What May be Mended

During the lull between the years, when the nights were at their longest, I took stock of things and decided that, this year, I will focus on what may be mended.

In the world at large there is a storm: it is now all around us. The famous lines from Yeats have ever more relevance, only, this, time, it is impossible to say whether it is the best or worst who lack all conviction, are filled with passionate intensity, or are both at once. These are now the most visible symptoms of a great social ill threatening—determined, it seems increasingly clear—to destroy everything in its wake.

Margaret Atwood, whose essays appearing at In the Writing Burrow are among the most informed and cogent cultural analysis I have read in years, has issued a timely warning of what await us, unless we “call the bluff” that our societies are broken and can only be fixed by revolutions, terrorism, invasions or dictators. Atwood’s most immediate focus is on the upcoming US election, but her analysis applies anywhere democracy, due process and the peaceful transition of power are under threat.

In her commentary, Atwood points out that it is the aim of extremists on both the ultra-left and radical right to sow division, sabotage social accords, spread misinformation, undermine public institutions and elections and create chaos in what she calls “the temperate zone”—in political language this is often referred to as the centre or middle, but includes centre-left social democrats as well as small-c conservatives—in order to create opportunities to seize power.

In pursuit of these aims, extremists harness the dissatisfaction of ideological fellow-travelers, the genuinely aggrieved, and those who cynically anticipate, following the hoped-for revolution, uprising or seizure of power, to be appointed to positions of authority themselves. Their rhetoric becomes increasingly radical and ever more authoritarian. Anyone who questions the ideological imperative is an enemy. The divisions deepen. Rakoth Maugrim—the Unraveler, the Destroyer, the self-appointed bearer of Vengeance—steps in and seizes the world in his teeth.

Unless ordinary citizens refuse it.

I refuse it. And so can you.

It is not even all that difficult to do. One good way to begin is by muting the ideologues who—most often via social media but also, increasingly, in progressive as well as conservative faith communities, political organizations and, depressingly, educational environments—spread the poison of the movements they have attached themselves to. Watch for their absolutism, and for their calls for obedience to cult-like kinds of fundamentalism. And mute them; banish their invented or exaggerated claims, their one-sided narratives, the propaganda they reshare, their exhortations to burn everything down. Halt their takeovers of your communities, and their silencing of anything that sounds even remotely like dissent. Do this even to the ideologues on your own ‘side.’ Do it even to yourself, because chances are good you too have contributed to the ideological dumbing down of our society.

When you do this it’s actually amazing how quickly the airwaves quiet. All at once there is room to breathe, time for perspective, an opportunity to weigh your own thoughts alongside the experiences and perspectives of others, and a chance to notice all the other people who, likely a lot like you, both build and benefit from the social institutions extremists want to use you to destroy.

It’s okay to be critical. Our society is imperfect. There is much that may be improved. But anyone who says it must all be burned down and remade in their name or in the name of their ideology is not interested in improvement.

During the lull between the years, sickened by the news and nauseated at the rhetorical spewage on social media and in one of the communities I belong to, I set aside my laptop. Instead I brought down my sewing box, set it up beside the old wooden table in our kitchen, and, in peaceful silence on a dark winter night, the kitchen warm, the dinner dishes washed and drying behind me, set to work mending what could be mended.

Mending is about much more than sewing up seams, and it would be foolish to pretend that mending a beloved winter coat I’ve had for 25 years has much to do with repairing the world.

But I am a person who believes that the things we do as individuals have resonance far beyond ourselves, and that it is not only big acts but small ones that make the world. Small acts are actually practice for larger ones, in the sense that the way we do small things usually parallels the way we do larger things.

Not all things may be mended. Some things are too broken to fix. But a great deal may be repaired, and much that may be mended exists in the spaces between us—in our personal relationships, in the civility we owe to our communities, and in our duty of care to the natural environment. And if we are able to be mindful of these nearby things, we might also appreciate the virtues of stable democracies and their social contracts, and the separation of church and state, and the close connections between innovation and prosperity, and the benefits of charity, and civil liberties, and so on.

Yes but!, I can sense you saying. Yes but!—late capitalism is evil, communists are everywhere, carbon taxes are destroying the economy, the planet is burning, a drag queen is reading stories at the library, a stranger misgendered me, the deep state is watching us, big pharma vaccinated my dog, pop singer psy-ops, settler colonialism, the lamestream media, chatbots, 15-minute cities, megachurches, stolen elections, Superbowl shootings, the unborn, the undead.


In an excellent recent essay on the excess of noise—literal and figurative—in contemporary culture, and on the urgent need for quiet, cultural commentator Michael Harris observed that

[S]ilence leaves room for the development of a rich interior life, for daydreaming and the formation of an identity independent of the hive mind. Our personalities mature in the empty spaces that allow them to self-reflect; we discover what we really think or really feel when inputs hush and we can sit a while with what we’ve already received. In this way, amid doses of quiet and stillness, the self coheres.

If the loudest mantra of the moment is “burn it all down,” then the mantra of those of us interested in mending should be “turn it all down,” and “tone it all down.”

Turn down the ideologues, especially on the social media platforms whose algorithms promote extremism via ‘engagement’ and ‘reach.’ Tone down your own propensity to be persuaded by one-sided rhetoric and oversimplified narratives. Stop making everything about politics (and maybe consider: When did choosing what to read, watch, attend and value become principally a performative expression of political identity? And what has doing so cost us in terms of perspective?).

Put down your phone. Go for a walk. Pet a cat. Talk to a dog. Smile at a baby. Pick up some litter. Say hello to a stranger on the street. Get up early. Look at the sunrise (no: really look at it). Stay up late, and listen (even for just a few moments) to the wind roaring in the trees, or to the silence, or to cars on the highway, or to those tiny rustles in the grass. Grow something (in a pot, on your balcony, in your yard, or in a nearby park). Pick a dandelion. Thank a bee. Go to a bookstore or a library. Read a poem. Remember, even if only for a few moments, how fortunate you are—how fortunate we all are—to have been born in this corner of the expanding universe.

Mend something.

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September 11

Nobody sees it happening, but the architecture of our time
Is becoming the architecture of the next time. And the dazzle
Of light on the waters is as nothing beside the changes
Wrought therein, just as our waywardness means
Nothing against the steady pull of things over the edge.
Nobody can stop the flow, but nobody can start it either.
Time slips by; our sorrows do not turn into poems,
And what is invisible stays that way. Desire has fled,
Leaving only a trace of perfume in its wake,
And so many people we loved have gone,
And no voice comes from outer space, from the folds
Of dust and carpets of wind to tell us that this
Is the way it was meant to happen, that if only we knew
How long the ruins would last we would never complain.”
Mark Strand, from “The Next Time” [Blizzard of One; Knopf, 1998.]


[The picture posted here, an image showing the New York city skyline, with the absent towers reflected in the ocean, originally appeared on the excellent but long ago deleted blog of a New York literary agent pseudonymously named Miss Snark. The original may have appeared in a New York-local magazine—I will happily credit its creator if pointed in the right direction.]

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First edition hardcover copy of Canadian writer Margaret Laurence's 1974 novel The Diviners.

Currently Reading: The Diviners, by Margaret Laurence (1974)

[Note: as social media as we’ve known it goes through its prolonged and probably overdue death throes — Cory Doctorow aptly calls this the inevitable result of the ‘enshittification‘ of online platforms — I’m trying out posting things here I might ordinarily have consigned to social media, including provisional and fully-formed thoughts, reviews, recommendations, image galleries and editorialized links. The decline of the relatively open internet ‘out here’ is a real problem, compounded by secretive and coercive algorithms, ossified social networks, the active throttling of news and information, and the manifest decline of social discourse. One of the things I miss most about the open internet (that is, online environments accessible to anyone online, not closed within subscription-based social media platforms designed to hold users hostage to their social networks and keep them scrolling and clicking material they didn’t choose and may not even want to see) is the joy of discovery and the opportunity to pause over something — a ‘long read’ essay, an arresting set of images — and actually think. As a researcher I have a deep love for discovery, but it’s increasingly hard to remember a time when I regularly learned new things or had my mind changed on social media — other than developing an increasingly clear conviction that the social media platforms where many of us interact ‘in public’ have become bad places — and here I am reminded of the excellent work of moral geographer Robert Sack, about whom I will write more soon — that do real harm to their users and to public discourse more generally.]

When I was in high school, Margaret Laurence was required reading in upper-year English classes, usually alternating between The Stone Angel (1964) and The Diviners (19974). Oddly enough, I am not sure either book was assigned reading in any of the classes I took, although I did read The Stone Angel (and the linked stories in A Bird in the House, 1970) and thought for many years that I’d also read The Diviners. It turns out I had not, although I would have preferred it vastly to Susanna Moodie’s tedious, complaint-filled memoir Roughing it in the Bush.

The other night, while casting about for something to read on my shelves of Canadian literature, The Diviners practically leapt into my hands. I have meant to dig into Laurence for a while, but have so little time for purely leisure reading that I’ve put it off. I settled in with the book, and very soon felt a poignant sort of sorrow that I hadn’t read this book when I was still young enough to get completely lost in Laurence’s story (and oh, wow: it would have been an excellent accompaniment to the months I spent binge-reading Alice Munro in my early twenties). The Diviners is written in Laurence’s inimitable voice, which is plain-spoken (even crude, some would say) and irascible. A characteristic line:

I WAS born bloody-minded. It’s cost me. I’ve paid through the nose. As they say. Also, one might add, through the head, heart and cunt.

At the moment I’m just under 100 pages in, and the thing that strikes me most strongly about this novel is Laurence’s keen and forgiving sense of humanity. Some of the characters in The Diviners are short-sighted and self-destructive; others strain against the bounds of their ‘place’ in their families and communities. Still, Laurence emphasizes their vulnerable humanity, and their struggles to function and relate to one another despite the environments into which they have been thrown. I find this refreshing and, these days, increasingly rare. It’s hard to think of other books I’ve read recently whose protagonists are handled with such care. Barbara Kingsolver definitely does this: I’ve just finished reading Kingsolver’s remarkable 2012 novel Flight Behaviour, in which backwoods Tennessee sheep farmers are treated with as much sensitivity and depth as the Harvard-educated scientist who might at first glimpse seem brought in to serve as their as their narrative contrast.

I also love Laurence’s vivid descriptions of her characters’ activities, whether they are scavenging in the local dump, daydreaming, worrying or dowsing. I have, as always while reading an especially excellent book, gotten out the Post-It Notes and started marking passages. Here’s one great example. Morag’s adoptive father Christie, a war veteran with shell shock, frequents the local Nuisance Grounds regularly enough to have developed what he calls “the gift of the garbage-telling.” Pointing at a spill of waste steaming in the afternoon heat, he tells her:

Now you see these bones here, and you know what they mean? They mean Simon Pearl the lawyer’s got the money for steak. Yep, not so often, maybe, but one day a week. So although he’s letting on he’s as hard up as the next —he ain’t, though it’s troubling to him, too. By their christly bloody garbage shall ye know them in their glory, is what I’m saying to you, every saintly mother’s son. [….] Now the paint tins from the Connors’ means the old man’s on the rampage and he’s painting like a devil all the kitchen chairs and suchlike, showing all of them around him that they’re lazy worthless sinners, but he’s painting out his anger, for he thinks his life is shit.

Christie goes on to tell Morag about having once found a dead baby wrapped in newspaper, which he buried in the Nuisance Grounds, retorting, “To hell with their consecrated ground.”

I’ll post more about The Diviners as I work through it. In the meantime, I am enjoying the novel tremendously. It’s no wonder the book won the Governor General’s Award (her second, after winning the GG for A Jest of God in 1966).

One more note: in the 1970s multiple efforts were made to ban The Diviners from some schools in Ontario; the organizer of one such campaign claimed the book “reeked of sordidness.” These efforts, led mainly by Christian fundamentalists, did not succeed greatly but caused harm to Laurence and were forerunners, in some ways, of contemporary censorship campaigns organized by ideologues on both the right and left. By the late 1980s it was still considered a tiny bit boundary-pushing to assign The Diviners; which is, I am sure, one of the main reasons it was required reading most years at the high schools I attended. In my  parents’ home,  Laurence’s writing was viewed with distaste, although I have little doubt that, were my mother to have revisited The Diviners later in her life, she would have appreciated the author’s realism and perhaps especially Morag’s hope-tinged cynicism.

Over and out for now. Summer grows a little long in the tooth, but it’s a gorgeous sultry afternoon and I will shortly go out to bask in the light and warmth.

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All of Their Faces and All of Their Names

I don’t remember where I was on 6 December 1989. I do remember following the massacre on the news, and struggling to grasp its implications. At 17 my relationship with feminism was complicated; it is even more complicated now. But what struck me then, and strikes me even more strongly now, is that by “feminists” the shooter really meant “women.” That is what I remember, and that is what I think of 33 years later, in a year in which women’s lives and bodies and basic rights seem as much under threat as ever.

Twelve of the fourteen women murdered that day—Geneviève Bergeron, Hélène Colgan, Nathalie Croteau, Barbara Daigneault, Anne-Marie Edward, Maud Haviernick, Maryse Leclair, Anne-Marie Lemay, Sonia Pelletier, Michèle Richard, Annie St-Arneault, and Annie Turcotte—were engineering students. The thirteenth woman, Maryse Laganière, worked for the university. The fourteenth woman, Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz, was a nursing student.

The women were young; the youngest twenty; the oldest 31. All were vibrant, accomplished, hard-working women, and as the years pass I find myself thinking, more and more, about what kinds of lives they would be living today. By now they would be in their fifties; two just past sixty; all likely at the peak of their careers; thinking about retirement, hoped-for grandchildren, ailing parents, new winter boots, vacation plans, the state of the planet. The kind of women one might encounter breezing into a smart café, shrugging the snow from their coats before sitting down to share gossip over lunch and a latte. Greying hair; a cancer scare; someone’s new love; variable rate mortgages; the fluctuating price of gas.

One of the women turns to another and asks if she has heard from Maryse lately, or Annie, or Helene, or Genevieve. A pause; a shaken head; a look of confusion. Oh; do you mean— I’m not sure; I don’t …

All at once the film recoils in its cylinder, stuttering briefly before rolling backward in a chaotic rewind. The projector shudders, lights flashing wildly; suddenly something rattles and pops and the whole thing derails. Metal shrieks, the reels rip loose from their casing, and in the background there is disembodied shouting. The film unspools into wild coils, frames snapping apart, stills spilling across the gritty floor.

Soon—but far too late for any hope of repair—all this tangle of metal and celluloid comes to rest, and in the profound, echoing silence punctuated by lights pulsing intermittently against the gloom, the only discernible images are those of the fourteen faces in an endless sequence of frames, eerily soundless and still.

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