On the desk in my treatment room rests a new ornament. It’s a trophy consisting of a ski tip set into a beautiful wood base. An inscription on the front declares it to be an award for second place in the women’s snowshoeing race at the 2014 Black Hills Ski For Light event. I’ve never won a trophy in my life: till now.
As a blind person, I would argue that I often get the chance to see people at their best. Most of the cool recreational stuff I get to participate in, sailing, tandem cycling, running, dragon boating, blind tennis, and skiing, only happen because really excellent people give generously of their time, energy and money.
The snowshoeing trophy I won was made by one of the benefactors of the ski event, and presented by one of the multitude of friendly and warm-hearted volunteers without whom the event simply couldn’t happen. The banquet on the last night contained a memorial to all the people who’d made this event a success for 35 years running.
Ski For Light is an international organization that hosts annual events in which blind, visually impaired and mobility impaired skiers are paired with sighted volunteer guides for a week of winter sport, and a comradely family atmosphere the like of which I’ve never experienced anywhere else.
When I attended my first Ski for Light event 4 years ago, I hadn’t spent much time socializing with other blind people; I’d catapulted myself in among the best. Having skied before, I knew about the reserves of determination required to pick yourself up out of the snow for the 5th or 10th time. Getting up the up slopes is mostly a matter of strength, but getting down the down slopes needs balance, guts, trust in yourself, and luck, at least until you’ve mastered a good snowplough. A failure of any of these will reliably result in what’s aptly referred to as a yard sale, that is, the distinctive jumble of skis, poles and limbs, from which you must somehow extract yourself and re-attain vertical status. By about my 4th yard sale, I usually take 10 seconds or so just to lie still in the snow, while reassuring my concerned guide that I’m really ok, I’m just resting. Each yard sale gets incrementally harder, as you accrue minor aches or injuries, and generally get more tired.
Knowing all this intimately, I was awed to see a hundred or so blind people keep going and going and going, most of them more competent and resilient than me. Each of them had the resources of courage, adventurousness, athleticism, sociability and finance to spend a week of their lives here, and really enjoy it: and seeing this in others helped me see it in myself.
Of course none of this would be possible without the people who volunteer as guides and organizers. What kind of people give a week of their vacation, which they pay for, to help others? I can answer that easily: incredible people. I’ve attended 4 Ski for Light events. Each time, I’ve tried to express to my guide and to other volunteers how much I admire their generosity. Each time, I’m reassured, with a sincerity I can’t doubt, that they get as much out of the week as the participants do. I can only accept their sincerity as I unobtrusively wipe away a tear or two.
As a conscientious hippy, I often hear about the gap between rich and poor, and the inequities in our society. At each Ski for Light event, I’m submerged in the other truths: generosity, sharing what we have to share, and giving what we have to give. At the most recent event I attended in South Dakota, a well-established and recognized benefactor of the event paid $1000 for a quilt at a silent auction, then donated it to a long-time volunteer. The hotel which guested the participants is partly owned by another benefactor, and our fees for the week were so low that they simply had to have been underwritten by his generosity. For blind people, a population notoriously low on the income scale, such benevolence surely made the difference between being able to attend or not for many of us.
All of our ski and snowshoe equipment was provided. Volunteers made and maintained the trails for the week. More volunteers created an oasis in a snowy field on Federal land consisting of a huge tend complete with wood stove, caldrons of delicious food and drink, and a delightful party atmosphere. In fact, if you cared to, you could forgo winter sport all together and laze around the tent all day being plied with home-made kettle chips, and hot chocolate to which a magical ingredient or two had been added to keep the cold away.
There were so many cool people there that you could spend each day talking with someone you hadn’t met before, from somewhere you’d never been, who does something for a living you know nothing about. As a blind person, you are the rule not the exception, and you could receive as much or as little help as you wanted or needed.
It’s really hard to say what my favourite part of these events is, but if I had to choose one thing, I’d say it’s the quality of the people I meet there. The participants are courageous, resourceful, and game for a challenge. The donors and volunteers are warm, caring, fun-loving people who choose to give their vacation time to helping others, and to be part of something bigger than themselves.
About a month ago I learned a new word: whorfianism. Whorfianism describes the belief that language influences thought. I’ve long been a believer in this idea, and I felt delighted to discover that a word exists for it. Back in the dawn of time, when I attended university and we submitted our essays on clay tablets, I undertook a campaign to cleanse my vocabulary of words and idioms that contributed to sexism. When challenged, my friends would claim that they didn’t have a gendered conception of God, but try to get them to refer to God as she or it, and the resistance manifested like a mushroom in a neglected shower stall.
I love the fluidity and flexibility of language. I love to play with it, shape it and polish it the way some people mold clay. I once proposed a game with a friend who was on the other side of the world. We communicated by long eloquent emails, and we both share a fondness for words and language. I suggested that in each email exchange, we pick an avenue of human endeavour that has lent many rich metaphors to English, and see how many examples we could each come up with from that field: for example, sailing or agriculture. She hated the idea. Upon reflection, she explained that a well-employed metaphor stimulates the right brain, and trying to systematize them was a left-brain task: the dissonance made it a deal-breaker for her. As a balm to my frustrated left hemisphere, I offer a list of all the metaphors from sailing and agriculture I can think of: humour me, or just skip over….
Sailing: admittedly some of these fall into the category of naval generalities
- take a different tack
- lower the boom on someone
- a person with a large presence may be said to sail in and take over
- describing an ineffectual person as a figure head
- describing pointless items or people as ballast
- hit the deck!
- an exhaustive investigation into an idea may be said to be plumbing its depths
- “Sun’s over the yardarm,” as a way to say “It’s not too early in the day to start drinking!”
- the idea fell in fertile ground
- a child resembling the parent may be described as an apple that didn’t fall far from the tree
- you reap what you sow
- separate the wheat from the chaff
- one might be said to winnow the group of applicants to a short list
- someone in difficult circumstances has a hard row to hoe
Thanks for indulging me; I feel better.
In researching ancient cultures and the evolution of consciousness for my most recent novel, I came across a fascinating construction called E-Prime, short for English Prime. In this deliberately developed form of English, the verb “to be,” and all its forms may not appear. Why? Great question with a complicated answer, but so provocative! Consider the following pairs of examples:
- The Conservative Party is full of short-sighted capitalists.
The members of the Conservative Party strike me as short-sighted capitalists.
All the Green Party candidates are ineffectual dreamers.
All the Green Party candidates appear to me as ineffectual dreamers.
Even though it’s delicious, poutine is a heart attack on a plate, and it will kill you.
I love poutine, but I know it has too much fat.
When you have to construct a sentence without using any form of the verb “to be,” it becomes really difficult to confuse opinion with fact, because you have to write from your own experience, rather than as an omnipotent authority. It also pears down and tightens up your language and sentence structure. The argument has been made that languages constructed in this way reflect cultures which appear less dogmatic. This strikes me as a controversial position, but one definitely worth considering.
In keeping with my love of playing with language, apart from material in quotes, I wrote this entire post in E-Prime. Did you notice?
My sister’s criterion for travel is that she won’t go anywhere where she’ll have to sleep on a mattress less expensive than her own. On a recent trip to visit my in-laws, I didn’t have that problem. Vacations often involve the new and exotic. Having lived my adult life around the poverty line and barely hovering above it now, this vacation was a delightful trip into the unknown.
I told myself it’s because I was in a guest bedroom that the mattress had no dip in the middle like mine at home, but I’m just kidding myself; it’s really because this acre of comfort is worth orders of magnitude more than what I normally sleep on. I’m told it was a king size, but it must have been a Henry VIII king size, cause I could swim around and get lost on it. It’s in a room about half the square footage of our whole apartment, that has its own on-suite bathroom. There’s a delightful balcony with a table and chairs that overlooks what I’m sure is a lovely view of the landscaping, and from which you can hear the pleasant murmur of one of the outdoor fountains.
The house and landscaped grounds are liberally dotted with art. My partner’s mother is an accomplished potter, and it’s not always clear to me which pieces are expensive acquired ones, and which were made by her. The house was custom built, and, as design is a closed book to me, I wonder about how such wide-ranging aesthetic choices are made. On our last day there, my mother-in-law showed us a totem pole in her garden that she’d made out of exquisite pottery pieces positioned vertically running up a metal pole. The pieces were in an oceanic motif: starfish, shells and other sea creatures. I was dazzled!
My partner and I were reassured to hear that even sighted people occasionally get lost in the house. After 4 days I could usually make my way to my bedroom from anywhere, but getting a glass of water in the kitchen still took time and concentration. Hallways fork, and there are large open spaces. My worst case scenario (which thankfully didn’t happen) had me slipping on the top step of the basement stairs and pitching headlong in an ignominious tumble down into the exercise room. Of course if I could have managed to control my descent, I might have been lucky enough to take a few corners, hit the door, and roll right into the outdoor hot tub, and that would have made everything better.
Complex geography, and the need for GPS technology to locate one of the 8 bathrooms weren’t the only impediments to my partner and I being self-sufficient. The house’s internal workings are wired together in one complex system, and managed via I-devices using an inaccessible specialized house-managing software tool, which tacitly recognizes the fact that, if you can afford it, you’re probably not blind. From any I-thing, one could: control the geothermally regulated thermostat; inspect and communicate with someone at the gate and let them in if they don’t look too shifty; operate any of the several TV’s including the huge one in the theatre room; close the curtains in said theatre room; play music anywhere in the house; and undoubtedly do lots of other things I can’t even imagine and wouldn’t understand.
The kitchen is equally sophisticated: as modern as next week. There’s a tap for boiling water, a microwave drawer, a induction cooking top that boils a pot of water in about 10 seconds while leaving the surrounding surface cool as a cucumber, a coffee maker that you could exchange for a return ticket to Australia, and a double fridge distinguishable from a beautiful wooden cabinet only by its ice dispenser. (I’ve always wanted an ice dispenser!)My partner and I were spared the obligation to help much in the kitchen cause everything’s controlled by touch panels. Indeed, I walked around paranoid of touching the wrong thing, and inadvertently getting pulled into a convection oven, or rapidly freeze-dried.
As hard core science fiction fans, my partner and I inevitably slid into the conviction that the house is self-aware. Frequent, discreet beepings, whirrings and blowings are common. Sometimes we tried to figure out what they were, but we moved towards not questioning them too closely, lest the house begin to notice us. When a gadget failed to perform with utter seamlessness, we would say that, “The house could do that if it wanted to, it just doesn’t.” In the basement, there’s a ceiling-high equipment wrack containing banks of servers that are the brains of the house. We alternated between joking about going down and kicking it as a remedy to the occasional technological glitch, and sidling warily away from it before it could make a positive identification.
Being there was like staying at a luxury resort I could never afford, and being the only guests. What’s more, we were welcomed for ourselves, and generously hosted by a relaxed and affectionate mom who happens to be an amazing cook. Vacations often make one’s daily life seem narrow and “ho-hum.” Being there, my perfect, happy apartment seemed small and cramped in my memory. We get used to luxury so quickly. My spatial sense expanded easily to fill the available volume, which was capacious. Just for fun, I took mental stabs at imagining what it would be like to live in such a house; it’s not difficult. I’m glad to be back to our cozy wonderful home, but it sure was fun to sprawl out, roll around, use the fitness equipment, enjoy good company, and take the elevator up from the basement to the top floor so that we didn’t have to dress after steeping in the hot tub at night: thanks mom!class=”alignnone size-full” />
Recently, I had the chance to talk to a summer student employee of the TTC about her job. One of her responsibilities was to herd people the right way around construction. When I asked her if it was hard to take on such a commanding role in front of hundreds, she said it was hard at first, but if you speak loudly and clearly, and get a few people to follow your instructions and get the herd moving in the right direction, the rest will follow smoothly.
Every time I’ve had an encounter with a lifeguard at a public swimming facility, I’m struck by their competence and authority, unusual in people in their teens. My abortive attempts at summer jobs never afforded opportunities to cultivate these qualities; I was too busy gaining invaluable insights like: people who work in offices spend a lot of time doing nothing, “it’s hard to work in groups when you’re omnipotent,” and, I’d rather prostitute myself than work as a telemarketer.
One of the most useful factoids I took away from first aid training is that someone needs to take charge in a crisis. A dozen bystanders with the best will in the world may hover ineffectually, not sure what to do, until the hapless victim bleeds to death. If someone seems to know what they’re doing and is able to project calm confidence, people are willing to be pointed at, and directed to do things such as call 911, or find water.
One of the good parts about getting older is recovering from the misconception that most people around me know better than I do. Because I was never a lifeguard or a herder for the TTC, I didn’t learn how to take charge. It’s something I’ve been figuring out gradually. Particularly as a blind person, it’s seldom felt to me like I am the person best positioned to direct or command others.
This started to shift when I worked as a server in a [dine-in-the-dark restaurant](http://www.onoir.com/TO/frames.htm). This fascinating job offered unique opportunities; things happened there that just couldn’t happen anywhere else. One of these things was that, for the first time in my life I was, hands down, the most powerful person in the room. For the most part, the sighted diners were completely helpless, and dependent on me for just about everything. It was a heady role-reversal that I enjoyed immensely. I never abused my power, but I’ll tell you frankly: I savored it!
One night, I was serving a large group that had come for a work function. This meant that many of them were there not because they’d chosen the experience, but because they were expected to show up as a workplace obligation. I could tell right away that this was a bad dynamic. By the end of the first course, it was clear to me that one of the guests was having more than typical discomfort. Something about the total darkness sent her into a truly psychotic episode, and before long she’d become the kind of screaming, flailing crazy person people sidle warily away from on the street. I knew I was the only one in the room situated to act. Somehow, while trying to soothe and reassure her as she shouted and tried to fight me off, I wrestled her between tables full of paralyzed diners and out into the lighted area of the restaurant. This is one of the scariest things that’s ever happened to me, but in one way it was one of the most liberating. I found out that I can cope in a crisis.
For me, part of getting older is an increasing awareness of the finite. You don’t think much about it when you’re younger, but more lately, I’m conscious of the sense that if I don’t speak now, when will I? Maybe if I had kids or spent time caring for children this is something I’d have gotten a long time ago. As things stand now, I’m hoping for another 40 years or so in which to:
* Calmly call strangers publicly on their rudeness or discourtesy
* Assist negligent householders in pruning overhanging branches that will offer a nice wet slap in the head next time I pass that bit of sidewalk in the rain
* Advise children to treat their parents with more respect when I’m disgusted by their bad manners
* Be the one who’s not afraid to speak out when I witness discrimination
* Resist the temptation to look away or pretend not to hear when a scary mentally ill person talks to me on the bus, but instead, talk to them respectfully
* Politely but firmly insist that well-intentioned but misguided strangers take their hands off my person. I may not have the time and composure to explain that I’m perfectly capable of boarding the bus without help, but I have the right not to be touched by strangers when I haven’t invited it.
All of these things sound obvious and reasonable, but until a few years ago I lacked the conviction, composure and assurance to carry them off gracefully. I think that’s one of the best things I’ve cultivated.
A few days before a recent trip to BC to, among other things, visit my brother and his family, I got an email from him asking if we were, “Up for a Canadian cultural adventure.” Seal clubbing? Logging in the Old Growth? Skinning a walrus? Oppressing native peoples? What did he mean? Well, it seems he’d recently come into possession of season tickets for home games of the Vancouver Giants, members of the Western Hockey League. Apart from occasional apathetic attendance at the community hockey games of my brothers when I was a kid, I’d never been to a hockey game. What a patriotic rite of passage!
The rock music blaring as we entered the arena made me feel right at home. The subwoofer-heavy hip-hop of a basketball game would have left me cold, but the cool air, and that indefinable but unmistakable ice-rink smell invoked a faint but instant nostalgia. The national anthem performed by a full choir was a treat. It had been a long time since I stood for it, and it felt good.
A comparable seat for a Vancouver Canucks’ game runs somewhere around $200. These seats go for around $25; this is accessible hockey. The crowd was thick with kids. All of my nieces and nephews have had the chance to play, and some of them do it exceptionally well. Seeing so many kids among the spectators reinforced for me how it is that hockey remains such an entrenched part of Canadian life. Maybe it’s cause of games like these that there’re so many adults willing to pay such outrageous amounts to watch professionals. It made me want to run right out to a frozen pond and shoot around a frozen patty of cow shit with friends.
Of course anyone who’s been to a spectator sporting event or a large concert knows what it’s like to be part of mass emotion: the collective gasps and sighs, the shared indignation, the sudden bursts of excitement. In the third period, we got the requisite fight. My brother, veteran of years of goal-tending, gave me a colourful crash course in the psychology, techniques and language of this iconic activity.
Seems that, for the most part, fighting is about establishing dominance. Apparently each team has at least one guy who’s particularly good at it. It might even be that, between periods, the word is passed for this enforcer to target number 14…. The sense seems to be that a show of egression can help dishearten the other team. Bench-clearing brawls are a thing of the past, but there’s still sufficient crowd support for the occasional dustup that they aren’t completely eliminated by harsher regulations.
From a procedural standpoint, it’s a good idea to whip off your helmet as soon as hostilities commence. Otherwise, you leave yourself open to having your visor knocked about your face, and this can hurt. Also, if there’s time, it’s a good idea to remove your gloves, allowing for precision fist work. However, you may wish to keep your damp, smelly gloves on in order to execute one of the several maneuvers favoured in hockey fights, which are designed not only to injure, but also to humiliate, provoke, or cause extreme irritation. The one requiring the damp, smelly glove is the “face wash.” this involves rubbing your damp, smelly glove hard back and forth across the face of your opponent. If this hapless individual has failed to remove his helmet, you can make the face wash even more annoying by rattling the visor around while you smear your moldy man-sweat all over his face.
Other colourful terms you need to know in order to hold your own in a spectator dissection of a hockey fight:
- Rag doll: grabbing your opponent’s upper arms, pulling him toward you, and shaking him as hard as you can. This isn’t especially painful, but it’s really irritating, and will tire your adversary as they try to keep their footing.
- Windmill: this is an especially dirty trick that will usually lead to intervention, and involves pulling your opponent’s jersey up over his head with one hand while you pummel him repeatedly in the face with your other fist. This has the advantage of achieving every aim in a hockey fight, inflicting pain, humiliation, extreme irritation, dominance, and a severe rattling of the nerves.
- Feed him the pizza: this is when you put the base of your palm on your opponent’s chin and push up.
- Turtle: I didn’t get a clear sense of how often this one comes up, but it refers to the decision of one opponent to surrender. The “turtler” deliberately drops to the ice and curls himself into a ball, making a target as small as possible, and making it clear that they don’t want to fight. This is, apparently, reputational suicide; the ultimate face-losing move.
The one who wins the fight is the one who gets in the most punches. The fight ends when the combatants can no longer maintain their balance in the tussle, and fall to the ice, or when a referee intervenes, which I was told only happens after a windmill, at the sight of blood, or if one fighter is clearly creaming the other.
As a woman, and a shrinking passivist, I had trouble with the subtleties and nuances of the emotional involvement. When I asked whether combatants ever resorted to using their skate blades on one another, my brother responded with politely restrained incredulity. “No, that would just be mental.” When I asked whether hostilities ever continued after the combatants were penned up together in the confined space of the penalty box, I was met with similar dismissal, “No, they just watch the game and rest, fighting on skates is really tiring!”
The crowd was definitely engaged by the scrapping, but as a seasoned player and spectator, my brother said he just found it boring and pointless. “So much refined skill is possible in the game that it’s just a waste of time and energy.”
“Oh Canada,” I love that hockey’s our national sport, which I guess shows that the indoctrination was successful. Thanks for my most excellent Canadian cultural adventure bro!
Favourite Hockey Songs
Hockey Night in Canada Theme
Skating Rink by David Francey
The good Old Hockey Game by Stompin’ tom connors
“When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad
acts without doing anything
and teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go.
She has but doesn’t possess,
acts but doesn’t expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.”
Dao De Jing: Chapter 2
Ever been more than half way through an arduous hike when it starts to rain? At first, as the rain comes down harder, you try to figure out what to do to rescue the situation, but you’ve come too far to turn around, and there’s nowhere to take shelter. The only thing to do is keep going. If you haven’t got grape-sized blisters or a sprained ankle, there can come a moment when you let go of your resistance and just walk. You can’t get any wetter or more dirty, and the simple act of continuing to put one foot in front of the other will, eventually, get you to a place where there’s a hot tub, a martini, a stake and a fudge Sunday, or simply a warm, dry place to rest. There’s an odd sort of satisfaction in letting go of attempts to make the situation better. Having resigned yourself and let go, it somehow becomes simple (though not easy) to move through it. If you’re very lucky, you have a good companion or 3 to share the experience, thereby lightening its burden.
Solitude on such a hike is hard. No one can trudge through the mud for you, and there may be times when you’re silent, but what simple solace there is in agreeing aloud on the obvious: “Rain sure is wet,” or “Wet dirt is really slippery,” or Oh look, I’ve slid, and I’m lying full length in the mud,” and getting a hand up. And later, when you’re remembering that long, dirty wet trek through the rain, how much more gratifying it is to be able to say to someone, “Do you remember how…,” or “How about when…,” and how painful it can be when there’s no one who can remember those things with you.
And getting warm and dry can take a long time. Maybe you’ve got a lot of hair and no towel, or no dry clothes to change into. You may think you’re warm and dry at last, but an unexpected random draft can set you shivering again. Sometimes all you can do is curl up, with a warm companion if you’re lucky, and hope that the drafts stop coming, or that you get warm enough to endure them. Until that happens, it’s hard to enjoy things, or to feel like you’re really part of the world around you, or to relate to people the way you normally do.
A hot tub, a martini, a stake and a fudge Sunday, or just a warm dry place to rest:
Paul McCartney: Mull of Kintire
This song was always a favourite of my mother’s, long before she died at 65 of a broken heart. It evokes an instant nostalgia for lost things. She always loved to hear me sing it, and anyone of my siblings instantly thinks of her when we hear it.
Bruce Cockburn: Let Us Go Laughing
The Earth is beautiful, and so much bigger and more timeless than us and our grief. In the face of it, we may only observe, be awed and grateful, and turn to one another for comfort, wisdom and laughter in the face of everything.
Supertramp: Lord is it Mine
This song and I go back a long way, to when my frightened 14 year old self, confronted by death for the first time, found it cathartic.
Offspring: End of the Line
Unlike the others, this song is actually about grief. I like its raw desperation, the naked pain, the pleading for things not to be as they are. In a radio interview, I heard the band members firmly decline to identify who it was written about, which heightened its sincerity for me.
Bare Naked Ladies: When You Dream
This song, among other brilliant themes, evokes for me that aspect of grief which is concerned with the sadness for what is no longer possible: unknown potential swept away. What’s left in its place may be wonderful, but what’s lost will never be known. The lyrics are beautiful and literate, but the gentle, discordant background adds unmistakable ambivalence.
As a self-professed word geek, I’m using the word vexed advisedly. The American Heritage Dictionary fourth edition 2009 defines it as: 1. Irritated, distressed, or annoyed. 2. Much discussed or debated: a vexed question. Female promiscuity certainly seems to be discussed a lot lately, and debated too I suppose, though mostly at the safe distance of articles and blog posts. The “irritated, distressed or annoyed” sense, I must confess, refers mostly to me. compared to a lot of people, I only walk with one foot paddling in the riffling waters of social media, but it seems that every week or so I come across a tweet or other electronic referral to a piece on this vexed topic. Why? Why is this still a subject for argument and counterargument?
Last week, I read a well thought out and well researched piece about it which renewed my frustration. I appreciated the approach, which was to reframe sound reasoning on the topic into practical advice for men about how to make themselves more likable to women, and hence more likely to get laid. However, the piece was riddled with solid references to articles and statistics detailing the biases in research, and the misguided social pressures that discourage women from expressing, or even being aware of sexual desire. I was too depressed by the number of references to even look at any. I didn’t feel like I needed to, the author did a fine job of summarizing the horror.
The author referred a few times to the phenomenon of “slut shaming,” which renewed my irritation with another vexed question: the value of the word slut. I’ve never been entirely sanguine about the virtues of reclaiming language. One of my favourite accessible media websites, run by and for blind people, is called blindy.tv and I have several blind friends who refer to blind people as blinks, and all the power to them, but slut is a word I’ll just never like, and rarely use. Only recently, and I’ve been pondering it for decades, have I come up with a definition I can live with. Slut: someone who expresses their sexuality in a way that is careless of the feelings of others. This removes any gender identification, and focuses on the effect rather than the behaviour. Thus, someone who sleeps around a lot isn’t a slut, but someone who dresses in a sexually provocative way at their great aunt’s 80th birthday party, or brags about the people they’ve slept with…, well….
I’ve got several female friends who, at different times in their adult lives, chose to live celibate, because they didn’t want to settle for a partner they felt no emotional connection with, or who just wasn’t “Mr. Right.” For me, two weeks of celibacy has always been enough to turn “Mr. Right” into “Mr. right Now,” but I’ve always had a healthy respect for whatever choices women make on this issue. The only thing that sends me off into fits of ranting rage is people who assume that a promiscuous woman is one who is really searching for emotional intimacy, or one who has been misled into thinking that her value is as a sexual object to be used by others.
This said, promiscuity is much more dangerous for women than it is for men. It always has been, and always will be. So, here’s my how-to list for young women who want to get it on, and get it on a lot.
* Make sure of contraception. No matter what a guy does or says he’ll do, the results will always end up with you, and you’ll bear the consequences. Do some research and choose the method that suits you best, and that you know you’ll never forget or neglect, then use it all the time.
* Try not to fall into the trap of sleeping with mean guys. This sounds obvious, but, and I’ve checked this with many other women, sometimes tough guys have an odd appeal. I think it’s our instinctive selves saying: “That guy is tough enough and mean enough to protect me and my offspring no matter what.” We may not like to think about it, but sex is about reproduction. We obfuscate this delightfully, but I think we’re best served by never entirely forgetting that our reptile brain doesn’t forget it. Mean guys are just mean though, and nice guys make way better lovers.
* Protect yourself from STDs: every time. Don’t assume a new lover knows the right way to put on a condom. He probably does, but if he doesn’t he’s unlikely to say so, and you’ll be the one to lose. Besides, you can make a sensuous act out of making sure you stay safe.
* Choose lovers who don’t talk about other women they’ve slept with. If he gossips to you, he’ll gossip about you.
* Don’t blow off possessiveness in a guy as unimportant. It’s not a cue that he’s really into you, it’s a cue that he’s 2 steps away from being an abuser.
* Don’t brag, accept to close friends whose discretion you can rely on. Guys have feelings about this stuff too, and I suspect they don’t like to be talked about any more than we do.
* Learn to ask for what you want and what you like in an honest, direct, but kind way, that doesn’t make your lover feel like they’re doing it wrong, but that you’d like to show them how to do it more right.
* Have fun! If you’re not enjoying yourself with a lover, you may be sleeping with them for the wrong reasons.
There, I feel better. It irks me that this topic is still debated and misunderstood, but I can’t keep my virtual pen out of it. I must self-select, cause I don’t think I actually know anyone who espouses the negative values you still here about female promiscuity, yet the discussions continue. Certainly I live in a bubble of my own creation with people who share my values. Nevertheless, it’s a big world, and maybe even some people I know secretly have opinions about this stuff that I wouldn’t like. Having ranted satisfyingly about it, maybe I’ll be more able to let go of the chronic disappointment I feel each time I come across a new article on the subject. This debate should be long finished. Since it’s not, I feel eased by contributing my own rant.
The weary can breathe a sigh of relief: this isn’t a reflection on the beauty myth, anorectic models, or the billion dollar cosmetic industry. The hopelessly cynical may want to go back to reading crime reports though, cause I will stray into the idyllic. I recently watched two documentaries, which were connected in that each depicts a kind of ideal world from a woman’s perspective, regarding issues that affect us all.
The Goddess Remembered (1989) is a National Film Board of Canada documentary that I first encountered at the impressionable age of 19, while checking out the Saturday afternoon offerings of TV Ontario. It was my first exposure to the idea of the divine feminine, and I watched with uncritical awe, absorbent as a parched sponge, this hypnotic exploration of a past in which God was female, and matriarchy was more than an abstract concept in a first year anthropology textbook. The film alternates between archeological sites in the near-east, and discussions between well-known feminists about what the world might have been like in previous ages, and what it could be like if we reoriented our conceptions and priorities. If it leans on sweeping generalizations and some very broad assumptions, still, what lovely assumptions: a peaceful prehistory without hierarchy, where women participated equally in all spheres of life.
In a third year university course on women’s spirituality, I was delighted to watch the film again, then somewhat dazed to hear a critical analysis of it from a much more sophisticated perspective than I’d been capable of at 19. The soundtrack is Loreena McKennitt at her best, and the voice-over (by Martha Henry) is delivered in the smoothest, most compelling woman’s voice, yet with a tiniest whiff of menace, as though we’ll all be in trouble if we don’t heed the message being given, as indeed I believe we will be. My excellent and respected professor detailed for us the ways in which the documentary appealed to emotion rather than reason. Faced with a room full of callow, or at best dazed and intensely processing students with no firm opinions of our own to offer, she gave it as her opinion that it was a sad film. My deceptively vacant expression deepened. What she found sad was that women needed this kind of emotional resort, that idealization and a misty-eyed nostalgia were what most thoughtful women brought to bear on the topic of the divine feminine. 20 Years later, I’m still processing this reaction, and working out my own response, which is indeed an emotional one. Would a matriarchy be egalitarian and nonviolent? Were they? Did they truly exist? Would a matrifocal culture coexist with nature rather than exploiting it? We can only speculate, and idealize.
The second documentary I referred to is called Orgasmic Birth and is a personal and intimate exploration of natural childbirth, which is an even more personal and intimate subject than I’d realized. The essence of the film was distilled for me by one of the eloquent experts who I’ll paraphrase: if a beloved pet, or any animal is going to give birth, we find it a dim, quiet, safe and private place to do it. If you’ve ever lived with a cat who’s had kittens you know this. When a woman is going to give birth, we send her to a loud, brightly lit, bustling, impersonal place where there are a lot of sick people. “A sphincter is a sphincter,” and they don’t generally like an audience. Is it any surprise then, that an otherwise ordinary and healthy birth can turn into an event requiring medical interventions which are potentially harmful to mother and baby?
There’s no voice-over in this film, just the voices of mothers, fathers, midwives, and other medical practitioners who respect the intimate and sensual nature of birth, and feel that society does women a disservice by medicalizing it. They’re careful to distinguish between normal childbirth, and ones in which there are complications requiring medical interventions. Most often, these people say, birth can and should be a time for focus on the woman and her needs and sensitivities, not on fetal heart rate or how long the birth is taking. Pain makes others uncomfortable, and so women in hospital settings are often encouraged to accept interventions such as epidurals, labour induction or Caesarean sections because it will make others feel better.
These parents chose a birthing center or home birth, and were able to create the atmosphere they wanted. What struck me most was the intimacy between the parents during this most intimate of times. The parents kissed, cuddled, laughed, took alone time, were nervous, cried together, and experienced the birth of their baby as something they had control over. The film ended soon after a birth, with the mother and father soothing their baby by singing a sweet French song together. It was so beautiful!
Watching both of these films was an intensely emotional experience for me. What they have in common is the attempt to present an ideal of what the world could be like for women if we, and society at large made different choices. They contrast reality with an ideal. the widespread rejection of the female divine, the disconnection between the Earth and the sacred, the medicalization of one of the most profound of female experiences, and the attempt to fit it into a neat box that is convenient and compartmental, are set against an idealized past that revered and honored the feminine, and a possible future in which birth is normalized, and given back to women to define. The fact that these films exist makes me sad and happy at the same time. These messages shouldn’t need to be stated and restated; they should be built into the fabric of society. Since they’re not, I’m grateful that there are innovative film-makers who recognize the need for them, and who choose to bring their creative talents to the task of expressing them.
In a previous post titled The Hardest Thing, I wrote about witchcraft in the Renaissance and early modern period, and my experience of researching it. This research turned out to be one of the hardest parts of writing my historical novel, not because of access or boredom, but because I found the material so disturbing. Though grateful that the information is there to be read, I was glad to leave it to others once I’d done my minimum of delving.
Some weeks ago however, this distressing topic surfaced once more, and in a surprising guise. One of my clients described a trip to the U.S., during which she had participated in a witch trial re-enactment. I make it a point of honour to be unflappable as a massage therapist, and never break my rhythm no matter how triggered I am by something a client says, but this was a genuine struggle. I know I’m kind of naive and sheltered, and I don’t travel much, but this really shocked me. When I questioned her, she reassured me that it’s not done lightly or flippantly, still, I was aghast.
Online research didn’t soothe me. While many people said the experience had been educational, and the re-creations did a good job at seeming authentic, others categorized them as “entertaining,” and I came across several sites that described tawdry, tourist-focused Halloween goings-on in Salem MA. I tried to take heart from evidence of modern witches making themselves visible and accessible. Possibly tourists get the chance to learn a bit about Wicca and neo-paganism, and to take the definition of witch a little deeper. Frankly though, this was a serious stretch for my credulity muscles, and my ability to turn lemons into lemonade.
Now I’ve been told more than once that I’m too serious, especially when it comes to certain topics, but am I the only one who is bothered by this? When I try to imagine myself at the re-enactment of a witch trial, the scene ends with me tottering away in tears, or exploding with righteous fury.
It has often seemed to me that cruelty and injustice are taken with less gravity when women are the victims. I first became intensely aware of this in the 90’s when I learned about the conditions for women in Afghanistan. If a racial minority had been targeted in those ways, there would have been an international outcry and maybe some action, but the fate of women is somehow categorized as a domestic matter, if only subconsciously. In thinking about witch trial re-enactments, I tried to imagine arriving at a holocaust museum at a former concentration camp, and being confronted with a re-enactment in which visitors are herded into two lines, one for slaves, and one for death: never happen, nor should it. This is an analogy not a direct comparison, and of course there are significant reasons why these situations are not the same, but I think there are enough parallels to make it worth thinking about.
I tried conscientiously to view some re-enactments on YouTube and it was easily as nightmarish as I’d imagined. I’m relieved in a way that the subject is kept in the public consciousness. It’s dangerous for us as a society to forget or sweep under the carpet how fragile are the freedoms women have won in the past century. It’s easy to look up the stats about witch hunts and discover the depth of the atrocities. Of course the scale between Europe and North America was vastly different, but I feel offended, or maybe it’s just frightened by the very idea of re-enactments, and especially of re-enactments as part of a larger tourist experience slanted towards entertainment.
I can’t imagine what it’s like for the women acting in these productions. I’d love the chance to talk to one. Thin skinned as I undoubtedly am, just watching a few minutes of a YouTube video is enough to give me bad dreams. I can’t fathom the level of professionalism, or detachment that must be required to act in one.
I’m far too chicken to ever risk attending one. However, I’ve tried to picture it. I understand the audience is encouraged to participate. I’ve imagined myself standing up and declaring forcefully that the trial was an outrage based on superstition, misogyny and hysteria. Would there have been a woman in that time who stood up to say these things? Would I have the courage, even though all I would be risking is social censure rather than persecution as a witch myself? I wonder if attendees ever choose to speak out in this way. It’s hard to stand up to a crowd and to authority figures, as Stanley Milgram demonstrated. The only temptation I feel to be an attendee is the chance to test myself by standing up against a crowd to speak for reason and civilization.
The title isn’t a metaphor. The word “unseen” isn’t a reference to Prime Minister Harper’s genuine political will on climate change, or the reallocation of military budgets towards health and education, the title refers to concrete things in the real world.
Atypically for a child born blind in Ontario when I was, my family chose not to send me to residential school, preferring to keep me where they could keep an eye on me. In my family and my neighbourhood, no special fuss was made over me doing most of the stuff the other kids were doing, or at least none I was allowed to know about. I’m the youngest of five siblings, and expectations were pretty high for all of us. I got no particular praise for my academic performance or extracurricular activities, especially not from my brothers and sisters, who were as likely as any siblings to blow off their younger sister as boring and unremarkable.
Recently I was having a chat with my extremely business-savvy brother about promotional considerations in self-publishing my Novel. I was sort of stunned speechless when he said, “I know we grew up together and everything, and I’m pretty used to you, but when most people hear, ‘she’s blind and she wrote a novel?’ they’re going to think Holy Shit!” While I was doing my deer in the headlights impression, I was also doing some quick thinking, and of course, as anyone would, I thought, how can I capitalize on this?
His perspicacious remark caused me to do some highly focused reflection on aspects of my writing I hadn’t thought much about at the time. My novel is about sighted people, and most of my anticipated readers would be sighted as well. Obviously the ways I perceive the world and other people hadn’t offered much material. How had I constructed landscapes, descriptions of body language in conversation, and the visual impressions people get of one another through appearance and carriage.
Landscapes? This brings to mind my favourite advice for anyone joining Twitter: follow smart people. Twitter didn’t help me write landscapes, but an indirect root through the internet led me to an extremely fruitful correspondence with a very smart person, also gifted with empathy, imagination, excellent writing skills, and generosity. He helped me with descriptions of Scottish landscapes in general, and 16th century Scottish landscapes in particular. He also helped me develop my own empathy about a visual person’s response to landscape by inviting me to imagine how it would feel for a rural French woman to embark on a sea journey, and eventually find herself completely out of sight of land. Her habit of watching the sunrise each morning from the rail of the ship with awe and reverence was my own idea.
Body language and appearance were actually a little easier. I’ve been an avid fiction reader since I first discovered audio books, and had to be bribed or bullied to leave escape land and return to the real world. I’ve had decades to assimilate the unspoken cues people give off. I know what it means when the person I’m talking to at a party is looking somewhere else while talking to me. My fifteen years as a massage therapist has given me some sense of the variety in posture and carriage, which helps me make sense out of ideas like “haughty” or “self-effacing.”
I’m fond of remarking (mostly as a way to excuse any of my screw-ups) that fiction writing is an exercise in imagination. Which is harder: imagining what it was like to be a 16th century French woman, or what it’s like to look into the eyes of someone you love? I don’t know. Fiction lets me play recklessly with ideas. My main character discovers that she enjoys working with dyeing fabric and wool, because she finds the hypnotic sight of the swirling colours soothing as she stirs the vats. She’s a visual person, and visual stimuli affect her most strongly, just as some sighted people are occasionally more focused on sound or another sense.
There are still some things I don’t feel comfortable that I got right. I’d love a good 3d model of a castle, or a detailed tactile drawing of what fan-trained trees look like against a wall. Likewise, the involutions of women’s clothes in the early modern period are still pretty mysterious to me. Relevant to my current writing project, I’m planning an involved discussion with another smart person I know in order to get a good grounding in what the course of a river might look like if you travelled its length. I’m also scheming to chat with someone about hunting.
Most writers, and all historical fiction writers, rely on some degree of research about their setting, period or characters. For me, landscapes and body language kind of fit in with sociology, politics, and geography as topics to be studied. I hope sometime to have the chance to talk to someone who read my novel and only found out later that I’m blind. I’m intensely curious to know how well I did.