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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The snowbow, or How I met Father Christmas

Unlike anyone else in my culture I've ever talked to about it, my brother and sister and I were never brought up to believe in Santa Claus. Our parents' reason was that they wanted us to know who gave us our presents. Far from taking something away from the magic of Christmas, I've always thought this was a stroke of luck for me. I never had to "unlearn" Santa Claus, or have my faith shattered in everything my parents had ever said to believe...

I'm kidding. Sort of. But in my thirties, all this changed.

A little over three years ago I was on a flight from Toronto to Cleveland, for my Grandma Knowles's memorial service. Everyone who knew her seems to agree that Grandma was something like a saint on earth (the real kind of saint, not a perfect person but a heroic person). In her considerate way, she had passed away early enough not to conflict with the holidays, but it was still snowing. I looked out the window of the plane, into the clouds of snow, and saw a perfect, circular rainbow.

If you've ever seen a rainbow from the air, you'll know that instead of the arc which is the most you can see from the ground, you see the spectrum of color in a full circle, imprinted on the clouds. And because it was snowing, not raining, I decided that Grandma must have sent me a snowbow. A big, shiny ornament, hung right there in the sky. Just because she could.

"I do set my bow in the cloud..."

So then that December, I was on another flight, this time to Chicago. Like most flights to O'Hare, this one was late, and very crowded. I was seated next to a gentleman I can only describe as jolly. He had the white beard, twinkling eyes, everything to look just like Santa Claus. Only he was dressed in plain clothes, and once we got to talking, it emerged that he worked in Michigan, in a prison.

Now everyone knows that Père Noël must live in Canada, because the magnetic North Pole is in Canadian territory. But part of Michigan is actually north of part of Ontario, so, close enough. What I now report is what he told me; I haven't researched it, so don't feel obligated to believe. I am only telling you what I remember.

He supervised the prison shop, where the prisoners did metalwork. According to him, the people he really wanted working for him were those convicted of the most serious crimes, like murder. Yes, they had done terrible things, but they knew that they were in prison for life and that the only way they could possibly redeem the time was to make something of it. So they worked hard for him and did a good job.

On the other hand, those convicted of drug offenses or something that had put them in prison for a year or so, he found pretty useless. He believed that they had no stake in making their lives in prison better, so they gave him trouble.

When we arrived in Chicago and he left to (probably) miss his connecting flight, it occurred to me that he hadn't told me his name. Not even a first name. Kris?

I told Trish this, and that he'd looked just like Father Christmas. "Well, maybe he is, sweetie," she said, like the most normal thing in the world.

So that is the story of how I met Santa Claus. He works off-season at a prison in Michigan somewhere.

Merry Christmas.

Friday, November 11, 2011


Ever since I’ve lived in Britain or Canada, I’ve liked the custom of wearing a poppy. I was quite surprised to read this week that the first person to sell poppies in honor of veterans, in 1918, was actually American. Veterans Day was Armistice Day to begin with, and at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the guns of World War I fell silent.

For this reason, at 11:00 today we have the two-minute silence. Being silent, it is not coercive. It does not require everybody to agree about this or that conflict, or the best way of supporting our troops now. It is simply in honor of those whose sacrifices have been considerably greater than mine.

I’ve always tried to buy my poppies from an old guy, someone who might have been a veteran of World War II, but it gets harder every year. It has been my privilege to meet many people who survived the Second World War, the conflict of conflicts that must never be forgotten.

I am thinking of veterans—both my grandfathers, for example—but also of the woman I heard speak last week. A self-described German-Jewish Brit, she was one of the children saved from Nazi Germany who came to live in Britain, and never left. I went to see her because I thought it was important to witness, in the flesh, people who saw Hitler and his madness and lived to tell about it. As it turned out, she was a delight to hear.

I am also thinking of a survivor I met when I was sixteen years old. When she was sixteen, her apparently lifeless body was pulled from a pile in a Nazi concentration camp, by a U.S. soldier. She might have been expected to be a bitter person, but instead, she radiated hope and joy.

I am thinking of a lady I knew who was a child during the bombing of British industrial cities. Her house was blown to smithereens, on a day when she and her family happened to be out at the movies. She has been a big fan of going to the movies ever since.

And I’m thinking of another Holocaust survivor, a member of the Order of Canada, the man who swore me in as a Canadian citizen. Like me, he was a citizen of more than one country. His Austrian citizenship had been revoked under Hitler, but in a democratic Europe, he made sure to get it back.

When the Second World War ended, the Allies took those most unimaginably criminal people, the Nazis, and put them on trial at Nuremberg. Someone told me this week that the only reason “we” did this was to one-up the Soviet Union, which just wanted to shoot them. Well, so what? It was the right thing to do, it was in our interest, and it paid dividends in the history of Europe and the world since.

Really, if you’re not sure how far to go in war, you could do worse than take the moral high ground against Stalin.

Remembrance Day dates from the end of the First World War and I think that’s important, because it honors what all must want, and that is the end of conflict. So, honor to veterans and a special thanks to those who served during World War II. Who not only helped save the world, but came home and built a nation. Who grew up in the Great Depression and saw the horrors of war, but did not allow the rest of their lives to be blighted by brutality.

Monday, September 5, 2011

September 11

Some things cannot be avoided. September 11, 2001 is one of those things for me. These are my personal thoughts and there are things I do try to avoid:

1. The term "anniversary." An anniversary is something we celebrate. It is not a term I want to associate with horrible crimes.

2. The term "9/11." This term has become commonly used, even in countries where the date is written the other way around (11/9). I am sure it is not meant this way, but to me, "9/11" sounds like slang, cheap and demeaning. It reminds me of 7-Eleven, the convenience store. Shorthand is also not something I wish to associate with terrible crimes.

3. Basically, any media coverage. Language can sometimes have the effect of corroding a sense of reality. How many times, in hearing again and again about those terrible crimes, did someone say "It was like a disaster movie"? But it wasn't a movie, and the terrorists were not cartoon characters, like the Legion of Doom on Superfriends. Mass murder is not a religion, a country or any grand concept. What cause or creed could be greater than the lives they took?

I must be one of the only people in the world who has never watched live-action images of planes crashing into the World Trade Centre. I didn't have a television on September 11, 2001, and I've never wished to recreate the events of that day as a movie in my mind. It's not that I doubt historical coverage of those events is a good thing. If people are in ignorance of what happened, then they should be shown.

But I do remember September 11. I was in Toronto, working. I remember who was there and what they said about it. I remember one co-worker who thought her brother had been on one of the planes. He wasn't, but the hours of waiting and not knowing must have been agony for her. I remember another co-worker, a Japanese-Canadian, who wondered if people of the wrong ethnicity would be put in internment camps, like her grandparents had been during World War II. Everyone had a fear.

I also remember what it was like to be in a neighboring country. I remember compassion: people rolling up their sleeves to donate blood. A radio interview with someone I knew in high school, who drove his ambulance all the way to New York from Tennessee. Americans volunteering to serve in the armed forces, not to go fight people far away, but to defend their country from attack. Our one-bedroom apartment filled with British people who were my family. I remember Canadians hosting stranded air passengers for days. People in countries thought hostile to Americans, mourning the victims. The French news headline: WE ARE ALL AMERICANS.

I've read that the U.S.A. has become a harder, less trusting place since 2001, that a generation of Americans has come of age not knowing the open, friendly country I grew up in. I haven't lived there since 2000, so I can't say whether this is true. But we triumph over terrorism to the extent to which September 11 did not change the world.

What I mean is, evil was not invented that day. Terrorists had been killing innocent people for years--in other countries. But if September 11 was not the beginning of evil, nor was it the end of good. Yes, there was murder on that day but there was also rescue. Yes, there have been hate crimes, but there have also been many instances of reaching out across faiths. Many people helped their neighbors on that day, or just started talking to them.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus (revered as a prophet in Islam) tells a story in answer to the question, "Who is my neighbor?" It is the story of a Samaritan who helped a man he didn't know, after the man was the victim of a violent attack. Samaritans were a nationality and a religion that Jesus knew his audience despised. His message was clear: It is showing mercy that makes us neighbors to each other.

September 11 is to my generation what the assassination of President Kennedy was to the generation of Americans before mine. For some families (like the Kennedys) it was the most important event of their own lives. For the rest of us, we all remember where we were.

If you remember, I hope your memories are like mine. Not only of horror and grief but also of good people; of good neighbors; of different nationalities coming together. Of lives lost on one day, but also of how we can live every day.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Talking civil rights

I tend to feel that the civil rights movement that began in the 1950s was the United States of America’s finest hour. A whole class of people, so put down for so long, rising up in a nonviolent movement to gain equality. In the process, they made their country a better place.

I’m thinking about this today because over the weekend, I and a few friends had the chance to chat informally with a teenaged boy in Northern Ireland. Among the things we talked about (it was very early Sunday morning!) was the troubled history of N. Ireland, which he was learning about it in his history class.

What is it that somebody said history was? Old newspapers. What's history today was on the radio every day when I was younger.

Someone brought up the almost-as-recent history of segregation in the southern U. S. “Yes,” this young man said, “there was a lady who was sitting in the back of the bus, and she refused to give up her seat to a white person—”

“Rosa Parks,” we chorused.

To me, Rosa Parks is one of the greatest Americans who ever lived. She, and a young little-known preacher named Martin Luther King and some others of their circle, took some steps and the steps they took led to Selma, to Montgomery, Alabama and Washington, D. C. They reverberate around the world.

I love it that a kid in a part of the world once known for its troubles knows who Rosa Parks is. Maybe the best thing that could happen to his country is that, to him, that troubled past is history.

UPDATE: In the 24 hours since I wrote this, two things have happened. Northern Ireland, specifically an area east of Belfast, has been experiencing its worst riots in years, and my book club discussed Lorraine Hansberry's play A Raisin in the Sun. This groundbreaking play about the black American experience was first staged in 1959, and the British readers in my book group wondered if it wasn't a bit dated now, since all this time has passed? No, I said. It's astonishing how contemporary it is.

Plus ça change...

Monday, March 14, 2011

Interview in electric green

R. Chazz Chute runs a lively writing 'blog in Canada, and has kindly posted an interview with me this morning.

Just look for the bright green font!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Life Among the Lowly

That’s the subtitle of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I’ve recently reread this book—it’s one of the classics I first read in high school, and it’s been interesting to see my response to books more than twenty years later. I’ve concluded that, though Uncle Tom's Cabin has been controversial since its publication, this is a misunderstood book, not a bad one.

“Uncle Tom,” of course, has become a caricature of black subservience, and the novel is commonly thought of as a melodrama, written solely for the purpose of agitating American readers against one of the great evils of their day: slavery. If that were Stowe’s only accomplishment with her first novel, it would be impressive enough. No other novelist of nineteenth-century America, and certainly no female novelist, can touch her for effect. President Lincoln called her “the little lady who made this big war.” A lot of the book makes uncomfortable reading now too, but having finished it, I question whether the real problem is Stowe writing racist caricatures. I read her black characters as people living under a horrible, degrading institution, whether Mammy, who reminds us of a stereotype, or George Harris, the proud, strong young man who leads his family to Canada. Historically, Stowe portrayed slavery accurately, as part of America’s whole society, whether in slave or free states—and her point was that it demeaned every single American, slave, slave owner, or “innocent” third party.

Rita Mae Brown (no fan of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) writes in the preface to her Civil War novel, High Hearts, of the importance of giving characters their voices, including slaves who would not speak the same way as the people who owned them. I believe Stowe writes dialogue extremely well, and when George escapes to his education, he writes, speaks, and thinks in a different way from the plantation slave. Stowe’s story has limitations (would anyone in the nineteenth century write the same way as a writer today?) but that’s not what makes it uncomfortable reading. It’s the fact that, long after Stowe and all the slaves have died, it is still shocking and horrifying to think about what really went on in day-to-day America.

As for Tom, his character is ultimately a martyr. In contrast to cringing master-pleasers, Tom defies any master’s control of what is most precious to him—his soul. Like Job in the Hebrew Bible (falsely thought of as “patient”), Tom is steadfast in the knowledge that what he is doing is right. He will not obey his last and cruelest master, Simon Legree, because Legree wants to make Tom cruel. In a situation where every earthly hope and even the integrity of his own body is taken away, Tom remains steadfast. Is the message that a free black man like George Harris should behave like “an Uncle Tom”? I believe Stowe’s message is that Tom is a martyr made by slavery—that this is the only alternative left to him, because the hateful institution itself is so debasing. Legree has bought Tom’s body, but Tom believes that only God is master of his soul.

“Soul” and “martyr” bring me to this inescapable conclusion: More than a book about slavery, Stowe’s novel is most of all a book about Christianity. It is suffused with Tom’s Christian faith, the struggles of slaves with Christianity, and the appalling failure of slave owners to live up to the Christianity they profess. Without understanding this, I don't see how the book can be appreciated. Stowe came from a family of preachers and she excoriates the Christian church of her time for equivocating, failing to welcome the stranger, to raise up the slave as the equal son or daughter of God. As René Girard pointed out in I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, Christianity came into the pagan world with the new, shocking idea that the victim was blessed, that the lowly, the helpless, the person most ground down was precious and that God in Christ had become like that person. This idea, Paul wrote in the New Testament, was “folly to the Gentiles” and it has been ever since. What Nietzsche found most disgusting about Christianity was that it was a slave religion.

I found Uncle Tom’s Cabin not least a compelling page turner, and I tried throughout to figure out what was also making my twenty-first century self so disturbed. I think it is the fact that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s first novel is, beginning to end, a call to what is right. Stowe is absolutely certain what is right, her hero Tom is absolutely certain what is right, and that makes disturbing reading today. We live in a century when even the slavery of our era—torture—has somehow become an equivocal matter. Well, maybe a little bit of torture, or something like it, you know, for really bad people. How do we respond to a book that warned of God’s judgment against a nation that mistreated strangers within it, and did not live up to its own ideals of freedom and equality? A book that called America’s failings a “sin”?

The late science writer Stephen Jay Gould, in Rocks of Ages, made a point that kept coming back to me as I read Stowe’s novel: that the biggest single difference between people in our Western societies today, and any other people at any other time, is how seldom we bury our children. In the nineteenth century, you could be rich or white or free, but whoever you were, when you had a baby you had to know how likely you were to lose that baby in childhood. Charles Darwin was not exempt from this personal tragedy, and neither was Harriet Beecher Stowe. This note recurs over and over again in Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Stowe appeals to mothers—white mothers, free mothers, mothers in the North—to remember the loss of their own children, and understand that the same pain and grief were felt by slave mothers whose children were sold away from them. This seems as far away from our experience as slavery, but it shouldn’t—it is still the experience of parents in many countries in the world. Stowe could make this appeal because her readers knew what it was like, and the interesting thing is that her appeal is not colored, as it were, by racism, in the way that some contemporary comments about African birth rates are! She doesn’t feel the need to tell a white mother reading her novel that a black mother feels the same grief. She writes about women, and children, and men.

That is the power of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or Life Among the Lowly.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Spinsters Ink author news

Just a quick link to the great new page at my publisher's blog.

To those of you snowed in across North America, I wish you many good books to read!