Amidst the busyness of the first couple of weeks of November I’ve been doing NaNoWriMo, trying to get closer to a complete first draft of my latest novel. Here’s my vlog report on progress up to a couple of days ago:
I’m not going to say much about the politics of the Canadian election — I said enough in the weeks leading up to it — except to say that I’m OK with the outcome and I look forward to what the Liberals will do over the next four years to fulfill their promises. I sincerely believe they will do less than we hope, but more than Harper would have done, so call me a cautiously contented Canadian. Instead of politics, I want to talk about the real issue that’s on the minds of Canadians in the wake of last Monday’s election: how incredibly hot our new Prime Minister is.
And why it’s problematic to talk about that.
Let’s face it, “the leader of our country is so attractive we’re afraid we might be objectifying him,” is not a situation that arises really often in Canadian politics. Or in the politics of most countries, since the people who rise to leadership tend to be middle-aged men who are not distinguished by their handsomeness. There are exceptions, of course, and beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but let’s be honest: when Stephen Harper became Prime Minister of Canada in 2006, we were not bombarded by a barrage of shirtless Harper photos and a corresponding barrage of articles analyzing whether it was OK to crush on the leader of our country in this shameless fashion.
But now, it seems, we have a problem.
It’s a problem for us feminists because we’ve spent years telling men that they shouldn’t comment on the appearance of women in politics, in business, and in other area of public life. We’ve told them that it demeans a woman in the public sphere when we comment on her clothes, her hairstyle, or her body. Women are so often reduced to their physical appearance, and to comment on, say Hillary Clinton’s hairstyle, is to suggest that her appearance is more important than her policies, her intelligence or her abilities.
As feminists, we’ve sent the message loud and clear (not that everyone has accepted it, but we’ve certainly said it enough): It is completely unacceptable to comment on a political leader’s physical appearance.
Oh. Except. Justin Trudeau.
Lately, because I don’t know what’s good for me, I’ve been sharing political articles on my Facebook wall. I get an interesting response from American friends. They seem a little let-down to hear that we have dirty political fights, and politicians who call on our worst prejudices to score votes. “I thought Canada was better than that,” they say.
A lot of Americans seem to cling to the idea that Canada is a kinder, gentler country that their own — and, to be honest, a lot of us Canadians think that of ourselves, too. We’re good people, aren’t we? We’re supposed to be the world’s good guys, with our peacekeepers and our multiculturalism and all the things that make us so, well, Canadian. The very reason so many of us are anxious to see the end of the Harper administration is because we believe that under the leadership of this particular Conservative government, we’re becoming less and less the country we’d like to think we are.
The sad truth is, we’re better than that — and worse than that. Canadians are not inherently different from anyone else. Like all human beings, we are made in the image of God and yet we are dogged by original sin. Or else, if you’d like a less Christian analogy: we are like both The Force and duct tape: we have a light side and a dark side. And both have been on display in this election campaign.
To me, the two photos above encapsulate something important about what’s happening in Canada during this election: about the two visions of who we might be as a country, which are really about two ways of viewing The Other, the outsider. the immigrant.
I think I was probably about nine years old the first time I asked to be exempted from something for religious reasons. Like most Seventh-day Adventist kids, I was taught early how to do this: to say respectfully, “I’m sorry, I can’t do that because it’s on Saturday. I’m a Seventh-day Adventist, and we observe Saturday as the Sabbath.”
I got, as I have done most times since then, a blank look. If I remember correctly the person giving me the blank look was my piano teacher — I believe I was explaining why I couldn’t play in a Saturday recital. She said, “Can’t you just ask your minister or your priest if it’s OK for you to play on Saturday?”
I wrestled with finding the right words — how to explain, as a child, something that I intuitively understood but an adult did not? How to put into words that this had nothing to do with obeying a religious authority figure or getting permission, but with inner conviction that would make Sabbath a special day regardless of what any clergy person said? I told her that wouldn’t work and I wouldn’t be able to play, and I missed the recital.
It was the first of many times I was to enact this tiny drama. Since I went to a Seventh-day Adventist school and eventually to a church-run college, I had to do this far less than Adventist kids who went to public school did, but I had to explain over and over why I couldn’t attend everything from piano recitals to final exams (the year I attended public university) “because of my religion.”
Ah, the things we can and can’t do because of our religion. Is there a hotter topic in the news right now? Kim Davis can’t have her name appear on the marriage license for a same-sex couple because of her religion, even if she goes to jail for it. Zunera Ishaq needs to appear in her niqab at her citizenship ceremony because of her religion, even if it means going covered-head-to-uncovered-head with a prime minister desperate for a distracting fake-issue to save his campaign. Ranee Panjabi won’t wear a recording device to broadcast her lectures to a hard-of-hearing student because of her religion, even if it earns her the incensed derision of the entire province of Newfoundland.
Several years ago, on this very blog, I wrote an angry rant about the trend of literary fiction writers dropping the use of quotation marks. In the years since, I still haven’t embraced the trend, but I’m maybe a little less angry. I decided to use my latest Shelf Esteem video to explore this phenomenon and see how widespread it really is. It does get a bit angry at one point, but only at Cormac McCarthy.
So, almost everyone who knows me in real life knows this story, at least if you’ve known me long enough. But I don’t know if I’ve ever blogged about it — certainly not in recent years — and it seems timely to tell, or re-tell, this story now.
A couple of weeks ago Jason and I celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary with a trip to Quebec City, where we stayed at the famous (and fabulously overpriced) Chateau Frontenac hotel. We had a wonderful time walking the streets of Old Quebec, eating crepes and fondue, swimming in the hotel pool and generally relaxing/sightseeing. But there’s a very significant reason why I picked Quebec for our anniversary trip and why we had to stay in the Frontenac regardless of the cost, and it goes back more than 20 years, to the summer of 1991.
Jason and I were in our mid-20s then and we had been dating for about six or seven months. However, I was convinced this was not a serious relationship with much of a future. While we had a great time (and most importantly a great laugh) together, I was planning to leave St. John’s at the end of August for a job in Alberta. I didn’t know if this relationship had what it took to survive long distance; I liked him, but wasn’t sure how serious I was about him. I thought me moving away might provide a nice natural ending to things, and we’d both move on.
All that year, Jason and I had both been counsellors in our church’s Pathfinder Club for kids ages 10-15, and during the summer the club took a trip to Quebec for an Eastern Canada Pathfinder Camporee. We spent four days driving to Quebec on a school bus loaded with with kids singing at the top of their lungs, and a bus driver who didn’t believe in bathroom stops. Then we all went to stay at the Seventh-day Adventist church camp in Val d’Espoir, Quebec, a not-very-lovely campsite in the middle of nowhere where the 30C temperatures were exacerbated by the heavy, old-fashioned canvas tents we had to sleep in. It was, to put it mildly, not a dream vacation.
One day the Pathfinders were scheduled to climb back on the bus and go into Quebec City for a tour of the old city. That morning I woke up with a stomach bug — just what I needed to make that trip even more perfect. I didn’t want to stay back at the campsite and be sick alone, so, gambling that I would feel better as the day went on, I got on the bus with everyone else and drove into Quebec City.
My gamble did not pay off. As soon as we got off the bus near the Citadelle, I was sick again. I threw up into a plastic bag that another leader had helpfully given me for that purpose. When I looked up from barfing into the Sobey’s bag, I was surprised to see Jason standing beside me. I was even more surprised when he took the bag of barf from my hands and said, “Are you OK? I’ll take care of that.”
I watched my boyfriend walk away with a plastic bag full of my vomit to dispose of it in a garbage can, and I thought, This guy is a keeper.
I didn’t feel better as the day went on, and after dragging myself with the group of kids around the Citadelle walkway (and posing for a picture, above, in which I look much happier than I was — the caption was intended to be ironic), I knew I couldn’t go on for the rest of the tour. We were near the fabulous, elegant and air-conditioned Chateau Frontenac and Jason suggested that I wait in the hotel lobby for the group to finish the tour, where I could throw up in their lovely washrooms if needed. He went off shepherding Pathfinders while I huddled in misery in the nicest hotel lobby I’d ever been sick in.
Some girls are impressed by roses, diamonds, poetry. Some girls like flashy cars and big bank accounts. I was, and remain, impressed by a guy who’s willing to step up and do the dirty work. The guy who carries the bag of vomit, I thought that day, is probably the guy who will clean the floor when the dog gets sick; who will change the baby’s diaper; who will genuinely be there in sickness and in health. And so far, 20+ years later, I’ve been right about all those things. He was, and is, a keeper, and he’s there for the bad times as well as the good, and we’ve been able to laugh through it all.
I decided that someday, maybe on an important anniversary, Jason and I would go back to Quebec without anyone else’s noisy kids — even without our own! — and stay in the Chateau Frontenac, and nobody would get sick, and we would see that beautiful city as it was meant to be seen and celebrate a relationship that did turn out to be for the long haul after all. Because greater love hath no man than this, than to dispose of a bag of puke for you. Remember that, young ladies, and don’t be led astray by bronzed biceps and a fancy car. Go for the guy who’s there when things get messy; he’s the one you can count on. I know I do, every day.
Among the things I’ve always known about myself, one biggie is that I’ve never wanted a tattoo. Not that this was a tough choice when I was a young adult and only sailors and really hardcore punks got tattoos. But now that everyone’s doing it, I have had to reinforce several times in conversation with others that I never, ever, ever want to get a tattoo.
But a few months ago while I was out walking I thought about the Latin phrase “Solvitur Ambulando” and thought, “I wonder if I should get that tattooed on my ankle when I turn 50?”
“Solvitur Ambulando” means “It is solved by walking,” and the phrase is meaningful to me on a lot of levels. First, on a purely literal level. I believe a lot of life problems, mental and physical, can be solved by walking. Go for a walk and clear out the cobwebs. If you can’t do anything else at least get off the couch and go for a walk (no offense intended to those unable to walk, obviously). I’ve always enjoyed walking and as you know from this summer’s blogs I am trying to add more trail hiking into my routine as well. Walking solves a lot of problems.
But I also find it true on a metaphorical level, as a guide for how to get through life, especially as I’m definitely past the midpoint of that life thing now. When I think “It is solved by walking,” I think of a few of my favourite quotes:
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow
I learn by going where I have to go. (Theodore Roethke, “The Waking”)
We walk by faith, not by sight. (2 Corinthians 5:7)
Travelers, there is no path. The path is made by walking. (Antonio Machado)
The (so far, very small handful of) people who’ve read my recent novel What You Want will recognize that two of those three quotes are sent to my character Megan by different people as she’s trying to figure out what to do next with her life. (I would have used all three quotes in the novel, but that’s what we in the business call Hitting the Reader Over the Head With the Theme, so I held back).
Although there’s a lot of me in every character I write about, Megan, in the novel, is very different from me in some key ways. At 23, she’s uncertain and doesn’t know what she really wants in life. When I was 23 I was absolutely certain about … well, almost everything. I knew what I wanted and how I was going to get it. Some people, like Megan, have to gradually figure out their life’s purpose. Others, like me, come out of the womb 100% sure of everything — and have to spend the rest of life unlearning all the things we thought we knew.
At 50, I am so much less sure of things than I was in my teens or twenties. I may not have thought I had all the answers then, but I certainly thought I had a lot of them and I knew where to find the others (not Google. We didn’t have Google then, children).
This is especially true for me in the spiritual realm. Half a lifetime ago, when I was 25, I thought I knew a lot about God, faith, the Bible and what God was calling me to do. Now I know almost none of that. I am figuring things out as I go. “Solvitur Ambulando” is more true for me in the walk of faith than anywhere else. I don’t know the answers. I don’t have the path all mapped out. But I won’t figure anything out by sitting down theorizing about it. I get out and try to live the life of faith. I put one foot in front of another. I show up trying to love God and love my neighbour and failing and learning. The path is made by walking.
It’s true in every other area of life too. When I was in my early 30s, becoming a parent was terrifying. I went to the hospital and these tiny people came out of my body and a couple of days later the nurses handed them over to me to take home as if Jason and I had any idea what to do with completely helpless infant humans! As if we knew how to keep them alive and make them grow up big and strong.
Now they are big and strong, almost adults, and — parenting is still completely terrifying. Even more so because they are making their own path by walking and I cannot guide or control as much as I used to! Everything is uncertain. Everything is scary. And the only way to learn anything — parenting, or teaching, or writing, or following God, or being a decent human being — is just to do it. To try and fail. To learn by going where I have to go.
I decided not to get a tattoo. There are a lot of good reasons for this but 98.7% have to do with my extreme dislike of pain. Instead, I found a wonderful jewellery artist (Etsy shop: WatchWords) who would custom-design this beautiful copper bracelet. It’s on my arm instead of my ankle, and I can look at it while I’m walking, or while I’m at the computer, or while I’m just trying to figure things out, and remind myself: I don’t have the answers. And I don’t have to. Just take the next step (by faith, not by sight). It is solved by walking.
This somehow makes turning 50 a bit less scary.