Friday, April 21, 2017

Crash Test Dummy



Crash Test Dummy

This post is in response to several emails from far flung readers who have been asking about my health. Fair enough. I hadn’t posted for four months, and a silent Sharon is something of an oxymoron. Going forward, I don’t plan to indulge much in what my father used to call the organ recital, but at least with this, everyone can rest assured that I am now back on my pins.

September 22nd was one of those days that had started innocently enough. In the early afternoon, I was contentedly preparing fresh ginger for a rhubarb syllabub, enough to feed about 40 people, but then I started to feel some abdominal pain. This was no big deal to me. I have lived with brief and occasional bouts of diverticulitis for at least sixty years. This time, since it was a bit more upper-case insistent, I decided to drive home, for a bathroom break and a brief rest. Home was only a few blocks away, and I expected to be back in an hour.

What happened instead was that as I drove over the speed bump at the exit from Roberts Creek Cohousing, I totally blacked out. This was a new experience for me - becoming a Crash Test Dummy. Thankfully, no one was between me and my eventual destination.

As the police later reconstructed the scene, I continued to drive a good hundred feet or so until I plowed into a ditch. From there, I continued on inside the ditch for at least another fifty feet with the car on a forty-five degree angle. (I would note that this says a lot in favour of the effectiveness of the Subaru Forrester all-wheel-drive system.) Anyway, when the ditch ended, being blocked by a driveway, I powered right on out of it, pedal to the metal, hit a parked car, and then careened across the road and was finally stopped by a cluster of trees.

When I came to, I was puzzled that there were branches and leaves touching my windscreen. From a distance, I heard a woman saying, We have called 911. Then she touched my arm, so I realized that she was right beside me and had been for some time. An ambulance is on its way. I think I said something like, I’m OK. I just need to go to the bathroom, and then lie down for a bit. That must have sounded decidedly idiotic.

Then the police showed up. I recall glancing at my rear-view mirror as one of them was asking me questions. I could see my youngest daughter sprinting towards me, parting the waters of the onlookers while repeatedly saying: Let me through. I’m family. She watches enough TV to know this is what you say. This is good.

Reconstructing the scene afterwards, the conclusion was that the seat belt had tightened as I had gone over the speed bump, causing the pain to spike. I then had a vasovagal syncope, which is a fancy way of saying that I had passed out. Had there been any warning that this could have happened, I certainly would not have been driving, but as it was, I hadn’t passed out since I was about thirteen years old. That time, I had been hanging up my coat in the closet, and had awoken to the nearby smell of boots.

This time I emerged – amazingly -- without a scratch, bruise, or a single pulled muscle, although one thing puzzled me. In the weeks that followed, I felt addled, and could barely concentrate even though nothing amiss had shown up on the CAT scan. There was no evidence of a stroke or other damage. The only observation of any interest was that I had an age appropriate brain. Fair enough. This is probably why I find it harder to have every word instantly at the tips of my mental fingers these days. That, I can live with. The little white spots look like flecks of snow.

For the next several months, and maybe it was in response to this event, I sludged my way through one respiratory infection after another. The worst part of it was that when I would try to write, even just for my blog where my standards are more relaxed, it wasn't worth the candle. I used these barren months to transcribe deeds and such. I also made plans for another research trip to Ireland.

A little over two weeks before I was due to leave, another kick to the gut. This time the onset was more intense, and more sudden than the last. One moment, I was enjoying dinner at a Greek restaurant with friends, and the next minute, one of them was with me in the bathroom, comforting me, and saying that she would help me up when I was ready. In the end, it took two people to help me out of the restaurant, across the street, and into the car. As we were leaving, one of the waitresses said, Have a good evening. Really.

After more tests and scans, the long and the short of it is that this was the same thing that had decked me in September. An acute diverticulitis attack. Apparently, now that I have reached the august age of three score years and ten, age is not my friend. Fortunately, two kinds of antibiotics, accompanied with significant down time, worked. Even so, just like the last time, my brain might as well have been parked in a room three doors over for all the good it was doing me. Right up to the day before I was due to fly out of YVR, neither Andreas nor I were sure that this was a totally brilliant idea. Then I had a good night’s sleep, the first in weeks, and then a good start to the morning. So I went for it, and am now in Dublin. Thankfully, it was the right call.

There is a John Newlove poem that Andreas and I have on the wall in our bedroom. It seems timely:

I'd like to live a slower life.
The weather gets in my words
and I want them dry. Line after line
writes itself on my face, not a grace
of age but wrinkled humour. I laugh
more than I should or more
than anyone should. This is good.

So, on this trip, unlike my usual approach, here is my plan. I will do my best to act my age. Ahem. I will take naps when needed. I won’t work my usual sixteen hour days. 

Here is where I am at. Two of the outstanding questions that are the focus of my work this week are:

Where is the farm in Co. Kildare that Sir Thomas Jackson (1841-1915) supposedly owned  in the 1890s. Finding it might clear up some other questions that I have about him and his family. My bigger question continues to be: How did this happen?


Sir Thomas JACKSON - age 23 - before leaving Armagh for Hong Kong where he became by far the most effective and compassionate international banker that Ireland has ever produced. (Some would say, there isn't much competition - but he was an exceptional person.)

My 2nd question is a bit more far flung and concerns Reverend William JACKSON (1737-1795), the United Irishman who took poison in the dock after he was convicted of treason but before he was sentenced. Was he related in any way to the Henry JACKSON of Ballybay, Co. Monaghan who had fled for his life to America after also he was convicted of his involvement with the United Irishmen? Or was he related to the JACKSONs of Coleraine? Or Antrim? Or Down? Or ….? Would he have met Barbara DONALDSON (1783-1865), the widow of William DONALDSON (1768-1815), a leader of the United Irishman in South Armagh? She was both an aunt and a significant mentor of the young Thomas JACKSON, right up till her death at the age of 82. We have some of their letters.

Rev. William JACKSON - United Irishman.

In the next couple of months, I plan be blogging about all this and more. After all, I really am a bit of a magpie. Anything bright and shiny always catches my attention. Who knows what comes next?

Monday, November 14, 2016

Thanksgiving Dinner at Coho 2016


For some people, eating the Thanksgiving dinner is the best part of their Thanksgiving Day. For me, my greatest pleasure is cooking it. I often stop to inhale the changing scent of how our home smells. Today I was struck by the bracing scent of fresh, green cardamom pods, as I ground them with a mortar and pestle.

… cardamom spice and the pungent
zest of once 'neath a midnight legend
            From Chambord Recollections.

This year, as we usually do, Andreas, Vanessa & I will be celebrating Thanksgiving with our friends at Roberts Creek Cohousing. Everyone contributes to this dinner: food, table set-ups, decorating, and cleanup – whatever is needed. It all works. This year, I have signed up for cranberry sauce, and as I often do, I have made two versions.


This year, before starting cooking, I decided that I should do a bit of research. I had two different vintages on hand: one that I would choose for cooking, and one for drinking later. The next picture reveals my choice.

My friend Stacia taught me the importance of mis en place – essentially it means that I lay everything out before I start cooking.
THE RECIPE: Cranberry Sauce with Dried Apricots, Port Wine and Cardamom.
This makes about 4 ½ cups, and can be made 1 week ahead, if refrigerated.
Ingredients
To do
8 whole green cardamom pods
Coarsely crush cardamom in mortar with pestle or place in re-seal-able plastic bag and crush with rolling pin; discard skins.
3 cups Port Wine*
Bring next 5 ingredients and cardamom to boil in heavy large saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring until sugar dissolves.
1 cup sugar
1 cup apricot preserves
1 cup fresh lemon juice
½ cup honey
2 6-ounce package dried apricots, chopped
Add apricots; cook 2 minutes.
3 - 12-ounce bag cranberries or 2 600g bags
Add cranberries and cook until berries pop, stirring occasionally, about 9 minutes.
1 grated lemon peel from one lemon
Mix in lemon peel. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

My second version of cranberry sauce is often preferred by children (and my husband). Also, since it does not use honey, it is vegan-friendly. It is a dead-simple sauce to prepare.

SIMPLE SAUCE:
3 bags fresh cranberries
NOTE: This year they are 340g aka 12 oz each.
3 oranges
First, zest the oranges, then juice them. I use this juice instead of water.
1 ½ c sugar
NOTE: The recipe used by many people doubles the amount of sugar. I like mine tart so that the flavour of the cranberries is not masked by the sweetness. To each, their own.
Combine all three ingredients in a heavy pot, and bring to a boil. Stir often enough that it does not stick to the bottom. Then reduce to a gentle boil and cook for about ten minutes. Keep stirring occasionally.

A few years ago, I developed a novel use for cranberry sauce. Some of my friends decided to call it:  The Full Oddie. Later today, I am planning to see if it is as good a Martini as we all remembered it to be. After all, it is Thanksgiving. Or, almost.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

A Riff on “Conflict is not Abuse”

Last summer, Ivan Coyote told me that I had to read Conflict is not Abuse by Sarah Schulman. I ordered a copy, read it, and my head has been reeling ever since. I have not read any book as powerful as this when it comes to understanding the roots of conflict within communities – at least not since Michael Ignatieff’s The Warrior’s Honour (especially his chapter on The Narcisism of Minor Difference). Both books examine, with surgical precision, what it is in human relationships - as they are lived out in community - that can make conflict escalate so readily and at such an inflated scale that it seems to make no sense – at least on the surface.

A well-thumbed copy - resting on my dining room table.
Sarah Schulman wrote this book after three decades of being committed to resolving conflict at all levels – friends, family, community, international. She is a feminist and a peace-activist (with a focus on the needs of Palestinians and Israelis). She is also a lesbian dedicated to resolving the kinds of issues that even though they affect all of us, are ones that disproportionately impact the LGBT community. In addition to this lived experience, she approaches this topic – that Conflict is not Abuse - as a novelist with eleven published novels, and not as an academic asking us to agree with everything. She only asks that we reflect on what she has to offer here.

… read this book the way you would watch a play: not to emerge, saying, “The play is right!” But rather to observe that the play reveals human nuance, contradiction, limitation, joy, connection, and the tragedy of separation.

As a novelist, she insists that we should always ask: What came first? Was there something that happened before the trigger? What is cause and what is effect? What are the desires, needs, and intentions that are part of this story? What is the impulse for our own actions and what are the likely effects of our actions, both on individuals and on communities? How will it end?
Sarah Schulman. SOURCE: Wiki - Public Domain photo

As the saying goes, the hysterical is usually historical. Often, when we experience an intense level of oppositional passion, it can be because we believe that our cause is just and the impediments are huge. At the same time, it can also be because there is a mix of felt truths and unmet needs which are preventing our ability to step back, to think and to analyze. When this happens, and when others share their picture and their evidence of what has actually happened, we can feel threatened - especially when it differs from our own version of events. The 2016 American election could not be a better example of this, on a national level, not that Canadians can afford to be smug. We are just as bad at using Facebook, or other such information-silos, to confirm our own chosen facts and biases, while ignoring anything that might threaten the bunker of our own beliefs.

Schulman insists that if we can’t name something, then we can’t change it. If we can’t tell a credible story about our shared conflict from the point of view of The Other, then we actually don’t understand what our conflict is all about. And we need to. After all, “The Duty of Repair” belongs to us all, but especially to those who claim access to a social conscience.

Her central concern in this book is about what happens when there is an overstating of harm, and when normal every day conflict – a healthy part of being human – is conflated with Abuse. This kind of conflation hurts us at both the individual as well as at the community level. To unravel how this happens, she follows some of the cultural shifts which have recently led us astray.

Ironically, the current reality of over-stating harm has happened in part because we have understated it for so long. In Canada, we have only to look at the fates of our missing and murdered indigenous women to see the costs of this under-recognizing and under-responding. Our blindness has been and continues to be part of the human tragedy. It is easy to follow all the forms it has taken over the centuries, as well as all over the globe. We can see its effects whenever individuals, corporations, cliques, governments or nations act from a place of entitlement and use that to have power-over others. Schulman labels this: Supremacy. It makes no difference whether the tools of power-over are gender-based, racially based, or economically based, the reality of how, where, and how often it happens, has all been reliably researched and documented.

Rage, and sometimes even violence, are often turned to as a last resort - the only way to be heard, and to be seen when we – as a culture and as individuals - have been blind to the power-over kind of abuse. As the late, great Ursula Franklin, a Canadian peace activist, often said: Violence is resourcelessness. Unfortunately, the use of violence can also lead to even more bullying and aggression, regardless whether or not the violent approach has been “deserved”.

A second reality, described by Schulman, is likely to be contentious with some, while offering the relief of recognition to others. I had never heard the term mutant feminism before, but it seems to me to be a good way to describe what happens when people who claim to be victims are judged to be always right, and those who are accused as perpetrators are judged to be always wrong - in spite of the fact that no person is ever totally evil or totally saintly. If we truly believe in genuine justice and effective resolution, then nuance matters. So does asking all the right questions.

Members have to actively take responsibility for the ethics and moral values that their small or large group claims to represent and actually enact this responsibility. Nothing reveals this more clearly than how difference is treated. Is difference a welcomed perspective to keep the relationships honest, or is it a threat to shared myths of Supremacy or vulnerability? How questions are asked fundamentally reveals the value systems at play, particularly whether or not there is a real desire to know what is true.

Schulman is also concerned about the impact of the recent cultural drift in how we deploy words such as “violence” and “abuse” (my emphasis beneath).

The word “violence” has expanded far beyond the field of physical assault to also mean emotional abuse and, unfortunately, emotional conflict where there is no abuse. … “Abuse” is also regularly used to describe disagreement and misunderstanding. Accusations of “policing,” “shaming,” and other expressions of “call-out culture” demanding “safety” from uncomfortable ideas represent people and actions as laden with blame, refusing interactivity around the content of ideas and perceptions. This is in line with a similar practice of calling racial analysis “playing the race card.” Trying to understand and explain structures of pathology is repressed by accusations of wrongdoing. Thinking is wrong. Saying is wrong. Not only are revelations unwanted, they get mischaracterized as harm.

When we conflate Abuse with Conflict and when we juice up the scale and intensity of the conflict in ways that make it more credible to claim it as abuse, we end up harming both individuals and communities. It is easy to see the damage to the person who has been named as a perpetrator, who is then shunned or blamed because of their supposed guilt. It is often less obvious that the person who has been self-named or named by others as a victim also suffers. By closing the doors on resolution – except on their own terms - they have stunted their own best opportunity for understanding what has happened. On top of that, those who have felt forced to take sides, or to turn away as if they can abdicate all responsibility, also suffer. The fabric of their community has been weakened.

Schulman feels compassionately towards those who do escalate the experience of a mutual, human-level conflict into a claim of abuse. Research, as well as the experiences of case workers, shows that often the victim has believed - whether consciously or not - that the only way to receive empathy is to claim abuse. This can lead to them, when they don't get the outcome that they seek, to feeling even more certain that they haven’t been heard. From that place of experienced injustice - real or not, it is a short step to turn The Other into a monster or specter to be silenced and isolated and hopefully punished. The moral clarity of having an enemy can be such a relief.   


The traumatized person’s sense of their ability to protect themselves has been damaged or destroyed. They feel endangered, even if there is no actual danger in the present, because in the past they’ve experienced profoundly invasive cruelty and they know it is possible. Or in the case of ongoing systemic oppression, they receive cruelty from one place, and project it onto another.

The best (or worst) thing about blame and projection, is that it always comes with certainty, and the best (or worst) part of that kind of certainty is that we then believe: I am not to blame. Laying blame can be quite effective in absolving ourselves of our part in the shared responsibility of problem-solving. It also means that my own sense of myself as perfect, or at least more perfect than the perpetrator, is left intact. Unfortunately, the blame others defense is more like a Trickster than a Healer. In the stories that Schulman shares, she shows time and again - in both countries and communities - how this deflection of responsibility produces unnecessary separation and perpetuates anxiety while producing cruelty, shunning, undeserved punishment, incarceration, and occupation.

Anthropologists have shown how shame-based cultures and guilt-based cultures both deal differently with conflict when it arises. Schulman takes it down to the level of the individual.

…. There is a strong element of shame in Trauma that makes thinking and behaviour so inflexible. The person cannot accept adjustment, an altering of their self-concept; they won’t bear it and they won’t live with it. And if the group, cliques, family, community, religion, or country also doesn’t support self-criticism, they ultimately can’t live with that.

In a TED talk, Brené Brown said: Shame is a focus on self, guilt is a focus on behavior. The first is felt inside us; the second is observable by others. Shame is, "I am bad." Guilt is, "I did something bad." Robert Bringhurst summed it up in a few lines in his brilliant poem: Essay on Adam. The central question:

is only an issue of whether the demons
work from the inside out or from the outside
in: the one
theological question.

I suspect that Robert knows that the devil is in the details, and that both are true.

Schulman explores the question: Why does an experience of shame more often lead to escalation of conflict, while the experience of guilt leads to a greater likelihood of resolution?  Partly it is because shame, being interior, can be hidden. This is why there is a temptation, for the person who feels shame, to project the blame for it on to others. Even though shame is felt inside us, we can release some of its pressure by the mere act of projection.  Schulman notes: People coming from shame … direct anger, aggression, and blame towards the other party. ,,, those who feel shame also feel more threatened and are more deeply concerned about what other people think of them. Research shows that bullies are more likely to have a shame-based conscience rather than a guilt-based one. On the other hand, studies show that people who feel guilty very much want to negotiate, are able to apologize and admit fault, can make concessions, and are invested in positive resolution. It may seem counter-intuitive, but as Schulman puts it:

Guilt plays a prosocial function in strengthening relationships; it encourages taking responsibility, motivates amendatory behaviours such as apology or confession, leads to higher quality solutions to crises and is associated with more constructive anger management. … . Guilt is also associated with positive empathy and the ability to acknowledge and understand others’ points of view. In contrast, shame is associated with responses that are injurious to social relationships.

One of my favourite sections of the book is where Schulman writes about the impact of emails. If it were not in violation of copyright, I would just type it all up and share it right here and now. Instead you will have to go buy the book. But here is a teaser:

This central role of anxiety in escalating Conflict is one of the reasons why, in our contemporary time, email and text are so often the source for tragic separations of potentially enriching relationships. First of all, email and text are both unidirectional and don’t allow for return information to enhance or transform comprehension. We must speak to each other, especially when events or feelings are fraught. I wish that all the people of the industrial world would sign a pledge that any negative exchange that is created on email or text must be followed by a live, in person conversation. And clearly we have a responsibility to encourage our friends and colleagues to not make negative judgements based on emails or texts.

When it comes to email conflict, Robert Frost’s poem Fire and Ice is surely worth recalling:

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favour fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice
.

Regardless of whether ongoing conflicts start or end with either fire or ice, when they come from a place of unresolved trauma, they are often followed by shunning – I won’t answer– and don’t phone me either! Regrettably, that leads to even more escalation of the hurt.

The real question is: Why would a person rather have an enemy than a conversation? Why would they rather see themselves as harassed and transgressed instead of have a conversation that could reveal them as an equal participant in creating conflict? There should be a relief in discovering that one is not being persecuted, but actually, in the way we have misconstrued these responsibilities, sadly the relief is in confirming that one has been victimized. It comes with the relieving abdication of responsibility.

So, where to from here? It is Schulman’s thesis that nothing will happen until collectively we make the mind-shift to move from being complicit bystanders to being agents for change. When we witness over-reaction to conflict, then the injured parties need us to help them to explore the causes and to look at the evidence, to determine if the scale is appropriate, and then to put a stop to the kind of polarized blaming which justifies shunning, and other forms of cruelty.

The community holds the crucial responsibility to resist overreaction to difference, and offer alternatives of understanding and complexity. We have to help each other illuminate and counter the role of overstating harm instead of using it to justify cruelty.

Any pain that human beings can create, human beings can transcend. But we have to understand what we are doing. This transformation also requires a critical mass, a small, effective, focused, and inspired group of people who can combine clear moral thinking with the taking of responsibility, as expressed through direct challenge to brutality and organized action. It can be a small group of conscious friends helping a person conflating Conflict with Abuse find alternatives. It can be two family members who don’t jump on an unethical bandwagon falsely construed as “loyalty”.

I don’t want to underestimate the challenge of achieving all this. Actions – particularly sustained actions - are much harder than words, but at least Sarah Schulman has dared to shed light on a particularly tricky part of the path. She at least has got us started.