Friday, October 31, 2014

Viral emotion, and why my generation sucks.

On October 22nd, I joined the entire country in following the story about Nathan Cirillo.  The unarmed soldier from my hometown was shot dead while guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Ottawa.  There has been enough speculation about the motives of the killer in both mainstream and social media.  Depending on the source, the shooter was either an ISIS sympathizer and terrorist or a homeless crack addict with mental health issues.

But that's not exactly what I want to talk about.

This is a terrible tragedy.  My heart goes out to the young man's family and friends, who must be devastated.

Watching all of the coverage unfold online, both via legitimate news sources and social media, I began to feel very uncomfortable. 

I want you to just contrast these images for a second:

Image 1
Image 2

Actually, if you look through all the images in this article from the Ottawa Citizen you may slowly begin to see what I'm talking about.

They begin with the heartbroken emotions of a grieving mother, stoic faces of comrades and friends, sombre respect from silver-haired citizens watching the procession.

Look now at the images of the crowds lining the streets, jostling for the best camera angle on the overpasses, holding signs with hashtags.

Wait, what?  Hashtags?  As the funeral procession goes by?  The hearse even?  Is this so that the family can go home and search #Hero on Twitter at the end of the night?  And find what? Self-promoting pseudo grief messages in 140 characters or less?

I can't help but try to understand what this feels like to those who are legitimately grieving the sudden loss of a man that they personally knew and loved.

Imagine enduring the most heart-wrenching grief of your life.  Imagine your child dying, or (if you don't have a child) your spouse, your parent, your best friend.  Take a moment to really feel what that would be like for you. 

Imagine now, that this death is co-opted by the nation in such a way that the country is not mourning for your loss, but for *their* loss.

Never mind that most of these people have never met your loved one.  That none of them know how their eyes crinkled when they smiled, how they couldn't stand cooked mushrooms or that they were terrified of spiders.  Never mind that up until the day before, none of these people even knew that your loved one existed.

You are stuck sharing your personal tragedy with mobs of people who are acting an awful lot like ambulance chasers and paparazzi.

The words "Nathan Cirillo" no longer refer to a person, but to a production.  They are "trending" online.  Attached to pouty-faced selfies on Facebook from strangers who are proclaiming themselves to be "heartbroken".  Used to promote sports events that are marking his death with some sort of ceremonial moment, before continuing on with the game as usual.  It strikes me as barely a step away from selling bobble-heads at the concession stands.

I wonder how many people have stopped to ask themselves if any of this is comforting to his family.  Because if it isn't, we haven't exactly allowed space for them to tell us to knock it off.  To tell us that our frenzied need to feel a part of the story has pushed aside their deep and personal loss.  That their voices are completely lost in the madness.

I suppose that the only blessing about this viral swell of public emotion is that it recedes and is redirected as quickly as it arrives.  By October 26th it had a new target, Jian Ghomeshi.

And thank goodness for that.  Because now, at last, Nathan Cirillo's family can grieve in peace.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Flashback - Part 1

This has been bubbling up in me for the last couple of weeks.  It needed to come out.

I needed to come out.

This post is long, and unfinished.  I just ran out of steam.

A few weeks ago, I was sitting at my desk at work and got a Facebook message from someone I hadn't spoken to in several years. 

"Have you seen this?" and a link to a newspaper article.  About my eldest daughter's father.  Who had escaped from a federal penitentiary.

Well, escaped is kind of a sensationalized word.  He was in a minimum security prison, so he mostly just walked away.

But I should back up.

I met him, my very first love, when I was 14.  He was 21.  Over the next couple of years he was in and out of my life, but I couldn't get enough of him.  He was gentle and caring, wrote poetry and wore Simple shoes.  He was also the most at-risk person I had met in my sheltered but troubled upbringing.  

He had an intriguing story of petty crime, broken relationships and soft drugs.  I had a sad story of parents who were too wrapped up in their own wounds to tend to any of mine.

We actually met in church.  He came through the door and the adults around me started to whisper.  After introducing myself and sitting with him for the service, I was pulled aside by the youth leaders and warned that I should stay away from him.  That he was bad news.  I was confused because I thought church-goers were supposed to be accepting of everyone.

Oh, to be 14 again.

He ended up on the list of people I used to find my own reflection.   When he was around, I felt like I was worth something.  He tapped into the part of me that needed to care for someone else, and I came to believe he was trying to shield my innocence.

The thing is, he knew better.  He knew exactly what he was doing.

If you were to have been on the outside, you would have seen a calculated pattern of grooming.  I see it now, through my mother-of-a-teenaged-girl eyes.  But back then, it all felt so powerful and real.  Here was someone who finally understood me.  Who made me feel safe.  Who made me feel loved.

Except when he didn't.

Because there were also times that he seemed disgusted by me.  When he wouldn't talk to me.  Or he'd tell me I was pathetic.  There were times when he would talk about his most recent sexual conquests and how he knew that I could never be "as good as she was".  He'd give me the cold shoulder and I wouldn't know why.

These times only served to magnify my need for affection, attention, anything that he would give me to fill me up.

Others worried.  They saw me disappearing and tried to care the best they could.  Teenagers are not known for their tact, and I felt judged and abandoned.  It reinforced my belief that he was the only one who could keep me tied to this world.  I was 15, had since left home and was flopping in an apartment with him and 2 other men. 

We ran away together.  The plan was to head to California, at least in my mind.  We hitchhiked for 2 days before he decided to turn back.  Spent the night in a hotel room in separate beds, which I think put a damper on his motive for the trip.

Weeks later, he told me of a plan to go out west with a friend.  There was nothing worth staying in town for, he told me.  I pleaded for him to stay.  I'd do anything, I said.

And I did.

Fast forward a couple of months and I, predictably, am pregnant.  He, predictably, wants nothing to do with the situation.  I'm told that I need to move out of the apartment.  I packed a knapsack and caught a ride to the city, blending in with the rest of the streetfolk for a while. 

The first night I was terrified.  I slept in an alley, inside a shed that was used as a dumpster.

It got easier.  I made acquaintance with a group of people who flopped in various places around the core.  We ate doughnuts out of big plastic garbage bags, fished out of Tim Horton's dumpsters at the end of the night.  We waited around for the Salvation Army soup truck, whose staff soon came to learn that I was a vegetarian and would have a couple of cheese-only sandwiches just for me. 

I know that sometimes, those that offered us places to stay did so in exchange for a certain kind of payment.  And I know that other girls paid for me because I was new and pregnant. 

He followed me to the city a few weeks later.  He ran with a slightly different crowd, though there was overlap.  One day, I was walking with a new boyfriend in the mall.  We saw him and the new boyfriend called him out.  Ended up punching him in the face.  He went down quickly, didn't even make a fist. I remember feeling gutted, my loyalties still lied with him.

I found a spot in a residence for pregnant and parenting teens.  I would spend the week there, going to school and planning for my baby.  Then I would sign myself out for the weekends and spend them on the street, feeling like it was home.  I didn't really see him much anymore, he had a new girlfriend and I did what I could to avoid seeing them together.  I found an apartment and moved in just a week before my daughter was born.

Of course he came back.  I told him that he was either in or out.  There would be regular visits, or none at all.  I was so happy to be a mom, and also protective of my daughter.  Our daughter.  He broke up with his girlfriend, and had nowhere to stay.  Of course I offered.  Of course.

Of course.

We played house, secretly, for about a month.  Secretly, because I was ashamed that my feelings were allowing me to return to something that I knew was a sham.  But I also felt like damaged goods.  Who would ever want to be with a 16 year old mom?  With a belly full of stretch marks?  I'd take what I could get.

One night, I asked him to leave because I was having a girlfriend stay over.  She didn't know he was around, and definitely would not have approved.  He returned the following night, with some money and a ring.  He found it, he told me.  We rented a movie and bought some snacks with the money, I thought it was nice that he was treating me to some luxuries.

Next day, he said he had to go out.  He came back, all whites of the eyes, pale and shaking.  Told me he needed money, that he had to leave town.  Said he'd done something bad the night he was away, and it was in the news. 

"What did you do, kill someone?" I joked.

He couldn't say it.  But the look.  I knew.  He was terrified and I told him to turn himself in.  But he wanted to run.  

Will write Part 2 another day.