Reading Edna O’Brien’s The Little Red Chairs

Since beginning the PhD, I have been unable to read fiction – I’m told it takes 6 months to a year to recover, to clear the system. I have also found writing, creatively, almost impossible. But I have just picked up Edna O’Brien’s The Little Red Chairs, a story about a stranger coming to a little Irish village, a mysterious, compelling stranger, a Rasputin-type, a long-haired healer from Montenegro. Slowly the enamoured village learns who he is. I heard O’BRien on Writers and Company discussing the book and its naissance in her reading of how when Serb war criminal Radovan Cerovic was captured he had long hair, a bushy beard and had been in hiding for over a dozen years posing as a doctor of alternate medicine (he wore a man bun). The wolf in hippy clothing (though it is unfair to wolves to compare them to mass murderer).
 
The little red chairs of the title refers to the 20th anniversary of the siege of Sarajevo, during which time red chairs were put on display, one for each of the 11,541 killed in the 1,425 days of siege (almost FOUR years of siege). Of these red chairs, 643 were little red chairs – one for each child killed during this period. Cultural genocide against the Bosnian Muslims. Against the little children.
 
All of this calls to mind the experience of my guardian angel, P I’ll call him, who was a Canadian peacekeeper in Bosnia at the end of the war. P, who is a peer-support counsellor for veterans affairs looks after me, checks up on me and other civilians he knows who have been exposed to war, even though he doesn’t have to because as a civilian (non-combatant) it’s assumed we don’t suffer. P was a clerk, a non-combatant, and yet he suffered/suffers terrible PTSD. “Who’d think a clerk could get PTSD?” he said to me. (I know how now, believe me, and civilians and reporters and war artists…). P’s job in Bosnia was to work with the evidence-gathering teams for the war crimes trials that would come to the Hague. His work entailed the registering of exhumed bodies from the mass graves. Describing, taking any form of anything that could lead to identification etc., logging each and every detail (I’m not sure how good database programs were back then – pretty primitive).
 
Well one of the things P had to do was to walk through the Bosnian forests with the evidence gathering teams. As he did so he walked through leaves and stepped on twigs that snapped underfoot. Except they weren’t twigs, they were little children’s rib bones. To this day P cannot walk through forests. He avoids them. Even our beautiful peaceful west coast Canadian forests. He cannot stand the sound of a twig breaking underfoot because not only was he horrified that the bones belonged to little ones, but also he had young children at the time of this terrible job and he could not stand the imagining of their suffering had they lived in Bosnia – but he did imagine it. Thus his illness that carries on decades later.
 
I remember the war trials, and I remember the terrible times. I remember writing a major article in 1991, while living in Denmark, for the now-defunct newspaper, The European, and asking Europe wtf is with their sitting back and not engaging with trying to diffuse the situation in the Balkans, to peace keep in other words. The editor spiked the article with a note saying, basically, “What do you know about anything, you’re a North American”. Then I remember the filthy racism of a second generation Canadian whose provenance came from that region – a fellow Master’s student – who reached back into the disgustingly long memory of perceived victimhood and how she justified the slaughter of the Bosnian war. A middle-class, comfy Canadian.
 
Last week, just a few hours before the performance of Jeffrey Ryan and my Requiem at the Orpheum in Vancouver, I received an email from an Afghan woman who had  heard us being interviewed on the CBC the day before. She had come to Canada as a refugee of 12 years of age. All alone. She came on some sort of scholarship – amazing! – aimed at developing young refugees. She went on to university and became a practising physician, a specialist. In her letter she thanked me for remembering the children of war in our Req. She also spoke of children’s resilience. But also of the lifelong struggle that comes with the experience of war. The continued fears in one’s bones. Literally.
 
So often in this life as a creative one feels it is useless, or worse, destructive to one’s sense of self to practice one’s art. Especially as a poet. A few years back, defending myself legally (no details needed other than to know it was pernicious, specious, utterly destructive and not just to myself), I had to hear myself being typified by a rich woman lawyer for the other side (a de facto prosecutor) as one whose work is and has been meaningless and is in fact a luxury, not a REAL JOB. I have to fight this belief frequently, still, that is until I receive a letter from an Afghan woman who thanks me for my work, who thanks me for remembering the children of war in our Requiem. And then I pick up the maestra Edna O’Brien’s book The Little Red Chairs and I read her re-imagining of the charisma of evil as the Radovan Karadzic-like character enters the lives of a little Irish village, and one woman’s life in particular.
And I use the word ‘re-imagining’ rather cautiously, as O’Brien, like most artists of stature, has done her research – poring over the war trial records, interviewing people, visiting the sites etc. O’Brien’s work reminds me that no amount of reportage, non-fiction articles and books, documentaries etc. can ever bring such empathy, such inquiry into how wickedness can walk this earth. Especially the work of someone the stature and mastery as O’Brien whose every sentence is beautiful, powerful, seducing. Reading The Little Red Chairs reinforces my belief that tho war trials can bring some justice, there is something in artistic masterpiece that can bring some higher sense of justice – a bearing of spiritual witness, and possible redemption. Certainly for those who survive, it reminds them that their experiences have been real, and are remembered.

White Poppy Red Poppy

It’s that time of year again. The white versus red poppy argument, debate, whatever. And every year I have the same discussion with one of my wonderful young friends who is a committed pacifist. We discuss this ever year and probably shall forever!!
 
When I first went to England and was invited to the Regimental Remembrance Day commemoration at Westminster Cathedral by a British Brig. Gen., I noticed British people wearing white and purple poppies (not within the regimental compound I must say). I didn’t know what the different coloured poppies meant at the time. I later found out that white was for “Peace” and purple was for all the animals KIA in the Great War.
 
The white poppy was first introduced in 1933 by the Women’s Co-operative Guild in the UK. For me, the white poppy reminds me of the opium poppies of Afghanistan. While I admire the sentiment of “Peace”, I find the symbol less than appealing. Narcotic addiction is the scourge of our world and the cause of so much heartache and violence, particularly to women and children. Further, our veterans are deeply hurt by the rejection of one of their very sacred symbols. And in the Great War – the origin of the poppy symbol – MANY pacifists were killed in action too.
 
All one has to do is go to the Friends Archives in London (the Quakers) and read the war records of their ambulance corps etc. and one will see that tho pacifists, these men and women put themselves on the front line for the love of their God, their service to their people, and their commitment to a pacifism that could not stand by and simply protest, but rolled up its sleeves, got dirty and sometimes injured or killed. I have read the Quaker Ambulance Corps records from the Great War and have learned of their shell shock and post-war illnesses and deaths. These people wore the red poppy too.  Originally some pacifists (I take issue with the concept of pacifists too, but that shall wait for another day) wanted the red poppy to include the message “No More War”.
 
Finally, as a scholar of war and a war artist, I challenge the binary of war and peace. While ‘war’ is overt, the daily violence of the ‘peace time’ world towards women and children (and this includes economic violence), primarily, and in every culture, attests to the false binary of war and peace.
 

Stressed and Depressed gets robbed

There are several ironies at work in this story not the least being that the name of the pot shop is Stressed and Depressed. I’m trying to ‘unpack’ that name – to use a PhDism. Does the name of the shop imply one can purchase stress and depression via the substances on sale, or does one purchase relief from stress and depression via the substances? Or is it stressful and depressing purchasing the goods? Certainly it’s stressful and depressing getting robbed!!!!!!
Hmmmm.
The name, btw, reminds me of shops in Moscow that I visited circa 1990 (before the coup). Then shops were simply called “Milk” or “Juice” or “Shoes” – glamourous – and guess what each shop sold? I was there in a time of food scarcity and the breakdown of the communist distribution system. Black market and McDonalds were the only way to go because one lined up in the “Milk” lineup and guess what, when you got to the front counter they were sold out! McDonalds had just opened a few years earlier (by a Canadian) and offered the only clean food in town. We went once just to get the placemats in Russian, otherwise we lived off of bread and Pepsi (Pepsi had the nation’s franchise – in those days it was Pepsi and bread with Marlboro cigarettes and American dollars for currency). Once we ate a “traditional Russian meal” in a restaurant clearly run by the Russian mafia (the goons watched over us and the men’s room was clearly an exchange place for junkies), and the medical student amongst us identified the shiny silver meat as horse intestine! Yumm!!!!!! But I digress.
Anyway, so here we have a “medical” marijuana shop being jacked by three pretty stupid thieves – I mean did it take long to make up those disguises, imagine what Halloween costumes they could pull together – and the cop shop has captured two of them and is looking for the girl. Somebody, btw, should sit her down and make her watch the entire five series of Orange is the New Black without a break. So the copshop is investigating and the Crown is pressing charges and I’m not even sure where the “medical” marijuana shop thingy sits in our legal system. I mean isn’t pot kind of a central symbol and reality of “Outlaw” culture. Last time I looked “Outlaw” meant outside the law.
Okay, I’m sounding like some reactionary here. Truth be told, I wish they’d legalise and regulate pot so we get the taxes on commercial crops, and people can grow their own. Maybe then people will be less stressed and depressed. Or maybe more. But at least this stupid $hit won’t happen any more because pot will be sold in the drug store or the liquor store or ??? I really don’t care. All I know is that if it’s legalised it will be like cigarettes and people will have to stop smoking it in their apartment bathrooms or near buildings etc. and I won’t have to have to walk through any other people’s haze.
Wow is all I can say about this story. Wow.

on mothering sunday

A meandering meditation on being a mother, because it’s “Mothering Sunday” over here in the UK, that is, their version of what we call Mother’s Day, which is in early May.

The best thing I’ve read in a long while on the subject of being a mother, comes from Caitlin Moran in yesterday’s Times. Moran talks about the word ‘Mum’ as a pejorative, as in “Mumsy clothes” etc. and how mothers are represented in popular culture (with the exception of yummy mummy) whereas the reality is that those of us lucky enough to have carried a child to full term have spent “nine months being a LIVING WALKING FLESH-NEST; casually absorbing [our] foetus’s excreta while running an international business”. Moran adds, “something, which, in later years you will find a perfect metaphor for raising a teenager”. Then in typical Moran-style she continues, “Then at the point you have grown a skull and a brain [inside you] big enough to make humans the dominant species on earth – but still small enough to emerge from your pelvis without blowing your legs off – a homunculus will effortlessly punch its way out of your “special flower”.

Moran reminds us that all of this is frequently done by women, without drugs, unlike ‘a man who’d just passed a microscopic kidney stone would be wheeled onto a ward, dosed with morphine, treated like a brave hero, then left the hell alone – [a mother] magically [turns] her tits into a milky heaven-buffet and starts cranking out 15 meals a day into a tiny, screaming, ungrateful creature who resembles an enraged otter in a jumpsuit”. Oh this is classic Moran.

She then says, “to get this into perspective – when the most magic man who ever lived, Jesus, turned water into wine once, for one party, people went on about it for 2,000 years, and formed a major man-religion around it. Meanwhile, for millions of breastfeeding mothers every day, turning their bodies into lunch the reaction is -“Bitch, please – don’t do that in Claridges”. Moran’s is a brilliant exposition of mothers as people, and our truly conflicted attitudes towards motherhood.

Last night, as I washed my brain of 3 days of 1914FACES2014 conference (and boy was that an amazing experience, the culmination of 2 years’ research, and being in the company of artists, surgeons, historians, etc.), I read the first chapter of “In Praise of the Messy Life” by Katie Riophe. In this she writes about becoming a solo parent and how this scenario foists upon one’s children the reality that the mother is actually human. Without “father” in the house, there is no time for mother to withdraw and regroup behind the curtain of “can you look after child while I straighten myself out?”, especially in times of great duress (e.g. when “father” walks out to begin a new life elsewhere, either metaphorically, through, say, alcoholism or workaholism, or literally, as into another’s”sympathetic” company, a strangely common theme). The result is that our children see us as real, fragile, fallible human beings. And this is usually a very disappointing, and sometimes unforgivable thing for some, especially, if the first half of “the show” one has been “uber-mumsy”, that is, willing to drop one’s life utterly to keep “father” and “family” going. And this is why I love Moran. She pulls no punches. She has a new sitcom coming out this week in which a solo mom is raising 6 kids. Moran talks about the actress in the lead role coming to the audition and saying, “I’m going to play [the role] like Clint Eastwood . Is that okay? Like an f***ing glorious super hero!” Of course the actress got the gig. Because, as Moran’s piece clearly articulates, the act of mothering IS heroic under any circumstance, but solo…

I count among my best-beloveds (BB) one of the most fierce mother warriors I’m sure there has ever been. Her beloved forever (BF) happened to have been born with Trisomy 21, and because of this, warrior mother has spent 18 1/2 years of fierce defending, negotiating, educating, advocating, etc. etc. on behalf of her BF, and has become a major community leader. I remember visiting BB and her BF as a tiny baby and seeing how diligently, how utterly without fail, mother taught her babe the fundamentals of independent life. I remember being amazed at how hard it was, how much dedication it took, for BB to teach her little one things I knew my own little one would most likely do automatically (like hold a spoon, feed herself etc.), or with just a bit of instruction.
When BF was 12 (forgive me if I have the dates incorrect friend), BF’s father was killed in a hit and run, and so mother had to help her child through unbelievable grief at the same time as she grieved, and also the same time that BB was becoming a teenager, as well as so many other things. Then more unbelievably misguided actions were taken against grieving mother of grieving daughter by people who turned their own grief into anger looking for the scapegoat, and in the most cowardly methods of all, using the court system (truly an enabling process for cowards). It was ugly. And then, mother became ill. Deadly so.

With help from others, and with time, and with her fierce mother warrior spirit, BB got better, but oh how it frightened her child who had already lost one parent. Perhaps the guiding force was the beloved forever (who happens to be one of my best friends). And as I write this, they are doing oh so well, but now BF is approaching 19, mother is back in the role of advocate, negotiator, educator, etc. etc. as the daughter transitions from the “protection” (I use that advisedly) of being considered a child by the state, into adulthood, thus all the supports and programs etc. etc. for her will be challenged and changed. BB is advocating that age 25 be the age of adulthood for “non-typical” citizens. And this makes sense in all ways, as brain science now identifies 25 as the age of adult reason in “typical” development any way.

Well this is meandering. But I’d like to reflect upon those who are not mothers either through choice or fate. I was almost of this group of women. I, like other dear, dear friends, lost never-to-be’s. It was devastating beyond belief. And for me, Mother’s Day was one of the most painful days of the year. Though I had never defined myself through child-bearing capability, the fact of my losses made me feel, well, barren. A harsh, horrible word. The minute one becomes pregnant, an envelope of 18 years opens up in one’s brain. The love letter that is freed contains violin lessons, paddling in tidal pools, stockings on the Xmas hearth, graduation, then the tears of letting the beloved forever go out and into the world. Then, when one loses, or cannot conceive, (and I know mother hood is not for all women and that is good to have the choice), theirs is an ambiguity of destiny. And curiously, of judgement, or worse, of the loss totally being ignored.
Then too, there are women who choose not to have children, or by accident of fate, cannot (for whatever reason). And oh how they are judged.

So how do we take all of this? Especially on Mothering Sunday?

Call me corny. Old-fashioned. But I believe mothers, women, little girls who may or may not become mothers, may best be served by being honoured with respect every day of the year. And by respect I do not mean reverence, but respect for their autonomy as individuals, as humans with all their graces and fallibilities. Then too, not to judge, but to help, to really help the solo woman with children, not to scorn, avoid, blame, or suspect, but to help. Help her cut the winter’s firewood. Help her change the tires on the bicycle or the car. Help fix her broken fences so the dogs don’t keep getting out. Help her cut the grass, or make a meal. Anonymously drop flowers at her doorstep. Anonymously send her a letter of admiration. Stand by her when others take actions against her (usually cowardly, usually born of their guilt). Help her and also, celebrate with her, her messy, human life.

Hear her cry. Hear her laugh. Because she is all mothers of all times. Mother Courage. And she is one of us. Utterly.

I hope you have a lovely Mothering Sunday BB. I am sending you xox from England all the way across the sea!

i forgive

each bleed, each never-to-be-
born, she called me, the
secret-keeper, stung womb one
who stained my sheets, stained my
walls, my windows, my garden,
my family
still, i forgive, it, all
i forgive it, all
but for such banality.

& i forgive

all the times you drove by our child, our house,
deserted with broken fences, cracked windows, all
the million jobs left undone, you in a such a rush
to adolescence because you missed it the first time around –
rock band rehearsal, & Sheeva, & hockey (sorry about that broken
ankle, but you never were much of a skater. but taking up hockey
at 46??? still, I said “of course
I’ll take on all your driving duties

because even after you fired me, I was in the habit of wife,
& i forgive that too).

& I forgive that the child would see your car
and crying ask, “why
doesn’t he want to eat dinner with me?”

but I could only turn my head from the route
you chose, wondering, wasn’t there another way
you could have driven that day?

& i forgive

the pashmina i bought, brought home
to thank her for cooking, cleaning for you, my two,

pashmina soft, blue, blue and wide, as the little girl
eyes that blinked beneath her over-plucked brows

and pink, paisleys, shaped, as appealing to you,
as her barren uterus, the one that could only expel

unborns, like our never-to-be’s. because i knew sting,
& helped her through miscarriage, again and again and again

loss. failure. cramps’ razor-fear,
dank, brown-blooded hopelessness. o i knew that too.

so i gifted pashmina to warm her on Mother’s Day
the childless womans’ worst of the year, never dreaming.

what plans she had, sparrow, starling, nest-stealer,
for my daughter, with you.

then too i forgive

the hard knock at the door,
the English bailiff. delivering sixty-four
pages of force, sixty-four pages
of thump, your case for divorce.
every word on every expensive page,
as you would know, after 29 years with me,
burnt, bitter herbs to my Catholic tongue.

then too i forgive the timing,
legal bullying, arranged just hours
before our young daughter’s return home to me.
from you & she drinking tea,
laughing, reminiscing. 8000 kilometres away.
in my mother’s room, the old woman
welcoming you as always. always.
like a son.

& i forgive

the thousand million kindnesses,
oily black coffee, fresh beans you ground
and steeped for me for 25 years,
each a yang to the yin of the pearls
I still wear, like the amber that drips
electric from around my neck, your love trapped
like ancient lavender moths caught
drinking from honey sap of a million years ago.
o, & i forgive the unfinishedness of violence,
paint & blood & forensic audit
that you & she made on me, pouring
over my expenses like i was the one
who killed us.