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My Mother’s Shoes

The first time crippling anxiety assaulted my mind and body at age twenty-nine, I felt super-stimulated by everything going on around me. My mind raced.  I could not follow a radio broadcast, it barreled along too quickly, too much information. No matter how I tried, I could not fall asleep. This continued for seven days before I sought medical care and was forced to take sick leave from my job. Struck by a deep-seated fear that my career was over, I felt bowled over by a sense of shame at my failure to cope. I was convinced my mind was irreparably broken. One evening I labelled the myriad of spices in the rack and organized them alphabetically. It was an attempt to make order out of the chaos I was experiencing inside. 

And so I recognized something familiar in the nearly fifty boxes of shoes, labelled and organized by colour and style, I discovered in my mother’s apartment after she died. It was a work of art, arranged neatly on the shelf above her clothes closet. I understood, because my mother suffered from Alzheimer’s and this organized mass of shoes must have been one way she tried to cope with her own internal chaos as the illness progressed.

Navy sling backs. Red running shoes. Peach coloured sandals. My pertly dressed, not quite five-foot-tall mother always matched her shoes to the outfit she was wearing. Her modest pantsuits, skirts and dresses each had their own carefully chosen footwear. Mostly comfortable, few heels. All a diminutive size five.

What is this pursuit of order, especially when our thinking is disordered? Is it an effort to contain and command the wayward thinking that characterizes mental illness? In my anxious state, I conquered the celery salt, cinnamon and cumin. Classifying her shoes may have brought my mother some serenity, as she traversed a disturbed mental landscape. I certainly hope so.

–30–

The Kiss

And then he kissed me. He was my grade five teacher, Mr. Woodward. It was not a peck on the cheek, but smack-dab wet on my lips. I was ten years old. I never told anyone.

I had stayed after school to help him clean up. Perhaps he asked me to, I don’t remember. I wiped the chalkboard and placed fresh white chalk on the ledge so it would be ready for the next morning. The air was redolent with fine particles of chalk dust.

My teacher had also taught my older brother a few years earlier. My mother invited Mr. Woodward to dinner, he became a friend of the family. After we moved to Canada from New York, he came to visit and stayed with us for a few days. I remember him sitting at one of the swivel chairs in our avocado-coloured kitchen.

I didn’t tell my parents because it didn’t seem so strange for a teacher to thank me by giving me a kiss. Even though it felt kind of funny, I think it was an innocent kiss. But when I told my daughter and step-daughters about it fifty years later, they thought it constituted sexual assault. Times have changed.

A call to action re the siege of Ottawa, Canada February 2022

Op Ed NOW Magazine Toronto. February 19, 2022. (longer version)

Since when is hot-tubbing with hate groups an acceptable practice in Canada? Like many, I am deeply troubled by these images and the underlying messages they convey. 

After visiting Ottawa and devouring press reports about the protests and the Emergencies Act over the last few weeks, I am concerned by the direction the coverage is taking.  For example, a Globe and Mail article February 16th by James Bradshaw (Banks grapple with new Emergencies Act powers to curb the flow of funds to support blockades) quotes a Canadian in New Zealand who contributed four thousand dollars to the protests who claims she “donated in good faith to a peaceful protest”. 

 

Excuse me, but this attitude is either disingenuous or naïve. There is nothing peaceful about powerful trailer transports sporting swastikas and Confederate flags. Reports of angry men traipsing about Ottawa intimidating residents is hardly peaceable behaviour.

In a similar vein, a security expert on a CBC special broadcast last weekend stated that the protests have been free of violence. Although he might possibly be excused since the seizure of firearms in Coutts Alberta had not yet surfaced, I beg to differ with his rather glib characterization of the protests as “peaceful”.

Peaceful people do not sport swastikas. The violence inherent in the symbols of hate displayed by the convoy and elsewhere is dangerous in and of itself. Confederate flags and Nazi symbols display an underlying hostility to anyone other than white men. They also convey antagonism toward order and good government, when these are precisely the democratic practices most Canadians cherish.

The danger, if coverage remains milquetoast on the question of hate, is that the narrative becomes one of quiet acceptance:  ordinary folk have a right to protest. Of course they do. But many Canadians, from myriad backgrounds, are genuinely appalled by the flaunting of hate symbols and the historical horrors they evoke.

In 1930’s Germany, one did not have be a member of the National Socialist Party to be a supporter of the atrocities committed by the regime. One just had to remain silent, to stand by and do nothing. Silence constituted consent. It still does.

I don’t pretend to know whether bank accounts of our Canadian friend in New Zealand should be frozen. What I do know is that her example suggests the dangerous territory upon which we are now treading.

As accelerationist right wing groups attempt to spark chaos in Canadian society — and police have linked them to the weapons seizure in Alberta — it could be argued they are succeeding.  Just look at the policing situation in Ottawa wherein the oversight board and municipal council are locked in conflict. Can we not learn from the past that this kind of destabilization creates fertile ground for a lack of belief in our institutions and possibly, the rise of fascism?

Relatedly, I’ve heard more than one media commentator quip lightheartedly that ‘a one or two hundred dollar donation is really nothing’. I disagree. Money spent in this way signals more than being ‘fed up’. It signals acceptance of discrimination against racialized people, Jews, Muslims, LGBTQ2S? individuals, people with disabilities, First Nations and others. 

If Canada does not want to slip into that territory where we accept swastikas beamed from our television sets while we sit in our living rooms, we need to register our concern.

This is, perhaps, the only silver lining of these protests. The Alt-Right is well organized in this country as the Canadian Anti-Hate Network and others have demonstrated. The tendrils of their organizations have been partially exposed by the coverage of the media and academics they call upon to comment.

I submit it is now time for the rest of us to speak up and, moreover, to organize in civil society – in our communities, our unions, our schools, and our synagogues and churches — to counter the extreme ideas conveyed by these disturbing events.

–30–

Op-ed: #FreedomConvoy and the link between misogyny and white supremacy

Extreme misogyny and white supremacy aren’t just related, they’re entangled – both see increased demands for equality coming at the expense of white privilege

I learned about fascism at my father’s knee. He explained to me that he was not a pacifist because some forces in the world have to be fought. Fascism is one such force. He enlisted to fight in the Second World War because of it. 

He was wounded on a beach in France, earning a Purple Heart from the U.S. Army. My father was not a man who glorified his memories of the war. But he did teach us that like the swastika, the “goose step” march of the Nazis was something to deplore.

Extreme male rage was also a feature of my childhood. In reacting to it, I learned to be vigilant and walk on eggshells around a father who could storm about so as not to provoke his out-of-control behaviour.

And so, as I watched the “Freedom Convoy” roll into Ottawa with Confederate flags and Nazi symbols, I was alarmed and frightened not only as a Jewish person but as a woman. 

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, “the alt-right is a set of far-right ideologies, groups, and individuals whose core belief is that white identity is under attack.”

Their impact is growing. The views they espouse and their actions are reminiscent of the early seeds of fascism in Nazi Germany, an unsafe place for Jews, women, homosexuals, disabled persons and anyone thought to be different.

While I do not normally walk down the street in fear, now they are not far away and have descended on our seat of government.

The alt-right is not just an American or European phenomenon. There are 6,660 right-wing extremist channels, pages, groups and accounts across social media platforms operating in Canada. They use the internet to construct collective identities that are reinforced and mirrored by others of like mind.

There has been an increasing number of hate crimes in Canada, linked to far-right ideologies that demonize Muslims and Jews, as well as immigrants, Indigenous people, women, LGBTQ communities and other minority groups. The alt-right glorifies misogyny, sexism and racism. The linkages between misogyny and the alt-right are worth exploring.

Extreme misogyny and white supremacy aren’t just analogous, they’re entangled. Both see increased demands for equality, whether it’s Black Lives Matter or the #MeToo movement, as coming at the deadly expense of the privileged group — white people or men. 

Violent extremism can’t be addressed without first dealing with the misogyny in our culture that feeds white supremacy. 

The expression of male rage on the streets of Ottawa evoked strong feelings. Like many, I felt a bodily fear watching the protestors. The protestors in Ottawa have not, so far, erupted into violent action. But there have been many examples of aggressive behaviour reported by Ottawa residents.

We must come together to make the alt-right less attractive to people who feel disenfranchised. A new collective politics must be forged if we are to dismantle and effectively thwart the far-right from gaining further ground now that it has grabbed national attention. The first step is naming this insidious ideology wherever it appears. 

Miriam Edelson is a researcher and writer living in Toronto. The Swirl in my Burl, her forthcoming collection of essays, will be published in April 2022.   

@nowtoronto

I learned about fascism at my father’s knee. He explained to me that he was not a pacifist because some forces in the world have to be fought. Fascism is one such force. He enlisted to fight in the Second World War because of it. 

Extreme male rage was also a feature of my childhood. In reacting to it, I learned to be vigilant and walk on eggshells around a father who could storm about so as not to provoke his out-of-control behaviour.

He was wounded on a beach in France, earning a Purple Heart from the U.S. Army. My father was not a man who glorified his memories of the war. But he did teach us that like the swastika, the “goose step” march of the Nazis was something to deplore.

And so, as I watched the “Freedom Convoy” roll into Ottawa with Confederate flags and Nazi symbols, I was alarmed and frightened not only as a Jewish person but as a woman. 

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, “the alt-right is a set of far-right ideologies, groups, and individuals whose core belief is that white identity is under attack.”

Their impact is growing. The views they espouse and their actions are reminiscent of the early seeds of fascism in Nazi Germany, an unsafe place for Jews, women, homosexuals, disabled persons and anyone thought to be different.

While I do not normally walk down the street in fear, now they are not far away and have descended on our seat of government.

The alt-right is not just an American or European phenomenon. There are 6,660 right-wing extremist channels, pages, groups and accounts across social media platforms operating in Canada. They use the internet to construct collective identities that are reinforced and mirrored by others of like mind.

There has been an increasing number of hate crimes in Canada, linked to far-right ideologies that demonize Muslims and Jews, as well as immigrants, Indigenous people, women, LGBTQ communities and other minority groups. The alt-right glorifies misogyny, sexism and racism. The linkages between misogyny and the alt-right are worth exploring.

Extreme misogyny and white supremacy aren’t just analogous, they’re entangled. Both see increased demands for equality, whether it’s Black Lives Matter or the #MeToo movement, as coming at the deadly expense of the privileged group — white people or men. 

Violent extremism can’t be addressed without first dealing with the misogyny in our culture that feeds white supremacy. 

The expression of male rage on the streets of Ottawa evoked strong feelings. Like many, I felt a bodily fear watching the protestors. The protestors in Ottawa have not, so far, erupted into violent action. But there have been many examples of aggressive behaviour reported by Ottawa residents.

We must come together to make the alt-right less attractive to people who feel disenfranchised. A new collective politics must be forged if we are to dismantle and effectively thwart the far-right from gaining further ground now that it has grabbed national attention. The first step is naming this insidious ideology wherever it appears. 

Miriam Edelson is a researcher and writer living in Toronto. The Swirl in my Burl, her forthcoming collection of essays, will be published in April 2022.   

@nowtoronto

Bear Alert

It’s mid-afternoon on a cool June day. I am walking in the forest with Bear, my daughter’s dog. He’s a big, black-haired beast of an animal with a sweet disposition. The trees overhang the road, verdant at this time of year. We’re going to walk down to the boat house on the lake. It’s about a 20-minute walk each way.

Bear seems to be in his element. He runs ahead and then comes back to me. At one point, though, he disappears into the forest and doesn’t return. I call for him and walk back a ways, looking for the spot where he might have entered the bush. There’s no one around and I have no idea where he has gone. I am bereft.

I continue calling him, but to no avail. I race back to the cottage where my daughter is sitting and reading. Tearfully, I tell her what has happened. She grabs the keys and we jump into the truck to go and search for Bear. We drive slowly on the road, stopping to look and call his name. Nothing.

We travel the two kilometres to the gate, same drill. Nothing. We continue searching some of the less-travelled roads. Still nothing. By now, my daughter’s boyfriend has joined the search. He takes my car and starts along the forest roads. This continues for about an hour when finally, out of nowhere, Bear appears on the road ahead. He is covered in mud, but otherwise fine.

It’s been an hour of hell. I was imagining that we might never find him in these woods. It’s likely he wouldn’t know the way home.

Suddenly, we see him loping leisurely toward the truck. A prayer answered. But I was angry at him too, and spoke sternly to him. In response, he was completely lackadaisical, having just had a messy adventure we could only imagine.

Dancing Bear

An achingly beautiful dancing polar bear sculpted from a piece of light green serpentine. It is a sight to behold. The white specks in the stone have a slight bluish tint and the entire piece gleams in the sunlight coming through the window. The sculpture  simply radiates joy.

I am sitting quietly in the living room, aware of the beauty that surrounds me. Art of various kinds, ceramics, African and Indian wall hangings, sculpture and paintings. We are fortunate to have such splendour in our midst. The bear keeps me company and lifts my spirits.

It was carved by Joanie Ragee, a young man born in 1986 in Cape Dorset, Nunavut.

He began carving in his early teens, watching his grandfather and uncles at work, all skilled craftspeople. He works in the traditional way; his favourite subject matter are animals – walrus, seals, birds and, most of all, polar bears. His work is now well-known and he is famous for his large polar bear pieces, made out of serpentine.

I try to teach my young grandchildren to appreciate the art in our home. Partly, this is a defensive move, as in, “don’t throw that ball in here, you could break something!” But it’s also to help them attune to what is beautiful in the world and to what might draw them to particular pieces.

Thank you Joanie Ragee for adorning our home with this wonderful, joyful work.

Book deal signed

I have signed a contract to have my collection of essays, “The Swirl in my Burl”, published by Adelaide Books in New York. Feels pretty exciting. What is a burl?

A burl originates from a tree that is stressed. It may be caused by an injury, virus or fungus. The burl is formed coming out of the side of the tree when the grain of the tree has grown in a distorted or unusual manner. It is a round knotty growth that when polished is full of swirls and beauty. There is an entangled splendour underneath the bark and craftspeople say that it can take thirty years for the burl’s full beauty to emerge.

The swirl of my burl is my life stories, my children, my joy and pain. Through my writing I shine a light on that jumble of memory, fact and emotion, searching for truth. Like my stories and myself, the burl wood grain is twisted and interlocked, resistant to splitting. I look upon it with wonder as it teaches me to find strength in its misshapenness.

A dilemma

I’ve had two offers to publish my book “The Swirl in my Burl: Essays”. One is from a Canadian publisher and one is in New York. The deals they are offering are essentially the same. I am trying to figure out if a U.S. publisher will likely sell more copies than a Canadian one. If anyone has any experience in this, please let me know. Certainly it’s a nice dilemma to have but I need to resolve it quickly.

Discovering sex and pot at age 60

I am normally a somewhat shy individual, not in the habit of discussing my private life with the world. But who would have thought that at age 60 I would have an orgasm that shook my world? Not me. I had experienced a drought in that department for over thirty years. And then I smoked some pot, got together with my life partner of twenty years, and Bob’s your uncle. Enhanced libido and a lovely sexual response. What a great discovery!

It happened while we were on a canoe trip in the remote and beautiful Quetico Provincial Park in northwestern Ontario. One’s senses are already piqued when canoeing and camping, the wilderness providing a delicious edge to everything. A little bit of pot thrown into the mix added a keener sensuality: the clear water felt silkier on my skin and the trees appeared greener, their canopy more majestic.

This was before pot became legal in Canada, but at that point I certainly wasn’t going to let a small legal matter stand in the way of a good orgasm. We returned home and got high from time to time, put on some sensual Latin music and went to bed. I began to enjoy sex more than I had in a long, long time. 

I remember talking to my older sister at some point during the demise of my first marriage. I must have complained about the lack of romance I was feeling then after ten years at it.  She pointed out to me that it was hard to feel romantic when you were busily cleaning hair from the bathtub drain and otherwise keeping everything going smoothly. I just figured sex would continue to simmer on a permanent back burner.

It didn’t help that I’d been on a variety of anti-depressants for over thirty years. They are known to dampen libido and sexual response and though I’d tried various remedies, nothing until marijuana had upped the ante for me. It was only now that I was rediscovering myself as a sexual being, with greater interest in pursuing an active sex life with my partner. It goes without saying, perhaps, that he was pleased by this surprising turn of events.

Then pot was legalized and I was able to get a prescription for CBD oil both for anxiety and one laced with a small amount of THC as a sleep aid. I tried them, very tentatively. Both seemed to help the respective issues for which they were sought.  My psychiatrist suggested that I only use very small amounts of the THC product, as there isn’t full research yet on its impact on the other drugs I must take.

I heed his caution and continue to use small amounts of pot from time to time. I now enjoy sex with my partner a great deal. I’m a bit like the lyric in Bruce Cockburn’s song, “Mama just wants to barrelhouse all night long.” Well, perhaps that an exaggeration. But you get the point.

So that’s my happy story. I tell it partly to suggest to people who must take antidepressants and other psychotropic medications that marijuana may be worth discussing with your care provider. It’s no replacement for a patient and generous lover, but can certainly add some spice. I can’t believe now that I waited thirty years for another orgasm to shake my world