Thank You, Maya Angelou

When I was a little girl, I read the books of LM Montgomery. Her orphans taught me, a sensitive child in a harsh place, how to survive. I lived through Emily and Anne and Marigold. I admired their ability to remain optimistic despite their challenges. What challenges? Usually the loss of family, being the odd child out, being poor, being unloved. I understood.

But as I grew into a teenager, these avatars lost some power. Montgomery’s children faced challenges, yes, but they did not understand what a young body experiences when blows land and hands invade and words tear open hearts. If books were my benefactors, they were failing me.

ikwtcbs

Sorry Sir. You’re not getting it back.

I scoured my school libraries and read hundreds of books. Some helped, some didn’t. Some held portions of empathy, some didn’t. Then my beleaguered librarian recommended I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. He spent most of the following year, before I once again left school, harassing me to get it back. I still have it.

In it I found a story that gave me hope. After all, if she could survived what a man’s body does to a child’s, the violent love of a religious matriarch, poverty and pain and hatred, yet still have such perfect words – maybe I could too.

When I was teenaged and living in a group home, a therapist asked me to make a series of goals. One personal, one physical, one financial and one fantastic. I don’t remember any of the rest of them, but I remember my fantastic goal, the one that was most likely impossible: it was to meet Maya Angelou.

Just a few of many.

Just a few of many.

I never did, except through her books. There I visited her regularly. Sometimes I would see her on TV and I would be amazed that the person who had seen such devastation and triumph could also being a smiling, laughing grandmother, without losing any of the power her history gave her.

Then, in my 20s, I stopped reading her books. I kept them all, but I did not read them. Our lives had fallen out of sync. While she had a child, joined the civil rights movement, found ways to tell her story, I experienced severe depression, failed to finish school and found myself stalled, trapped in flashbacks and self-injury and feeling oh so tired. Where she had found strength, I felt, I had fallen down, I had been weak.

I couldn’t read her books because I had failed.

And now she is gone. I heard the news and, unexpectedly, I sat down and cried. I miss her, even though I have never met her.

Here is what I am realizing, though: She is gone at 86. That is exactly 50 years older than I am. 50 years I may have to write and love and experience and accomplish. I always feel so very old and used up, but perhaps I am not. Perhaps that last gift that she has given me, without ever knowing it, is 50 more years to try.

Thank you, Dr. Maya Angelou.

Thank you, Dr. Maya Angelou.

Thank you Dr. Maya Angelou, for every word and every tear and every time I felt that only you understood. Today I am going to read I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. I will try to find the hope I had when I first stole it, when I was looking for someone, anyone, whose story rang true.

Thank you for your story. Thank you for your truth. Thank you for your life.

Thank you.

Let Us Discuss What Qualifies As Hatred

Hello. I’m a woman. When I was born, I had biologically female parts. And while I’ve never really fit into many of the roles and trappings assigned to women, I continue to mostly identify as one. I include in this imprecise group, anyone else who chooses to join me. To over-simplify using stereotypes: Though I fell in love with a man, I am attracted to both men and women. Though I like dolls, I dislike dresses. Though I love having a beer with the boys, I really don’t understand the appeal of baseball (now soccer – there’s a sport.)

All of this is to say that I am not part of a binary, but a flexible, flowing, irregular and wonderful spectrum.

None of this matters, though, when confronting misogynists. They rarely see the multifariousness. What is misogyny? Simply put, it’s a hatred of women, but, like gender, it’s part of a spectrum that ranges from assumptions and micro-aggressions to events like the recent shootings in California.

Websites like Everyday Sexism and Fat, Ugly or Slutty can provide a sort of running tally of the everyday occurrences of gender based transgressions. The bigger events, like the shooting, should speak for themselves.

But they don’t.

Every article I’ve read has had quite a few male identified commenters trying to either dismiss or justify the misogyny in the shooter’s statements. Many (but #notallmen, don’t worry kids) have tried to steer the conversation away from what the shooter has stated and how he specifically targeted his victims. What they are trying to say is that this wasn’t targeted hatred, but (insert excuse here – I suggest vague hatred, justified hatred, madness, ASD, spoiled rich boy syndrome, etc.)

Which has prompted me to provide this side by side comparison. Please read and tell me whether the second lines would have garnered online debate or a visit from the FBI or homeland security and possibly a trip to Gitmo:

What he really said:
I will punish all of you for it. [Laughs.] On the day of retribution, I am going to enter the hottest sorority house of UCSB and I will slaughter every single spoiled, stuck-up blond slut I see inside there. All those girls that I’ve desired so much. They would have all rejected me and looked down upon me as an inferior man if I ever made a sexual advance towards them.

What might have made people acknowledge it was a hate crime:
I will punish all of you for it. [Laughs.] On the day of retribution, I am going to enter the church and I will slaughter every single spoiled, stuck-up Christian I see inside there. All the fellowship that I’ve desired so much. They would have all rejected me and looked down upon me as an inferior man if I ever made an attempt to join their congregation.

See what I did there? Is it suddenly less vague to you?

Let’s try another.

What he really said:
I’ll take great pleasure in slaughtering all of you. You will finally see that I am in truth, the superior one. The true alpha male. [Laughs.] Yes. After I’ve annihilated every single girl in the sorority house, I’ll take to the streets of Isla Vista and slay every single person I see there.

What might have made people acknowledge it was a hate crime:
I’ll take great pleasure in slaughtering all of you. You will finally see that I am in truth, the superior one. The true white man. [Laughs.] Yes. After I’ve annihilated every single Black person in the building, I’ll take to the streets of Isla Vista and slay every single person I see there.

I mean, it’s pretty clear that this crime was focused. That one man committed a crime is not  proof of misogyny. The attempts of people to dismiss it and belittle it are. The idea that we’re not thoroughly horrified by targeted hatred when the targets are women – that is the proof. That a man who responds to these stories by presenting women as deserving of mistreatment is not immediately eye-rolled and mocked and is, in fact, supported by others is our proof.

Before dismissing this as a lesser crime or a one-off case of madness (which would ignore several other targeted murders of women) try swapping the context. If the crime suddenly seems more egregious when the targeted victims are part of another group, it is time to reassess why you are not treating this as a hate crime on par with those. Is it because of the facts, or is it because of a lifetime of small (and more overt) messages telling us that women are innately less valuable?

(I have not named the shooter or quoted the people defending him because here, in my space, that hatred is not welcome. The same will apply to the comments. Well thought out comments that do not use threats or ad hominem attacks and maintain good debate etiquette are welcome, even if they disagree with me. Others will be removed or Lego-ed.)

Motherless Child

Hello Interwebs,

If you’ve just started following me because of my political posts, you may want to skip this one. It falls into my navel-gazing sub-category and with good reason. It’s about my mom.

So depart now and pretend this blog isn’t here – or enjoy my navel.


I am at a loss.

I am in a loop.

I blame Eminem.

On Mother’s Day, he released a music video, directed by Spike Lee, for a track called Headlights found on his newest album MMLP2. It features fun.’s singer, Nate Ruess, on vocals. Admittedly, both Eminem and Spike Lee are problematic creators. They’re both love ’em or hate ’em artists and they’ve both tasted a lot of foot. They also speak to me. Loudly. There’s something oddly therapeutic about the products they create. They are violently honest yet hyperbolic. Their imagery is moving, but a lack of subtly means that it is also discordant. When I am sad or hurt or raging, I consume their art because it’s healthier than the alternative.

In short, their work makes me feel less alone.

The came Headlights:

Don’t worry. I’ve considered the arguments about the authenticity of his feud with his mom. I know it may all be story-telling. Still, his story-telling built scaffolding around my collapsing psyche when I needed it, so I’ll take it as told. I’m selfish that way. When this song came out, though, I immediately loved it, hated it and watched it about 20 times.

My first thought: “Am I the only person left in the whole world without a mother?” See? Selfish.

I know that the world is full of motherless children. And admittedly, I have one out there. We just haven’t spoken to or seen each other in about a decade and a half. You can understand why I hated this video. I’ve treated the persona of Eminem like an angrier, more violent and faster talking version of me. He was a celebrity avatar for things I couldn’t express. Cleaning Out My Closet? I was all over that. I’m clearly not alone. It has more than 50,000,000 hits on YouTube (and despite distancing himself from it, he still has the song on his official VEVO feed, so it’s possible it’s all BS.)

That doesn’t change how raw the last few days have left my innards. If Eminem can reach out to his mother, what does that mean for me? Nothing? Everything? That’s where the loop comes in. It’s going around and around my brain. It’s a clog in the system, holding up everything else. I can’t shake it.

It comes down, I think, to two truths:
1) I miss my mother.
2) She’s not my mother.

Oh, she’s my biological mom, alright. I just need to look in the mirror to confirm that. I’m even greying in the same pattern. The circles under my eyes are the same shape. Cheekbones. Chin. Eyes are different. Forehead.

Still, I don’t call her mom (I have here, for clarity, but I don’t in casual conversation.)

There’s history there. You can see some of it in my sorely neglected webcomic. There was violence (a broad word that here indicates so many layers of injury) that I continued to enforce long after she’d kicked me out (she would say I ran away, but history is told by the victor and there is no victor here.) There was the sort of psychological damage special to the children of young mothers who make bad choices. There was the not seeing. The oblivion. The obsession. There was also the glee, the clever conversations and oh so much candy. People can be dichotomies, but mothers are not given such permissions. They are allowed one side of the binary and my mother failed to fill her niche.

I’m bitter about it. I was raised by Pentecostals, so forgiving or forgetting plays like sloppy dogma to me. There is no absolution. Time does not undo, like laces tied too loose. (I’m still in knots.) I have never been petitioned, so forgiveness hasn’t been mine to give. In my mind, we exist in the place between the infraction and the apology. It is homeostasis and if it’s mine to change, I haven’t yet sussed out how

I guess I found solace in someone who was equally un-mothered. I’ve always done this with song. I have a small collection of tunes that I call on to exorcise my self-pity or, as the flawed logic of homeopathy goes, feed it more of itself until it is forced to self-cure. Paul Robeson’s Motherless Child, Tracy Bonham’s Mother Mother, Cat Steven’s Father And Son, each song feeds a different hunger.

I know (don’t worry, I’m sometimes sane) that this song has nothing to do with me. It is not related to my life in any way. Except that it is and I miss her and I cannot have her and I am not sorry.

And that is all I have to say.

Defending (Or At Least Explaining) Ford Nation

I recently took a month off of social media because I was finding the whole experience overwhelmingly negative. People, myself included, have a tendency to vent online. It’s fine. We all need a place to share our frustrations. Still, it can be exhausting and present a myopic view of what’s really going on in our day-to-day lives.

April done, I popped back on to Facebook. I probably should have picked any day besides the one after Rob Ford’s latest scandal/confession/excuse.

Seeing people crap on Rob Ford is not new and I’m not above criticizing him myself (as you can see here, here and here.) What I’ve noticed more and more, however, is a tendency to be harshly critical of the people who voted for or continue to support him, colloquially called Ford Nation. There is no pause before calling them f**king idiots, morons, and right-wing *ssholes (* means I’m not really swearing, honest.) While it may seem hard to defend people who continue to support someone who is so clearly off the rails, these are the people I grew up with. I lived in Flemingdon Park, Malton and in Ford’s own backyard in Rexdale. This means that there’s a really good chance you’re insulting people I grew up with and people I’m related to. And I’m a little okay with that. Still, I feel the need to explain how this mysterious demographic called Ford Nation formed and why they continue to defend a man who, well, does crack.

What most people picture when they think of Ford Nation. Rob Ford clearly being spoon-fed by his large handed nanny.

What most people picture when they think of Ford Nation. Rob Ford clearly being spoon-fed by his large handed nanny.

Explanation The First: Living In A Crappy Neighbourhood Sucks 

Not shocking news, I suppose, but something you should bear in mind when considering Ford Nation. Most people who live in the “heart of Ford Nation” live there because they can’t afford to live anywhere else. We lived there because a janitor’s salary was enough to get a decent sized apartment. This was not true for, say, anywhere the subway goes. We lived in the ass-end of the city because it was cheap, not because we liked the sounds of late-night sirens, gun shots and our downstairs crack-dealing neighbour’s bass-heavy all-night music parties. We went to schools where teachers didn’t care. We had minimum wage jobs working for folks who hopped in their pretty cars and skipped back to Forest Hill when they were done bossing us around. We were occasionally afraid for our lives and almost always afraid for our bikes, sneakers and walkmans (what? It was the 90s.) I once had my bike stolen while I was riding it. It was an unhappy place to be. We knew the cops hated us. We knew our teachers dreamed of not having 3 devices protect their cars in the parking lot. We knew that politicians either ignored us or used us as talking points.

So how did this help Ford Nation to form? It’s easy. It’s like the soggy potato chip theory of childcare. You see, kids love potato chips (here serving as a metaphor for positive attention.) Ideally kids want nice, fresh, crispy chips. Still, if the only chips left are the soggy, gross ones, they’ll take those (our stand in for negative attention.) Basically, the Fords are our soggy potato chips. They may not be all crisp and tasty, but damn it, at least they’re chips. Most politicians don’t notice crappy neighbourhoods. Even if they do, they usually come to the conversation full of misconceptions, useless platitudes or downright silly suggestions.

Like that time Lyndon Johnston's wife suggested "adding flowers" would solve the problem of gangs and Eartha Kitt was her goddess of a self and told Lady Bird where to stick it only to earn this look from LBJ.

Like that time Lyndon Johnston’s wife suggested “adding flowers” would solve the problem of gangs and Eartha Kitt was her Goddess of a self and told Lady Bird where to stick it only to earn this look from LBJ.

The Fords may not be improving our neighbourhoods (in fact, I’ve talked about the damage I think their behavior does) but they are engaging with people who are often neglected. Unless you’ve lived in Rexdale, you can’t understand just how unseen and unacknowledged the residents can feel. To be seen and acknowledged is not the same as being helped, but it’s certainly better than being ignored. When you judge Ford Nation, realize that they aren’t just choosing between between bad and good, they’re choosing between bad and being ignored.

Explanation The Second: Ford Nation Used To Have The Moral High Ground

I come from the type of people who might support a guy like Ford. They go to church a little too much. They are pretty judgmental (though only of certain things) and they read The Sun. And thirty or forty years ago, most of the city was on their side. In the 80s, when I was a kid, marriage between two people of the same sex was still 25 years in the future. In 1989, two separate people were murdered for being gay or just appearing to be gay. Both of these events happened when I was in the eighth grade. It wasn’t until 1991 that we had our first openly gay Toronto politician, and he was elected in the riding commonly called the Gaybourhood. I remember the open joking and underhanded comments that accompanied his election. Now, in 2014, we may feel that we are a better community, but this openness does not have a long history. It is young and, according to a lot of Ford Nation, wrong.

I want to be very clear here: I’m bisexual. I’m all about rights. I’m as lefty as you can get (and still swing both ways.) But I understand that there are a lot of people out there, though the number is shrinking, who are icked out by gay people. And for a long time, they were generally supported in their point of view. The same can be said of their attitudes about homelessness, immigration, culture and finances. There was a time, very recently, where their opinions were the standard.

And now they are not.

I look at the things I believe deeply: That people deserve equal opportunities and treatment, that love is more important than money, that we need to protect the environment we live in. I ask myself, what if it swung over? What if rights were stripped away? What if the majority became opposed to multiculturalism or gay rights or education and health care? If my opinion was unpopular, would I abandon it, or would I dig my heels in and fight for change?

I like to think that I would fight for what I believe, with my votes, my behavior and my money. And in the end, that is also true of Ford Nation.

Are they wrong? I really, really think so. But they spent a long time being told they were right. The world changed and they didn’t keep up. That’s often how humans operate. We listen to bands we liked in high school. We drink our favourite beer. We pine for the good old days. And Rob Ford is right there pining with Ford Nation – and that may be something we cannot change.

Explanation The Third: Tax Money Really Matters To Ford Nation

I’m a grown up. I have a mortgage and bills and more than one type of insurance. It’s tough to stay on top of it. We do fine, but it’s given me a deep appreciation for the budgets my mother created. She fed, housed and clothed five people on what I now realize is a ridiculously low amount of money. Of that ridiculously low amount of money, a good hunk went to income taxes. Another hunk went to sales taxes. All told, more than 30% of our money disappeared into the well that waters our national garden. Now, we went to school and got medical care and enjoyed garbage pick up and paved roads, so I’m not going to complain about paying taxes, but I have a pretty personal understanding of how – uh – taxing those deductions can be.

Because our income was so low and my family featured an array of dependents, we almost always got money back after tax returns were filed.

How to put this? Tax return time was second Christmas at my house. If the tax return was big enough, we’d each get a $20 bill to spend on anything we liked. Anything.

And I chose this. This is the second coolest toy I have ever owned, after my Cabbage Patch Kid.

And I chose this. This is the second coolest toy I have ever owned, after my Cabbage Patch Kid.

Tax returns helped us pay down our bills, pick up the purchases we’d been putting off and even get a few treats. I cannot overstate how exciting tax time was.

Because when you are on the bottom of the income spectrum, every loonie matters. If someone promises a person making $50,000+ a year a few more dollars, it’s dismissible. Not so much if that’s your lunch budget for the week. To understand how important tax cuts are to Ford Nation, you have to understand the impact that a 10%, 20% or 30% deduction would have on a subsistence level income.

For me, it was the difference between Rocket Hockey and no Rocket Hockey. Which I think you’ll agree is a pretty damn big difference.

So in summary, my left-leaning, sane-thinking, baffled and bemused friends, call Ford Nation whatever smug nickname you want. Mock their intelligence, their ethics and their taste in track pants. But remember, what separates you from them may be a few years, a few dollars and a few kilometers. And that ain’t much.