Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Spiritual Side of a Sad Anniversary

Today is the first anniversary of my grandfather's death.  As much as I feel tempted to write about that at some length, and I'll probably do so in the pen-and-paper journal that I still keep, I find that my thoughts are turning every bit as much to my family's reactions to that terribly difficult time, not least because of the role that religion played, particularly in the last week and a half of Grandpa's life.

I was almost surprised, actually, though I suppose that I probably shouldn't have been.  While I was raised Roman Catholic, since my mother's family is/was Catholic, most of my relatives on my dad's side are Anglican, at least in name; most don't go to church very often, except for my aunt and uncle who live in Manitoba and my cousin who was living in England at the time.  But when Grandpa was in the hospital, and particularly when it became clear that he was dying, suddenly prayer became extremely important to my family.  I lost count of the number of times we said the Lord's Prayer.  Psalms 23 and 121 each made a couple of appearances.  Particularly in the last few days of his life, we'd gather around his bed and one of my aunts would lead us in prayer at least once a day, and often twice.  I've often wondered since then exactly what was going through his head at the time.  (He was still demonstrably conscious, and did his best to communicate with us, but he'd lost the power of speech by then, so it was, at best, difficult.)  I know that he had his faith, so there's hope that this was at least marginally comforting to him, but there's really no way of knowing for sure.

As for what I thought...even a year later, I'm still trying to sort it out, really.  Because of the rather unique nature of my spiritual life, I have to admit that I felt a little uneasy.  Just to be clear: it had nothing to do with this sudden explosion of devotion among my relatives; I believe that everyone has the right to believe—or not believe, for that matter—as they choose, and to act upon that as they wish, provided that it doesn't hurt them or anyone else.  (All things considered, it would be highly hypocritical of me to believe otherwise.)  It's more that every time we gathered around Grandpa's bed to pray, I couldn't help but wonder: was I part of those prayer sessions to help comfort my family, or was I just there because I was expected to be?

I did pray.  I spent a lot of time during those long days and nights at the hospital praying that his suffering would be over soon.  But my prayers were silent.  Sometimes they happened while I was crocheting; then, I'd often revert to some of the prayers I learned when I was still Catholic.  ("Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee..."  "Hail, Holy Queen, mother of mercy, our life, our sweetness, and our hope..."  "Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to your protection, implored your help, or sought your intercession, was left unaided..."  I could probably write an entire other post on the possible reasons why I chose these prayers, and will probably do so at some point in the future.)  Other times, especially late in the night when I sat holding my grandfather's hand, the room as quiet as a place in a hospital could possibly be, I simply felt what I wanted to say, and for all that I didn't direct those prayers in any specific direction, they were no less prayers than the ones I thought, or whispered, as I crocheted, or the ones I actually said along with my family.

It was never going to be anything but a thoroughly difficult time for all of us.  I have no idea how helpful all that praying may have been for Grandpa or for anyone else in my family, but if it brought any comfort whatsoever, then I find that I can't be upset about having participated in it, personal reservations about the prayer sessions quite aside.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Yarn Therapy

It's no secret that I like to crochet.  Wherever I go, I generally have my current project with me, and I pick it up and work on it every chance I get.  And it took over a year, but I finally finished my first lap blanket tonight. I could've finished it a long time ago, but I held off, though I wasn't quite sure why.

The thing is, this particular project was one that I started shortly before my grandfather developed pneumonia while he was in the hospital last year. I eventually came to call it my "comfort yarn," since crocheting became a sort of escape for me when I was spending so much time down at the hospital with my family, after we were told that the best that could be done for him was to keep him as comfortable as possible, considering the circumstances. (I might've tried reading, but I learned long ago that to open a book in the presence of my relatives is to invite a lot of questions: "What are you reading?" "Who wrote it?" "How is it so far?" etc.) When I started to crochet at the hospital, I noticed that my family was far less likely to distract me while I was doing that, and I could still be part of the conversation if I chose to be. And to this day, when I look at some of the sections of the lap blanket that I completed during that time and shortly after, I can still remember what was going on around me while I was working on them.

When Grandpa died, crocheting became a central part of my grieving process; I don't like to cry anyway (just as well, because I rarely get the chance; practically every time I feel like I need a good cry, it turns out that something else needs my attention, so I don't have the time and I have to release that energy some other way), so whenever I felt particularly awful I'd pick up my yarn and start working again for a few minutes. Whenever I was interrupted at that, I was able to deal with the interruption and get back to my yarn immediately after; there was no need to get back into any particular mood. Whether I was working on that lap blanket or something else (including the inevitable scarf—it seems I can't entirely get away from making those things), my time spent with my yarn became almost therapeutic.

These days, I don't crochet out of grief anymore. I find it's a good way to occupy my hands while my mind goes off and does other things, and it also has the advantage of being something I can do while I'm talking to someone else without being rude. I often find that my mood and my concentration are better after I've been crocheting for awhile. So at least that's one good thing that came from an otherwise awful time.

So when I finished the blanket tonight, in a way I was also moving on from a stage of grief that I don't really need to experience anymore.  When I visited Grandpa's grave last month, I cried for a bit (one of the few times I didn't get interrupted, thank goodness, though I'd have been shocked if I had been as I was the only person at the cemetery at the time) and then sat beside the grave and crocheted for awhile.  After all that time spent with my yarn beside his hospital bed, it seemed right.

It's amazing, and downright wonderful, what can be accomplished simply by pulling loops of yarn through other loops of yarn, really.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

"You're taking this too seriously, dear."

"You're taking this too seriously, dear."

It's a common criticism of feminists—that we have no sense of humour, that we take things way too seriously.  In this case, some months ago my mother was telling me about a distant cousin of ours who had male-to-female sex-change surgery.  She still refers to that distant cousin as "he," and even laughed at me when I corrected the pronoun to "she," telling me I was taking it too seriously.

Um, no.  Because this is someone's life, and it is something that should be respected and taken seriously.

It's not like trans people suddenly wake up and decide that they don't want to be the gender their bodies are shaped like/were shaped like at birth.  It's not like it's a silly little game of dress-up, or like they'll eventually "come to their senses" and decide that their bodies are the right shape after all!  Whatever the reason for it is, these people feel that the usual means of determining gender have failed them, and they're doing what they can to be the people they feel they really are inside.  Given the importance that gender has for most people's identities, this is absolutely important.  And it shouldn't depend on whether we cis people think they have (or have always had) the right genitalia for their gender presentation.

Unfortunately, to avoid ruining the rest of the evening I had to just shut up.  But inside, I was furious.  One does not refer to a trans woman as "him", nor does one refer to a trans man as "her".  It's as incredibly hurtful as mocking fat people for our size.  Maybe even more so.  And those of us who are not trans do not have the right to define trans people's lives for them.  Referring to people with gender pronouns that they feel do not adequately describe them is crossing a line of indecency that nobody should cross.

And saying so does not mean I'm "taking this too seriously."  These are people's lives we're talking about here.  This is an issue that's caused a lot of pain—an issue that has cost many trans people their lives. And if we who are cisgendered don't recognize this, or if we downplay it like it's some kind of joke, then we're actively harming a lot of people who don't need any more of this garbage thrown at them.

Friday, November 11, 2011

11/11/11, or It's Never "Over By Christmas"

The last time there was an 11/11/11, so many things hadn't happened yet.

The RMS Titanic was still being fitted out for what was then assumed would be a long and safe career at sea as a luxury liner. Lester B. Pearson, the Canadian Prime Minister whose government (among other things) would introduce such things as universal health care, the Canada Pension Plan, and the current Canadian flag, was fourteen years old. John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. weren't born yet. Neither was María Eva Duarte de Perón, who is still better known as "Evita." The stock market crash of 1929 was still eighteen years away.

And the war which officially ended on this day in 1918, and which was settled in 1919 under terms which set up the conditions which made the Second World War possible, was still a bit over two and a half years away.

It seems almost unthinkable that a political assassination led directly to one war and indirectly to another. Indeed, the First World War largely broke out because a number of powerful empires who were already chronically angry with each other threatened each other, called each other names, refused to back down no matter what, and, invoking various alliances, dragged other countries into the fight. Eventually, there were very few nations anywhere that weren't involved somehow. The assassinations of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, may have been the spark that set the fire, so to speak, but it would never have happened if there hadn't been the political kindling and fuel for the fire in the first place. And for all that the propaganda said that the soldiers on "our side" were fighting for what was right, the truth is that more than nine million people died because Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire refused to learn to play nice with each other. Or anyone else, either, really, especially when it came to the issue of territory in the Balkans.

Colonialism sucks. In this case, it turned out to be deadly for over nine million combatants and who knows how many civilians.

And so, November 11 has been known variously as Remembrance Day, Armistice Day, Veteran's Day, and Poppy Day since King George V officially dedicated the day to such observances in 1919. But what do we remember? What are we glorifying with this day? What are we telling kids with these military-inspired services, both religious and not, and with all these repetitions of Col. John McCrae's poem "In Flanders Fields," which tells the reader to "take up our quarrel with the foe"? What are we telling ourselves?

And what have we allowed ourselves to forget?

We say "Lest We Forget" and "we will remember them," but in glorifying the lives of those who died in battle, neglecting those who came home changed or even broken, and those who were not soldiers but who suffered anyway, we've forgotten what the observance of this day was supposed to accomplish in the first place: to remind us never to let such a senseless tragedy happen again.

But it did happen again, and it will keep happening until humans, especially our leaders, learn to settle disputes without destroying lives and land in the process.

Friday, November 4, 2011

On "The Church"

When talking about Christianity, people inevitably end up talking about "the Church," as if all the denominations were still (if they were ever really) all the very same.  But the thing is, despite the fact that all of them talk about this dude named Jesus who said some pretty awesome and radical things about 2000 years ago—and I'm not just using the words "awesome" and "radical" in their 90's slang sense, though those meanings could certainly apply as well—they all have their own different ways of creating and maintaining their communities of faith.  Don't believe me?  Check out Roman Catholic, Eastern Catholic, Baptist, Lutheran, and Presbyterian churches and attend their worship services, and you'll see precisely what I mean.

In spite of the many similarities between them, these denominations are not all one.  If they were, there'd be no need to give them different names.  So really, when talking about Christianity, one might more accurately talk about "The Churches" than about "The Church."