Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Cruelty of Disempowerment

A few days ago, without thinking too much about it, I was cruel to a colleague. I was in an irritable and intolerant state and this person, at least in my foul mood, inadvertently promised a possible remedy. Funny how a negative state assumes a negative action can balance the scales. Regardless, this associate of mine momentarily pissed me off with her seemingly incessant need to be involved and, in retaliation, I chose to hurt her. I smiled the sweetness of smiles in response to her questions, tossed a “never mind” over my shoulder and walked away.
On the surface the event was rather trivial but cruelty does not have to be blatant bullying; it can be just about finding someone’s vulnerability and then exploiting it. This woman’s weakness is her need to know things whether or not it is her business. It derives from a deep insecurity that leaks out in the myriad of ways she goes through her day. I know this because she is the mirror image of who I was in my younger years. And that, of course, is at the root of why she irritates me.
Later that day I apologized for my behaviour. She accepted it but even as she brushed it off I know my cruelty had hit its mark. I touched her arm in a gesture of reconciliation and felt it stiffen; a part of her was still hurting—a seemingly minor event with lasting results.
There is a mythology that I still hear spoken that women are hard to work with: they are supposedly vindictive, sly, secretive and cruel. I used to believe this to be true. Due to a certain maternal upbringing, I grew up a misogynist. As a girl and later as a young woman, I not only disliked but distrusted females: I found them to be controlling and, yes, cruel. While I now know this to be a fallacy—men can be just as mean and hurtful (or kind and loving)—the issue, I have come to believe, is not so much about gender but power. To be specific, when we don’t feel empowered, the worst within us can come out.
When I feel disempowered (justifiably or not), and whether that be because of actual discrimination, employment conditions or irritation due to pain or over-active hormones, I lose sight of who I am.  And, when I cannot see (or choose not to look) within myself I tend to view the world with a shuttered perspective: it is their fault, not mine; if only they would do this, I would be okay. In a disempowered state it is not only easier to blame others but also to hurt them. I am not justifying my behaviour but trying to make a point. When we are disempowered the ability to see and appreciate ourselves is diminished. If we do not value ourselves, it is harder to value another. Disempowerment, whatever the cause, can hold the seeds of violence.
A vast majority of girls and women have lived in disempowered states for several millennia. They have been at the bottom of society’s ladder and as such have had to find alternative ways to work with and garner whatever power needed to survive. Sometimes this has meant that women have had to be less than direct in getting their needs met.  And, sometimes, that indirect way has resulted in competitive or hurtful situations that have earned women some of the insulting descriptors I believed in my youth.  This, of course, is no different than what men have done and can do but, as we all know, myths are shaped by those in power. Still, it doesn’t change the fact that when we feel disempowered—man, woman, black or white—we tend to start looking at ourselves in the same way we perceive that society is looking at us.
Although there have been vast improvements and advancements in the lives of women the world over, violence and harassment continues. Many women are disempowered by government policy and inaction, familial hierarchies and religious doctrines. Even in Canada, where we (especially those of us who are white) live relatively privileged lives, UBC only recently raised salaries of tenured and tenured tracked women to parallel those of male professors. The RCMP, meanwhile, is not only showing a constant bias against women in the ranks but has been accused of systemic bias against the First Nations women they are hired to serve and protect. We have a lot more work to do.
And then there are the many stories of violence and bullying between girls. I honesty do not think this is a new phenomena, only one that is currently being exploited by the media. It’s a terrible thing, we all hear; something must be done, we are told—we have anti-bullying days and new school policies, criminal charges and public apologies. These are all good and fine but we need more, something that addresses the roots.
If we truly want and desire an equal and just society—an interdependent community where men and women, and girls and boys thrive—we need to learn how to empower rather than disempower. This means everyone, but especially girls. Young women are still at the bottom of the ladder and need our help to show that they are unique, of value and can make important contributions just by being who they are.
For more information on how you can help empower women and girls go to:
Or read Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.
And, for a local program, contact Carla Webb at Empowered by Horses where heart centred leadership provides the key to  compassionate and successful lives.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Ashes (2) - Grandfather's Tooth

My grandfather’s tooth
 sits alone among the ashes. A point
along the imaginary line between bone and grit.
Funny how the two have separated:
On one side, sand-like particles—unimaginable this once was a man.
On the other, bits and pieces of bone, like broken shells on the beach, tossed
by haphazard waves.

Broken, tossed; an upheaval:
Funereal tea leaves of the past.

Imagine my grandfather
on that fine summer day, June 18, 1932
standing by the open door, waiting.
Waiting for his son, his only son, the drowned son
to come home.  Watching
sun and shadows playing tag as
Nana sings, and dinner’s almost ready and
warm air surrounds and comforts and …
The clock ticks.
Senses pushing, pulling within …
as time slows down,
as dinner grows cold.
as the shadows win.

Did it happen that day or the thirty years that followed?
Did he disintegrate like ashes in the wind or
just break, as shells do, when thrown against the rock?

Monday, February 18, 2013

Where Does the Heart Lie?

Where does the heart lie in the ashes?
Among the bones and teeth
The calcium phophate of what remains.
Ashes that once were my grandfather, my nana,
My mom.
Where does the heart lie?
So long ago, they used these remains to walk, to run, to raise children.
These ashes once held the seeds of my heart and now ….
Now what?
There is nothing left but bone fragments.
Where does the heart lie?

It is so weary, my heart.
It does not want to break again, to lie hurt and wounded;
It wants to run and jump; it so wants to dance.
Where does my heart lie?
In the ashes: bruised and sorrowful.

Today a wind blows.
It arises from the earth: nourished from the roots of the cedars, the firs;
washed clean with the tears of the past.
It sings, and swirls around me, laughing, teasing—
Vertiginous as I fall into the wide open expanse.
Where does the heart lie when the ashes are no more?

Thursday, February 14, 2013

One Billion Rising

Just came back from dancing at One Billion Rising North Vancouver.  It was an exhilarating celebration as we symbolically joined hands and moved our bodies and souls with women (and the men that support them) from all over the world. I salute Eve Ensler, the founder of One Billion Rising; Korin Deanna, who wrote and performed the One Billion Rising song; Debbie Allen who choreographed the dance moves; and the billions of women and men who are standing up and singing with voices no longer silent: stop violence against women.
Check out this short (but yes, very triggering)video on women standing up and shouting NO.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

It's All Fun and Games ...

The customer waved me over: got something to tell ya, he says. Before he does he sizes me up: you’re new here, aren’t you? No, I say, almost a year. Hmmm, don’t know ya, but that’s okay. My name’s John. I nod as he settles into his story.
You see, I was sitting outside my porch the other day watching the neighbourhood kids play games. There was a bunch of them, a girl and two or three boys, just little ones, four or five years, you know.
I nod again. I like listening to the old guys who come into the store. They usually have an appreciation for laughter and a quick tale that lightens my day. This man, however, seemed to want something from me: I found myself leaning back as he leaned forward.
So, they were playing games, see, cops and robbers, bang, bang your dead kind of stuff. I loved those games when I was a kid so I called them over. I says to them: you know, when I was a little boy, I played the same game you’re playing… we had a lotta fun, too, just like you. And you know what? We used the same kinda sticks you’re using: pointy ones, just like that.
He looked at me, waited a second and then lowered his gaze down to his fingers.  He touched the thumb and the pointer lightly together: they were real sharp, you know, razor sharp. I nodded. He continued.
Well, one day we were playing and my little sister was chasing after the kid next door shouting bang bang, your dead and kinda whining cause he wasn’t falling down dead when she tripped. And you know what happened I says to these kids? That stick went right through that little boy’s eye.
The old mantra silently ran through me: it’s all fun and games until ….
So, you see, he says, I had their attention. I told them how my sister cried and cried but it was too late… he never did get his eyesight back.  Then I told them, why don’t you leave those sticks here and go ask your mom for a safer game to play. And that’s what they did.
He paused now. I kind of felt that he liked the dramatic form so I tried to look appreciative. I didn’t know where he was going with his story. Even though the adult part of me knew that it was good he took the sticks away there was another part that felt a little bit sorry for the kids having to put up with this nosy and, perhaps, too cautious neighbor. Sometimes I feel we keep our kids too safe. Haven’t kids always played with pointy sticks?
He took a breath, more like a sigh and carried on: Now I got to thinking again when they were gone how much I still loved that game and it was such a shame they couldn’t play it. Thinking got my hands busy as they’re wont to do. I got a piece of plywood and a pencil and before I knew it I had traced a gun on it. Cut out four of them and slipped them into a bag. When I saw them out playing again, I called them over. I must say they were a little more reluctant this time but anyhow, on they came. They’re good tykes, you know. I says to them, come on over and see what I got in the bag. The little girl came first. Brave little thing and she opened it right up. You should have seen her smile. God it was beautiful. Then the boys came a rushing over… did you make us one too? they asked. Yep, I says, you all have your own gun now and you can play that game again.
I looked at John as he finished his story. My stomach tightened as a serene, perhaps even smug look came over his face. I didn’t know what to say. He was so obviously pleased with himself he didn’t notice me pulling away. Didn’t even notice the flatness of my voice as I said: gotta go back to work now … nice meeting you.
I felt dirty afterwards, a left over grime marred with confusion and disgust. How are we going to stop our culture’s love of guns and violence if we don’t teach our children that there is nothing to love about killing, pretend or otherwise.
I wanted to denigrate John, make it his generation’s fault that guns are fetishized. But then my thoughts came back to my own views, how at times I feel we are too safety conscious, not allowing kids to grow up learning a few hard lessons. Are pointy sticks really better than guns? Or vice versa?  As a kid I played with knives; bows and arrows, darts. I imagined myself a cowboy and a sheriff; Clint Eastwood; The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. In retrospect it was damn lucky that my siblings and I are not missing any eyes. But that isn’t what was really bothering me.
Each parent, short of home educating and living in isolation, has to figure out how to help their kids wade through the media sanctioned messages of violence. It’s not so much about stopping it—if it is were possible to do so—but by educating them as to the actual consequences of violence—both to the individual, the family and community—and teaching  their children alternative ways to live. John, in his own innocent way, was trying to keep those kids safe. I understand this. But what he also did was lead them to believe that guns are better than sticks—that guns are somehow preferable and adult sanctioned.
What really hurt, what really made me sad, was why I didn’t say something to help John see this.