Friday 4 September 2020

The Attraction of Grief


Left: "People Waiting" by John Hooper. Source: 

Right: "The Rummage Sale" by Miller Brittain. Source: National Gallery of Canada: 

In our deepest grief, we unclench fully. For most of us, there are very few times in our lives when we reach this level of softening. I don’t need to describe the feeling further because you already know it. It consumes you. Some of us seek out grief for this very quality, which can be addictive. Growing up on Canada’s east coast, I’ve long been familiar with the stereotype of Maritimers reading the obituaries section of the newspaper before anything else. Road crews there still cease working and doff their hats when a funeral procession passes. These are only tiny tastes of a substance that can’t be bottled.

You know real grief, and it knows you.

All around my home town of Saint John, New Brunswick, you’ll find the statues of John Hooper and paintings of Miller Brittain. Both artists depict people in a way that’s best summarized by the word thick. The human figure is broad, flattened. It’s hard to find softness in them. But if you study the thickness closely, you’ll see that these people look as though they’re made of clay. 
In softness, there’s malleability. An opening of possibility that’s hard to recognize. Because in that moment of deepest grief, all we want is to feel better. But the grief comes back. It’ll keep coming back until he hear what it’s trying to tell us. 
Grief, loss, mourning. It exists to soften us. And it’s in this softening that we can become anything. It hurtles us into the openness of experience in a way we spend our lives trying to avoid. Because openness is scary. It’s the source of our deepest anxieties. We work very, very hard to force closure upon the world. We resent the people around us, even the ones we love most, for disrupting this closure, for having the gall to possess minds of their own. 
We resent them until we lose them. Then we soften. 
There’s a lot to grieve in New Brunswick. It’s not surprising that many people respond by trying to harden. The choice between softening and survival isn’t a particularly difficult one. There’s a luxury to softening. Like a hermit crab, you need a sheltered place to leave your shell. Otherwise the sun’ll cook you. 
We need to create this space for each other. And that’s the hardest part. It’s difficult sometimes not to covet the grief of others, to gaze jealously on it, accuse mourners of milking it, of being exhibitionists. 

We forget that it’s only in our softest state that we can become anything. This is what grief is trying to tell us. And it’ll never stop until we listen.


Monday 24 August 2020

"Lune" full novel now available free on Wattpad!

 Howdy all, 

 I recently made the decision to make my novel Lune available for free on the Wattpad platform. If you're ever looking for a creepy tale of love and survival that delves into the French-Canadian origins of the werewolf myth, THIS IS THE STORY FOR YOU! 

The other great thing about Wattpad is that it allows readers to upvote on stories and leave comments in the margins of the text for improvement. I'm looking forward to learning a lot from Wattpad's readers. 

Check out the novel here! 

Saturday 18 July 2020

Opening pages of "Bluey"

During these times of Covid, I've been working hard on a new writing project called "Bluey" and have completed a full draft that runs the length of a novella. It's been a happy experience using this time to return to some creative projects, and I hope that others out there are doing the same or are reading some wonderful books. Below are the opening pages of "Bluey."



It was the time of year when the sky glowed amber always, annihilating the distinction between day and night. The moons, Big Sister and Little Sister, floated as black discs against the Everglow like two eclipsed suns. Bluey wore only his torn shorts, their frayed cuffs pulverized into white fluff, and parted the stalks of tall cattails with small, meaty hands as he stepped through sucking muck that rushed to fill his footprints. A heap of curly white hair bounced atop his head, ringlets hanging over his eyes. He brushed them away. The water became calve-deep, then knee-deep as he reached the edge of the cattails, the inky, breathing blackness closing around his legs and chilling him with the fear that some unseen creature would seize on his foot with jagged teeth. Insects sent up a cacophony of clicking, shrieking, and buzzing all around him. He stood there, half-crouching, gazing out at the Everglow sky that filled the surface of the preternaturally still pond. The image was so perfect that it was difficult to tell whether the pond contained the sky or the sky the pond. 

This was when it began.

It started as a vibration, or at least a sensation that Bluey’s mind could only interpret as a vibration, settling over his skin like thousands of tiny flies that—Bluey ran his hands over his arms and chest—were not there. The buzzing grew until it reached a point of saturation and condensed on Bluey like a second skin. Something was drawing on him, a gathering of energy prior to an eruption, an inhalation before a scream. 

He saw it then, an enormity rising from the pond, silhouetted against the glowing sky. The water had become viscous and black, and it dripped slowly from the thing in wet clumps. Bluey’s eyes receded into their sockets, his skin pulling itself more tightly around his skull as he stared up at the thing. He turned to run, but his legs sank only deeper into the muck when he tried to propel himself forward. He could feel it coming from behind him, the part of it still hidden in the tar—an infinite unspooling. He forced himself forward, pulling the cattails out of the mud as he tore at them. When he’d finally made landfall, the grass offered no greater purchase for his legs, which felt as though the marrow had been sucked from them. Still he ran, falling to his knees and forcing himself back to his feet as best he could. He resisted the overwhelming urge to glance over his shoulder to gauge the nearness of his pursuer, driven by the thought that this might somehow prevent the thing from becoming real. He burst through the last of the bushes that circled the pond and saw the small hamlet of huts where he lived, not a soul within view. He stumbled forward again, sensing a weight pressing down on his back, bending him over. Still, he pressed onward. 

He fell through the doorway of his home with tears standing in his eyes, waiting for the nightmare to become so unbearable that he’d awake. He slammed the door behind him and heaved himself across the living area, smashing his leg on one of the kitchen chairs when he cut the angle too close in passing. He crawled the rest of the distance to his bedroom doorway and rose to his knees to force the door shut behind him. Hearing nothing, he leapt forward and slithered under his bed, turning himself on his stomach to gain a view of the doorway. And there he waited, the stillness only increasing the thudding in his chest, which was so violent he could hear the cartilage in his sternum hiss with each beat. He stared at the bottom of the doorway, waiting for a pair of feet to appear, although he knew it was false hope to think something so familiar was pursuing him. He waited. The house was silent, the doorway empty. Slowly, his eyes crept forward in their sockets. His skin loosened. And after aeons had passed, he heard the front door of his home open and close, followed by the familiar creaking of his parents’ feet against the boards. 

“Bluey! Are you here?”

His mother, whose name was Maline, padded across the house until she arrived at his bedroom doorway. She entered the room and came up to his bed. Bluey wanted desperately to grasp her slender ankle, but dared not for fear of pulling her into the nightmare he was living. The air was hot and viscous, leaping down his throat whenever he opened his mouth to breathe. He tried to force it down, then back up, then down, but felt as though he were trying to swallow a rope. His tears returned and overran the cups of his eyelids, plashing on the floor in fat drops that greedily engulfed any dust in their vicinity. It was the ticking of these drops against the floor that alerted his mother to where he was. Slowly, she lowered herself without letting her knees or elbows touch the floor, assuming an insectoid posture that would’ve caused anyone else’s muscles to quiver. Not long afterward, her husband Kalo joined her, getting down on all fours and lowering his head until his braid of hair pooled against the floor. 

“You should come out,” Kalo said. 

Bluey found himself wriggling across the floor like a landed Junefish, not from his own volition, but because he felt so hollow that his father’s voice was the sole force acting upon him. His parents backed away as he came clear of the bed and lay unmoving, arms wrapped around his knees. 

“Will you get the doctor?” Maline asked. 

Bluey’s father returned to his feet and left the room. Maline bent down and slipped her arms underneath Bluey’s knees and neck, hoisting him into her arms. As she did so, a cold energy winnowed through her. It wasn’t entirely unpleasant, and she hesitated before laying her child in his bed. She pressed her forehead to his and hummed the melody to a song that didn’t exist. She missed this feeling of her son’s skin on hers, the smell of him that still contained a trace of the infant. It was only when she heard the front door shut that she came back to herself. She glanced down at Bluey, whose eyes were wide open, waiting for hers. She laid him on the bed and turned back to the bedroom doorway to see her husband arriving with the doctor. She gasped at the sight of them. It was several hours’ walk to the doctor’s house. How long had she stood there with Bluey in her arms, with that strange current running through them?

The doctor was a lithe and handsome man of advanced age, one whose handsomeness becomes more exceptional with every passing year as the complexions and postures of his male rivals succumb to gravity’s pull. He wore an expensive-looking brown coat that was well-fitted to his stately physique. He stepped forward without a word and loomed over Bluey’s bed, gazing down the bridge of his prominent nose. 

From his bed, Bluey stopped breathing as the man brought his face down, closer, closer, his pupils so dark they looked like holes in the centres of his eyes. The man’s jaw slowly slid outward and his lips peeled back to reveal massive square teeth. His forehead touched Bluey’s and slowly, very firmly, pressed him downward into his pillow.Bluey closed his eyes. He could feel his heart pounding where the man’s skull pushed against him, his blood vessels struggling to repel the man’s massive, frigid forehead. Why weren’t his parents helping him? 

Then the feeling vanished.

Bluey opened his eyes to find the doctor standing fully upright over his bed, his features as stoic as they’d been when he first appeared in the doorway. There was no indication, either from the man or from Bluey’s parents, that anything inappropriate had just occurred, or that the doctor had touched Bluey at all. Bluey shrank against his headboard as the man sat on the edge of his bed. 

“I’d like you to do something for me,” the doctor said. 

Bluey glanced to his parents, mouth clamped shut, breathing deeply through flared nostrils. 

“Please place your hands together like this.” The doctor pressed his palms together in front of his chest as though he were praying. 

Bluey looked to his parents again. Kalo approached the bed and gently pressed his hands together as the doctor had asked.

“Now, I want you to concentrate on the feeling of your two hands touching,” the doctor continued. 

Bluey allowed his eyes to drop to his little blue hands.

“Good,. Now I want you to tell me which hand is touching and which is being touched.”

Bluey stared at his hands. “Not me,” he whispered. 

“What’s that, Bluey?” Maline asked. 

Bluey pulled his hands apart and brought them together with a violent clap. He lifted his eyes to the doctor’s. “Not me,” he said, bringing his hands together again. “Not me not me Not Me Not Me NOT ME NOT ME!” Kalo grabbed his hands to hold them apart, even as Bluey fought to bring them together. The doctor used the opportunity to examine Bluey’s eyes, finding that his were enormous. When Bluey had calmed down, his father released him. The doctor rose from the edge of the bed and left the room, beckoning for Bluey’s parents to follow. 

As he heard the adults talking behind the door in muffled voices, Bluey went to his bedroom window and peered outward. A colossal vortex of tiny birds was silhouetted against the orange sky, blotting out the dark moons with their deeper whirling blackness. Bluey could feel his body moving with them, twisting and banking so suddenly that it made him nauseous. But his body wouldn’t release its hold on the birds, nor they on it. The air outside had thickened into plasma, sending the birds’ movements through his body like vibrations through the strings of a violin. 

Me,” he whispered. 

Outside, the doctor had led Bluey’s parents to the front doorway and stopped to face them, his face as still as ever. 

“Is he ill?” asked Maline. 

“I don’t believe so,” the doctor answered. “At least not in the sense you mean.”

Maline took a moment to assess what she’d heard, then felt her body catch fire. This was no time to speak in riddles. The doctor noticed her frustration and continued—

“I suspect that something happened to Bluey earlier today, but not something that my medicine is capable of treating.”

“So what then?” asked Kalo. 

 “I have a colleague in the city who might have a better notion of what’s happening to your son, a man who’s spent many years in the city’s archives.”

“What do the archives have to do with this?” demanded Maline. 

“They carry knowledge beyond what lives in my head.” 

“I’m sorry, but this doesn’t make sense,” said Kalo. “Why are you so quick to seek a second opinion? How could you reach such a conclusion after seeing Bluey for only a few minutes?”

The doctor ran a hand over his face. “Because I’ve been told about this sort of condition before, by the very colleague I’d like to bring here to have a look at Bluey.”

Maline and Kalo glanced at one another. The doctor turned to go. 

“Is our son in danger?” asked Kalo. 

“It depends on how you interpret each word of that question,” the doctor replied, shutting the front door firmly behind him. Bluey’s parents went to their kitchen table and sat, staring into each other’s eyes, neither knowing what to say. 

Maline’s father had been a member of the opi gender, her mother a man. They’d lived in the hamlet for generations, and as a child, Maline had played on the edges of the same pond her son now did. When she was young, she never feared any sort of physical injury or death. She did not worry about monsters or falling from a great height like other children. She was plagued, however, by fears regarding time. The thought of being late for dinner or school would cause her throat to constrict, her breathing to shallow. In her worst nightmares, she’d promise to meet a friend under the belko nut tree near her house and would arrive to find a note tucked beneath the arch of a root that’d crested the soil’s surface. She’d open the note and read that her friend had already left because she, Maline, had been late, and that they weren’t friends anymore. This fear of time, especially when combined with her second greatest fear, the fear of disappointing people, was utterly paralyzing. 

This second fear had been with her since her earliest memories. As a child, she quickly learned that disappointing her parents was the greatest threat imaginable. Death she never thought about, but disappointing her parents was ever-present. And as she grew older, she felt this fear toward people other than her parents. Disappointing anyone, whether it was her parents or her uncles or her friends, would make her bad, and there was nothing worse than being bad. She needed to be good, and being good was fully contingent on people’s saying she was so. Thus Maline became a people-pleaser at a young age. When another student at the hamlet’s little school didn’t know the answer to the teacher’s question, Maline would never speak up with the correct answer for fear of shaming them, even as other students waved their hands in the air. Her uncles noticed this tendency with glee, asking Maline to do all sorts of things for them, like run to a neighbour’s house to fetch them a tool even when the neighbour hadn’t agreed to lend it. After all, who would hurt a little girl for stealing? Whenever they thought about whether they were taking advantage of their niece, the uncles would simply say to one another, “But she wants it. She’s very eager to please, and who am I to deny her the approval she seeks?” When a boy asked her to spend time together, she always said yes for fear of disappointing them. 

It was only later in life that she learned that there was something worse than disappointing someone, which was angering them. Anger was a form of disappointment that also made Maline feel physically unsafe, triggering that base instinct for real physical danger, and she felt this almost exclusively around men. Worse yet, she didn’t understand how to avoid angering certain men, for there was no discernible pattern to what would anger them one day but not the next. Sometimes, she’d cook dinner a certain way and have an uncle say they liked it that way. But the very next week, the uncle might throw the same dish on the floor and demand it be cooked a different way. Then the uncle would go to the basin to wash the dishes in order to shame her, for this was also her job. 

It was only over a great number of years that Maline came to understand that some people would take without mercy until the giver found the strength to refuse them. Many times, Maline found the strength to say no more to these takers, but she always allowed herself to be drawn back into their web of shame and manipulation, for the fear of disappointing was too deep in her bones. Takers always knew how to inflame the shame that drives a giver, and when they accused Maline of selfishness, she’d redouble her efforts to please them, driven afresh by the guilt of having said no in the first place. Sensing this, the takers in Maline’s life—an uncle here, a boyfriend there—learned to cultivate her shame proactively, not wanting to risk any sudden breaks in the hold they had on her; so they’d insinuate in thousands of microscopic ways that Maline was selfish, that she always put her own feelings first, that she hardly did anything for anyone but herself. And every time, even when Maline tried to stand up for herself, she’d succumb to this shame, would let it, and the person who inspired it, consume her entirely. 

This cycle ended, though, with a movement that might have struck some onlookers as innocuous or even invisible. Maline had just entered her seventeenth Season of Day and Night and had prepared a breakfast of eggs and toast at the home of her boyfriend, a brawny boy two years her senior who lived in the area just outside the city known as the Northern Skirt, for it was a less-densely populated area that’d grown up outside the city’s main walls in the years following the Great Diminishing. On this morning, the lover, whose name was Buito, pushed away the plate she set before him and complained that his poached eggs were too watery, ordering her to make them again. Seeing nothing wrong with the eggs, Maline refused, and so the two of them argued. Buito accused her of selfishness, and though this wounded her deeply, Maline didn’t give in, but instead demanded to know what acts of service he’d done for herrecently. The rebuke brought Buito up short. His dark brow descended his large, ruddy forehead as he got up from his chair. 

“You’re selfish,” he repeated, for he had no other arrows in his quiver.

Maline felt the cold tickle of fear down her spine, not because of Buito’s words, but his posture. Rather than wilting, though, she fought back.  “You’re the selfish one!” she shouted. “And lazy and entitled!” There was no stopping the words once they began flowing out of her. “And dirty and ill-mannered and disrespectful and flatulent and manipulative and conniving and heinous and…”

A small movement from Buito made her break off. His glowering face remained unchanged, his head perfectly still. But there’d been movement in his shoulder, a motion so small it might’ve been undetectable to anyone who didn’t know him as Maline did. It was unmistakable, though. His shoulder had moved, he’d drawn his elbow back slightly, his fingers curling—the very beginnings of a fist cock. Buito saw that Maline had caught it, and she saw that he saw that she saw. He bowed his head and looked at her from beneath his brow, which was now pinched inward with shame. His arm became a dead snake hanging limply at his side. Maline’s affection for him, which had once flickered like a candle in a bedroom window, was gone. 

“I’m sorry,” Buito said. 

“I wish you happiness,” Maline answered. 

When she returned to her parents’ home that day, Maline went into the bathroom, locked the door, and shaved her scalp in front of the mirror. When she emerged, her father, who was seated at the kitchen table, choked on the air they were inhaling. Yuile, they called to Maline’s mother, who rushed in from their bedroom and yelped when he saw Maline. 

“What’ve you done?” he yelled. “Your beautiful hair.”

Maline felt no need to reply. The hair was gone. Her parents could respond any way they wished, but it wasn’t their decision to make. She’d taken a step toward removing all ambiguity from the boundary of what belonged to her alone. 


In his younger years, Bluey’s father Kalo had been very vain. The son of an accomplished lawyer, he’d inherited his father’s argumentative self-assurance, even though he possessed none of the experience or education that informed it. From the beginning of his schooling, which he undertook at the academy in the city, he’d become a master at encasing himself in a veneer of supreme intelligence, drawing only on the smattering of what he’d learned from his schooling (very little) and independent reading (only slightly more). His assurance came from the recognition that all knowledge rested on an assumption or set of assumptions that defied further analysis. Who could say that there was anything wrong with being immoral? Who could say that life was truly worth living? Who could say that knowledge had any value? Who could say that death was real? He delighted in making arguments solely for the purpose of undermining the convictions of others. When accused of doing so in bad faith, he’d feign genuine curiosity, and once his interlocutor had reengaged, would promptly resume his interrogations, placing the full burden of explanation on those who’d dared claim to know or believe in something.

Two weeks prior to graduation from the academy, in his eighteenth Season of Day and Night, Kalo left school without receiving his diploma. His city-born parents pleaded with him to return and collect the credential, if only for the professional opportunities it would afford him. But Kalo delighted in spurning these expectations, wearing with honour the disdain he felt toward any institution that believed it had the power to confer value on him. Once his parents came to accept that his decision was final, they settled into a resentful disappointment that neither tried to hide, wasting no opportunity to speak of the professions Kalo might’ve gone into, and the wealth he could be amassing, had he simply completed his education. Kalo met all of these rebukes by expounding the virtues of manual labour and describing how happy he was to spend his days as a harvester in his uncle’s belko nut orchard, never failing to add that leaving school had been the best decision he’d ever made. 

Kalo was in his third growing season, which occurred during the Season of Night and Day, when he first noticed Maline walking the road that skirted the orchard’s southern perimeter. Taken by the shape of her bare, perfect skull, he laid his basket on the ground, picked out at nut, and tested his arm by throwing the nut in her direction. The nut landed in the grass short of Maline, but close enough for her to hear it pop against the ground. She glanced about, figuring that the nut had dropped from one of the nearby trees, and continued on her way. Kalo lobbed a second nut, this one falling slightly closer to her. This time, Maline glanced toward the orchard and saw him facing her, basket at his feet, his long braid dangling down one side of his powerful chest. He waved, and she waved back. 

The next day, she came past the orchard at the same time, and Kalo threw nuts at her. This time, she picked them up and threw them back, and it quickly became apparent that her range was slightly longer than his, which made it easy for her to collect the nuts that fell just short of her and throw them so that they ticked gently off Kalo’s forehead. Kalo laughed whenever she hit him and never dodged, for they had an unspoken agreement that doing so would constitute cheating in a game that had no rules. When it was time for Maline to carry on and for Kalo to return to his work, they would wave to one another. Sometimes, they would wave for so long that both laughed at how silly they might appear to any onlooker. 

One day, Maline came forward. Kalo felt a lump rise in his throat as she descended into the roadside ditch before cresting its nearer bank and emerging fully into view again. With each step, her taut musculature took on greater definition, an optical sensation that Kalo could feel his body trying to reckon with. He was filled with an urge to embrace her, to hold her close and be held by her. When she arrived within arm’s length, the two stared into each other’s glowing eyes. The heat of the season enveloped them. She reached out for his free hand, which hung at his side, and gently led him under a nearby tree. They lay on their backs where the roots had pushed up the soil and made it firm, staring up at the dappled canopy, which was made up of bright green leaves that were unique to the belko tree, leaves with rounded ends that narrowed into a point where they budded, turning each into a beautiful green pendant. Maline rolled on top of Kalo and kissed him. Then the two of them closed their eyes and rested, Kalo nearly dissolving at the sensation of her weight on him, she feeling his warm chest rising and falling beneath her in an all-consuming consent. 

Sadly, two people cannot be so vigilant about their boundaries as Maline and Kalo without eventually coming into conflict. 

Maline lived by a higher set of standards than Kalo in nearly all things, and in the beginning of their courtship, the two worked to find compromises. But such was Maline’s commitment to precision and quality that she eventually found such compromises unacceptable, especially when it came to issues of cleanliness and diet. And so the burden fell on her to take what Kalo found acceptable and to bring it up to her own standards, and in this, she felt cheated. Kalo knew this, and the chasm that gave Maline cause for resentment gave him cause for shame. Both became lonely. Kalo would occasionally make efforts to clean their house, only to have Maline either redo his work or spend more time pointing out its imperfections that it would take her simply to redo it. Kalo was functionally illiterate on the matters that Maline cared about, and so his shame deepened. But shame can only fester for so long before it congeals into the much more palatable sensation of anger, and so Kalo began to attack Maline’s standards, to damn them as arbitrary, superficial, and petty. Maline attacked him for not asking more of himself. Soon, the resentment between them coursed like poison through their veins. Both knew it, and both drank deeply from its cup, comforted by the feeling of rightness that depended on the other’s wrongness.  

As with happiness, though, anger cannot last forever. It was Kalo who first became fatigued. His anger began to decompose, breaking back down into its constituent ingredients of fear and sadness, and with this breaking apart came a calmness. He didn’t trust the feeling at first, and fought it, terrified that Maline would consume him entirely if he didn’t reconstitute the armor that resentment had provided him. But once the tears began trickling down his cheeks at the breakfast table one morning, he knew there was no more hiding. 

“Maline?” he sniffed.

Maline glanced up at her food, and seeing the tears in his eyes, laid her hand over his. “Yes?”

“I’m afraid.”

“Of what, my love?”

“That I’m stupid.” 

At the uttering of the word stupid, Kalo felt something unclench behind his eyes, a muscle that hadn’t felt so loose since childhood, when he’d cried into his mother’s skirts. Maline rose from her chair and circled the table, pulling his face into her belly and rocking him back and forth. Only days earlier, Kalo would’ve considered this a humiliating defeat. But he now saw the situation clearly, saw that there was no gloating to be found in Maline’s soothing embrace. He saw that she was proud of his strength and wanted to celebrate it. A current of grief quavered through him at the thought of how long he’d spent drinking the poison of resentment, how long he’d willfully chosen not to connect with Maline because he wanted to win, or to put it more accurately, because he didn’t want to lose.  

“You are intelligent and you are beautiful,” Maline whispered. 

Kalo sniffed and smiled. She’d said things like this to him many times in their years together. But now, nearly halfway through the only life he would ever live, Kalo finally understood what it meant to believe her. 

Now, on the evening of the doctor’s visit, as their son Bluey lay terrified and disoriented in his bed, Kalo reached across the kitchen table and laid his hand over Maline’s, stroking it with his thumb. They stood together and went outside to close their house’s wooden exterior shutters, which they used during the Season of the Everglow to submerge the house in nighttime at the appointed hour. When the shutters were shut and the dwelling was darkened, Maline retrieved a candle from the kitchen, lit it, and went into Bluey’s bedroom to set the thing on his nightstand, stroking her son’s forehead in the candlelight. 

“I love you,” she said, kissing him on the forehead. 

Bluey listened for his mother’s footsteps to recede, to join those of his father, and for the door of their bedroom to shut behind them. When the house had fallen still, he got out of his bed and crept slowly into the house’s main room, closing his bedroom door behind him and turning to face it. 

The candle inside cast a faint sliver of light along the bottom of the door. It was a light whose magic existed only in the warmth and safety it implied. To open the door would be to dispel the magic, which lay in the possibility that the light came from a different world, the one he'd lost.

Thursday 30 January 2020

Microsoft Word

You carry sadness in your back
And just don’t know how
The contours of this chair
And how you reckon with them
Ripple through systems of bone and sinew—
Plates, deposits, nerves, Jesus, glands
Welling, throbbing
To resist the crush
Of a new document in Word
Offering the devilish relief
Of thoughts written premature.

Is this waiting? Is this the Great Patience?
Or is this the biting of a hook, over and over
Forever squandering what might have been
Had you not written something just now
Hoping to get somewhere
Instead of trying, just for once, 
To sit where you already are. 

Is this waiting? Is this the Great Patience?
Or is this the purgatory 
Of a glowing white field
Stretching on forever
For those who won’t shut up?


This isn’t waiting. It’s not the Great Patience. 
It’s breathing, sitting, 
The beginning of a change
The shifting of plates, a falling away
The kind of grasping 
That knows nothing of possession
Like hands folded in prayer, 
Neither concerned 
About which is touching or touched.

Saturday 12 January 2019

Should English profs ban the "You're reading too far into things" argument from their classroom?

Many English professors have no doubt encountered students in their classroom who, arms folded, derail an otherwise productive textual analysis by insisting that their professor or classmates are “reading too much into things.” The implicit argument here, is that a) there is no such thing as figurative meaning, or b) that the figurative meaning being argued for oversteps the boundaries of reasonable credulity, with the recalcitrant student in question serving as the arbiter of what’s reasonable.

Yet despite the familiarity of this experience , many of the English professors I know still struggle with it. They don’t want to use their authority to overrule the student, nor do they want to appear as though they’re silencing dissent. Usually, they tend to acknowledge the student’s comments as one perspective among others, and then move on with the exercise, sometimes a little shaken by the experience. 

I feel less accommodating toward any version of the “I don’t buy it” or “You’re seeing things that aren’t there” argument, if in fact the argument goes no further than these statements. Rather, I would recommend that English professors include a note in their course syllabi explaining to the class why the “I don’t buy it” argument, in the absence of further qualification, has no place in an English classroom.  Here’s why:

a)    The study of English is, among other things, the study of figurative meaning. If a student doesn’t like talking about meaning beyond what is common sense or literal, they shouldn’t be in an English class. We’ve known about the existence of figurative meaning and the ways it can be mobilized through rhetorical devices for some time now.

b)   The “You’re reading too far into things” argument is not an evidence-based claim, because you cannot prove a negative. 

c)    Due to the absence of evidence in b), the student must offer an alternative reading of the same text, based on evidence, in order for the argument to be considered valid. 

This isn’t to say that a student should be told to keep quiet about their reservations toward a certain reading until they have a fully formed counterargument. Expressing reservations with a reading should be encouraged. What I’m talking about here is the more truculent “This is dumb; you’re seeing meaning that isn’t there” argument that, for the reasons outlined above, should be discarded as invalid before an English course has even begun, preferably through a statement in the course syllabus. 

Thursday 3 January 2019

What Do the Humanities Do? They Parse.

I was watching an old episode of The Simpsons recently and came across one of the most famous scenes from the series (although to many fans of my age, all scenes from Seasons 3-10 are famous). In the scene, an exasperated Kirk Van Houten is playing Pictionaryat a dinner party  with his wife Luann as his partner. Kirk quickly becomes frustrated by Luann’s inability to guess the meaning of his impossibly abstract drawing. When their time is up, Kirk throws his hands in the air and exclaims, “It’s dignity! Don’t you know dignity when you see it?!”

Kirk Van Houten's rendering of dignity

I still laugh at this moment, part of the reason being that the concept of dignity (and Kirk’s ridiculous drawing) was perfectly chosen for this gag. The fact is that dignity, as noted by Philosopher Remy Debes, remains one of the most often-referenced, but also most vaguely understood concepts in contemporary philosophy, jurisprudence, and just about any field of knowledge interested in better understanding the human experience. 

So what do we do when we find ourselves constantly referring to a concept that we have difficulty defining, especially when we’re willing to create laws based on that concept? We do the core work of the Humanities, which is to parse.

By standard definition, to parse means “to identify the parts of a sentence and explain how they work together”; it also means “to examine in a minute way: analyze critically.” But I’d like to expand on these definitions within the context of the Humanities to define parsing as “To pursue the critical analysis of a concept up to the point that the concept becomes opaque or seemingly impervious to further description, analysis, or understanding, and then, through an act of verbal acuity, to discover a new means by which to describe, analyze, or understand that concept.” In other words, to parse means to analyze a concept so minutely that one either finds new constituent parts to break it into (like the discovery of subatomic particles) or one articulates a new paradigm through which to describe and analyze the concept (like a paradigmatic shift from Newtonian physics to the Theory of Relativity).

Anyone who's taught or studied the Humanities knows intimately the moment that parsing occurs, the moment at which one is writing an essay exploring a concept, and one stops typing, leans back in their chair, laces their hands behind their head, and tilts their gaze toward the ceiling, struggling to articulate a half-formed thought or break through the point at which an idea has become seemingly irreducible. This is all but synonymous with the work of thinking. It is the essence of Humanities-based work and critical thought in general. It is also the part of our thinking that is most severely threatened by a culture bent on rendering all human experience as "user" experience, based on principles of frictionless cognition that are best captured by the title of one of the most influential books in online design—“Don’t Make Me Think” by Steve Krug

Now to be fair to Krug, the point of his book could be revised to say “Don’t Make Me Think (About Anything Except the Stuff that Really Matters)”. But the fact that Krug and his publisher settled on this title speaks to a deep cultural desire to remove the moment of thinking, and its attendant friction and discomfort, from human experience altogether. On the opposite side, I’ve seen a reactionary movement among some Humanities professors who believe that the antidote to this trend is a generalized fetishization of discomfort, in which it’s assumed that anything that makes a student uncomfortable is inherently good and indicative of growth. But cognitive discomfort is a secondary effect of the work of parsing; it is not an end in itself. 

In an article last year titled, “'The difficulty is the point': teaching spoon-fed students how to really read,” Tegan Bennett Daylight does a good job of aligning the work of parsing with the act of reading itself, especially when one is working to understand challenging material. “This is what I want for my students," writes Daylight. "First, I want them to read a book, all the way through. I want them to find something difficult and do it anyway.” One could argue that there is perhaps no statement more countercultural than that of “I want them to find something difficult and do it anyway.” In a culture increasingly driven by a paradigm of user experience, which is intent on stripping the world of cognitive friction, this notion of finding something difficult and doing it anyway has been replaced by a paradigm of helping people get in touch with their core passions, with the hope that doing so will provide them with a level of emotional compulsion that will make discipline irrelevant, as the force of their "passion" will propel them onward through a semi-conscious flow state, and the uncomfortable experience of coming up against conceptual opacity and forcing oneself to work through it by an act of will shall no longer be necessary. 

To be fair, there are no doubt thinkers out there who are propelled by compulsion more than discipline. If one is utterly obsessed with parsing ambiguity and pressing beyond conceptual opacity, no discipline is required, since the involuntary force of the compulsion will propel one onward. Patient devotion, though, is different, as it requires the discipline to continue pressing onward with the work of parsing even after one is not in a flow state of immersion in one’s work, and one must be left with uncomfortable thoughts and an apparent lack of progress for an indefinite amount of time.

It’s also important to note that it takes many different registers of language to perform the work of parsing. Sometimes, concepts or aspects of human experience become so amorphous, opaque, or irreducible that we must rely on poetry, literature, and the other arts to perform the work of forging onward, attempting to give any form at all (however intuitive) to what has thus far been formless. Sometimes, an explorer will combine the language of poetry and analysis to forge onward, as one can find in the mind-bending work of Maurice Blanchot, which is sometimes so patient in its parsing of the unarticulated that it verges on maddening. 

This point also brings us to the issue of the rage that often accompanies the work of parsing. This rage can come from many places, which include the mind’s desire to defend its cognitive status quo, the desire to believe that one already knows everything that’s worth knowing, and the belief that all knowledge that isn’t fully objective is arbitrary and thus unthreatening. These status quo beliefs are often held with a deep sense of urgency, as the distant rumble of the yet-to-be-parsed can threaten the conceptual bedrock of a person’s identity. On a more basic level, the work of parsing can make us all feel stupid, and there is nothing more heartbreaking and more enraging than the feeling that one is stupid. This is an emotional reaction to parsing that we must understand and respect while still insisting on the need to forge onward with the work of parsing. 

What some Humanities scholars might struggle with today is the notion that the work of parsing is cumulative and additive, meaning that over time, we as a discipline have added to the stock of knowledge. This is not the same thing as stating that Humanities research is progressive, since progressive presumes a fictional telos or “end of knowledge” that might one day be reached. We need not believe in progressive teleology to see value in the work of parsing, but we do need to understand that when a new act of parsing has occurred, something important has been achieved. This moment of achievement is every bit as significant to human knowledge as discovering the constituent parts of the atom, and the Humanities as a discipline must learn to recognize and celebrate the fact of such achievement, even as groups within it might value certain achievements over others. 

By way of example, it is clear that for all the criticism directed toward it, the concept of intersectionality has made enormous contributions to our understanding of the human experience, the situatedness of knowledge and the dynamics of power among identifiable groups being but two (and two that have been much better parsed in the existing literature). These contributions have added to the stock of knowledge by which we understand human experience. We can have a debate about whether intersectionality is the singular means by which to understand human experience, and we can also debate the extent to which power shapes human relations, with positions seeming to range from those that relegate power to the realm of secondary effects (it is rarely, but sometimes a factor in constituting human relationships and hierarchies) to those that assign power a hegemonic, all-encompassing status (“There is no outside, and one can never appeal to a basis for knowledge that isn’t predicated on power”). Regardless of where one falls in this debate, what remains clear is that the concept of intersectionality has further parsed the human experience, and in doing so, has made available to us a realm of knowledge that wasn’t available prior to its being parsed. 

In addition to a culture that is bent on reducing all forms of cognitive drag, we also live in a culture where people celebrate and defend points of conceptual opacity because these points of opacity provide us with occasion to scream at one another. A point of opacity now serves as a fulcrum, on each side of which you have a camp that makes slippery slope arguments about the other side. By way of example, this schism can manifest in the fear that an absolutist approach to free speech will defend fascist beliefs just long enough for them to take over, or the converse belief that any regulations on speech will soon lead to an Orwellian nightmarescape. This is very different from the act of two people coming together with an interest in taking an erstwhile opaque concept and working together to press onward in parsing it. 

That said, it doesn’t take long to see the naivety of this idea, because the fact is that people don’t parse concepts from a position of political neutrality, but often do so with a vested interest in defending ideas that shape human experience and power relations in the way that best serves them. But to throw out the possibility of genuine cooperation in the work of parsing would be to adopt the position that all knowledge and human relations are 100% reducible to power, and that the influence of power is homogeneously exercised across all aspects of human experience, with no spectrum leading from more power-heavy aspects of experience to less power-heavy ones. This monolithic, homogenous, there-is-no-outside understanding of power isn’t one I agree with, for the primary reason that it requires very little thinking and leaves no possibility of further parsing other aspects of human experience like joy, beauty, and love. 

What remains true in all of this is the centrality of parsing to the work of the Humanities, and the need for the field to better recognize the cumulative contributions that the act of thinking and parsing has made to human knowledge. Finally, we must learn how to better celebrate these achievements and to acknowledge that we are the better for them. 

Monday 10 December 2018

A Case for Problem-Based Humanities Research

What does it mean for a town to die?

What does it mean for an industry to die?

What responsibility does a government have to prevent these things from happening?

As someone who hails from Atlantic Canada, I wonder about these questions constantly. I’d go further and say that these questions are the most pressing concerns of nearly every jurisdiction in Canada that isn’t a metropolitan region. Yet these fundamental questions seem to rarely make it into the political conversations taking place in my home region or elsewhere. Instead, all of the political conversations I hear tend to focus exclusively on value for money.

We know, of course, that this isn’t how things play out in the real world. The truth is that per capita funding is anathema to people living in sparsely populated areas, because a turn to pure per capita funding would result in the immediate closure of countless schools, hospitals, and other vital pieces of social infrastructure that would see many of our rural communities disappear. Yet many of these communities continue to receive the support they need to continue existing, even if it constitutes a bare amount of “life support” that keeps them limping along.

To those concerned with efficiency and a utilitarian best-outcome-for-the-most-people set of values, this reality can be very frustrating. These people believe that it is only political expediency, and the disproportionate voting power apportioned to specific regions, that keeps politicians making “political” promises of social infrastructure funding to areas that, for some, should simply be permitted to die of natural causes—read: the decline of their traditional industries.

On the other side, people living in rural communities will argue for the importance of their dignity, which is directly attached to their sense of home and community. They might also point to the logistical impossibility of their moving to a more densely populated area, or the foolhardiness of concentrating all of a province’s population in one or two urban centres as a long-term strategy. Most of the time, though, these conversations tend to come back to the eternal notion of value for money, as though the meaning of "value" were self-evident. 

It’s the failure of these conversations to get to the real issues, the “Why?” that should entice governments to fund more problem-based humanities research that speaks directly to the challenges faced by local communities. What are people truly asking for when they ask to be supported in their rural communities? What is at stake in a government’s decision to subsidize a dying industry that has little chance of ever becoming sustainable again? Are better jobs really the sole way of helping citizens live more fulfilling lives? These are questions for rigorous humanities-based research.  The reason we often don’t invest in this type of research is because we’ve come to accept the notion that philosophy is a private concern, with each person’s values being just as important as anyone else’s. While this is true in a democracy, this does not mean that the ways in which people apply those values to specific decisions (and their rationale for doing so) are equal. 

It’s in this realm, the realm where people’s core values intersect with decision-making, that all of society can benefit from the help of experts in the humanities. I am a PhD in English literature, and I still would never argue that I have all the philosophical knowledge I need to assess how governments should approach the big questions I’ve outlined earlier in this piece. To achieve that kind of understanding, I’d need to read a report from a humanities scholar (or better yet, a team of diverse scholars) who has invested the right amount of expertise, time, and experience into framing and addressing these questions. That doesn’t mean that the final report will produce answers that will make everyone happy or will compel everyone to agree about what to do. It doesn’t even mean the report will produce more answers than questions. What it will do, though, is finally get us talking about the real issues, like human dignity, that underlie our policy debates.   

Without this kind of humanities-based intervention, we are left with a cacophonous town hall in which the plurality of self-interested voices becomes noise, and policymakers are much less likely to meaningfully integrate community feedback into their decisions. When you have these voices collected by experts, however, then distilled into a government report on the human value of work and community, you have something that policymakers can use (if they wish) to reflect meaningfully on the “Why?” of what they’re doing.

Let’s take the example of jobs. To be sure, there are few people in Canada who die of starvation or exposure each year. This is not to downplay the crisis of adequate food and housing that many Canadians suffer from Rather, my point is that for many people across Canada (especially for those whose entire politics are built around the notion of more, better jobs), it is wrong to believe that more, better jobs are necessary to "make people not die." It's also wrong to assume that more, better jobs will immediately cure our society of problems like violence or addiction, as a quick look at Fort McMurray will attest to.    

So if jobs aren’t the true solution, what is?

To start, we have to realize that a lack of good jobs is never the real problem. The real problem is the corrosion of security, freedom, and dignity that precarious or alienated employment has on an individual. Once we collectively accept that this assault on dignity is the real problem, we can open our minds to a wide variety of ways to help our citizens feel more empowered in their daily lives.

The point of all of this is to say that politicians across our country, especially those who govern over areas with sparse populations or dying industries, would do well to ask themselves the question, “What do our citizens actually need and want?” We should then invest not only in the stakeholder research that allows people’s voices to be heard, but the kind of problem-based humanities research that will help all of us get to the true crux of these issues. Then, we might begin having a genuine public conversation about the truly valuable things that secondary concerns like jobs are supposed to make possible.