absentmindedly, standing on a beach in Newcastle, Australia. Earlier that very day my sister had sent word of our father’s death. I could go back to Canada for the funeral, and act as a mourning daughter is expected to, even though I hadn’t spoken to my father in years. Or I could get on a flight to Port Morsby, meet this stranger, and help him sail to New Zealand. I did not give it much thought.   

I am brought out of my reverie as we slow to a complete stop at what might mistakenly seem as a random location, on the northern part of the island. Jonathan turns off the motor and we each take a moment to take in our surrounding to the sound of the ocean gently lapping against the boat. In front of us, a jungle covered cliff meets the deep water. The Japanese used this bay to provision submarines during the war. Precise coordinates bring us to the base and not chance at all. Our plan is to scuba dive alongside the reef wall that drops over 75 meters below sea level.   

Nathan and I, both avid scuba divers, are ready within minutes. Having gone through the necessary gear safety checks we jump into the water and stay afloat only long enough to wave to Jonathan and secure our regulators in our mouths. In unison, we descend, each with a hand on the BCD valve allowing air out of the vest, the other hand on face mask, occasionally squeezing nostrils shut as we blow, allowing our eardrums to equalize against the water pressure.   

There are perhaps very few other places in the world, if any, that offer the diversity of sites that PNG does. The marine life is relatively intact, largely due to the fact that locals do not have the fishing gear to create irreparable damage. Nathan and I have already encountered more reef sharks on this trip than I have in all my, albeit limited, travels. Today we are hoping to get footage of these adrenaline-inducing creatures.   

At a depth of ten meters, Nathan gives me the OK sign and gestures in the direction we will be heading. The reef wall to our right, we travel with the mild current, increasing our depth, until the sky is no longer visible through the ocean’s surface. I trail a few meters behind Nathan. His long legs give him more distance with each kick, and I like to take my time, appreciating the micro marine life as well as the bigger creatures. Occasionally he looks back at me and signals “OK” as a question not a statement. I confirm by returning the OK sign, thumb to forefinger, creating an O shape.   

Having logged many more dives than me, Nathan is also more comfortable flirting with a 50-meter threshold. I find myself continuously glancing nervously at my depth gauge as I follow him. When circumstances allow, I decrease my depth a bit, as long as we don’t lose sight of each other. At 40 meters below sea level, the gas mixture in my air tank is under 4  times more pressure than it would be on the surface. Each inhale requires approximately that much more effort, making me appreciative of each breath I can take. Yet the cold and the laborious breathing are small prices to pay if they give one access to the largest,  unexplored playground on earth.  

Covering most of our planet, the ocean gives us life, inspiration, mystery, sustenance, economy, and connects us all. It is believed by some that the human body’s reliance on, and composition of, salt, and water, is directly correlated to the ocean. As indeed, Arthur C. Clark was quite on point when he stated, “How inappropriate to call this planet Earth when it is quite clearly Ocean.”   

 As such I continue, eyes darting between depth gauge, Nathan, and the rich marine life surrounding the reef. The current is much slower now, I decide I can take a few seconds to clear my mask. This requires lifting the bottom part of the mask off my face while I blow with my nose any water that had seeped in, something which I had done many times previously but, on that day, the band holding the mask to my face broke, and the mask slipped out of my hands. Immediately, the sea water reduces my vision to dreamy shades of blue and black. My hands desperately search the area around me to no avail.  

In recreational diving, the recommended depth limit is 40 meters. The breathing gas inside the air tank consists of a mixture of Oxygen and Nitrogen. The deeper one ventures, the more pressure is being applied to this mixture. Breathing pressurized Nitrogen can cause a reversible euphoric / anesthetic effect that could hinder a diver’s judgment and decision-making process. 

At such a depth, the gases in our lungs and veins are also under pressure. As pressure is decreased gas expands, if the gas in our bodies expands too quickly it causes decompression sickness. For this reason, divers use safety stops, brief but necessary intervals as we ascend.    

As quickly as my fingers lose touch of the mask, the consequential reality sinks in. Without it I could not see Nathan, my depth gauge, or any possible threat. Without the depth gauge, I wouldn’t know where to do a safety stop. I decide to hold on to the wall on my right to avoid drifting up or down. I hope that Nathan will quickly realize that I am not behind. I hope that his instinct would be to come back rather than wait for me to catch up.  I start counting in my head. One one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand, four……  

I remember that the last time I looked at the gauge it indicated 8 bars left. That would give me a maximum of ten minutes bottom time.   

…..Fifty-nine one thousand. Sixty one thousand…..  

OK, 9 minutes.  

…one thousand, three one thousand, four one thousand…..  

I wonder how many bars Nathan has left and how much time that would give him to find me.  

….Thirty-three one thousand. Thirty four one thousand.  

I start to consciously slow down my breathing to save oxygen.  

8 minutes.  

….One one thousand, two one thousand,   

I look around uselessly. The only noise I hear is my exhale breath generating bubbles that float upwards.  

….Sixty one thousand. One one thousand.   

7 minutes.  

I am cold.  But I am strangely  calm.  Alone here, holding on for dear life, the political climate of the world is irrelevant. Relationships with dead fathers, or lack thereof, seem trivial. My first world problems are laughable.   

….Fifty-eight one thousand. Fifty-nine one thousand….  

6 minutes.  

Keep breathing.  

I think I feel myself kick something. I turn quickly but nothing is there.  

…. Thirty six one thousand…  

5 minutes.  Thirty-six

Ha! How’s staying alive for a distraction Judi?   

4 minutes.  

….One one thousand, two one thousand…..  

Should I try to ascend on my own? How much air do I have?  

….Forty-nine one thousand…. Fifty…  

I feel a human hand on my shoulder and in my relief, I almost lose my regulator mid cry.   

Nathan shoves his spare mask into my trembling hand. The band does not break this time and I am able to see again. Nathan gives me a thumbs up. I have maybe three bars left, and he has less than two. We begin our return to the surface.   

We make a safety stop at 6 meters during which I try to signal my appreciation. Nathan in return signals that he saw a shark seemingly oblivious.   

I look up at the sky which is again visible through the ocean’s surface.   

The three minutes pass and we surface just as we are using the last few breaths in our tanks. We send a signal to Jonathan who finds us bobbing in the water soon after. His smile grows wider as he gets closer with the dinghy. 

Nathan is recounting the details of the white tip shark he saw with the excitement of a kid on Christmas morning. I grin at him gratefully and close my eyes to the sun’s warmth.    

We smile at each other. This time, for my part at least, it was entirely honest.  

(1) Tavurvur is an active volcano near Rabaul. It erupted in 1994 destroying a large part of town. 

(2) Buai is mixture of betel nut and lime. Its effects include increased stamina, alertness, and euphoria. It tastes quite vile.  

(3) Clearly, I could not imagine then a year like 2020! 

Writing with the Universe: Marguerite Porete: By Chantal Lunardi

– I –

Marguerite Porete (13th century – 1 June 1310) was a French-speaking mystic and the author of The Mirror of Simple Souls, a work of Christian mysticism dealing with the workings of agape (divine love). She was burnt at the stake for heresy in Paris in 1310 after a lengthy trial, refusing to remove her book from circulation or recant her views (Wikipedia $25).

A rare flower, considered a weed at the time, Marguerite Porete came to me while I was digressing at the library of Simon Fraser University. Digression was my favourite state of mind. Is. I would wander amongst rows of books outside of my assigned multiple fields of study and, with the coming of the online age, gallivant from rare and restricted virtual academic publications to historical novels, folktales, plays, poetry and handwritten journal entries giving me infinite possibilities to roam deeper into remote obscure quadrants. I would cross entire universes of abstractions and sometimes come back on time for dinner, hundreds of pages further away from the end of my dissertation. After reading a French modern translation of Porete’s French book causing her to be burnt at the stake in 1310 however, my own work and digressions didn’t matter anymore. Porete furtively led me out of my PhD mind trap.

“Thought is no longer of worth to me,
Nor work, nor speech.”

I was alone in my own department, a not yet established field of Cognitive Sciences Dr Bruce Clayman, Dean of Graduate Studies at the time, encapsulated for me in what was called Special Arrangements – for those special cases that needed to work beyond their single field of study. Mine had been Anthropology. And this was not enough to search the human cognition I was after. In other words (discourse analysis, mythology, semiology) I was searching for the key that would unlock the mystery of life. Nothing less!

My PhD quest had started quite simply. One ruled piece of paper written on both sides with an orange ink pen I presented to Professor Cercone, the only person I knew of in Canada at the time who could, was, and would work on automated discourse analysis… except for Professor Maranda with whom I had worked previously in Quebec City. I must acknowledge my dearest Anthropologist friend Marie-France Guedon for sending me to meet Doctor Cercone at SFU. Together, we would teach the machine our language and it would do the rest. That’s what I called Artificial Intelligence. As simple as that.

After years of working with computers and discourse analysis during my B.A. and Master’s degrees at Laval University, I had developed a strong impression that our compartmentalized communication was a redundancy of partial versions of our genesis, crippled with holes multiplying themselves with generations of bouncing the same tired and used up ideas, stubbornly refusing to expand our horizons, restricting our field of expertises and our positions. However, I could still sense patterns, waves, rhythms, laden concepts we could pretend to catch and use to better understand ourselves, the whys of our choices, our automated cultural reflexes, our communication, our friends and foes.

Education became one of my fields of study, my population being high school students in the Lower Mainland.  Professor Sandy Dawson offered the warmest compassion during moments of family despair that were adding to the responsibilities of my intellectual journey. Witnessing the birth of a digital culture, I thought it would be witty to use computers to explore how the use of computers could improve the students’ cognitive processes, learning, and multicultural communication. This was indeed a continuation of my Master’s in Anthropology, but in English, in a totally unknown environment, with new people, new departments, more resources. Professor Gates, an Anthropologist, reviewed my many versions, politely indicating where perhaps my disparate odysseys were adding too many pages to my fascinating parenthesis. Professor Jennings, had joined my team from day one with his perfect enthusiasm to improve his French and to work simultaneously on my proposal and its translation, involved as he was already in the Artificial Intelligence project at SFU. He soon became my cover for digression and additional time, as an eminent representative of Philosophy. On Board, I had Computing Sciences, Philosophy, Education, and Anthropology. Things became very soon very complicated, where conceivably the reason for my complex soul to inevitably “digress”. In my defense, with so many possible derivatives, I was perhaps going deeper into my mysterious research and not yet fully known intentions.

Each and every one of my four supervisors from the Departments and Schools mentioned above must have thought that my style and writing meant something meaningful to the others, and they let me be. I was given carte blanche, funding, computers, nerds to program my algorithms, time, friendship, pathways to explore. Committed and passionate, I also had dreams of my quest and could do nothing else but include the resulting metaphors to my dissertation, to the pleasure of some, the question marks of others, and the patience of everyone. I often felt that I could reach the miracle of language, of communication, of intelligence, of our soul. Each time I felt this miracle touching me, coming close enough for me to word it however, it would slip between my keyboard keys and get lost in the trillion bytes of my computer:

Virtual Dream:  I found myself taking a “virage informatique”, what we called this digital shift in Quebec in the early 80s; a sad dream pursued by a technology attempting to recreate a world.  As if virtual reality had originated in the mind of a parent who had lost a child, and who was trying ferociously, unrelentingly to recreate her.  In the dream, I was that parent. I had the certitude that everything being only a question of programming and beliefs, if I believed hard enough, if I could find the right equation of life, she would be back.  Her presence was felt, I could almost touch her, but the essence that makes life was always escaping me.  While the world around me was falling apart and being destroyed, I was working on recreating my lost child with an uncontrollable compulsion.  Nothing else had any meaning but that child, whom I wanted back.  There was always something missing. I added more formula here and more variables there, changing and repeating patterns and algorithms. Always, something was missing.  I was looking in the perfection of a program to find what a human being was about, since in that logic only could I recreate and control life, could I keep what is dear to me, keep what would be unthinkable and unbearable to lose. The further I distanced myself from the pain of her loss, the closer came the crumbling world around me (Section 4.1 of one of my many dissertation drafts).

Statistics were not an official field of my program, but should have been. In graphs, regressions and correlation analyses, I was bending words, sociographics, and meaning to find the mathematical algorithms that would teach the machine where we were from, predict where we were going, and in between… tell me who I was. Somewhere in those numbers, these sequences and in those clusters of words with broken rhythms laid a truth, an answer, a path. And I had sworn to find it.

Many signatures, including mine, had been added to this promise. The Dean of Graduate Studies had been very proud to show those consent marks after months of translation work and several ESL classes at Douglass College. He also said “Chantal, the graduate committee is composed of diversified well known academics with outstanding expertise and not one really understood what you were saying. It is not your English. Can you write in a more simple way?”

I tried. For many hundreds of pages, I tried, but it was impossible. Lack of discipline, of clear clean rows and lines going straight to somewhere predictable, lack of focus some still say today. How could I focus on so many fields at once, with so many old discoveries and philosophers new to me, and semioticians and anthropologists having mid-life crises, and new Feminists and Goddesses, and postmodernists appropriating feminism and storytelling without imperilling their position and gender power, and computer nerds writing about mind and reality? No, no, no. This was not a time for focus or simplicity. This was a time for complex cross-pollination:

What seemed like a simple exploration of a group of adolescents, at a particular time and place of their lives, became difficult to undertake without a profound review of my understanding of culture, communication, cognition, politics, economy, science, technology, power, identity, mythology, religion, education, the self, consciousness, and of course, more. These aspects could hardly be defined without the inextricable links they have with each other; each rich with historical context worth considering. The many attempts to understand and conceptualize ourselves and our environment became a multitude of narratives within specific fields, historical and post-modern, but rarely a conversation between them. The challenge was to make sense of the conversations within each, and to explore the capacities of interchange of definitions, approaches and theories between fields. Which represents the sine qua non of a pluralist mindset, of a multicultural communication (Me, then).

The today version of myself sways between uncontrollable bursts of laughter reading this excerpt of one of my early drafts, shame of such naivety, candour and passion, and deep sense that perhaps I might have been closer to an unattainable truth than ever. The whole time I was learning about theorists and theories and the origin and history of the words we used, the more I felt I should have learned all this in elementary and secondary schools; that we had wasted my time and mind. I could not get rid of this heavy suspicion that we wanted to make a machine intelligent while we were dumbing ourselves down. I should have studied Latin and Greek, and a lot more and a lot better and a lot sooner; along with music and poetry to help digest and assemble everything. I would have been better balanced and equipped to do the work I wanted to do. We messed up my education. With a sense of responsibility inherited from responsible and engaged and knowledgeable teachers, I would have gone for it. We are wasting children’s potential; we wasted me; we are wasting our world. I had to catch up on everything a little late, with little to no guidance.  You may think this has little to do with Porete at the moment, but still, the pain is nonetheless strongly present and needs to be expressed loudly. I will not recant this. Do we still burn women for that?

With all these depressing feelings and uplifting new discoveries, I did not know at the time what to keep, what to weed, where to go from where. None of my supervisors dared to stop such a creative process they may not have understood. So, I kept going hoping for my funding to never dry up.

In my own gardens, I keep everything growing voluntarily until I know their reasons to be. And then, I still keep them, protect them. A little like the fruit of my library research, my gardens are wild of potentially medicinal weeds and other plants I am convinced will turn out divinely with time. I don’t understand why anyone would authoritatively, without any heart or sense of sacredness, eradicate anything they judge unsuitable to their limited grasp of the universe. It had been a shock to learn that one of my gardener-friends was allergic to daisies. She could not touch them without developing a rash and was horrified to see so many in my garden. For her daisies were – just as Marguerite was for the Church in 1300 – a life-threatening weed to be burnt, an attack to a certain cosmic view of order and power… nothing less. I still don’t know what to do with daisies. Can they feed us? Can they contribute to the soil? Yet, I keep the ones that come to my garden. Just before the night settles, in that almost dark moment of the day, daisies are the last tiny luminescence showing a path through a possibly dangerous landscape; evanescing stars not really shedding light but lovingly keeping it alive for a few more minutes to grant us just enough time to safely find our ways.

“Love draws me so high
With her divine gaze”

Of course, I do not want to have too many daisies taking over my vegetable patches. However, unlike the Church, I do not ferociously and fearfully burn them. I transplant bouquets where they can extend light through the forest. It doesn’t always work. I compost some. It’s all about life and regeneration, trials and errors, enlightenment and fertilization of my mind. Not many people can tell my garden is a garden. Its chaos and voluntary contributions nourish me, my eyes, my soul and seem to make sense to a regenerative scheme of growth. We often fear what we do not understand and destroy it. Daisies, Marguerite Porete, other cultures… We strengthen our limited and diminishing views, positions, writing, power… until our soil turns infertile and we bounce the same ideas over and over, blinded by how brilliantly we can do that.

“Theologians and other clerks,
You won’t understand this book,
— However bright your wits –”

This scholarly endless bouncing of abstractions was the exact reason why I had moved to BC from Laval University. To avoid asking the same questions endlessly playing with limited pieces of the same puzzles, or read the same brilliant unintelligible complex French authors. I wrapped up my Master’s dissertation (very dissatisfied), moved to the other side of the country, registered at Simon Fraser University, and learned a new language.  And again, I felt stuck.

After reading some of Marguerite Porete’s work, I arrived at the conclusion that I was going at it all wrong, that I should stop my writing, my analysis, my research.  First, Porete had done the work already, in the 1300s! She had written so beautifully, so clearly. She had gone so deeply into everything I was just scratching the surface of. After such deep experience I could not write in any other form than something closer to the rhythm of the universe, or at least attempt to, or stop denying myself the right to try verse. Only with such beautiful perfectly rhythmed prose verse could I pretend to be worthy of any divine illumination, the one needed to get me to the graduation exit.

I convinced myself I could continue my dissertation only and only if I could write it as a scientific epic poem. But then decided against it. I already had hundreds of pages of philosophical perambulations, and I was not adept at making verse. Moreover, not one of my four advising committee members would have provided an “interesting” in the margins that could have appeased the others’ question marks. I was already juggling from one blessing to another, from one field to the next as my committee members barely understood each others’ language, concepts, or ways. Trusting each other, it might have been that all of my advisors could have given me some approval just so as not to be left behind. Coincidentally the four of them could have faked understanding my work, and contributed to an impossible conundrum. Or they could have just humoured me. They were brilliant people. Brilliant enough to see that something could be brilliant even if you don’t understand it, that it was okay if this whole adventure led nowhere with me way ahead trying to “wrap it up”. They were taking a chance with my work, as well-established academics of that time could. But to accept verses and many more years of me?  If only I could write as Marguerite Porete, I could get not only closer to the truth but right into it and leap into the Artificial Intelligence phenomenon I was exploring and hope today, not contributing to. But I had pushed my luck too much already.

I could not deny this voice, stronger and stronger, accompanied with anxiety attacks and undiagnosticable weird physical symptoms each time I would set foot on the campus: “the answers you are looking for are not here”. I could not write with the University; its rhythm was incompatible with the universe, my health, my life, my family.

Marguerite was not the first hint I received to verse into verse, and simplicity. If you had access to my Linux laptop password protected inner hidden files, you would have found on page 97 of my 2010 version of my 1998 dissertation (I was compelled to write more on that abandoned PhD every 5 years): “Everyday language is a used-up poem … engaged in thoughtful questioning… Poetizing and thinking need each other when they touch upon what is ultimate.  They then share the same neighborhood (Nachbarschaft), which is saying” (Stambaugh, and Heidegger quoted by Stambaugh 1996:452).” It is so funny to quote myself quoting other people quoting other authors. Already 30 years ago, academic texts had become so heavy in acknowledgements of others, of protection of the author, of fear of any risk of plagiarism that we could barely move forward. The point remains that I often find myself looking for the ultimate in the most complicated protective ways, or an intellectual reasonable thoughtful angle. If only I could play with both poetizing and thinking in an everyday language for everyone to say “I get what you are saying”, or “I feel like I am on a journey with you as I read this”.

I woke up one day with one word, loud and assertive enough for me to snap out of whatever slumber I was lost in: “charity”. Auditory hallucination visiting me between dreams, wakes, stress and despair were not rare. This one was shocking. I did not like it. It did not make any sense. Charity. So old fashion. And wrong. I did not believe in charity, although I monthly shared with Amnesty International my meager income to perhaps give me more time to find the key to life before the world collapses. To the self I was at the time, charity was a sort of God-like misplaced value old British Ladies financed by rich landlords do to pass time. I was a single parent with three children, struggling with student loans expiring and shriveling bursaries, fellowships, assisstantships and faith from my disappearing, dying, supervisors.

Marguerite Porete resurrected again last year during my Creative 100 class at Selkirk College, British Columbia. I was drawn to that part of my wild mind and could not see anything else than the path her daisies were still lighting up towards unpredictable but divine unknown destinations. As I wandered that luminous path, I could not stop picking flowers for my creative fellow classmates. For once, I was not alone in my own department. I wanted to share Porete’s poetic insight with the class, but couldn’t find the original verses I had read years ago at the University. Living hundreds of kilometers from SFU, I had to rely on the commoners’ Internet, which didn’t bring me where she was buried, or maybe I lost the art of digressing towards divinity. At SFU, as a paid legitimate registered student, I had access to a complete French semi-modern translation of an Old French text. I do not have a pedant academic community to concur that any of the ones I found from my cabin in the woods, under cedar trees, surrendered with wild low yield gardens are really or exactly a true replica of Porete’s words. These texts and quotes I presented could be faded versions or distant interpretations. Yet, they seem to have kept the essence of what moved me 30 years ago, or so.

Thought Is No Longer Of Worth To Me
by Marguerite Porete

Thought is no longer of worth to me,
Nor work, nor speech.
Love draws me so high
(Thought is no longer of worth to me)
With her divine gaze,
That I have no intent.
Thought is no longer of worth to me.
Nor work, nor speech.

Porete’s search and findings in Agape, leaving behind thinking as no longer of worth, could possibly make this cerebral essay a parody if it weren’t for  Heidegger and Stambaugh; something about trying to use both sides of my brains, perhaps a little more equally. Could this be the essential condition to expand our own mindfulness?

For years after my official departure from the university I kept wandering outside of the familiar discomfort of my academic universes and found other teachers, as brilliant and committed, sometimes approving, sometimes question marking me, often less protective and protected, taking a chance with me. I found myself defending lost causes, with devotion, with the power of my words, my writing, and coincidentally, with my love and care of people of all abilities and origins.

Marguerite Porete was associated with the beguine spiritual movement of the thirteenth century that stressed imitation of Christ’s life through voluntary poverty, care of the poor and sick, and religious devotion (Wikipedia $25)

This is far from an illustrious academic life and closer to me writing now, working with people we see from the point of view of disabilities, often poorer and sicker than not. Did Porete propound this to me 30 years ago?  Am I still following a path of illuminating daisies through a dimming sky? That I am also poorer than wealthy is not voluntary. I would rather not. The wonderful work of the Education Assistant and Community Support Worker I practice is not that well recognized today, either. Is history repeating itself? Is it merely different rhymes of the same story, simply mirroring versions of possibilities into infinity? The work I am doing is taking more of my resources than the compensations it grants. The beggarly financial yield would divert any sane person from such a career. To my great surprise, it is what one could define as charity, without the pecuniary embrace of a husband, for instance, or a beguine community of harmonious women. It is advocacy and a journey through collapsing universes of minds; it is the exact and never-ending fieldwork of my specially arranged cognitive sciences studies, my determination to understand humanity and to make it better no matter the cost and the many dinners I have to skip to pay my rent. Charity is a passion, at moments, consuming all the particles of matters no more significant… until I am reminded to pay my overdue bills.

“Charity is obedient to no created thing, but only to Love.
Charity has nothing of her own,
and even if she had anything,
she does not say that it is hers at all.
Charity abandons her own task and goes
off and does that of others.
Charity asks no return from any creature,
whatever good or happiness she may give.

With every child with difficulties, with each child with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) I help find their own way out of the maze of their misfiring brains, helping me question mine as they rewire theirs, comes conversations about the state of our world and humanity we often solve in our small office or sensory room, amid desperate screams, growls, sobs and weak punches leaving more bruises in their heart than on me. Too often this work has to be done in a context of total idiocy and ambushes demanding of me to act as a buffer from authoritative villains lost and confused from their own misfiring brains they believe are brilliant and perfectly adapted to the culture giving them the right to punish, judge, repress and suppress to assert their own cosmic understanding of their equally large ego, that stratosphere protecting their fear that the universe would collapse if a daisy were to penetrate their manicured monoculture and impoverished gardens. I am stepping on somebody else’s plot of dense Devils Clubs where Stinging Nettles struggle to grow and occasional rare mutated blazing flowers are being choked, their petals angry rashes from both the gentle Nettle and the giant Devils Clubs. I am asked to tame the dazzling flowers, transform the Nettle into Devils Club while each and everyone needs each and everyone to further grow their own purpose deeply concealed in their roots. Less Devils and more light are necessary so would be an armure. I maneuver not always successfully through countless erected “woody stems covered in noxious and irritating spines”, rubbing the gentle Nettle the wrong way, flaring the rare flowers even more and yet… in that child I get a smile and a growth of promising neural connections… while losing my marbles, my paid sick days and any hope to ever reduce my maxed-out credit cards, trade-off of my student loan old debt. Insanity or charity? My work is no work anymore, it renders me speechless, brain dead and incapable of sleeping at night. My skin burns and my heart softens and threatens to take me whole. But love. The love in those eyes when a moment of peace and truth is achieved in their tumultuous confused gasping souls, when neural pathways become illuminated enough for them all to breathe better choices towards dawn and hope for their unfolding petals to keep opening every morning. Are such rare moments enough for the world to find its way out of darkening skies? Should I not have taken a most prestigious academic way for such an endeavouring dream?

Few years ago, I met my doppelganger, that mythical twin, a version of myself who stayed, persisted and worked herself into academia. I saw exactly who I was and would have been, so disconnected, so right all the time, so headstrong, so intelligent with occasional flares of brilliance and Fibromyalgia she was managing between her schedule of courses and flights from one university to another, from one publication to the next. It was as if I was talking to a perfect image of myself from another dimension. We first fell in love with each other’s intensity, but soon could not get along. In quantum physics, we talk of infinite possibilities multiplying themselves in other universes created with each and every one of our choices. Time and space and words intertwine in what seems fractured chaotic structures to the narrow vision of the novice outsiders (para-emphas-phrasing Claude Levi-Strauss). All those possibilities! However, quantum physics is wrong. These universes are all here, in the flesh, in the present, the future bending into the past, the bifurcations, the child I used to be now looking at me in a way I never did and creating more universes doing so, and this man, and this grandmother, even this evil politician. They are all me, universes collapsing and spiraling in a nauseating ever changing multicolored fractal kaleidoscope! Sometimes on their own, sometimes engulfing, sometimes in a process of spaghettification, affecting and affected by other self-contained worlds. And, there is no flesh; those AI nerds programming beyond life simulations too late into the night and the next days were right. There is no such reality as we give ourselves the illusion there is. In those moments of love and letting go, of trust and loss, of crossing the boundaries of our binary brain conventions, and of heartbeats echoing the rhythm of the universe, reality is showing itself very differently, so powerfully that one may disappear, burn away, as Marguerite Porete did in those 1300s dark Church era, just to give the rest of us few more minutes of radiance to find our ways.

“Now listen, Reason, says Love, to understand better what you are asking about.

A man who is on fire feels no cold, a man who is drowning knows no thirst.

Now this Soul, says Love, is so burned in Love’s fiery furnace that she has become very fire, so that she feels no fire, for in herself she is fire, through the power of Love which has changed her into the fire of Love.

This fire burns of and through itself, everywhere, incessantly, without consuming any matter or being able to wish to consume it, except only from itself; for whoever feels some perception of Love through matter which he sees or hears outside himself, or through some labor which he there performs of himself is not all fire; rather, there is some matter, together, with the fire.

For men’s labors, and their wanting matter outside themselves to make Love’s love grow in them, is only a blinding of the knowledge of Love’s goodness.

But he who burns with this fire without seeking such matter, without having it or wanting to have it, sees all things so clearly that he values them as they must be valued.

For such a Soul has no matter in her which prevents her from seeing clearly, so that she is alone in it through the power of true humility; and she is common to all through the generosity of perfect charity, and alone in Love, since Perfect Love has taken possession of her.”

Margaret Porete, The Mirror of Simple Souls

– 11 –

Notes

1 – For the comfort of complicated souls like mine, in the last Porete’s text quoted, I replaced “God” with “Love”, adding yet another version of Marguerite (Daisy – Daes eage – day’s eye) Porete in the universe. You could also read “in fire” as “pure energy”.

2 – Wikipedia is such an amazing place to start my explorations. It is like having thousands of friendly, accessible and available at all time dissertation advisors. Each time I quote Wikipedia in a published text, I add $25 to my yearly donation, hoping each of my contributions to knowledge will give the world another chance to find a way out of darkness.

– III –

On Condition by Emily Rose Whitehead

Your love was on condition
You showed me the fine print
Handed me a nearly empty pen
Directed my eyes down to a page
A page filled with terms and agreements
A page titled ‘My love contract’

I held that pen full of empty promises and extended conversation
I had so many questions,
The first one being:
If my love was free,
If my love was an ever growing garden dedicated to your house,
If my love was a tender caress from my ancestors to yours
Given to you without any conditions
Then why was your love a form?
A contract protecting your heart
A contract breaking mine--On condition

My second question was this
If my love was written in bubbles, 
Coloured in rainbows,
Kissed by toothless faeries
Why was yours put into Times New Roman fineprint?
Your line dotted, mine blurred

My final inquiry comes in shallow breaths
If my love was crying on your shoulder,
If my love was dancing to your heartbeat,
If my love has sailed across the pacific to find you
Why was yours stagnant?
Holding format with black ink

Even if my love was to be what you wanted it to be
If it was a reciprocating contract with an old yellow legal pad of support
You would still have conditions.

You see my love is flight,
My love is rage,
My love is a snorting laugh when you wake up and a dirty cigarette when you sleep.
My love has no terms other than to be accepted for what it is.
Unconditionally.

Une Pandemie Démasquée by Chantal Lunardi

Ben là
y’en a marre
distance isolation
ne t’approche pas
les enfants vont tuer leurs grands-parents
la petite Lennon reste dans sa chambre
elle ne sort qu’avec un masque
pour ne pas infecter sa mère son père
l’arrière grand-mère a déménagé
peur de Lennon
elle ne peut l’approcher
son bijou sa raison de vivre
maintenant le spectre de sa mort

Lennon est malade
fièvre toux
le nez qui coule
comme tous les enfants
à la rentrée scolaire
comme tous les éducateurs
en septembre
on donne et s’échange
des cocktails d’immunisation
pas nécessairement
de bonne volonté
on régénère
nos cellules embourbées
pas toujours
avec grande joie
ou sans risques
c’était il y a un temps
la meilleure façon
de garder notre équilibre
homéostatique sain
quelle responsabilité
Lennon
de porter sur ses frêles épaules
nos destinées

Y’en a marre
ben là voyons
la police qui s’en mêle
les amendes
vous allez tous nous tuer
vous promener comme ça
amicalement
en nombre plus grand
que celui décrété
sans masques
sans gants
sans une épaisseur
de gel stérilisant
et aux Philippines
le président approuve
un policier d’avoir tiré
à la tête un homme ébrié
qui n’en portait pas une
de ces mascarades

est-ce vraiment où se dirige
notre humanité?
couvre-feux regards éclipsés
laissant échapper notre haine
de ceux qui ne se camouflent pas
alors qu’il n’y a pas longtemps
au nom de la liberté
on dédaignait la dissimulée
exigeant qu’elle brûle son voile
et s’émancipe comme nous
comme nous

Et Lennon
qui masque son sourire
disparaissant déjà
sous le fardeau
de ses obligations
4 ans et rapidement
elle s’adapte
à un état militaire dérangé
où la santé l’hygiène
sont maintenant déguisées
en une affaire d’arme à feu
où nos élus en profitent
alors que notre vue est cagoulée
pour continuer les dévastations
d’une nature qui pourtant
nous a toujours guéries
mais voilà
gratuitement.

Chantal Lunardi at the 2019 Stone’s Throw Writer’s Symposium,
Castlegar, BC.

Three Poems by Tori Thurmond

Learning the difference

One day I killed a carpenter bee that was crawling on the driveway.
It was crawling and I squished it with my shoe. Mom told me
carpenters weren’t dangerous, not like the bee who stung my
hand last summer.

I tried to save the bee, blew on it, gave it water drops
in case he was thirsty. I hadn’t known the carpenter bee
wasn’t going to hurt me. I put him on the only branch of our
crabapple tree that I could reach. A nice place in the shade.

After a few minutes two other carpenter bees
came looking for the one. They hovered in the air
looking at it. I didn’t know bees could be so still
like that.

I put my hand out. Cupped the two carpenter bees
in my palm so they wouldn’t have to work so hard
to look. I hoped they’d sting me. I think
it would have helped with the feeling in my stomach.

I stood there with the bees in my hand until it was
dark and the lightning bugs came out. My arm
felt so heavy. The two bees finally flew away. 
Then, I put the broken one in my pocket.
I didn’t want any more of them to know what I’d done.

I keep the carpenter in my jewelry box next to my bed. I slip my bee
under my pillow every night. I think if I wish hard enough
the bee will fly away by morning.


Centennial Park: Nashville, TN 2020

we were in my bed kissing and
falling asleep but I woke up in

a park in the middle was a pond
a bush of flowers floating by the bank

you were controlling the floating bush
the bush was your hair

the flowers were shiny hair clips you
picked up at the store last week

I couldn’t see your face but
I could tell it was you because of

the shiny clips I smiled and yelled your name
instead of answering you began to sink

your flowers peeling away from your hair
bobbing among the ripples

I felt sorry you did that
sorry you felt you had to sink
I would have bought some bread or at least another bottle of wine

until now I've only read poems about
the end of the world and no one wrote
about the toilet paper running out
I thought it would be more
dramatic more like a movie but
this feels slow

I heard somewhere that when you cook
a lobster (or maybe a frog) you put it in a
pot of cold water then turn
on the stove the temperature
will rise slowly enough that the lobster-frog won't
realize you're killing it until it's already dead

until now I thought the end would be noisier
gunshots fire
but I hear birds and the wind chimes
my parents gave me maybe
this is how it ends

I thought it would be more romantic
lovers heating canned vegetables by
a fire at least we'd have each other
I still have running water and my microwave
still works I'm in the bedroom
you're in the living room
I pick up yoga
and needle point go on walks

everyone started walking again in
circles around our houses looking
for something to fix something
to break so it can be fixed
something else
to think about other than lobsters

Love Haight 69 by Tanya Coad

Note to reader

The following is an excerpt from my historical fiction novel, Love Haight ‘69. It is a coming-of-age story, set in 1969, about a runaway teen from Canada, living in Haight-Ashbury and struggling to immerse herself in the counterculture scene. A square with hip aspirations, she finds love, community, and a sense of purpose across the Bay when she joins a diverse group of volunteers who transform an abandoned lot on the UC Berkeley campus into a “People’s Park.”

Verity is 18, shortish, blondish, and bright yet naive. Her activist boyfriend, Richard, is a handsome 26-year old Political Science major. In the following scene, they and Richard’s roommate, Gerber, an affable African American hulk, are returning from a camping trip.

Chapter 30

 Thurs., May 15, 1969; noon

Under a hazy mid-May sky, the white Chevy cruised northward up Telegraph Avenue. Having dropped Gerber’s girlfriend off already, the carload of grungy campers was tired and eagerly anticipating assimilation back into a world of creature comforts.

“Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen…” One tanned leg pressed against the dashboard, Verity counted mosquito bites, then dabbed them with toothpaste. Unlike her friends, she was covered in itchy red bumps. “How is that fair?” she demanded of the universe, waving her near-empty Pepsodent tube.

Richard glanced over from the driver’s seat and shrugged. “Guess we’re yesterday’s leftovers when, clearly, you’re dessert.”

“Yeah, be flattered you’re so special,” said Gerber, who lay sprawled against a pile of bed rolls in the back seat, chewing on a strip of beef jerky.

“I’ll feel a lot more special after a nice hot bath.” Verity put her leg down and gave her neck an unsatisfying scratch. Her body felt grimy and drained and in need of more substantial fuel than peanut butter sandwiches and trail mix.

As they drove past Haste Street, an almost smothering scent of lilac blossoms filled the car. Turning to Richard, she ran her fingers over his three-day stubble. “You know, we haven’t been down to the park since last weekend. I almost feel guilty.”

Holding a hand up, he crooked four fingers. “Bathrazorfoodpark, in that order.”

“And a nap,” she yawned.

Much as she enjoyed her nights with Richard, her slumber was frequently interrupted when he cried out or thrashed about in his sleep, in the throes of what was later sloughed off as bad dreams. He’d eaten too late, or read one too many gruesome news stories about the war.

She slumped down in her seat and gazed out the window. Midday traffic on Telegraph was blissfully light. When they reached the southern edge of the campus, however, the sound of angry voices chanting rested their attention. Over by the entrance to Sproul Plaza, a mob of young protestors looked to be spilling out onto Bancroft Way.

“Christ! What’s going on?” Richard followed the one way traffic lane left, then swerved the car to the curb at the first opportunity. Everyone piled out and scrambled up the sidewalk in the direction of the Student Union building. By the time they reached the Parthenon-like structure positioned at the entrance to the plaza, most of the crowd was funneling itself down Telegraph Avenue.

“Guys! Over here!” shouted a familiar voice over the din.

Like the last few grains of sand stuck to the sides of an hourglass, Bo and some friends from the park tailed the hind section of the crowd. They waved Verity and the others over.

Gerber’s feet stopped moving before his belly did. “What the hu-hell’s going on?” he panted, crushing Bo’s shoulder under his beefy forearm.

“It’s the park, man! They fenced it up early this morning, not two blinks before a bunch of uni lackeys turned up, posting No Trespassing signs.” Bo’s sneakers shifted like they were tap shoes. Generally the laid back one in the group, it jarred Verity to hear him sound so agitated. “It’s total bullshit,” he yelled, his voice getting higher. “We gotta do something!”

“I was watching from upstairs,” said Sal, a swarthy young Sociology student Verity recalled planting tulip bulbs with at the park. His dark curls trembled as he spoke. “First, it was just a few dozen people, trying to figure out what to do. Then, hundreds more showed up, and someone said something about taking back the park. That’s when the cops moved in.”

Pam, a young Asian woman clutching a textbook to her chest like a bulletproof vest, pointed at the plaza steps. “Yeah, the pigs freaked out, all right. They turned off the guy’s microphone, so now everyone’s pissed!”

“Come on—let’s catch up!” Bo led the pack as they jogged past a cluster of onlookers, crossing the street where traffic had been forced to a halt.

Flip-flops slapping the pavement, Verity clutched Richard’s hand, trying to keep pace, while her heart pounded its own frenzied rhythm. A block down, the crowd became log jammed. Outraged voices reverberated up the avenue as police sirens sounded in the distance.

“Shit—roadblock!” shouted Gerber, spying an elbow-to-elbow row of blue uniforms.

Richard poked his shoulder. “Let’s duck over a block. We can cut down to the park from there.”

Making their way up a side street, the coast seemed clear enough, until they neared the corner of the park, where they were quickly absorbed by a wave of protesters splintering off from another direction.

Take back the park! Take back the park!” raged an irate but unified chorus.

The current of wedged bodies sucked them slowly westward. As they neared the intersection at Telegraph, Verity began to make out the edges of a sawhorse and barbed wire barricade, erected obviously in hopes of driving people back up the avenue, away from the park. She had no choice but to go with the flow, but every nerve in her body screamed to flee as far away as possible.

Pressure from the rear intensified. Craning her neck sideways, she saw Pam drop her book, only to be shoved forward as she tried to retrieve it. Bo, too, was struggling. Pitched about like a destabilized tether ball, his feather-light frame suddenly bounced and disappeared into a riptide of bodies pouring in from yet another direction. Even Gerber seemed to be straining to keep his ground.

Verity clung to Richard’s arm as the backs of her flip-flops became pinned to the ground. He was breathing hard, trying to keep them both afloat.

Take back the park! Take back the park!

 The demand grew to a fever pitch. Amorphous, like a flock of starlings, the mob convulsed suddenly, converging on the park from all sides. Many lost their footing as faces and bodies were squeezed against the sea of chain link metal. Clearly overwhelmed, police inside the lot waved their weaponry, guns, batons, trying in vain to compel the horde backward.

It was only going to get uglier. Verity could feel in her bones. She tried to tell Richard they should leave, but her words, like her airways, were compressed by the push of compacted bodies.

Tear gas canisters were lobbed, sending panicked bodies fleeing en masse. A cloud of noxious gas descended upon them; burning eyes, stinging throats. Up became indistinguishable from down.

A lone voice pierced the din.  Fuuuuck! It’s the Blue Meanies!”

Squinting through the smoke, Verity felt a chill like the finger of death tickling her spine when she spotted a row of bright blue jumpsuits. The Alameda County Sheriff’s deputies, a.k.a. “Blue Meanies,” had earned their Yellow Submarine-inspired nickname, having devised a particularly brutal brand of crowd control. The ground beneath her began to rumble as hundreds of feet began pounding the pavement, attempting to flee in every direction.

Keeping a vice grip on Verity’s arm, Richard did what he could to plow an escape route back up Haste Street, until the crackle of gunfire made him jump, hugging her low to the ground.

Like an upturned ant nest, the mob scattered. Richard’s body was ripped away from Verity’s as those ahead turned to stampede backward. Terrified of being dragged into the undertow, she fought to regain her balance. Bodies collided. Feet stumbled over the fallen, crushing toes and fingers.

For a second, Verity caught sight of Richard’s burgundy T-shirt. His arm reached for hers. At the same moment, she felt herself lifted, thrust forward as arms and shoulders shoved her from behind. An opening appeared, so she ran, stopping only when she found a strip of unclaimed space at the side of a building. “Richard!” she screamed into the fray, but all her ears detected was the terrifying discord of bodies in flux. Then, she spotted Gerber’s lopsided afro above the crowd and the air returned to her lungs. “Gerber—!”

Run! They’re shooting people!” He bellowed it with so much force, her legs reflexively jerked into motion. It was only when her feet made contact with a patch of gravel that she realized she’d lost one of her flip-flops. She kicked off the remaining one and ran on tiptoe until Gerber caught up, grabbed her by the arm, and dragged her like a rag doll down the street.

“But Richard—”

“C’mon!” he barked. “We can’t stay here.” Rounding the corner onto Telegraph, he tried the first door they passed, but it was locked, blinds pulled. The same with the restaurant next door, and the clothing shop next to that.

Behind them, police at the intersection had abandoned their barricade to deal with the flood of people streaming in from Haste Street. A steady rat-a-tat-tat of gunfire sounded while clouds of tear gas mushroomed, blanketing cars and low-lying buildings.

“Wh—where do we go?” wheezed Verity, trying not to breathe the fouled air.

Gerber pointed up the street to a breached portion of the barricade. “The campus. If I know Rich, he’ll head there, too.” Pulling his T-shirt up over his nose and mouth, he motioned for Verity to do the same.

Fighting the instinct to curl up and hide somewhere, she tailed him up the sidewalk, navigating an obstacle course of upturned trash cans, shopping carts, and a ground littered with garbage, broken glass, and buckshot pellets. As they ran, she prayed to whatever god might be listening to keep Richard safe and unhurt.

Windows were being smashed and a geyser of water shot across the street from an open fire hydrant. Halfway up the block, a tear gas canister rolled to a stop in front of a young man armed with a brick. Instead of fleeing, he picked up the metal cylinder and lobbed it back at the cop who’d flung it at him.

At the next intersection, Verity spotted a row of police decked in riot gear. Legs spread, visors down, rifles drawn. “Fucking pigs!” yelled Gerber, yanking Verity backward. Spinning on their heels, they were knocked apart by a gang of wild-eyed youths, ducking a hailstorm of buckshot.

A canister of tear gas rattled to the ground in front of Verity.

Run!” ordered Gerber’s voice from somewhere.

Bodies scattered every which way as the plume of sickly white aerosol began to disperse. Eyes stinging and screaming Gerber’s name, Verity followed a group of people darting up a sidestreet. Her feet, by now, were embedded with so many pebbles and bits of glass, it was all she could do to keep them moving.

On the next street over, an empty police car resting on its roof blocked the sidewalk. A heady mix of lilac and some sort of chemical agent hung in the air, making her nauseous.

Trying to get her bearings, she watched as a frizzy-haired teen sprint past her, only to be shot in the back. Coughing through her T-shirt, she helped him to his feet. The backs of the young man’s arms were peppered with angry red puncture wounds. “I—I—I—” he stuttered, tears streaming down his face. Following his gaze, Verity’s eyes locked on a pair of rifle barrels directed their way. With a panicked yelp, she turned and peeled off after the young man, who hobbled away as fast as he could.

Someone with far longer legs sped by like a battering ram, shoving her violently against a brick wall. Disoriented for a moment, she lingered there, glued to its warm, gritty surface, grateful for the support.

How could this be happening? begged her incredulous brain, when what seemed two seconds ago, her biggest complaint had been a few pesky bug bites. Then the sound of gunfire jolted her back. Her eyes searched the residential street, looking for somewhere to hide, but her brain cautioned, no. She needed to keep moving to escape the tear gas.

Outside a large apartment block, a club wielding silhouette became visible through the smoke. It took her a moment to realize he was pummeling the daylights out of some poor body slumped across the hood of a police car. It wasn’t Richard, thankfully—the body was much too slight, but it easily could have been. The thought gave her just enough courage to stop and yell at the cop. To her surprise, he did in fact stop, but when he directed his visored-covered brow her way, she immediately regretted opening her mouth. Choking out a scream, she turned and raced off up the road.

The cop was fat, but the guy could move. He dogged her up the sidewalk and across the street, giving up only when Verity disappeared round a corner into yet another plume of thick grey smoke. Despite covering her mouth, an ash-like taste mixed with the metallic tinge of blood made her want to stop and vomit, but all she could do was keep moving and pray her inner compass would guide her towards the campus.

Coughing, limping, straining to see, she nearly banged into a metal street sign. Puffy eyelids shifting upward, she made out the words Bancroft Avenue. In her half-blind panic, she’d failed to notice the university grounds right across the street. Her breathing steadied a fraction at the thought of finding refuge in one of the buildings there.

Before making her move, however, there came another eruption of gunfire behind her, followed by a stampede of terrified fugitives peeling round the corner. Too slow to react, she collided with a straggly-haired teen who sent her flying across the pavement. There was a sickening whack as her forehead hit the sidewalk. Bodies stumbled, feet trod over her. Someone stopped, tapped her arm, then gave up and fled.

A dull humming noise droned in her ear, then nothing. Her body lay limp for an eternity, or perhaps, no time at all … 

When she came to, the humming noise was still there, until it slowly morphed into words. “Are you okay?” a voice kept asking. “Can you get up?” A pair of gentle hands rolled her onto one side and a wrinkled face leaned in. “Young lady, can you move? You must get up now. If you don’t, you’ll be trampled.”

The old woman slipped her arms under Verity’s shoulders and helped her to her feet. Behind them, the door to a small shop stood ajar. Steering her inside, the woman perched Verity against the windowsill, then quickly locked the door and pulled down the blinds. “Sit here,” she said, locating a chair, dragging it near. “You rest. I’ll see what I can find to clean you up.”

Verity’s ears were ringing, but she did as she was told. Something warm and wet was trickling down her face. Looking down, she began to shake. Was that her blood splattered across her clothes and limbs?

Her eyes were so sore she could barely keep them open.

Screaming, banging and the pop-pop-pop of gunfire continued outside the door. From inside, a fierce yapping sounded, followed by the scampering of tiny feet on linoleum as a small dog raced towards Verity and began circling her chair.

“Don’t worry. Thomas won’t hurt you,” called the old woman from the back of the store, which appeared to be a small greeting card shop. “He’s just scared and wondering why the world has gone to hell in a handbasket.”

Extending a limp hand, Verity noticed her palm was skinned and bleeding. The Yorkie licked it anyways, then began nuzzling her bare ankles.

The old woman returned, carrying a small blue bottle and a neat stack of folded linen.

“Here we are, dear. I brought a damp cloth for your eyes. Try not to rub them, though, it only makes the burning worse. Now, let’s see what we can do to sterilize those cuts.” The sting of disinfectant made Verity flinch. Tending to her forehead, chin, and split lip first, the old woman blotted them clean, then applied a pair of Band-Aids above her eyes.

“I’m sorry I don’t have proper bandages,” she said, as she tied strips of cloth around the scrapes on her knees. “But these rags are clean. Do you think you broke anything?”

Verity looked down and made her brain focus on specific body parts. After each limb and digit responded, she shook her head, relieved.

“Good,” said the old woman, looking pleased. “Not much chance of getting an ambulance here with all this ruckus going on. Oh my, your feet are a mess!” She dabbed at them and hummed soothingly, while Thomas whined and curled up next to the chair.

“I was a student here at the university once myself,” muttered the woman. “Years ago. Hardly any of us girls in those days. I’m glad that’s changing, but if someone had told me then that I’d live to see a day when police were shooting our own kids—” She shook her head. “Well, I never would have believed them.”

The woman kept up a gentle patter while securing bits of cloth. “You know, these kids aren’t all bad. There might be a few I’d like to grab by the scruff of the neck and give a good shake, but most of them have their hearts in the right place. I thought the park was a lovely idea. The first time Thomas and I wandered over there, we met so many nice young people. It gave me the warmest feeling.”

Verity gazed at the woman. Eyes welling, she whispered, “Wasn’t it beautiful?”

War-zone noises continued in fits and blasts from outside the door. Eventually, when a period of extended calm fell over the neighborhood, Verity drained the remains of her tea cup and decided she felt strong enough to continue on her way.

“My boyfriend’s place isn’t that far from here,” she told the elderly shopkeeper. “If I keep off the main roads, I think I’ll get there okay.”

The old woman gave Verity a skeptical look as she fitted her feet with a pair of fuzzy-lined slippers. “Well, if you must. But I hope you’ll let me know that you got there safely,” she said, handing Verity a business card with the shop’s telephone number on it.

Together they peeked through the blinds. Seeing no sign of trouble, Verity hugged and thanked the old woman, then limped away across the street in the direction of Sproul Plaza. Her heart sank, however, when she reached the lawns beyond Sather Gate and spotted a unit of policemen roaming the grounds. Communicating via walkie-talkie, they skulked around corners and huddled next to garden beds, eyeballing all that moved.

The walkways were empty save for a few nervous looking students or faculty members darting between buildings. A clash of angry voices could be heard just beyond Bancroft Library. Verity warily eyed the sprawling white building, where Richard and his friends routinely searched for obscure-titled research texts.

Seeking cover where possible from foliage and shadow, she wended her way west, eventually emerging onto Shattuck Avenue. Sirens whined in the distance. Then a pair of squad cars squealed by, heading north to where a parked car sat blazing at the curb.

Behind her, the Campanile bell clock tolled ominously in the distance. Summoning her nerve, she crossed the gaping four-lane avenue and traveled west an extra block for good measure, before continuing northward. Tuning out complaining limbs and wounded feet, she soothed herself, softly singing, “All you need is love…”  

Photo submitted by author to Nelson Daily News holding up the National Campus and Community Radio Association award (2017).