Sunday, 22 January 2017

Hope of Letting Go

Hope of Letting Go

23August 2016
3rd Day on Retreat
(This note was written shortly after learning my home was to be torn down, devastating information when added to the enormous waitlists and largely poor quality of subsidized housing in Vancouver today. I was shocked to be losing the friends and community I have cultivated, in addition to losing, if I end up in miniscule housing or on the street, everything I have slowly acquired to turn my single room into a place of welcome and comfort. But I was on retreat. I had a chance and support to look at things in a different way.)

I have been calm. I have meditated, prostrated, chanted, and prayed on a nearby forested hill. I have reviewed my Brigit poems and found wisdom in some (and lousy writing in some others). I have received listening and a reminder of non-attachment and the need for an energetic and clear-thinking ally to help me find housing. I have taken a risk and opened up in prayer circle and when all left I have sobbed until I could chant and then chanted until I could carry on and then walked out. I have fallen asleep fifty times but not allowed myself to nap.

Today I have slept anxiously, woken at 6:30 with the start of a cold, and forced myself to stay in bed and rest. I have risen deflated and anxious, looking for the friends I made here, not finding them, recollecting the countless times I had entered into a three-way friendship only to become the one and they the two. I have reminded myself of the old hurts that make that seem unfortunate. Reminded myself that I have chosen a deep, reflective retreat. They have chosen a restful, playful, adventurous one. No surprise I am left behind. Nor would I have wanted to go. How many opportunities do I have for real contemplation?

More important is how I meet this housing—catastrophe, it feels like, but I am reminded of the true devastation people face in the Sudan, Nigeria, Aleppo, and I know that this is merely frightening for me. No one is dropping bombs on my home. No one is torturing me. I do not have to flee with only my life.

My zen books and the dharma talks remind me of the comfort of my ancestors, the link to them when I walk mindfully for my father, for my mother, even if they never had the opportunity in their own lives to take a mindful step. The dharma speaks of suffering, how it arises from the desire to be an individual, and that we have choices (as I knew yesterday but was forgetting today) in how we face it and how we remove those obstacles of craving. (Not easily done, but worth a shot.)

I spent an hour in meditation on that very idea yesterday—each piece of furniture I feel I can’t happily relinquish—the hutch my mum and I refinished, the wardrobe I bought with Eileen, the bed I was given at eighteen by one of the few people who were really thinking about me then. I put my thoughts on each piece of furniture and what it means for me, what memories, what love it attaches to, what age-old hope for calm and security. And saying to it, yes, I can live without you. I am grateful to you, but I can say goodbye.

It loosened the ties but didn’t break them. It gave me some breathing room.

I had a thought a few minutes ago, in the midst of depression at losing my precious, stable, beautiful, peaceful home—thirty years it took to create this!—and after reading once again, “craving to be an individual” and “how we face our suffering”. The thought was: maybe this is the best time in my life for me to move. Sooner, and I would have been paralyzed with grief and fear. Much later and I would be too old to take as much advantage of it. If I am going to face my fear of such drastic liberation, perhaps the perfect time is now.

This of course does not end my suffering around it, or secure me good housing, or guarantee anything. But that luscious, tempting fruit: the chance to slice away the fear that makes me cling so hard to my securities and comforts, the craving to be this particular person who I see and story-tell in this particular way, that is a tantalizing one. Normally, it is not tantalizing enough to cut the strings. But now, when I have no choice, if I am not too quickly saved, if I must lose all? Then maybe. Maybe there is hope of letting go.

Friday, 30 December 2016

Disability Pensions in BC - Lest We Forget

More than 160 organizations write to Premier Christy Clark opposing changes to bus passes for people with disabilities

Image from Article in Georgia Strait

In the overwhelming climate of fear that I have moved into since the reality of the low-income housing market has hit me full in the face, one thing I have left unsaid is what it means to actually be on a provincial disability pension in BC. Below my essay on that topic is an article on the latest "improvement" to the BC disability pension called "BC Liberals’disability double-dealing is disappointing". Those who know whereof I speak may wish to skip my offering and go straight to Kirk LaPointe's.

When I first won my tribunal and was awarded BC GAIN for Handicapped, as it was then called, I was walking on air. (Of course they said no when I first applied and I had to find an advocate to fight for me--something not so easy these days as advocates are absolutely swamped with requests.) I felt a freedom I had never felt before. The visions of ending up on the streets if my rent climbed any higher now receded as with the tide. I had enough. Enough for rent, enough for food, enough for what I needed, if not enough to go out to restaurants and live the high life. But enough, and I was deliriously happy.

Those fears of ending up on the streets have slowly, slowly returned. And now with my home under direct threat, they are as roaring monsters from the deep, and I am very afraid.


A number of years ago myself and a throng of others living on BC disability benefits were forced to apply for the federal equivalent. Not invited, but forced, with unknown men (and women?)--not doctors, or counsellors, or someone you might, might, be inclined to trust, but some sort of case workers, I suppose, coming into our homes, asking highly personal questions, and listening as we with anxiety and distress described all the worst and most private elements of our lives that led to our being disabled, and of course, the dirty details of the disabilities themselves. The moment we got CPP the province tried to force us to to give them the backpay we received. We didn't have to, legally, they were careful to say, but we really did owe it to them, since they had so kindly cared for us all that time.

Luckily, despite my tendency to feel guilt and do what I am compelled to do by people who seem stronger or scarier than me, I had an interviewer who shook his head in silent disagreement with the policy he was forced to follow, and I took courage and kept my tiny refund for myself.

From that moment on, whenever the federal government gave an increase to my pension, the province happily trimmed it away, so that to my eyes there was never any more money, even though rent, food, and all the necessities were flying higher and higher in price. I am told we had a slight actual increase nine years ago but honestly, it was not felt by me.

Now, these are all just numbers, and hard to imagine into a way of life. Sure, $900, that's not much, but it's not bad, is it? Then think, imagine yourself living on this amount: How much do I pay in rent? How much is the least I can imagine paying in rent without moving into a complete dive? For that matter, how much are complete dives going for these days? Could I afford one on $900 a month?  (Hint: "Even the “last resort” type of rental units — the SROs found in the Downtown Eastside known for their poor conditions and cramped spaces — are now costing an average of $482 to rent. And prices continue to rise." Click the link for the full story.)

And then there's food, transportation, the many things you seem increasingly to need at the drugstore as you age or get sick that are not covered by medical or dental insurance. And could I ever buy a birthday present, let alone Christmas presents, or go out with friends without someone else having to pay my way--could I ever visit Mum in Nova Scotia, or take a course, or... Just think. $900 a month, round about. And you will see why we grocery shop once a month and then try to cupboard cruise the rest of the weeks, why we eat too much bread and not enough eggs or fish, why our community garden plot is so incredibly important to us, if we are lucky enough to have one (which I am, and which most aren't), and why we get so completely freaked out when we think of rent increases, renevictions, and losing our homes without finding another.

I am not the only person whose guts are being eaten alive by this.


If you are unfamiliar with renevictions, pleasure yourself with this little data from the government website:
Use the unit for another purposeThe buyer can serve the tenant a Two Month Notice to End Tenancy after the title of the property has been transferred and all required permits and approvals are in place when the buyer intends to:
  • Demolish the rental unit or do major repairs or renovations that require the building or rental unit be empty
  • Convert the rental unit to a strata property unit, a non-profit co-operative or society, or a not-for-profit housing co-operative under the Cooperative Association Act
  • Convert the rental unit to non-residential use, such as a shop
  • Convert the rental unit into a caretaker’s unit

Into this painful mix the BC Liberals have quietly slipped in a new increase to benefit those who are suffering most in the current high stakes housing markets--why, the landlords, of course. Lookie here:

The maximum allowable rent increase for residential tenancies is 2.9% in 2016 and 3.7% in 2017. There are additional rent increase allowances for manufactured home park tenancies.

My god. As if we are not suffering enough. And it is, of course, yet worse for those on the basic rate, and for many the homeless and working poor. It is like we are sliding off a cliff, or being trapped in third class on the Titanic. But before I panic any further, here's a--

Fun Game! You, too, can find out how much your rent may increase the next time your landlord gets an itch up her nose. Go to the cheery Rent Increase Calculator to find out!

Fun Sidetreat! Christy Clark earlier said we should raise the rates for people on disability "if we could afford it", linking that largesse to the natural gas development she has been pushing to all who will hear. Read that story here.


And suddenly, in this election year, the BC Liberals have decided to pretend to be magnanimous to disabled people at last, in a stunning piece of sleight of hand that may have escaped your notice. I leave it to Kirk LaPointe of Business Vancouver to spell it out for you.

Now, when you read Kirk's story below, bear in mind that these are the words the BC Liberals used in announcing the "increase" (and a few other goodies like penalizing us less for having money in the bank):

VICTORIA - B.C.'s most vulnerable families are getting a helping hand thanks to income and disability assistance changes that take effect today. The changes, announced in June as part of the Families First Agenda, are designed to help vulnerable individuals and families attain better financial outcomes, assist people with disabilities to lead more independent lives, and help people capable of work avoid the cycle of income-assistance dependence.


By Kirk LaPointe | June 3, 2016, 9 a.m.

In politics, there is a time to admit a mistake before it is too costly. Then there is a time when it is just too late.

Let’s assume in this case we haven’t crossed the line – that we can make one last plea for decency and sanity before the point of no return.

In last February’s provincial budget, someone came up with a bright idea and someone came up with a few horrible ideas for people with disabilities.

The bright idea wasn’t even really that bright. It was overdue and not terribly generous; a $77 monthly increase starting this fall in their $906.42 benefits, the first increase in nine years.

Just for a moment, wherever you are reading this right now, think of that.

Let it settle in.

Nine years.

Almost all of those years involve economic growth in our province under Liberal stewardship, and yet no one at the cabinet table was successful in pushing the finance minister or the premier to increase the meagre support for those who face daily challenges beyond what most of us can comprehend.

Still, to be somewhat fair for a moment, better late than never.

Still, let’s end that fair moment right here, because the bright ideas – if you can call them that – ceased there.

There are 20,000 people who receive a $66 transportation subsidy. They’ll lose that. Their net gain is $11 monthly.

There are 35,000 who get a transit pass for $45 annually. They will now start paying $52 monthly for that pass.

Their net gain is seemingly $25 a month.

But wait. There’s also a lovely administration fee of $45 annually, taking their increase down to $21.25.

All told, the net transportation saving for the provincial treasury of these one-hand-giveth, one-hand-taketh-away activities: a whopping $3 million. For that princely sum, the Liberals risk the further alienation of those with disabilities and their families, for starters. As an able-bodied voter/supporter, I’m astonished and disappointed, too.

There is no small irony that this budgetary lunacy comes when we are at last developing some economic and social sophistication about the untapped potential workforce of people with disabilities.

Organizations like the Vancouver-based Open Door Group have helped firms identify, recruit and retain such talent.

There is no small hypocrisy that the province boasted that this budget – in the context of the best-performing economy in the country – held out more to those most vulnerable. Bringing the rate up to, say, Alberta’s would have cost the province about $30 million, a fraction of the $100 million prosperity fund the government created on budget day.

And there is even no small inconsistency, given that progress in recent years on this front has permitted easier access to support and better terms of eligibility. It’s as if the right hand doesn’t realize what the left hand has been doing.

In mid-May, Disability Alliance BC asked Premier Christy Clark to leave the transportation programs in place as the province raises the disability assistance rates. While the alliance has unsuccessfully fought for a more formidable rate – say, $1,200 a month, in line with what other provinces provide – it didn’t expect it would also have to double down and fight to keep the transport subsidies.

So far from Victoria, a response of radio silence.

By the way, most insulting in this: the absurd assertion that these measures provide choice, that now someone with a disability can choose to keep a few dollars or take the bus pass. I somehow doubt the public relations geniuses who sat in a room and conjured that talking point earn $906.42 a month.

Here we are in early June, and OK, let’s agree a mistake can be remedied by the October due date and perhaps forgotten by election time next May.

Wait too long, though, and it smacks of cynical pre-election posturing.

Has it come to that? Is this really the best we can do? •

Kirk LaPointe is Business in Vancouver’s vice-president of audience and business development.

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Housing: the Responses; the Process; the Fear

Some of you may remember that I wrote an impassioned letter to the powers that be (and the powers that want to be) about the housing crisis I find myself being ground up in. I sent it to a lot of people. NDP Housing Critic David Eby sent an immediate automated reply and then I got put on his mailing list but he never actually responded (though at least I know he's fighting the good fight). Nor did Christie Clark, our premier, who, as Eby points out, is pretending to be concerned about the subject now that it is an election year (see the good fight mentioned above).

The first reply I got was from Gregor Robertson, our mayor.

Message body

Yesterday I received a second reply, from Jenny Kwan, who was for many years my MLA and is now my MP. This is what she said.

Message body

Monday, 14 November 2016

Star’s Reflection by Gail Nyoka (Book Review)

Star’s Reflection by Gail Nyoka (2016) – YA Fantasy

I have just read a wonderful book. A beautiful book. A compelling mystery, with romance, magic, and a serene reverence that is rare in novels, particularly adventure novels, as this one is. My only disappointment is in the cover. Actually, I like the cover. It's just that a) They should have chosen a different colour for the title, as it blends into the woman's face too much and b) this woman does not look like a person of colour. Which the character is. However! On to the review.

Star's Reflection is Gail Nyoka's second novel. Her first, Mella and the Nanga, was shortlisted for the Governor General's Literary Award (Children) in 2005.

Vida and Sammi are friends in modern day Toronto, Canada. Their maths teacher is rotten to them, as their art teacher was a couple of years before. Nothing new there, and nothing fun, except that they can bemoan together their persecution by him. But when he wrestles violently with a strange woman over a package outside of their school, she throws it to them and tells them to run. They catch it and flee, and with that decision the two friends find themselves inexorably drawn into a dangerous and beguiling drama that stretches over millenia, from the present day back to the time of Queen Nefertari of Egypt.

The package, which they of course open as soon as they get home (wouldn’t you?) is of an ancient mirror, with an ivory handle shaped like a woman whose upstretched arms hold a mirror. The woman’s ears are those of a cow. She is, they learn in time, the goddess Het Heru, or Hathor.

The rest of the book follows two linked lines: the two girls as they cope with the real time danger, and the gradually unfolding story of a young priestess of Het Heru, revealed to them through the mirror, as she lives and learns and loves in a temple in ancient Egypt. In her time, too, there is danger, and the beauty of her desert world and the wonder of dedication to a deity who is celebrated in music, ritual, study, and prayer. How Vida and Sammi react to what they witness in the mirror, and the two groups who vie for its possession, and how the young priestess Little Star confronts the challenges in her own life, form the greater part of the story. But there, too, is struggle over a religion thought dead for thousands of years.

Nyoka’s spare, elegant prose and clear-eyed understanding of both worlds come together in a young adult novel that is as easily attractive to this aging lady. I recommend it to anyone with an interest in girls and their lives, ancient Egypt and its religion, romance, friendship, jealousy, and understanding. Very nicely done.

Friday, 11 November 2016

The Humour is Lonely: a review of The Hills is Lonely by Lillian Beckwith (1959).

 I am sad about this book. I came to it an innocent, knowing nothing of its provenance, expecting to laugh, to learn something about the Hebrides in the 1950s (we have ancestors who came from there, so it’s cool to learn a bit), to enjoy some good writing. It came off of a friend’s shelf. She had three of Beckwith’s books, and is herself of Scottish heritage. I felt safe.

I did laugh. Sometimes quite hard. I did learn things about life in the Hebrides, and was reminded of places and people I knew many years ago—it was good to remember being with them. And yes, there is some excellent writing.

What breaks my heart is the endless caricatures, sometimes bluntly ugly, made of people who welcomed her into their lives. True, she has “fictionalized” it, but it doesn’t matter. Even if every person in the book is unlike anyone she met there, even if no one could think, my God, is that me she is writing about?!, even if every situation is patently not something that happened there, even if she has (and she has) made herself out in as unflattering ways as she has anyone else, it doesn’t matter. She has characterized the whole culture as dirty, foolish, unconsciously gross. She has missed the elegance of other writers who will lightly lampoon themselves and one or two others and let the other characters have their dignity. Why didn’t anyone tell her?

I do not entirely blame the author. She was a person of her times and had not the insight to recognize that just because the rest of the world thought it was okay to lampoon a whole people (or any person), it doesn’t mean it IS okay. There are intimations that she did care about the people whose world she entered and remained in for some years. And yet she was too foolish to realize that THIS KIND OF HUMOUR HURTS. It hurts an individual, and it hurts a culture by upholding stereotypes that dismiss and demean, it hurts the children growing up knowing that this is how they are seen, it hurts the children growing up thinking there is a division between themselves and someone else just because they have different manners, different ways. It hurts any possibility of true friendship between the classes and peoples involved. It hurts.

One of the realizations I had as I read in alternating delight and creeping horror, was that these ugly stereotypes were the reason, or at least part of the reason, that I grew up learning to dislike and distrust the English, the ones with perfect grammar and chilling mannerisms, and to always feel clumsy and ridiculous in comparison to them—because they despised us. I have pretty much healed from that. The world is not black and white to me as it was then. But this book is a sad reminder of that rift, one that extended, and extends, to people of all colours, all classes, all differences.

There are hints here of the damage this does to the person in the oppressor role, too. The obvious one is that she must be annihilating the goodwill of the people she lampoons, and yet she blithely and unawarely does it anyway, when she could as well have written the same book without the ugliness. It is like watching a slow motion train crash. You can see it coming, you know what is about to happen, you see the nose of the train ploughing dully into the mountain side, but the engineer cannot or will not make it stop, and all are doomed. Engineer, passengers, standers-by.

But read this. She has gone back to England for a few weeks after a couple of years in Scotland. When she returns the three elderly people she has been living with welcome her with great enthusiasm.

“The fervour of the welcome from all three of them was impressive and made that which I had received in England seem frigid in comparison (pg. 234).”

This insight, which candidly illumines something she has been hinting at in her self-deprecation throughout—her depiction of herself as humourless, arrogant, rude—is poignant. But it is instantly extinguished by her next, rallying-back-from-awareness, blunt instrument of humour:

“It was difficult to repress a feeling of elation, for the geniality of the Gael, despite its lack of sincerity, is an endearing trait (pg. 234).”

Oh, Lillian. How must you have hated yourself to shove that last spike in.

Having written this review, I find out a little bit more about Lillian Beckwith, both from LibraryThing itself, and from her Wikipedia page:

“Her life on the island provided the basis for seven books published between 1959 and 1978, although allegedly, some of her neighbours later felt that the somewhat comical characters on Beckwith’s fictional island of Bruach were too close to real persons, causing Beckwith to become something of a persona non grata in her former home.[citation needed] She moved to the Isle of Man in 1962 and died on 3 January 2004 aged 87.[1]”

If true, it doesn’t surprise me at all that she had to leave the Hebrides.

What shocks me is that (LibraryThing tells me) Pan Books put out a 2016 edition of this work. It shocks me that generations of people both English and, if you believe the reviews on her bookcovers, Scottish, have thought these warmly realistic and hilarious depictions of Hebridean life. 

It is just like the caricatures of First Nations people, and similar to, if more heavy handed than, that of the Newfoundlander, that I grew up with in the same era that she was writing. But surely we don’t sell those images anymore? Surely??

I could be angry—thirty years ago I would have been. Now I am simply sad.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

So, Amos Barton...Thoughts on a Short Novel by George Eliot

So, Amos Barton

A number of years ago an unknown neighbour left a massive copy of Middlemarch by George Eliot on the table in the lobby. (Strictly against the rules, I might add.)

Against my better judgement, knowing I would never read it, yet with a flicker of wishfulness that I wasn’t so intimidated by old and difficult books, so sure that I would find them dull or “beyond me”, and thus confirm my doubt that I had anything but the most pedestrian intelligence, I picked it up.

And put it down.

It remained on my shelf, amongst unread Hardy and untouched Austen, for a period of time. I don’t remember how long or how short. I do remember hefting it off the shelf one brave day and taking my usual reading position and starting in on the first page.

The language was enormous. Never mind that it was nearly a hundred and fifty years old. It was the tongue of an energetic master, a whip-strong language with a mind behind it bursting with energy and observation and thought. At first I was astonished, and thrilled, and moved, but then, wandering into chapter one, I was soon well lost. There was too much I couldn’t understand, too much I had to fight to put any meaning to at all.

I put the book away.

Sometime later, I picked it up again. And then again, always getting at most thirty pages in. I knew that if only I could get over the hump, I would love this book. Or at least, I hoped so. Finally I did the only thing left to me.

I took it to my mother’s in Manitoba, with only nonfiction besides, and stretches of time when there would be nothing else to do. It came alive.

I stopped worrying about the odd bit I didn’t get. I got into the music of her way of expressing herself. I allowed myself to be swept into poor Miss Brooke’s life. I thrilled at the way the author was able not only to collect together all the elements of a world but to make true sense of them, and to do it with words and phrases that seemed plucked out of heaven itself. It was an epiphany.

Fast forward ten years or so. In my cupboard wait two more Eliot books, Silas Marner and The Sad Fortunes of the Rev. Amos Barton. Both much shorter books than Middlemarch, though in an omnibus edition the three do fill the hand and weary the arm. Nevertheless! I had been holding onto these as after dinner mints—the kind long forgotten in pocket lint—and the time had finally come.

I got through Silas Marner unscathed and happy, though it had been a near thing. Poor old Silas. A good man, and I’m glad things worked out. But Amos Barton, now, that was another kettle of fish.

I finished it last night. I am going to tell you, sort of, how it ends, but I am also going to tell you how it begins and how it middles.

This is a very short tale, the earliest of the three, and perhaps Eliot was just learning her craft. Maybe no one had told her that you don’t write books like this. Her betters would surely not let her get away with it now.

We float into a thought-line, that of an opinionated and powerful narrator, identitiy never disclosed, the author herself, of course, who muses on the place and people, takes us into and out of their conversations as the subject matter pertains or fails to pertain to Amos Barton himself. She shows his strengths and his foibles equally, shows the people around him—those who love, those who mock, and those whose loyalties wobble when times are tough. She shows his wonderful wife and their thoughtless friend and the slow diminution of his wife’s health. And then the wife dies.

At this terrible moment, all of these (or many of these) ordinary gossiping not helpful people are touched by his grief and pitch in to buoy him through his poverty and sorrow. At last he is redeemed in their eyes, and his future, though bleached with loss, seems sure.

And then he loses his position as curate, and goes away. We see him once more and he seems at ease with his lot, but his daughter, his eldest daughter, has devoted her life to his care since she was ten years old. She has traded her own life for her mother’s, and though at least she is spared the whole health-whittling thing of childbirth ... it is not a happy end.

It is not so much a story as a wandering character study, though of course it is a story, too, and as with the others, Eliot’s voice is sublime. But for Amos Barton you must not skip the annoying characters or just find the plotline and ignore the descriptions (as of course I would never do) because this book is just life, unfolding in all its meaness and all its happiness and all its regrets, and the author pulls no punches, and no great lesson is learned, and we all just get older in the end.

So I can’t get it out of my head. She didn’t fix things. Not at all. She just laid them out.

Brava, Madame George.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

“Storm Proof” by Casey June Wolf

I have been neglecting my blogs. No essay this time, and no poem by some great poet, though I have one in mind I'd like to beg access to. Instead, a poem from me, written yesterday as the warned of storm hit land near where I live, but by the time it got to me, was gentle as a very angry lamb.

Diana in the Autumn Wind — Paul Klee, 1921.

Storm Proof

the winds are fresh today
fierce   some might say
each branch   each leaf strains
toward my open window
wide   welcoming

cool invisible arms
wander round me

we are both thrashing here
you in jerk and thrust of changing air
me with words on screen and all the
churning heart that goes into them

you are quiet now
a pause in your suffering
in your frantic throwing off
of leaves stitched cell by cell across the months

they are going   gone
as sure as what I cling to rips away
in my mere internal tempests

I looked up   though
not for metaphor
but for companionship
and as I drank the dregs of your wild traverse
and what of those at sea
how welcoming
do your arms appear to them

Casey June Wolf
copyright 15 October 2016

Image: "Diana in the Autumn Wind", Paul Klee [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons