The Rexdale Manifesto (Written January 24, 2005)

I was angry when Jane Creba was shot. So was everyone else, but I was more angry about how the reaction to her death compared to the usual reaction people had to young people who died, yet fitted a less valued demographic. This is what I wrote in 2005. Please forgive my youth when I trip over my feet to speak for everyone. Still, I think they were important ideas.

When I surveyed the amount of intense coverage that one of Toronto’s more recent gun related homicides garnered, I turned to my husband and said, “Watch. The victim’s got to be a white person. Probably a female. Probably young.” Later that week, when the victim was identified as fifteen year old Jane Glenn Creba (a girl from a middle class, two-parent family,) I was not surprised.

While recognition of the problem of extreme violence has been building at a protracted pace for over a decade, this story provided what, until now, had been lacking: the perfect victim. Interestingly, when I voiced the opinion that this shooting was treated as a tragedy that required action because the victim was a young white girl, the response was denial. One person said, “It’s not that she was white, it’s that she was innocent.” It’s telling that many people assume that the other fifty-two victims, many of them black men, were not innocents. We only have to look so far as a dictionary to see that white supposedly means innocent or pure and black means evil or wicked.

This perfect victim served to bring to the forefront (or should I say, bring to light) an issue that has long been present. We do need to counter this violence. Notice, I don’t say this gun violence. Guns make violence quick, easy and deadly, however, without a human being, a gun does no harm.

I understand Toronto’s violence, perhaps better than many, because of the areas I grew up in: Flemington Park, Malton and Rexdale. Of all of these, it was Rexdale that presented as the most violent, desolate and angry. When these neighbourhoods are reported on, it is usually with a focus on a common ethnicity or cultural background. These are not black neighbourhoods, middle eastern neighbourhoods or immigrant neighbourhoods. What residents of these places shared unilaterally was an economic classification. We were poor. When we question why so much of the violence is being committed by members of a visible minority, perhaps we should question why so many people of colour are relegated to our poorest communities, these lands of inopportunity. If it is not racism, then why aren’t prosperous areas, like Forest Hill or the Bridal Path, predominantly black? We do not want people to die, especially if violence spills over the edges of places like Rexdale and lands in places like those I have just mentioned.

What can we do? First, I will examine, from my layperson’s viewpoint, what creates violent behavior in people – and killers are people. We cannot forget that. From the thirteenth floor window of the Kipling and Steeles apartment I lived in, I could see most of Rexdale. Opportunity, however, was never in sight. We children of these places are sharp. We are not ignorant to the messages we are sent. We know we are unimportant. We know that little is expected of us. We know that if we fail, no one will be disappointed. We know we are suspect; based on location, skin tone, monetary standing and age. We know that you will not mourn if we die. We woke up in the morning with stomachs full of fear, even when it did not seem to be so. Some of us were afraid of hunger, afraid of violence at home, afraid of the police who stopped us on the way to school. We were afraid that we were nobody, for if we were somebody, surely help would come. It would rescue us from our teachers who hated, tolerated or ignored us. At my high school, North Albion Collegiate Institute, we joked that Rexdale was where they sent teachers to die. We were the pasture to which they sent old horses. Most of our teachers were not talented, coherent or well enough to work elsewhere, and we knew it. We understood that we were provided with resources, only when they could not be used elsewhere. I recall one teacher who sat at her desk crying, muttering about her divorce trial and her sick daughter. Even when she was lucid, she let us teach ourselves, the attendance book out so we could sign in and the assignment written on the board. More than once, I walked in at the end of the class, marked myself present and left. She didn’t seem to notice. I imagine that very few schools would have kept her on, but ours were just happy to have an adult body in each room. I had her two years in a row, for grade nine French and grade ten English.

Our schools, our stores, our apartment buildings, were all ugly and broken down. We had no pride in ownership, for few of us owned anything. Because we could not be proud of our homes, or cars, our schools or our jobs, some of us placed status on smaller things like phones or shoes or jewelry. A lot of us didn’t, but some of us did. Sometimes we would steal these things from each other because we could not afford even them, or because we wanted to feel like we were worth more. A lot of us didn’t, but some of us did. Sometimes we got high because escape was feasible when success was not. A lot of us didn’t, but some of us did. Sometimes we were so confused and angry and lost that we hurt each other. A lot of us didn’t, but some of us did. Some of us learned about death and fear while standing in front of a drawn gun. A lot of us didn’t, but I did.

Respect is like a language. Respect for each other, respect for ourselves, respect for a city, country or planet, must be learned the same way a language is. Imagine that you are learning a second language. (Respect is a second language because survival is always the first.) How do you learn it? If a person says to you “Speak it,” can you? Can you be commanded to know a language? Of course not. A language must be taught. So is the way of respect. To be fluent in a language, you must be surrounded by it. There must be someone who knows it to teach you. You must hear it used. You must concentrate and study. To learn a language, you must be submersed in it. The same is true of respect. If a child is surrounded by respect, both for themselves and for others, they will learn it.

We were besieged with disrespect, shown by action and inaction, speeches and silence, neglect and suspicion, how worthless we were. We could not ignore the disparities in the administration of our neighbourhoods. We could see our status in the context of our city, our province and our country. In my view, this is how we create violent offenders.

The question, then, is how do we counter this? To the young ones now, we must offer respect, security and care. We must let them know that they deserve an equal hand. At very least, we must teach them how to fight for one. As for my generation, and the one just beneath it, we may be lost. We may deserve prison or, even worse, poverty. I hope not. I just don’t know. I do know this: If you leave a person hungry, you create a thief. If you tell someone they do not matter, you create a person without respect for life. If you leave a person without help or hope, you create a void than can be filled with drugs or guns. If you leave us all together in one neighbourhood, you create gangs – and perhaps, eventually, armies.

First Pride (Written in 2010)

I didn’t graduate from High School. I made it to my last year – heck, I made it through my last year. Then it happened. Again.

My parent’s kicked me out. You might think my parents kicked me out because I’m bisexual, but that’s pretty unlikely. A teenager, I had never had consensual sex, and my religiously obsessed mother had made it quite clear that the entire topic was taboo. Everything in my home was taboo. Speaking, thinking, learning, challenging, all taboo. My world was so small and tightly controlled, that as I grew it choked me. I had fought against it, poorly, using whatever words I could fit there in with me. And in response, they kicked me out.

Homeless is too broad a word for so many unique circumstances. Being homeless is like having a home, in that no one else’s home is ever exactly like yours. No one else’s homelessness was exactly like mine either. There were tears. Nose streaming, hollow-chested, wailing-so-I-thought-I-was-dying tears. And hunger. The kind of hunger that makes you want to steal or scream or beg until your stomach is full and your mind is empty. But mostly there was loneliness. The loneliness of being thrown away. The loneliness that changes the tone of the world until everything is grey and grey and only grey. There were other words too, like cold and scared and desolate, words that had burst from the box with me when I was sent away.

Even through homelessness, I went to my last year of high school. I had the highest marks in all three of my semestered courses. I still have the letters that say so. I save them like old currency, worthless except as memories.

Then it all fell down, which hurt more than I expected, being so close to the ground already. Into the system I went; into the group home. Away from my last chance at school and those letters were empty, robbed of their value so quickly.

In the group home there were more fights, but these ones were fair. We were all of us ripped from our boxes and we celebrated our freedom by stomping on each other and sharing our solace with hugs and wine coolers and suicide stories.

“This is my friend.” They had the same name. My housemate and her friend. They looked so different. One dark and feminine and one like a teenaged boy, with soft girl eyes. I played with her hair and she let me cut it. She let me kiss her neck. I would have wondered what it meant about me, if the rules hadn’t been obliterated. Instead I knew she felt good. I needed good. She gave it a name, our connection. The name sounded far prettier coming from her lips than those of the angry ministers I’d heard in my childhood. I decided I liked the way she said it better. I liked her. I liked the way she yelled at boys who gave us funny looks. I liked the way she punched walls when walls dared to get too close to me. Then she said another word.

Pride. She couldn’t go to Pride. She was sad. I was intrigued. So I boarded a subway and rode, not sure what to expect. The train rumbled and squeaked around the corners and newspapers littered the floor. This was normal. This was real life. I heard the stop announced and more than half the train stood with me.

That’s when I knew.

We got off together and crushed onto the escalator in colours and colours and colours.

We exited the station into sunlight and a million people. A million people. And I was not lonely or hungry or desolate or cold or scared. Still, there were tears. Small and growing, happy-thrilling tears. There was a place where I made sense. Where I was not a mistake or a sinner or a girl built backwards. I was in the music and the colours and sun that never failed. I danced until my shoes fell apart and then danced barefoot, meeting friends that I still know twenty years on.

I did not finish high school that year. But I had my graduation.

A Perverted, Unearthly Trance (Written May 6, 2005)

I wrote this almost ten years ago, when my first major depression was starting to subside. I say subside because depression never leaves for me. It ebbs and flows and migrates to different parts of my mind, but it does not leave. I was reading over my old blog, and I found this post. It talks, quite rightly, about the shock of waking up in a changed body and world. Excuse the sloppy terminology of my age. 

Do you know the story of Rip Van Winkle by Washington Irving? It’s about a fellow who wanders off into the mountains and when he wanders back down, twenty years have passed. He does not know his village; in fact, it is now in the United States rather than a colony of England. His wife has died, his house has fallen in and his children are grown. His body has changed and aged. His dog, or perhaps one of its descendants, has become feral and approaches him growling.

If you are familiar with the story, then perhaps you will understand me when I say that recovering from mental illness feels like stepping out of a perverted, unearthly trance into a world that bares little resemblance to the one left behind. When I became ill, I was physically fit, energetic, socially aware and mentally proficient. Then mental illness struck and all of this was left behind for sheer survival. My mind became cluttered – a physical metaphor, but I think it works. My body stopped working properly. My energy deserted me.

I fell asleep young and fit and woke up overweight, tired and feeling ancient. The new world was not the same as the one I left. I did not feel the burning need to write, something that had never altered since grade school. Instead I felt almost nothing. I was becoming well, to some degree, but instead of feeling good, I felt (and still feel, to be honest) bored. Listless. Unkempt. Broken.

I think I honestly believed that there would be a sense of wellness, of satisfaction at my own resilience. Instead, I have realized that I have spent a lifetime reacting to my hardships and have been, on occasion, brilliant because of it. Now, with nothing to react to, I find trouble being proactive. I can’t recover lost time. I wonder whether it is worth the work to try to return to some semblance of what I was before this. I wonder what I might have gained, then become frustrated with myself for playing the victim’s game of finding the good in something that is horrible, just to justify my own suffering. I will never say that I am glad I experienced what I did, because it made me who I am. It stinks of a lie, told to oneself to maintain a belief in the greater good of anything.

Old Rip Van was happy to do nothing with the remainder of his life having, in his absence, reached an age where inactivity is considered right. He was not twenty-seven, as I am. He did not have old dreams to try to recover. I beg the universe to be patient with me, but I am not ready to be patient with myself. My sleep did not benefit me, and still, I want to create something good for myself. Where can I find the strength? Hopefully I will figure that out.

With ten years perspective, I can say that I never did get my old self back. I never was able to reverse time and find the old Rip. Still, I hope I’ve made good of my “old age”. sometimes I still find myself fighting to get back to before. I want what I lost, to this day. Ten years of regretting what I lost has got to be enough. Maybe this memory, this solid note, can teach me to let it go. To say goodbye to what was and embrace what is. Or maybe I’ll be like Rip and retire. I hear that can be fun.

Into The Woods

Hello Fair Folk,
I’m about to do something radically different for me. I’m about to spend 2.5 months in the woods. I’ve gotten a job as a summer camp counsellor. What does this mean for my blog? We’ll be mostly off the grid. My plan is to post a series of older writings to pop up every Monday until I return. I hope this will keep you from deserting while I desert. The first one will appear today. After that, one a week until I’m back. See you much, much later.

Love,
Heather