There’s a sprawling cemetery where I go in my dreams

Do you dream about a place that exists only in your sleep? Do you return to it?

I have dreamscapes that my brain is eager to place me in, as though I were a stage actor and my brain were the audience. The first time I noticed this happening was when I dreamt of the lake, and the stone base of an old pier. When the water was low, you could walk to it; if you stood on the stone blocks while the water came in, you would drown. It was sun-bleached and dangerous when explored at low tide, or wind-whipped and covered by whitecaps when the sky above was grey, and I viewed it from the shore. The next few times I dreamt of that place I was trying to reach it, but the water was coming in and other dramas distracted me–so that by the end of the dream, I knew it was too late.

“I’ve missed my chance,” I said angrily to whatever dream-stranger was thwarting me at the time. “I’ll never get there now.”

More recently my brain has been eager to drop my in different portions of a vast and sprawling cemetery, which isn’t Beechwood or St. Patrick’s or any other cemetery I’ve spent considerable time in, though sometimes it will play at the pretence for a minute by putting the Beechwood “shop” in the corner of my vision, or two mowers horsing around on a hill, their machines abandoned. I find this particularly frustrating, not only because I get the distinct impression that someone is trying to fool me into thinking that this is the same place I loved and worked in, but moreover because everything else is so obviously alien; the monuments are not monuments I ever planted flowers beneath. None of the stones are mine, which is maybe why I always feel so unsettled here: these stones don’t love me back.

I’m nearly always uneasy in dreams. According to pseudo-psychology recurring dreams are a sign of recurring anxieties or behaviours, and the prevalence of water on my subconscious is supposedly symbolic of preoccupation with situations I can’t control (a pattern that’s been around since I was a kid, since I’ve always seen ponds and lakes where none existed, even when I was awake).

Where do you go in your dreams?

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In Which Eleanor Comes To Terms With Her Body, Societal Expectations of Women, and The Passage of Time

So I’ve been thinking a lot about Second Puberty lately.

Did you know Second Puberty was a thing? I did not, but it has me feeling some kind of way. I’ll admit I’m a bit of a hypocrite because I will chuckle good-naturedly at friends worrying themselves to a shadow over forehead lines and then run off to obsessively Google whether jowls are hereditary (the jury is still out but I’ll be making spreadsheets and graphs tracking family chin-tautness).

I’m creeping up on 30 so if it’s going to happen it’s going to happen soon, and I guess if there’s a trend in my–er–development, it established itself already. This means I have evidence to draw upon.

Until about 11 or 12 years old I was allowed to get away with saying and doing A Lot Of Shit because I was relatively pleasing to the eye and had toadstool princess hair and a charming trait which some call ‘precocious’ and which I call ‘pathological inability to keep my mouth shut’.

 

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Pictured: Toadstool Princess and faithful subject

Then age 13 struck and it all went to the dogs: for the next five or so years I was buck-toothed, bespectacled and cube-shaped. It took a damn long time to climb out of all that, and even now I’ve realized that you can’t escape your ancestors (or dairy allergies) and the most charitable description I usually give people trying to spot me in a crowd is “carapace”.

And now! Some Buzzfeed clone tells me that all my relief was premature, and just when I was ready to go to the ball it’s my turn to be the pumpkin again. Well, the joke’s on them, because this ain’t my first time at the rodeo. With the benefits of experience and cynicism I’ve managed to narrow my options down to the following possibles:

  • On my 30th birthday, I will prick my finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and transform into some kind of Peg Powler-esque hag with skin the colour of pond scum from living in the river (not the Rideau River because that shit will kill you).

 

  • My apartment will rear up on chicken legs, I will sprout a nose like a carrot, and together we’ll roam the land in search of interesting vice.

 

  • Some kind of Cow Goddess, I guess? I think I’m hoping to get the lower half of the cow because I’ll have four stomachs, but on the other hand if it was the head I could trade myopia for the come-hither bovine affect, and not so many farmers fiddling around with my nether regions or turning me into Big Macs.

The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades (at least until I have my cow-eyes).

By my estimate I’ve got 3 more years before I complete my devolution into some kind of hagatesse, after which it’ll be no rest for the wicked. Honestly, people complain about the Selfie Generation, but in a world where everything gives you cancer (like the Rideau River) and I now have to think about Second Puberty mowing me down like a freight train, it’s like you have to Instagram-filter the living daylights out of things just to keep your chin up (literally, because surprise! You have jowls now).

So if this story has a morale, it’s probably “Always expect to be a swamp monster, because at the very least you’ll never be disappointed, and occasionally you may even be pleasantly surprised. And think of all the swamp friends you’ll make!”

WIP: There is an ancient, coiling tree

Dear friends:

Sometimes I get a bit fanciful.

 

There is an ancient, coiling tree

planted mid-step south of Praetoria Bridge

(and when I say mid-step I mean those kinds of trees

that picked up their roots and walked until men

pinned them in place with geometry,

planting them architecturally)

and no oak made fitter throne for a sulking Erl King

though he set his cunning thralls to some trunk with their teeth.

 

There is a bird, dead

and floating in the low canal.

In the old days it was a warning

to hang a crow by the foot from an overhead branch

one eye staring and the sky in its beak

like a corner of tablecloth.

 

There is a man with many dogs:

ragged, princely hounds on a caravan

their roles reversed

he pulling his mongrels with a bar across his shoulders.

He too has curled in the willow bole webbed with wasp nest

like a knight in the thorn field, bleeding afresh,

suffering nobly.

 

There is a place I touch, smooth

with weather and I touch

the hands that have touched

the hands that have touched

and we are all touching hands

at the side of the road.

 

 

Fancifully yrs,

E

What can I bring?

Dear friends,

This question of “What do I bring to activism” has been sitting pretty heavily on my mind for the last two or three years. I don’t think anybody is born an activist; circumstances make action necessary and we adjust our behaviours and values as our environment demands. When the world does not naturally reserve room for us–for our skin colour, our gender identity, our sexuality, our physical needs, etcetera–our values and actions are naturally inclined towards making space. We grow like trees, our roots working their way around stones and beneath foundations, sending cracks up through structures that oppress ourselves and others. The goal is to topple those monuments, allowing the shoots who spring up after us to thrive (in time–it only happens with time).

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But we grow in different ways, and we’re fed on different soil. Something that I think young folks especially may not realize is that everyone is not equipped to fill the same roles in resistance. We can and should contribute different things to our respective communities.

So what can I bring?

 

I can bring a body

To be clear, I can bring a body privileged by most urban planners, architects, and institutions, insofar as much of the city is designed with my body in mind. More to the point, numerous anti-oppression actions are designed for attendees with bodies similar to mine: most protest marches, sit-ins, and rallies are planned on the assumption that most participants will have bodies like mine.

But there you are: I have a body. I can put this body at the front of a march; I can use this body to carry a megaphone; I can put this body between the bodies of protestors and law enforcement. I can conspicuously put my body at the back of an action. The only caveat to all this is that my body is often limited by my mental health. When this happens, I ask myself: “What can I bring to activism?”

I can bring a voice

To be clear, I bring a voice privileged by academics, mainstream media, and (to a certain extent) popular culture. I fluently speak one of the national languages, and have the benefit of a post-graduate education specifically focused on the literature of that language.

But there you are: I have a voice. I can write blog posts; I can send letters to the editor; I can vote on committees and boards of directors and in provincial and federal elections. There are times, of course, when it would be inappropriate to use my voice, or when its important that I pointedly not use my voice, the better to prioritize the words, letters, and language of others. When this is the case, I again ask myself: “What can I bring to activism?”

I can bring skills

This is related to my voice, since my professional experiences have dovetailed with my passion for language and communication. With my skills I can fulfill the activist function I enjoy the most–that is, being in a supportive role for organizations whose mandate reflects my values. I can write press releases, newsletters, and reports; I can run social media; I can put people in touch with each other.

Now, there are times when there is no need for my skills, when I should not use my voice, and when I cannot use my body, and it’s tempting to huff and puff and say, “The well is dry! I’ve got problems too, you know. What more d’you want from me?”

At which point it behooves me to breathe, step back for a minute, and then gently ask myself: “What can I bring to activism?”

I can bring kindness

I can speak softly. I can listen. I can bring water, and snacks. I can say, “I will still be here; I will wait for you to get through this.” And ultimately, I can be tender with myself, since the healthier I am, the more love I can give.

What can you bring to activism?

 

Actively yours,

E

 

Postscript: These ideas are a work in progress, and I’m always open to your comments and criticisms. Please never hesitate to call me out on my oversights and assumptions–I’m in this life to learn.

WIP: Song of the Nuclear Bunker

Dear friends:

I’ve been mulling over a piece inspired by Ottawa’s Diefenbunker Museum since I was fortunate enough to hear theremin player Thorwald Jorgensen present his piece “Distant Shores”during Music and Beyond’s summer festival. We arrived at the Diefenbunker before the evening began with the artist kits, just in time to see the following interview being recorded (in a neat twist, I was actually the one responsible for connecting La fabrique culturelle with Mr. Jorgensen).

Looking down the long hallway, it became clear to me that these were the sounds that nuclear bunkers dreamt of as they slept underground.

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Click to visit the website and watch the interview.

Song of the Nuclear Bunker (Work in Progress)

“I am snug underground as a bulb that will spring up blaring red tulip bells, four alarm fire.

The bomb never fell, and I could write letters to make the historians swoon, stark on the page as cosmonaut footprints on the surface of the moon.”The bomb never fell”, and I am unfinished sentence, incomplete coda, arrested development, Aeiparthenos, failure to launch.

Oh dear, you say, she’s gone a bit dour. But if bunkers could dance we’d Danse Macabre from here to the day of Judgment, gruesome bridesmaids of the dropped bouquet. I shall never visit Russia; but I dream of a bomb called Mikhailovich who wraps me in furs and feeds me roe. I don’t know the meaning of “nuclear war”, but I know at the moment of crisis, we’ll glow.

Oh. Oh. Oh.

I would serve hors d’oeuvres and cocktails to minister’s wives. Accessorize: plutonium, pearl. I in chiffon and Chanel no. 5, Avon calling at the compound–but the bomb never fell and I walk my own halls, keening like a kicked she-hound. I whisper into the microphones, over the intercom: I’m here, my love; find me, blaze o’er me, gentleman caller, hydrogen bomb. 

When bunkers dream, we dream of a roar and a hiss like a wave crashing on the shore, the fitful cries, the lap of the tongue (uranium), and the purpose for which I have lived.”

Apocalyptically yours,

E

TBT: Cracks in the Ivory Tower

I wrote this piece for an online publication produced by my Professional Writing Program at Algonquin College. I wanted to post it here not because I want to recant anything I’ve said, but because I think with the benefit of a little more time spent looking back I can put a finer point on why I left academia, and where I’m going next.

If you’d like to read the text in it’s original  form, it is still available here.

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The people who devote their intellectual energy to the humanities spend so much time defending their academic pursuits to themselves—and to the world at large—that flogging the party line isn’t just second nature, it’s the only thing that helps you sleep at night. “Studying the humanities develops critical thinking skills! It provides tools to develop deeper empathy! It makes you a more politically active citizen!”

The problem is that the disciplines are not helping their own cases. The humanities lag behind more or less every other discipline in terms of respect, prestige, and transferability between training and career. As well as dropping enrollment numbers, the oft-cited issue of scant employment opportunities is a troubling consideration, as I can attest. In an inaugural meeting with my new Graduate Department (for which I had moved my life half-way across the country), I was told that the hiring rate for English doctoral students was less than 20 percent. No-one present—neither professors, faculty, nor the doctoral students themselves—had words to soften the blow, or suggestions for how to avoid having to retrain for an entirely new career after spending years and many thousands of dollars pursuing knowledge.

I finished my Master’s degree—never let it be said that I quit easily—and moved home, feeling thoroughly betrayed. The discipline that I had defended tooth and nail for five years, pouring in my money, effort, and passion, had tossed me out on my ass with nothing to show for my work and effort.

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The typical defences aren’t holding up anymore. Does history really make someone a better critical thinker than, say, an engineer? Does a political-science major have a better grasp of inequality and the violence of a capitalistic society than an uneducated young person living in an urban project? Is analysis of a novel more useful than a more sustainable fuel? And do we really believe that empathy can be taught in a textbook? The opposite tack—that the humanities are valuable in themselves, for the pure enjoyment of the student—is more honest, but one that loses the argument before you’ve even begun. I hate it for the same reason I hate the “Follow Your Bliss” mentality my parents are always trotting out. I want to be a useful engine, damn it.

Some commentators blame the failure of the humanities on the radical splintering of the disciplines into ever more obscure faculties: queer studies, women’s studies, and various cultural studies. Ironically, this is one of the few avenues in which the humanities are going right. When your detractors decry you for being elitist and exclusionary, you’d better take them seriously if you want to get your enrollment numbers up. There may not be vocation in “knowing yourself,” but that doesn’t stop people from wanting to see their identities validated. And the humanities can’t re-discover its lauded place in society if it doesn’t concern itself with the real and contemporary needs of society: representation, accessibility, equality, and an ability to ignore one’s own hype. And if they want to survive the next few decades, the Humanities desperately need to address the latter category.

Ultimately the tower casting the real shadow is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Where does an academic pursuit fit into the bare necessities of life?

Necessarily yours,

E

This girl is full of ghosts

Dear friends,

My employer’s son is 9 years old, and accustomed to having the run of the office when his father brings him into work. Precocious and self-assured, the bantam young hero of the tale, he’s fast approaching the age where nothing astonishes.

I won him over with a ghost story.

I live in Centretown, in a tilting old house divided into many apartments. Everything has been updated except for the service staircase in the back. This spiralling corkscrew of steps looks like it hasn’t been touched in roughly 100 years except for moths beating themselves into dust against the windows, and it’s necessary to traipse it in order to do your laundry or take out the compost. I start at the top of the tower, where old window frames and fireplace fenders are stacked on a platform and plunge down, clinging to the central beam, because if you miss your step you’ll surely fall and fall with nothing to break against. On the ground floor just before the basement, a thick, black shadow lies on the threshold like a lounging cat, and you have to step into that shadow because the automatic light will not come on until you’re already swathed in darkness.

Once you reach the cement floor beneath the house, you have every impression of the underside of the world: thick, roping cobwebs in the windows, slatted wooden doors with signs reading “Keep this door closed at all times!” You can peek through the cracks to see what’s inside as you turn down the hall where the washer-drier set is. The smell here of damp is palpable. It creeps in the nostrils; it invades the lungs; it wants to make a home in you.

And at the end of the hall is a door with a padlock.

My first night in the new apartment I was alone. My roommates had not yet arrived, and my best friend and her partner had helped me put my room together, and gone home. I tossed and turned (the night was hot) and slept only with difficulty.

Sometime after midnight I woke with the smell of the basement clinging to the roof of my mouth.

I should point out that this smell was nowhere else in my unit; there were three locked doors and two apartments in between myself and the basement, and yet the smell was as potent as though I were standing barefoot on the cement floor beneath the house.

I should also point out that I’m one to take the path of least resistance; I seldom go on the offensive. Still… Begin as you mean to go on, I thought.

Sitting up in my bed, I said aloud to my empty bedroom: “No. You stay where you belong. You keep to your own patch. And you never come in my room again.”

I have never detected that smell above ground since.

This was the story I told my boss’s son, and there’s scarcely been a day since when he has seen me without asking if I have any news of Peter Slim (preemptively I gave the roving spirit a name and personality, blew him kisses while I sorted my whites from my darks, and we have been on friendly terms henceforth). I really think a storyteller’s first attentive audience always gives a bit of a head rush; suddenly I needed new material to fill up ears and eyes, and even begun populating places with ghosts where there were none before. Who’s to say that years from now people might not experience hauntings from ghosts I planted, watered, and pruned?

We all have an ambition to haunt someone else, after all.

 

Spectrally yours,

E

Community elders and the fate of the mentor

Dear friends:

As a kid, my intense shyness dictated that I would be one of those young people who preferred to hover at the edge of the grown-up’s table and listen to their conversations rather than join the games and romps in the TV room. Grown-ups were like books, basically; I could be invisible when I was with them, drink up the big words, and wonder at the motivations of people so big and unfathomable they might as well have been gods.

Years later, I remember discussing with a friend (another writer) the necessity of dispensing with the mentor at the end of the second act of the hero’s journey, and why it was considered a necessary rite of the passage. I had a sense of consternation over the whole thing; I like the Merlins, the Obi Wans, the Gileses. I wanted to hear the conversations they were having behind closed doors; their motivations; their struggles; their private lives. Once again, I find myself wanting to be at the corner of their table for just a few more minutes before hying out the door to fight the baddies.

But, as my friend pointed out, “Those books are relating to young people who are just starting to feel the need to navigate the world without adults. They’ll never be able to solve the problems of the world by abiding by the rules of the old generation.”

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Telemachus and Mentor, the trope namer

Now, I’m a millennial. Not only do I get the logic here, I also see the real-world analogue at work. I get the need to take the mentor out of the equation—to kill Obi Wan at the end of the second act, as it were.

But it’s the result that that trend might have on our relationships with the elders in our communities that I want to highlight here. In the queer/trans community, for example, we’re standing on the shoulders of giants: many of the folks who threw bottles and bricks at Stonewall are still living and working today (Hi Miss Major) and their physical and mental health needs consistently take a back seat to the rest of the population. The disservice we do them by relegating their sacrifices to the dusty annals of history is staggering. Nearly 60 years after John Lewis participated in the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins, he has staged another sit-in on the floor of Congress to demand the Republican leadership take action on gun control. I think, too, of the importance of elders in Indigenous communities, and the essential role their guidance plays in the reclamation of culture for Indigenous youth–especially those who live off-reserve. 

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I feel as though the “Death of the Mentor” trope feeds into the idea that our predecessors have nothing more to teach us–and nothing more to do than dissolve into the background. Our mentors don’t cease to exist when they pass the torch to the succeeding generation. They still love. They still seek.

I think I’m going to write a story about what happens when the mentor pulls his cloak out of the cedar chest and laces up those seven-league-boots again…

Take care,

Eleanor

 

The treasure, the trove, and the grocery list

Dear friends:

I like lists.

Anxiety lends itself to executive dysfunction, and the overwhelming desire to put off my introductory post until I have something pat to say is sitting like a saggy-assed elephant between myself and my keyboard. But I’ve found lists to be a good tool for the Bad Days when fear keeps me in my room, in my chair, in myself. A way to visualize the steps for life, as it were: you can’t make a cake until you crack the eggs.

In his article “Behind the Painted Mask”, snake-worshipping, wizard-under-the-bridge Alan Moore recreated a list he made during the pre-production of V for Vendetta, which included the disparate inspirations, images, narratives, and impressions he wanted to be present in the comic:

“Orwell. Huxley. Thomas Disch. Judge Dredd. Harlan Ellison’s “Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman, Catman and The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World by the same author. Vincent Price’s Dr. Phibes and Theatre of Blood. David Bowie. The Shadow. Night Raven. Batman. Fahrenheit 451. The writings of the New Worlds school of science fiction. Max Ernst’s painting “Europe After the Rain”. Thomas Pynchon. The atmosphere ofBritish Second World War films. The Prisoner. Robin Hood. Dick Turpin…”

Moore, Alan (1983). “Behind the Painted Smile”. Warrior (17)

I had the questionable fortune to read V for Vendetta when I was starting to write in high school–I say ‘questionable’ not because I deny the value of the work, but because teenagers are insufferable as a natural defence and inevitably I tried to imitate the lofty, philosophical cynicism of Moore’s prose without having a single original idea to back it up. Luckily, when I finally grew out of weak attempts at Moore-isms, the thing  that really remained with me was the notion that every story started with a list, a treasure box, a trove of theologies, tableaus, and tales that have gone before.

So I sat down to write out my grocery list. The list that fuels my creativity, the trove into which I reach to draw stories. I recreate that list here:

“First, witches. Witches that smile with their teeth. Witches with leopard jaws and breath of communion wine.

“Aerostats and wings of brass and creatures too heavy for flight that miraculously step in the sky. Cities–cities and city worship, and suburbs and spires and steeples astride clouds. If cities were people, what would they be like? What are their affects, their postures, their gestures?

“Teenage girls summoning otherworldly apparitions in the washroom of their high school. Teenagers that are feathers and fireworks, gentle and explosive.Brown-skinned, freckled girls lying in wildflowers. Olive-skinned, blazing demi-girls crowned with stars.

“Saints. Saints who struggle to be good, saints who wrestle with dark impulses, who drink moonshine and smoke cigarettes and have bruises like bare-knuckle boxers (duking it out with the Devil, much?). Saints scabbed and dirty, with tongues dropping diamonds.

“How do we be ‘good’? Is there power to be gotten from goodness–and is there equal power to be gotten from not being good?

“Women kings, and prophetic women, and women who scrape escarpments in the earth with their fingernails, and women who tear up the turf with their teeth. Messianic heroes walking into the fire, eyes brimful of love and anguish.

“Women loving women. Men loving men. People of no particular gender loving and being loved. A big ol’ lovefest.”

And at the bottom of the list, I wrote:

“Something just for you, friends.”

 

Take care,

Eleanor

 

(ETA: I elected to delete this post in light of the Orlando shooting, not wanting to publish anything on such a sad day, thus its disappearing and reappearing. Apologies for that <3)