Places that we’ve come to trust

 

When I was a child, the world was an even stranger place than it is now. I knew so much less then, and the boundaries of almost every experience were unexplored and mysterious. I suppose that’s to be expected when the menu is large, and the stomach limited. So, with no internet to answer each question, and teachers who, despite their qualifications and zeal, were unable to fill in more than a decidedly modest number of the blanks, children my age migrated to the Delphic Oracle of the era: the library.

Although sometimes an imposing stone-and-pillared structure in the middle of a large city, in more modest towns it was often only a converted cottage, or a tiny building that housed the books. But however it was dressed, it was the library with all those answers on the shelves, all that magic in the musty perfume of the books. And yes, there was the reigning priestess, the keeper of the tomes, who seemed to know just how to organize our questions and then lead us directly to the shelf where the answers lay.

It was an enchanted place, the library, and one we children got to know even years before we started school. A place where we would gather each Saturday morning in a little circle on the floor to hear someone read stories to us of faeries that danced on little flowers, of kings and queens who disguised themselves as people just like us, of bears who spoke, and fawns that cavorted through the woods all day then slept in beds of moss each night.

Later, of course, we began to read things for ourselves, and to decide what made sense and what to believe. We would read a book the librarian recommended, and then another that she hadn’t -just to check. I sometimes thought I’d wandered alone and secretly through the new ideas, but then she’d smile and congratulate me on my journey when I saw her at her desk.

I suppose we’re never really on our own when we have a book, though. It is the world, or at least its a door that opens inwards. The book is the sacred space, not the shelf on which it is forced to sleep. And I have long suspected that many things are similar to that -a school, for example, or a yoga class, a police officer, or a program on the radio -they each represent an expertise we cannot all possess. A knowledge so extensive we must partition it out in little bits to make it work. It is what a civilization does; it is what constitutes a society.

I found an incredibly insightful article entitled Truth is also a place in the online magazine Aeon on the subject that helped me to set things in context: https://aeon.co/essays/labs-courts-and-altars-are-also-traveling-truth-spots  It was written by Thomas Gieryn, a sociologist at Indiana University Bloomington, who suggests that ‘Some places make people believe.’ He describes the aura of wisdom ascribed to the ancient Oracle at Delphi. It was in a place so remote that even getting there was a struggle, and hence no doubt augmented the reliability of whatever advice was proffered. Other places, he argues, are similarly sacred: law courts, churches, laboratories, and so forth. The very stability of their location, and their often unique and recognizable architectures, lends an almost sacred air to their functions. ‘Ordinarily, truth-spots stay put over time, and those who seek believable knowledge must travel to them – not the other way around.’

But he wonders if the reliability and permanence of the location is still really necessary to perpetuate the authority. ‘[…] is longevity in a particular location always needed in order for a place to make people believe? Some truth-spots travel: they inhabit a place only temporarily. Sometimes a portable assemblage of material objects might be enough to consecrate an otherwise mundane place as a source for legitimate understandings – but only for the time that the stuff is there, before it moves on. But if a church or lab or courtroom can be folded up like a tent and pitched someplace else, can it really sustain its persuasive powers as a source for truth?’

In the abstract, that seems like an unlikely possibility. After all, part of the solace of religion, say, is in the majesty of the venue -the comfort of the pew, the quiet place that is a refuge from the busy street outside. Or, at other times it may lie in the reverberations of the organ, or the echo of a choir singing somewhere hidden in a large cathedral.

But Gieryn illustrates his thesis with examples of how the authority, if not the venue is transportable. Travelling justices can set up a court in the most unlikely of locations -a small village in China, for example, with ducks and geese waddling past. Justice can be fairly meted out to the satisfaction of villagers who might otherwise never be able to travel to a big city courtroom. Religion, too, could be promulgated outside of the boundaries of a church so long as those ceremonial symbols seen as sacred and important, accompany the duly recognized religious official.

But I suppose these things are so common nowadays, with our internet connections and social media flurries, that the very idea of immutability has become a myth. With the possible exception of religious structures, buildings permanently dedicated to a particular purpose, seem anachronistic. Atavistic. Time itself is out of joint.

Surely we are not so shallow that we think that it is the edifice that contains the authority, so naïve that we confuse the vehicle with the driver. It’s not the library that contains the book, nor even the book itself we need -it’s the ideas, the perspectives, and the wisdom travelling in an ever-expanding ripple that we should attempt to grasp…

And yet… I’d miss the smile of that wonderful lady with the dirty glasses, who sat behind the library desk and watched with motherly pride as I carried out an armful of books for another week. Call me sentimental, or just an old man trapped in reverie, but I think there is still something sacred in a place where a person like her could sit and watch -and smile encouragingly- as we struggle past.

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A Childless Motherhood

Well of course! Did we think there would be no consequences? Did we actually think we could get away with it? That there weren’t two sides to the story that we all needed to hear?

Sometimes I think we are so focused on our journey to right a wrong, that we wander off the path to those we hope to save. Things are too partitioned -a modern day rendition of the biblical Matthew 6:3 where the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing… Or, perhaps, is not doing.

If one side of a page seems to contain all the information I seek, I may miss what’s written on the back. I feel no need to turn it over. An article in the Conversation turned the page for me:

https://theconversation.com/losing-children-to-foster-care-endangers-mothers-lives-93618

The author, Elizabeth Wall-Wieler, a PhD student in Community Health Sciences at the University of Manitoba, writes that ‘Mothers whose children are placed in foster care are at much higher risk of dying young, particularly due to avoidable causes like suicide. When a child is placed in foster care, most of the resources are focused on the child, with little to no support for the mothers who are left behind.’

In retrospect, of  course, it seems obvious -the mother-child bond is not something easily missed, and whether or not we attribute it to physiological changes such as oxytocin levels in her blood, or less reductionist, atavistic mechanisms, it is a powerful thing, dismissed only at her -and our– peril.

The author was involved in two large studies, one of them published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, which ‘[…] looked at suicide attempts and suicide completions among mothers whose children were placed in care.

‘In this study, we compared rates of suicide attempts and suicides between 1,872 mothers who had a child placed in care with sisters whose children were not placed in care. We found that the rate of suicide attempts was 2.82 times higher, and the rate of death by suicide was more than four times higher for mothers whose children were not in their custody. […] Mothers whose children are taken into care often have underlying health conditions, such as mental illness and substance use. In both studies, we took pre-existing health conditions into account, so that was not the reason for the higher mortality rates we found.’

And, the author feels, ‘Most legislation pertaining to child protection services indicates that families should be supported, but the guidelines around what is expected of the child welfare system when it comes to the biological mothers are not clear. The main role of social workers is to ensure that the child is doing well. Social workers are already so busy, so it is often hard for them to justify spending their limited time to help mothers resolve challenges and work with them to address their mental and physical health needs.’

Other studies have also addressed the issue of sending children to foster care: ‘A study in Sweden found that by age 18, more than 16 per cent of children who had been in foster care had lost at least one parent (compared to three per cent of children who had not been in foster care). By age 25, one in four former foster children had lost at least one parent (compared to one in 14 in the general population). This means that many children in foster care don’t get the chance to be reunited with their families.’

I thought that the whole idea of fostering a child was care and sustenance until a more permanent placement was achieved or, ideally, the birthparent was able to reassume custody. This is perhaps more likely if the child can be placed with members of the same family -grandmothers, aunts, etc.- but even then, if the mother does not receive adequate support and treatment for the condition that led to the apprehension of her child, the results are apt to be the same.

In Canada, it seems, the mothers most affected are those from the indigenous community -our First Nations. The Canadian Minister of Indigenous Services, Jane Philpott, addressed indigenous leaders about this issue at a two-day emergency meeting on Indigenous Child and Family Services in Ottawa in January, 2018. http://www.cbc.ca/radio/thecurrent/a-special-edition-of-the-current-for-january-25-2018-1.4503172/we-must-disrupt-the-foster-care-system-and-remove-perverse-incentives-says-minister-jane-philpott-1.4503253 ‘The care system is riddled with “perverse incentives”. Children are being apprehended for reasons ranging from poverty to the health and addiction issues faced by their parents. In some provinces, rules around housing mean that your children can be taken away if you don’t have enough windows. “Right now dollars flow into the child welfare system according to the number of kids that are apprehended.” […] If financial incentives were based on “how many children we were able to keep in homes, how well we were able to support families — then in fact there would be no financial reason why the numbers would escalate.”’

But it’s not too difficult to read something else into all of this, of course. Uncondoned behaviour -behaviour frequently associated with poverty or marginalization- is often penalized isn’t it? Sometimes it is as simple as avoiding the transgressing community, further marginalizing it, but increasingly it is intolerance. Refusal to address the underlying issues. Not even trying to understand.

I admit that it is a difficult journey, and the road that winds between the abused child and its troubled parent is fraught. To empathize with the mother when her conduct may have been so clearly unacceptable, is seen as anathema. And yet, an attempt to understand is not a plea for condonation, merely a search for a solution. Nobody should get away with family neglect -but nothing happens in a vacuum. And there are always unintended consequences, aren’t there? Even our best intentions miss something in retrospect -solve one problem, create another. Our focus is often far too narrow -helping one person misses the one standing beside her.

Perhaps it’s time for us to stand back. As Ms Wall-Wieler puts it, ‘Specific guidelines need to be put in place to make sure that mothers are supported when their child is taken into care. This would improve the chances of reunification. And, by virtue of being a human worthy of treatment with dignity, mothers deserve support, even if it does not directly relate to how she interacts with her child(ren).’

‘Of the good in you I can speak, but not of the evil.
For what is evil but good tortured by its own hunger and thirst?’
Kahlil Gibran

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beggaring All Description

Beauty is many things, I suppose, and attempts to define it are fraught. It seems to vary between societies and eras, with some cultures deciding it is appearance, and some opting for demeanour. One such view, influenced by the Greek diaspora following the conquests of Alexander the Great, Koine Greek, used an adjective for beautiful: horaios, which derives from the word hora -or hour. There was a delightful description of this in (sorry) Wikipedia: ‘In Koine Greek, beauty was thus associated with “being of one’s hour”. Thus, a ripe fruit (of its time) was considered beautiful, whereas a young woman trying to appear older or an older woman trying to appear younger would not be considered beautiful.’

I find this useful, because it suggests that beauty -at least in a person- resides in being recognized for what one actually is -not what artifice may try to disguise. Admiration, in other words lies in more than appearance. I am reminded of Shakespeare’s Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: ‘Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind.’

And yet, whose eyes -one’s own, or that of others? How we see ourselves is almost as important as how we are seen. Think of the agony than can be inflicted by acne in the teenage years -a time when self-identity is often linked to group identity, and self-esteem is dependent on the approbation of one’s peers. It is a time when we are defined by others, because we have not yet defined ourselves.

Memories of my own speckled past were awakened, Phoenix-like, by a short article in the Conversation on the beauty -or not- of skin: https://theconversation.com/beauty-is-skin-deep-why-our-complexion-is-so-important-to-us-91415?

As the author, Rodney Sinclair, Professor of Dermatology, University of Melbourne observes, ‘We’re all attracted to a beautiful face. We like to look at them, we feel drawn to them and we aspire to have one. Many researchers and others have investigated what we humans identify as “beautiful”: symmetry, large evenly spaced eyes, white teeth, a well-proportioned nose and of course, a flawless complexion. The skin is of utmost importance when people judge someone as beautiful.’ There may be an unintended bias on his part, of course. A dermatologist would see the world through a lens of pores and complexions, but I suspect he is merely tapping into the current ethos -one that seems characteristic of an era of Snapchat, and Facebook posts where ‘Even the best facial structure can be unbalanced by skin that is flawed.’

I’m not certain I agree with some of his views about how much we value complexion. For example: ‘When choosing a mate, men rank female beauty more highly than women rate male appearance. Female beauty is thought to signal youth, fertility and health. Beauty can also signal high status. People with “plain looks” earn about 10% less than people who are average-looking, who in turn earn around 5% less than people who are good-looking.’ I suspect there has been a bit of cherry-picking of studies that bolster his opinions, although I suppose we all do that.

But his point about the importance of the cosmetic industry nowadays certainly seems spot on: ‘People spend a lot of money in attempts to regain their youthful appearance. The global cosmetics industry is worth about US$500 billion. Sales of skin and sun care products, make-up and colour cosmetics generate over 36% of the worldwide cosmetic market. We use foundation makeup to conceal freckles and blemishes, moisturisers and fillers to hide dryness, concealers to disguise broken capillaries and pimples.’

And yet, I find myself inexorably drawn to that Greek idea of beauty residing more in ‘being of one’s hour’, than in forcing one’s time. Accepting the ineffable allure of the moment in which each of us lives.

Many years ago, I met Dora, a woman with quite visible facial scarring from long-ago acne. She was probably in her early thirties, and was employed as a receptionist in a doctor’s office. But she was so gregarious and friendly, I had ceased to see her face whenever I had occasion to visit. A warm smile would emerge like a puppy bounding from the woods and greet me from across the room. Her eyes were alive, and sparkled even under the unremitting glare of the overhead fluorescent lights. But she would have lit a path to her desk even in a power failure.

So overwhelming was her presence that I would never have remembered what she was wearing, had I been asked. Everything was subordinate; she ruled the room like a queen and the radiance lingered even when she was on vacation, or had taken a sick day. It was as if the empty the space was holding its breath. Or so I thought.

One day, when I arrived for my appointment, the office seemed smaller. Duller. It had been more than a year since I had been there, and so I couldn’t immediately decide what had changed. Dora was not there, unfortunately -I had been looking forward to seeing her again, but I assumed she had taken a few days off.

As I approached the desk –her desk- I was tracked by a set of razored eyes as if I had inadvertently chosen the wrong door. The wrong office. There was a smile, of course, but it was cool, and applied like the makeup on the rest of the obviously impeccable face. Long blond hair fell in ringlets to her shoulders onto a dark blue silk blouse -a very attractive person to greet the entrant, I suppose. But it was not Dora.

I forced a smile onto my lips and introduced myself. The woman immediately checked her computer screen and her face marginally softened at what she found. I took this as an opportunity to ask about Dora.

I could see her pupils momentarily contract and something tensed in her cheek.

“Dora no longer works here,” she said with a forced affability, and as if she were tired of having to explain.

I couldn’t hide my disappointment, I’m afraid, and the woman noticed.

“The doctor thought she was a bad advertisement for his practice,” she said with an obviously rehearsed face.

“Oh…” was all I could think of to respond.

The face perked up briefly. “He did offer to help…” she stared across the empty room for a moment. “But she said she was happy with who she was –‘with who she’d always been’, was how she put it…”

And then, although she tried to disguise it, she rolled her eyes and sighed. “Anyway,” she said, unrolling her eyes and resting them on my cheeks, “she decided to resign.”

But when I continued to stare at her, she shrugged, as if everybody was better off with Dora gone. “He gave her a good reference, though,” she added at the persistence of my disappointed expression, and shifted her attention back to the screen in front of her with a little smile.

 

 

 

 

Should You Wish Upon a Star?

I’m of two minds about magic. On the one hand, it seems too good to be true -too naïve and unexamined, too much like Santa Claus; but there’s a part of me that wants to believe in another world where faeries dance on dew-soaked blades of moonlit grass, and bird song fills the dawn forest as a paean to the aborning light. In a place -or was it a time– where anything was possible, because no one had proven that it wasn’t.

Unfortunately, I grew up and found an adult proof -or thought I had. I suppose most of us do, though. It’s not even a choice -as we wend our ways through the interstices of everyday life, we shed those things which impede our progress -like a shirt on a hot day, unregarded magic is in corners thrown, to paraphrase Shakespeare. Our route is littered with it, if we cared to look. But we don’t anymore. We can’t be bothered.

And yet, in my darker days, when I find myself staring into the ordered chaos that encloses me like a cape, I sometimes wonder if it was all a mistake. Perhaps we were meant to keep a little in reserve. A curtain we could peek behind in times of need. In times when we realize that what we have is not enough… or, rather, too much.

In one such mood, I happened upon an article written by Frank Klaassen, an associate professor of History in the University of Saskatchewan, entitled The Magic of Love and Sex, who characterizes himself as a scholar of medieval magic. I have to admit, that anybody who purports to be able to unmask the most mysterious trappings of an enchanted, faraway age has got my ear -or in this case, at least, my eyes. https://theconversation.com/the-magic-of-love-and-sex-91749

He says that ‘[…] passing the magazine stand at the checkout counter is like stepping back in time.’ Both the men’s and the women’s magazines promise to divulge secret methods of procuring unattainable things we all want, yet could only dream of: sex, power, influence… ‘Bronislaw Malinowski [a Polish-born British social anthropologist] says that the function of magic is to ritualize optimism, to enhance “faith in the victory of hope over fear.” By this he means that when we perform magic, we ritualize our hopes, even if that ritual itself produces no effects.’

‘There is a massive modern industry that leverages our vulnerabilities. Hundreds of scientifically unproven techniques offer not only power over love and sex, but health, wealth, good luck, influence over other people, improving appearance, intelligence and public speaking, assuring happiness and protection of self and family.

‘Modern books on magic like Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance and New Age handbooks like Shakti Gawain’s Creative Visualization have become classics over the past 40 years and have sold millions of copies. They cover pretty much the same ground. With few exceptions, the goals of medieval magic were identical to these personal growth manuals from the 1970s, and fulfilment in love tops the list.’

But interestingly, similar to today, Klaassen says that scholars back then were also critical of magic and superstition. ‘Medieval philosophers expended a lot of ink demonstrating how seemingly miraculous things were just natural effects […] To respond to these attacks, writers of medieval magic books often did exactly what their modern counterparts do —they tried to make them look like they were scientific. They used scientific ideas and language.

‘In comparison, one would think that modern people would be far less interested in magic, particularly given our advanced sense of how the physical world functions and the scientific educations we all get in public school.’

But, I think the crux of his point is to compare the two modes of thinking, and whether things have changed all that much over the years. ‘[…] it challenges the idea that scientific thinking somehow banishes magical thinking. Clearly, it doesn’t.’

‘[…] Modern science may have helped us live longer but it hasn’t made illness and death any less inevitable. It certainly hasn’t made it possible to make ourselves more wealthy, desirable, charismatic, intelligent or successful in love.

From one perspective, love magic is biological. We are biologically programmed to try anything that might help us reproduce ourselves. Skepticism would just get in the way of that. Hope, on the other hand, keeps us creatively trying things out and doing whatever it takes: The perfect clothes, the right music, giving flowers, perfume, beautiful words, … or magic.

From another perspective, as Malinowski suggested, magic springs from human qualities that we all value very highly: Optimism, hope and creativeness. Where would we be without those? If our ancestors only stuck to the tried and true, things they knew would not fail, we’d still be in the trees. We’d certainly have no love songs.’

I like the idea that magic is hope. And hope is no less real because what we wish for hasn’t yet happened; there may not be faeries dancing on the lawn at night, but if I want to believe that if I hid out there under a blade of grass one night I would see them, should you lock me up? Or put me on medication? All of us hear stories, some more fanciful than others -and not all of them are as we remember. We colour our narratives with almosts and often sneak in a few might haves to spice the tales. The rest of us wink at the clever interpolations, and then add our own when it’s our turn to speak. Who’s to say what really happened -what might have happened?

There is a ragged border between fact and fancy sometimes, and maybe your misspeak is my magic -or at least my hope. Would you really want to take that away from me… and should you? Like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, I want to believe there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies…