Saturday, 27 August 2011

Discovering La Belle Olivia

Years ago, I decided that grief is, for the most part, selfish.  It's an acknowledgement that there is a void in your life that will never be completely filled again.  You regret actions not taken, words not spoken or potential not reached.  You have a list of things you'll miss about the person you've lost.  At its core, it is a change in our lives and we view the loss through the filter of how it will impact us.

Grief is for the living.

I've been very selfish recently, grieving a man I can't claim to know and only met once, however meaningful that single meeting was to me.

Canadians lost a gifted public servant on August 22.  Yes, we knew the Honourable Jack Layton, Leader of the Opposition, was ill, but we kinda learned to believe in miracles where he was concerned.  I know I'm not alone when I say that I really did expect another one and it's a struggle to get my head around the void he's left.

It's daunting to consider that the weight he carried as a leader has been returned to us.  The work we expected him to do is now in our hands, on our shoulders, and I've wondered if we are equal to the task. 

We aren't rudderless, really, as our shared values directed him.  What we lost was our standard bearer, the charismatic face of our principles that engaged so many with our message. 

I've been worrying that the momentum would ebb, because some people were engaged less by the message than the messenger.  Those who voted for Le Bon Jack, rather than the NDP, would drift away, seeking more familiar harbour.  I've been wondering what I can do to prevent that.

Then, I saw something that stopped me in my tracks, stilled such thoughts, shattered my heart and moved me into, then beyond, tears with the sheer poignancy of the moment.

It's a photograph by Chris Mikula of the Ottawa Citizen I'll try to reproduce here but if copyright law slaps me, it's here (hopefully forever). 

The caption:  "The family of Jack Layton watches as his body leaves Parliament Hill in Ottawa August 25, 2011 en route to the funeral in Toronto."

There are 17 people in the photograph, but I only noticed one.

On the red-carpeted stone steps, Olivia stands in front, alone, holding her own empty hands, gazing to her right.  Her step-children stand behind and above her, their attention on child or fiancee.  It seems the caption is incorrect:  She is the only one watching.

As I have too many times this past week, I melted.  My face burned with the shame of my selfishness as I imagined her thoughts at that moment; was she thinking of the many tasks before her?  Recalling memories that remain only in her heart?  Or simply repeating a mantra of "Keep it together.  You can cry later.  Not now, Olivia, not now."

Yes, we lost a leader, a spokesman, and that's rough because it means we have more work to do.

Olivia lost her husband, the man who shared her heart and life, who made her laugh and cry, finished her sentences, read her mind, fought with her and loved her and shared jokes with a glance.  They were supposed to grow old together, enjoy a houseful of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, recall long years of public service, write their memoirs and, finally, many years from now, leave this life quietly and peacefully, together, because that's the way all great love stories end.

For me – and my admittedly strong imagination – it's a powerful photograph that captures a moment of sadness, grace and sacrifice.

Throughout this week, many have commented on the warmth, generosity and composure of this remarkable woman.  She walked among mourners, accepted their grief, comforted and embraced strangers as if their loss were no less significant than her own.

As a Canadian Leftie, while I've always respected Ms Chow's ability as a strong MP in her own right, I have to admit I viewed her as part of a package, like a political "Bennifer" – one half of a couple that worked in the same field to accomplish the same goals.  Meeting the two of them a couple of years ago kind of cemented that, as people flocked around her husband for words and photos while she remained nearby, content to be on the edge of the spotlight.

It's shining on her, now, as she mourns a great, personal loss, and I can only imagine how difficult it must be to grieve in the spotlight, your picture taken a thousand times and posted in seconds for anyone to scrutinise.  What is it like to be in that place, knowing missteps will not tolerated?  To know that for every kind thought and word, there will be an opposing one spoken, tweeted, blogged, posted and texted about you, or the man who shared your life?  How do you find the strength to maintain composure, to be dignified and human, rather than cold and stoic?

I'm fairly confident that I would be a useless, teary, red-nosed, puffy-eyed puddle of goo, hideous with grief.  I know I'm not that strong.

Yes, Jack Layton was a great man, respected and admired by more people than he may have realised.  But, this woman that he loved, well, I think more of us have discovered why:  La Belle Olivia is pretty damned great, too.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Building Bridges: When words fail you

Watching CPAC's coverage of a panel discussion at the Couchiching Conference 2011: From the Ground Up: Civic Engagement in Our Times, I found myself squirming in sympathetic discomfort as a participant tried to formulate a question to Chief Ovide Mercredi.

I knew what she WANTED to say, but she was nervous and I could tell she was trying desperately to express too many things at once, and doubly pressured by a stated time constraint.

From my perspective, she was trying to say, "I am a young woman of colour, my attire labels me as Muslim; I understand being "Other." I am also educated and active and I want to help, so what can I do to help you and your people?"

It didn't come out that way at all, of course, as so many things we TRY so carefully to express fall out of our mouths in unhappy clots that bear no resemblance at all to our intentions. Dismay fills us and we blush, horrified by our failure and we babble on, hoping to redeem ourselves.  Oh, yes, I've been there.

Now, I won't claim to be an expert in body language, but Chief Mercredi seemed to withdraw, to steel himself, as I do when trapped by someone who clearly doesn't "get" me trying to prove otherwise and I don't know whether to lash out in frustration, search for another way to try to express a message I'm tired of repeating or just bolt.

I was raised to focus on similarities, not differences. From an early age, my mother read letters to advice columnists to me and asked how I would respond to their problem, before revealing Ann or Abby's reply. Granted, I often hated it at the time – how could I, a child, possibly respond to an adult having problems with another adult? My perspective was limited by my experience; my world was so much smaller. It wasn't fair to expect me to understand her pain and confusion and anger! But, it was a game I was impelled to play. I had to give an answer, any answer, before I was released.

While the game may not have been fair, it taught me to draw on my own experience to understand others – problems between spouses are similar enough to problems between school mates; problems between boss and subordinate are close enough to those between child and parent. When I was in the mood to play and considered the problem, my responses were often deemed by my mother to be equal to or better than those given by paid "professionals" – really, aren't most interpersonal problems, boiled down to their essence, fairly similar?  Otherwise, my childish need to be elsewhere responded flippantly just to end the game so I could go play at something less arduous, earning me maternal disappointment and frustration which occasionally lengthened the game. I didn't blow off answers often, as I just never knew for certain if I could get away with it. Sometimes, it's just easier to give people what they want.

Not surprisingly, this became my ingrained approach to understanding others. It isn't as certain (or arrogant) as "I feel your pain", but rather more like, "I have felt pain, so I will use that memory to relate to your response to pain." It's the best tool I have and it works rather well, overall and I can honestly say, "I can imagine how you feel." This is often the foundation for conversations with people who accept that statement as truth and proceed to expand my understanding with their experience.

The barrier to this is when the response is, "No, you can't! You aren't black/brown/yellow/red/male/Muslim/Jewish/deaf/blind/elderly (or any of the million things I'm not), so you don't know exactly what I feel!"

Well, I can't dispute that. I admit that my experience remains limited and, God willing, shall remain so. (Well, except for the "elderly" part.)

However, that does not mean I have not been hungry, lonely, hopeless, angry, frustrated, poor, different, unemployed, marginalised, attacked, teased, afraid, in mourning, slandered, exploited or in so much pain I longed for death because I could not imagine any other end to it.

I also understand how isolating and personal pain can be – whether it's physical, emotional, spiritual or psychological.  When you are experiencing that pain, it defines you, shapes and colours your world, for as long as it lasts. It belongs to you and no one else can really know what you feel, because it's yours and yours alone. The isolation increases with every person who tries to explain it from a perspective of ignorance. Unconsciously, you build walls to protect yourself and your pain and lash out at anyone who stumbles along and ham-fistedly tries to help.

I have viewed these attempts with scorn, my pain giving me a sense of superiority over those who have never felt it. I've embraced the anger of the injustice that I have to suffer when so many do not and their world keeps turning while mine remains mired in the muck of my pain.  It's all-encompassing and completely unreasonable, but if you have ever tried to reason with a woman in the middle of giving birth, you might have a frame of reference. (Not to mention a "What the hell were you thinking?")

So, here's a question: In the entire history of humanity, has anyone, anywhere ever tried to build a bridge when they didn't have the slightest idea of what was on the other side?

No doubt people have lived their lives on riverbanks who haven't cared what's on the other side because they don't need to know and it doesn't matter to them. When your needs are met and your life is full, who cares what's "over there"? Look where curiosity got Pandora, thank you very much.

I'm not one of those people. I want to know. I want to build bridges and understand and discover and expand my world.

In my limited, ham-fisted way, I will stumble onto your shore in my leaky boat and use my broken language to ask questions I pray won't insult you with their awkward ignorance.

My intentions are pure, even if my tongue can't express them well.

Teach me.