Thanks to Hamdi Issawi from Star Edmonton for the photo.

On the morning of October 7th, nine Edmontonians linked hands on the Walterdale Bridge and stopped traffic for 69 minutes. They did this as part of Extinction Rebellion International’s attempt to bring awareness to the climate crisis. Moral outrage ensued, both by some who were on the bridge that day and some who were not.

When I heard about the action, my first reaction was something like “Ooo. I wonder if that was a good idea.” Edmonton does not have a tradition of activism. We’re in the heart of oil and gas country. We’ve satisfied ourselves with decades of high-paying oil industry jobs and trickle down paychecks. Why fix a system when it’s treated us so well. After attending demonstrations where I could count the number of protestors on both my hands, no one could have been more surprised when nearly 5000 people showed up at the Alberta Legislature on September 27 as part of the Global Climate Strike. But stopping traffic during Monday morning rush hour? — that seemed like too much to ask of Edmontonians.

My initial concern was that such delays might anger people trying to get to work — I wasn’t wrong — or encourage some to double down on their already anti-environmental stand — I wasn’t wrong there either. 

Putting the hot-headed threats aside, there were many people who said things like “That’s not the way to get my support” or “I am totally turned off by this cause.” To these people, I ask: What would get your support? What would turn you on to the cause? 

I don’t recall seeing those people at the Churchill Square rallies of years past. I’m even going to go out on a limb here and bet they weren’t at the 5000-strong Climate Strike. Those are not the people the protest was trying to reach. 

One of the nine bridge protesters wrote about the action a few days later: “This action was certainly not about winning over the masses. It was about reaching out to those people who are sitting on the fence, who know they should be doing something, but feel immobilized for whatever reason. What you don’t see in the media is the hundreds of people who have reached out to us over the last few days, wondering how they can get involved, asking what can they do. We had a woman approach us in the parking lot as we came off the bridge, asking how she can help address the climate crisis. We have had people write to us and say that they have had more conversations with their family members about climate change in the last two days than they have had in decades.” You don’t see the people who privately messaged me either. Those who didn’t want to comment publicly, but wanted someone to know they were on the bridge that day and supported the protesters. That’s right, people messaged me, and I wasn’t even one of the protestors. 

It is pretty much impossible to get wide-spread support for ideas that do not conform to the dominant discourse. For most of my life, I was content to make small personal choices that reflected my values. I found that over and over, those gestures are either ridiculed or received with incomprehension. These were not actions that I imposed on others. These are things I did quietly without fanfare. How many times have I asked for no bag and been given one anyway? How many times have I brought my own coffee mug and had my coffee poured into it from a disposable cup? Before she embraced paper towels, my grandmother used to use cut-up t-shirts to wipe spills from the kitchen floor or the fridge shelving. It seemed like an easy way to avoid waste, so in my early 20s, I stopped buying paper towels. One day, I was at Grandma’s house. My uncle was there too. Grandma spilled the tea she was carrying, so I said, “I’ll go get a rag.” As if to explain, Grandma said, “Bertie doesn’t use paper towels.” Before I reached the other side of the room (and it was a small one), my uncle had grabbed the roll of paper towels off the counter. He looked me in the eye, and pulled ream after ream of paper towels off the roll. Grandma would have called the look he gave me a “shit-eating grin.” It is as though the smallest act of non-conformity is seen as an act of unacceptable rebellion. 

Alberta is a province trapped in amber. Captured by the fossil fuel economy, it is immobilized to action. Here in Alberta we have the highest rate of climate change denial in the country. For Albertans understanding the climate crisis comes at great cost. It comes with the realization that we must change, and it’s hard to change. It’s hard to think that our understanding of the world has changed, and we must change along with it. But if we are to adapt to our new reality, we must stand up for change. It will upset the people who don’t want to change, but that’s the way it’s always been. 

People pushed back against the civil rights movement and the suffragettes and the abolition of the slave trade, yet change came with or without their help. This action came with risk of many kinds. But it takes brave people to stand up in the face of cultural conformity, and bravery is what we need. Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh wrote:

Living in the world, we have strong habits. We walk without any awareness. We walk as if we have to run. We speak but don’t know what we are saying; we create a lot of suffering while speaking. Communities that commit themselves to mindfulness can help members of the community learn how to speak, breathe, and walk mindfully.

The climate crisis requires mindfulness. It becomes the task of the outlier to provide space and support for the community to confront our reality and imagine a new way forward. The outlier shows us we can break from the dominant discourse and become mindful of our situation. 

It is not easy to feel you are called to selfless service when you are seen as an inconvenience by your community. This is the fate of the activist, the non-conformist. It’s easy to admire the Nelson Mandelas, the Martin Luther Kings, and the Mahatma Gandhis as historical artifacts when they are not holding up your morning commute. Without mindful consideration of what is at stake globally, that morning commute can feel pretty important. Here I’ll quote Thich Nhat Hanh once more: “When we see things globally, we have more wisdom. We are not caught by small situations. When we see globally, we avoid many mistakes.” An interruption in our morning commute is truly a “small situation,” but climate change and environmental breakdown are not.

The crisis we are facing is unprecedented in the history of the human species, and here we are…living it. That’s what is so difficult to reconcile. We are in the early days of the sixth extinction, experiencing loss of biodiversity at a rate unprecedented in millions of years. Our soils are losing their capacity to produce the food we need. Insect populations are collapsing around the globe. At the same time, climate change is heating our oceans, melting the permafrost, and eating away at our coastlines. 

What does this crisis require of us?  I mean, we’re just trying to get to work on time so we can feed our families. To answer this question, we must “see globally.” As Pope Benedict XVI once said, “Our earth speaks to us, and we must listen if we want to survive.” 

I do not call myself a Christian. Nevertheless, the Bible offers wisdom. Matthew writes of the man sowing seeds. Some of the seeds fell on the path and the birds ate them; some fell on rocky ground, where the sun scorched them; some fell among the thorns, which choked them; but some fell on deep, fertile soil, where they settled and grew. 

The actions of the bridge protestors have fallen on the minds of people with differing receptivity. Some of those minds are fertile, others are not. For some, the action is a challenge to their way of life, a rebuke of the things they value; for others the action is childish, meaningless, a trifle unworthy of their attention; for others the action is an inconvenience, an obstacle to business as usual; but for some the action is a manifestation of what they hope for the world. It shows them that another way is possible. It demonstrates that bravery and self-sacrifice exist. It shows them that they are not alone. 

On the subject of service, Wangari Maathai gives these words of advice: “When I learn that something isn’t right, I have a tendency to search for a solution, as I did all those years ago with the women who inspired me to initiate the Green Belt Movement. Look at the problem in front of you and try to solve it.”

This is what we are called to do. This is what is required.

Wishing for the return of another boom will not solve this crisis. Another boom may give us a temporary respite, but nothing more. Our problem is not unsolvable. It requires vision and determination. It requires wisdom and selflessness, and it requires bravery of the kind we saw on the bridge that day, but most of all, it requires love. As one of the protestors later wrote, “We blocked the bridge out of love, not defiance. We blocked the Walterdale for our families and for your families — because, ultimately, we love you.”

Sources:

Thich Nhat Hanh; The Art of Communicating

Thich Nhat Hanh; Touching Peace

Wangari Maathai; Replenishing the Earth

California is facing the worst drought on record. (Wikimedia Commons:Public Domain)

The recent push for geoengineering in the face of growing concerns about climate change reminded me of a news story from a few years back.  This headline tells it all: “Why did LA Drop 96 Million ‘Shade Balls’ into Its Water?”

In an attempt to slow evaporation and halt algae growth, LA dropped millions of black polyethylene balls into its water reservoir. The news was received on social media with exclamations of “Cool,” “Wow,” and “Awesome.”

It seems we continue to be in denial that our actions — all of our actions — have enormous consequences. The list of proposed climate change geoengineering quick fixes is lengthy, but let’s drill down into LA’s small — and really rather clever — initiative to see why we need to think long and hard before we create a patchwork of geoengineering bandaids. Here’s my take:

  1. This is a reactionary measure. Dumping a bunch of black plastic balls into a body of water addresses NONE of the underlying causes for California’s drought woes. It does NOT mitigate climate change. It puts a bandaid on a growing suppurating wound.
  2. This measure actually contributes to drought. That’s right. These plastic balls are made of petrochemicals, a major cause of global warming. And as we know, climate change caused or at least exacerbated the drought that California only this year emerged from. Worse still, the petroleum used to manufacture these balls will have been refined, transported, processed, and transported again, a chain of CO2 emitting steps enabled by the burning of petroleum products. Within the broad perspective, these balls are contributing to climate change and making droughts like this one worse.
  3. These balls directly increase global warming. These balls are black, so they absorb heat. They are significantly darker than the water that they cover and therefore they will reflect less heat.

As global warming manifests itself in a million unpleasant ways, these kinds of reactionary measures will propagate. As the crisis worsens, they will almost certainly become more bold and more desperate. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think so. We are all beginning to panic, but through our fog of fear and anxiety, we must be critical of these projects. For too long we’ve looked at problems (and solutions) in isolation, but if we are to stop the worst of climate change, we’re going to have to be smarter than that.

Photo: California is facing the worst drought on record. (Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)

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I’ve been writing about “ethical oil” for some time, trying to understand the language that justifies the expansion of the Alberta oil sands. For a wordie like me, tracing the origins of this linguistic frame from Ezra Levant’s 2010 bestseller through its evolution — politically, culturally, and corporately motivated — to its current use by media, politicians, industry, and the public is fascinating. And a moral responsibility. This summer, I’m writing a book about the phenomenon.

After I finished entering the final marks for my last spring course, I packed up Willow, and we rendezvoused with Zane at Niskonlith Reserve in Secwepemc territory outside of Kamloops. Zane had been helping the Tiny House Warriors with their tiny house build. The Warriors and Water Protectors will be using the houses to protest and block the Transmountain Pipeline Expansion. We stayed at the build a couple of nights. Willow made a new dog friend, and we hammered in a few more nails. It was a welcome respite from the city.

Once we left the reserve, we were on our way to visit my sister in Squamish. Along the way, we heard that 12 Greenpeace activists were hanging from the Ironworkers’ Memorial Bridge and blocking a tanker that was trying to leave Burrard Inlet. It was the bridge we’d be driving over to get to Squamish.

We knew some of the activists: Mike Hudema, Mary Lovell, and Emma Jackson. I admire them all. It is impossible, even in BC, not to feel the animosity of the people who feel invested in the oil sands industry. I especially admire Emma. She is from Edmonton. As an Edmontonian myself, I know it can be challenging living in an environment where many who see you are a traitor to your people for believing that we need to curtail oil sands expansion. As someone who strongly believes we must “leave it in the ground,” I cautiously tiptoe around the subject of the oil sands. I’ll talk about climate change, but I’ll avoid discussing its connection to the bituminous sands. It’s a ridiculous disconnect that I must embrace if I’m going to engage people about climate change effectively. Despite my frustration, working at a university holds many advantages. I spend my days surrounded by young people in a degree program that prizes itself with teaching critical thinking, so the students I teach are responsive to critical discussion. We may not agree on the particulars of an issue, but we can talk calmly and rationally. I often find myself thinking, “Huh. I never thought about it that way,” after we’ve discussed some current issue in class. It’s the sort of discussion that helps me grow as a person and an instructor.

I’ve watched Mike’s, Emma’s and Mary’s social media feeds during this action as I have with past actions. Sometimes they will ask for help combing through the hundreds of posts that people write on their feeds. Help deleting or reporting the hate-filled calls: “Why don’t you wrap that rope around your neck and hang yourself,” “Get a real job!” “What a c*nt” and “We need snipers picking you off. You r*tards know nothing about oil sands.” I will go through the posts reporting the ugliest and deleting what I can. My stomach will begin to crawl, my head swim, and my skin prickle. That’s when say, “Enough. I can’t do this anymore.” I’m thankful that there are also posts of gratitude and well-wishing. Posts that say, “Love you,” and “Thank you for what you do.” Yep. Edmonton can be a challenging place to live. Mike moved to the coast a couple months ago. I know many others who have done the same.

Zane and I were not in a rush to get to Squamish, so we had time to stop in on the protest. I googled Bates Park. We pulled off the main highway and parked near tall cedars. After a ten-minute walk through coastal rainforest, we found the news cameras, the Greenpeace crew, the protest supporters, and a long line of parked police cars. There was a festive sense to the scene. Small girls ran to Willow. They cooed and stroked her fur. An Indigenous woman pounded a drum and sang.  Burning sage scented the air. We were immediately made to feel welcome.

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Our timing was perfect. We watched as the police boat cruised around the inlet and an RCMP officer rappelled down to speak to Mike in his harness. Another hour and the protesters would have been gone from the bridge. I was able to interview a fellow with a protest sign: HONK if you oppose bailing out Texas billionaires with your hard-earned tax dollars! It turned out that he was one of the first group arrested at the Kinder Morgan gates back in March. I also spoke with a woman from Greenpeace International. Zane knew her from the time he helped with a couple of Greenpeace actions. I had more material for my book. We would drive to Klahanie Campground that evening, and I would sit beside an idyllic creek, and type out my book. Soon we’ll return to Alberta where I’ll finish my book. If it’s published next year, as I hope it will be,  I wonder what the repercussions will be. Will I be told I should be shot or hanged? Will I be called a c*nt or a r*tard and told to get a real job? I don’t know, but if so, I’ll be in good company.

 

 

I haven’t blogged for a long time, but it’s summer and I’m back at it.

This is the talk I gave for the People’s Climate March in Edmonton this spring.

And here is the transcript:

We NEED to talk about climate change! You all get that. By coming here today you’re showing that you know climate change is important. But what about the people who aren’t here? How can we engage them in this conversation? Because we MUST engage them in this conversation.

I teach Communications and we’re always going on about Audience and Purpose. It turns out, knowing your audience and your purpose matter. They matter just as much if you’re crafting a Press Release as if you’re talking to Uncle Jo at the Family Reunion.

If my purpose is to convince someone that climate change is important, if I want someone to reduce their carbon footprint, I need to know a bit about that person. What are their world views and values? If I’m talking to Uncle Jo, and I know that Jo thinks Donald Trump has great business acumen, I’m not going to start talking about polar bears. Because if I do, he’s going to think I’m a “left-wing wacko,” and that will be the end of that. But maybe I can mention how I’m thinking about installing solar panels because they’re going to add resale value to my house or because I don’t want to depend on a volatile energy market, and that might be my way of introducing the topic of climate change, and — hey — did you hear that we’re losing our outdoor rinks in Alberta?

And I still believe that leading by example is a powerful form of communication.

Not too long ago I moved to the North East End of the city. It’s the perfect house — well… the perfect price. I immediately felt buyer’s remorse. It was so far away from everything, especially MacEwan. Takes me almost half an hour to drive to work, and I hate the drive. But it seemed way too far to ride my bike. Yet every day my colleague, Marlene, would ride into the office. In the winter she’d come in a cloud of ice fog. Her cheeks glowing bright red. She’d take off her goggles, smile, and say, “A bit brisk out there today!” I’m watching this for months. So I’d say, “How’s traffic? What’s your route like?” She’d answer. She never tried to shame me. And one day, I thought, “Roberta, you’re being ridiculous. If Marlene can do this, so can you.” I figured out the best possible route. I got my gear together, and I did it. I found that I love riding my bike to work. Instead of spending 25 minutes frustrated with everyone around me. I spend 35 feeling on top of the world. Once again, I’m that 10-year-old girl on her bright yellow 5-speed racing bike, riding the mean streets of Camrose.

Let’s create a vision.

What if everyone in Edmonton rode a bike or took public transit — say — 3 times a week. How would that change our city? Let’s look at this from Uncle Jo’s perspective: It would reduce congestion. It would cut back on the wear and tear of our roads, so we’d save money. We’d save money on parking and gas too. We’d all be healthier. We’d end up with more walkable communities. And… we’d reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

This brings me to my last point: We MUST create a positive vision for the future.

Because climate change can seem frightening, but just CHANGE can seem frightening too.

We need to show that mitigating climate change is good for all of us. We all benefit from reliable energy. We all benefit from healthier lifestyles. We all benefit from clean air and clean water.

So when you leave here today, please take the climate change message with you. Talk to Uncle Jo. Set an example for your colleagues. Let’s show everyone that positive change is possible.

Thank you.

 

Writing Memoir

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I recently taught a class on writing “hermit crab stories” for Third Verb Writing Workshops. At some point, I mentioned that I would come up with a list of my “Top 10 Favourite Memoirs” and send it out to the workshop participants so they could do some extra reading.

As it turned out I was incapable of composing a favourites list. It’s just too dependent upon my mood at the time. I also realized that my favourite memoirs aren’t necessarily the ones that I’ve learned the most from. Instead I decided to compose a list of “10 Memoirs That I Have Learned From.” This is not a definitive list, and I suspect that if you were to ask me again in a year, I’d probably give you a different list — but here it is:

10 Memoirs That I Have Learned From

  1. Of This Earth by Rudy Wiebe: This one will always be on my top ten list. Wiebe’s use of language is lyrical and poetic and his incorporation of ephemera is masterful, but the aspect of his memoir that I can’t forget is the way in which he builds effect over time. When Wiebe’s childhood self experiences an epiphany, the reader experiences it too.
  2. A Promise of Salt by Lori Misek: Misek comes to terms with her sister’s murder. Use of broken narrative and white space is breathtaking.
  3. Stitches by David Small (graphic memoir): Poignant and bizarre and terrifying.
  4. A Likely Story by Robert Kroetsch: Kroetsch’s memoir is a written collage and like a visual collage, meaning is created slowly as the reader examines each piece.
  5. The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson: If you didn’t grow up in the 1950’s, you will feel like you did.
  6. Counting Teeth: A Namibian Story by Peter Midgley: Like his poetry, Midgley’s prose is rich and textured.
  7. The Book of Small by Emily Carr: Her writing isn’t complex, but its simplicity complements her stories.
  8. Rosina the Midwife by Jessica Kluthe: I’ve always been attracted to writers who are able to weave various elements into the narrative. I have tried to do this with my own long-form works.
  9. Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy: A memoir that teaches us both what to do and (perhaps) what not to do. Poetic and lyrical, but the author is not entirely likeable and that makes for an interesting read.
  10. The Writing Life by Annie Dillard: This is a classic of the genre, but I found the author’s incessant complaining about writing irritating. It undermined her “ethical appeal” (as we’d say in rhetoric) or authorial credibility. Having said that, Dillard is masterful in other ways. She is able to look at the common, the everyday and turn it into something magical.

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Last week I sat down for a chat with Jessica Kluthe from Third Verb. I’ll be teaching Tell it with a Twist (memoir writing) this Thursday, September 29, for Third Verb, so we spoke about writing true stories and my book, Weaving a Malawi Sunrise. If you’re interested, you can still sign up by going to the Third Verb website.

Here’s our conversation:

What drew you to telling true stories?

People’s stories are precious, and if they go untold they can be lost. But stories have value historically, culturally, and emotionally. Stories help us connect to others’ experiences, which creates understanding. They remind us that we are all human.

What drew you to this particular story?

I met Memory Chazeza in 2006 when she came to speak at the Rotary District Conference in Stony Plain. I had been asked to photograph the event. I was captivated by her personal story.

Memory had been orphaned at a young age and grown up in poverty. In spite of the challenges, she never lost hope. She was determined to go to post-secondary school and support her family and her community. This seemed unrealistic for a woman living in rural Malawi, but Memory was determined, and ultimately she not only received a post-secondary degree, she built a school and now she is a role model for the young women of her country.

While this is a tremendous achievement, Memory’s journey was filled with obstacles. She often went hungry so that she could spend her days volunteer teaching at a nearby school. She was threatened with rape by men in her community, and initially she was called a “lazy girl” by her family.

I remember her saying, “The world is made for the stubborn” when recalling her life, and I thought, “How true that is.” It seemed that her story should be told, so I set out to tell it.

Did anything unexpected come out of traveling to Malawi and then writing Weaving a Malawi Sunrise?

On my travels, I met many women with incredible stories — each one more remarkable than the last. Their stories made me realize that we are all given hardships and challenges in our lives. It’s how we face these challenges that come to define us.

After taking on such a large creative non-fiction project, how has your writing practice evolved?

I’ve realized that anything is possible, but you must write in order to write. It may seem self-evident, but if we are going to write long works we must be disciplined enough to put our bums in our chairs, turn off social media and write! It really is a discipline thing, but completing a complex, multi-year project has reinforced what must be done and what can be accomplished.

Telegram Memories

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In Tell It Slant, Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola describe the “hermit crab” essay: “This type of essay appropriates existing forms as an outer covering to protect its soft, vulnerable underbelly.” The shells are borrowed from fiction and poetry as well as common written ephemera such as recipes, social media, or lists. The contents are “tender.” Next week, I’ll be teaching a workshop on memoir writing where we’ll be exploring the use of these “hermit crab” forms: Tell It With A Twist.

My “hermit crab” story, “Telegram Memories,” was published in Issue 60 of filling Station:

Telegram Memories

  1. The photographs show my grandfather as a young man. He is tall with Brylcreemed hair and Clark Gable eyes. In one photo, he smiles down into my grandmother’s eyes. It is this smile that grabbed her heart and never let go, and it is this just-short-of-a-dimpled smile that brings life to his pale blue eyes and spirit to the faded photographs.
  2. As a small boy, my grandfather refused to eat his oatmeal for breakfast. When he came back for lunch he was given the same oatmeal. When he came back for supper he was given the same oatmeal. The next morning, he was given the same oatmeal, and he ate it.
  3. On his first day of grade one, a girl accused him of kicking her in the cloak room. When the teacher stood him before the class and strapped him, he recalled an illustration. In the black and white woodcut, a knight lay dying on the field of battle. The knight gazed up at his murderer through bloodied eyes, and with his dying breath intoned, “You shall rue this day.” My grandfather looked his teacher in the eye and said, “You shall rue this day.” He was strapped again.
  4. He feared snakes his entire life, but he told me this story: As a boy he witnessed the neighbourhood toughs trap a garter snake. They stuffed the snake into an empty Plow Boy tobacco tin and threw it into their fire. My grandfather burned his hands grabbing the can and pulling the snake to safety.
  5. I can see my grandfather now. He is sitting at the kitchen table, elbows holding up his shoulders — he taps the ash from his Export A. Sitting on a makeshift chair by the lake, watching for movement on the far mountainside and listening to birdsong — an Export A rests between his fingers. Leaning back in his swivel chair at the McLure train station, legs crossed — there’s that smile again and that twinkle— and an Export A pressed between his lips.
  6. He longed to return to his childhood home — the rainforests of the West Coast. I remember him saying, “Albruta isn’t a country fit for a white man.”
  7. He was longshoreman, telegraph operator, railroader, Depression Era gambler, writer, dreamer, storyteller, train operator, father, husband — and he was my grandfather.
  8. As punishment he forced his children to stand with their arms outstretched at shoulder height — but never me.
  9. His favourite meal was roast beef and Yorkshire pudding — “Good Anglo-Saxon food.” But he loved everything my grandmother made him. Even when he came around the corner one day to find her pouring Ketchup into the meatloaf mix. “What are you making me eat, Mom?” That was not his idea of “Anglo-Saxon” cooking, but he ate it anyway.
  10. We walked the mountains, the hillsides, the forests, and he told me stories. In those stories lived his characters: ticky bugs and piggy birds, Danny, the mouse, and Scrag, the witch.
  11. My aunts played a game with our German Shephard, Cheko. They pointed a stick, like a gun, and he would grab it. One day, my friend, Linda, raised a stick to Cheko, and he bit her. My grandmother took Linda home, but I don’t remember that. I remember this: I walk outside and see Cheko lying on the ground on his side — panting. His eye is open and dazed with fear. My grandfather is standing above him, a thick chain in his hand. I ask my grandfather what he is doing. He says, “You need to go back in the house.” And like a coward, I did.
  12. He wrote, he typed. His stories are preserved on small, yellowing scraps labeled “CANADIAN NATIONAL RAILWAYS Railway Service Telegram.” They are not enough.
  13. When he wasn’t writing, he was expounding. I hear his loud, strident voice: “That bastard Trudeau.” And always, “Line ‘em up against the wall and shoot ‘em.” I don’t remember who was being lined up. Maybe it was a politician that time, but it would be someone else the next.
  14. With Ray Noble and Al Bowley circling our Grundig turntable, my grandfather sang under his breath: “I’m living in a kind of daydream. I’m happy as a king. And foolish though it may seem, to me that’s everything.”
  15. He was able to perfectly imitate the West Coast Tree Frog. Krrrik-kik-kik-kik-kik. Krrrik-kik-kik-kik-kik. All the grandkids tried to copy that sound; none ever could.
  16. He read Sir Walter Scott, Erich Remarque and James Thurber. He quoted Rudyard Kipling, “A rag, a bone, and a hank of hair and the fool he called her his lady fair … ” That’s all I remember.
  17. In a very old memory, I sit in the tall grass. Like a typical, idle four-year-old, I pluck at the grass beside me. I hear my grandfather’s gentle voice: “That grass should be allowed to live, just like you and me.”
  18. He told me about the Nanking Massacre, and on December 7, every December 7, he’d say, “Do you know what day this is? It’s the day the Japs bombed Pearl Harbour.”
  19. After his first stroke, he didn’t read anymore. He didn’t write anymore. He didn’t argue anymore. But everyone agreed, he was much easier to get along with.
  20. I visited him as he lay dying slowly, quietly under a stiff white sheet at St. Mary’s Hospital in Camrose. “This is no ticky bug story, Bertie,” he might have said. His voice was too quiet for me to hear.

If you are in Edmonton next week and would like to attend my workshop, Tell It With A Twist, go to Third Verb for more details and to register. Participants will receive a copy of Weaving a Malawi Sunrise: A Woman, A School, A People.

 

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I recently entered an online writing competition. The competition consists of four rounds over six months. The challenge is this: write a flash fiction story of 1000 words or less in 48 hours. The story must be within an assigned genre and setting and must contain an assigned element.

This was my assignment:

genre: Action/Adventure

setting: Igloo

element: a calculator

Full disclosure: I’ve never written an action/adventure story — ever — and I had no idea where to start. The germ of an idea came to me on the hike down from Hidden Valley in the Rockies near Jasper. By the time I was home, it had morphed from an alt history about the Franklin Expedition to a story about enduring love. I wrote the rough draft that night (1300+ words) and edited it down the next morning (1000 words on the nose). My time for research (no internet at the cabin) was limited, so I hope I didn’t make too many cultural or linguistic blunders. Also, typos, I bet there are typos. *groan*

Despite a few initial misgivings, I loved the process. It’s amazing what comes out when you have a tight deadline. Ha, ha.

Anyway, here it is.

Ata and Aput

by Roberta Laurie

Aput was unhappy. He didn’t know how to articulate his sadness, but it weighed on him like the long dark night of winter — close and pressing. He had felt this way ever since his ataatatsiaq, grandfather, died two weeks ago. Ata, he had called him since his small mouth could form the word. It wasn’t that Ata’s death had been unexpected. He had already lived through many winters, and even Aput’s mother said that it was better for him to go before he was flown to a hospital to live his last days a thousand miles from home.

They had been close. It was because of his grandfather that he was named Aput, snow. Ata had insisted on a traditional name. He had wanted to preserve the old ways: showing Aput how to gut fish, skin seal, construct a tallow lantern from hollowed rock. Just two months before Ata’s passing, they had cut and shaped a small igloo from the hard-packed snow. Aput hadn’t visited the igloo since the night he’d spent curled under its opaque dome pressed against his grandfather for warmth, but he suddenly knew he needed to go there. He had to see it again before the spring winds came.

He felt such a rush of knowing, knowing that this was a last way to say goodbye to his grandfather, that he packed quickly. His mother was at work, and if he hurried, he could be home before she knew he was gone. The days were short, so he didn’t have much time. He needed to be home before the Arctic night returned.

He pulled his notebooks, pencils and calculator from his school backpack and replaced them with a box of Smarties, a bottle of water, a flashlight, and the hunting knife that his grandfather had given him for his tenth birthday.

He shrugged on his warmest parka, tucked his feet into his mucklucks, slipped on his sealskin mitts and opened the door. A puff of wind ground ice crystals into his cheeks.

He set off down the snow-packed road, past his auntie’s house, his school, a few more houses, and he was out of town. A limitless white terrain. He followed the line of the airport road then took a sharp turn when he came to Qimmiq River. If he followed the frozen water, he would come to Prayer Rock. From there he would find the igloo.

The journey seemed more arduous without Ata. Here on the vast open tundra with the sun hugging the southern horizon, he felt small and solitary. He was light, so he could easily walk on the snow’s frozen crust. It wasn’t until he came upon a hardened drift that he struggled, but he knew Prayer Rock was not far, so he persevered. Then the giant rock broke the horizon. That gave Aput renewed strength, and although the wind was picking up, he plunged on.

The walk to Prayer Rock was longer than he expected, but the igloo was where he remembered, covered with fallen snow that made its outline faint.

He dropped to his knees and, with mittened hands, scraped the snow from the entrance tunnel. Then he fell to his belly and wiggled his way inside. It was just as he remembered it, snug and dim. For a moment, he thought he could hear Ata’s breath in the small space. He felt safe, and for the first time since his grandfather’s death, he didn’t feel alone.

He unzipped his backpack and pulled out the Smarties, the knife, the water and the flashlight.

He opened the Smarties. Counting ten into his hand, one for each year of his age because Ata always said, “Save some for later.” Then he closed the box. He took the smallest of bites to make them last, and as he nibbled, he wished that Ata were there to eat the Smarties with him. But maybe he was, in a way. If Aput closed his eyes he could see Ata’s smiling face. When he remembered the day that Ata had let him gut a fish without any help, he felt big and important. When he remembered waiting with Ata for the seal to come to the ice’s surface, he felt pride that he could be patient like Ata and the other men.

He had forgotten to eat the last of his Smarties, so he popped it in his mouth. He could hear the wind outside and knew he should leave the igloo. He took a sip of water and repacked his bag. “Goodbye, Ata. I love you,” he whispered into the dimming space. He crawled out to a darkening world. The wind had begun to pick up the snow. He had stayed too long.

Aput could just see the dark shape of Prayer Rock. From there he once again followed the river, but under the darkening sky its outline was indistinct. Aput pulled the flashlight from his pack and flicked its switch. Aput walked as fast as he could, but his small body was pressed by the wind. The wind could trick the ear too, and that may have been the case, but it seemed like he heard his grandfather’s voice, “Keep walking.” So he did.

Aput’s attention wandered and he thought that he had lost the line of the river, but he heard Ata’s voice on the wind: “Too the right.” And he corrected.

His face was raw and his legs were aching by the time he reached the road: “Almost home,” said the wind.

There were small dots of glimmer in the darkness. “Keep walking,” said Ata.

The lights got closer, and Aput knew he would make it. He began to run.

He ran up the three steps of his house, opened the door, and was home. Cradled by warmth, he shrugged off his pack and hung his coat by the door. He took out the Smarties and sat on the couch. Before opening the box, he whispered, “I love you, Ata,” into the quiet stillness.

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Frames, at least the effective ones, have a way of sticking. And in case you’re fuzzy on frames, here’s a definition from the guru of linguistic framing, George Lakoff: “Frames are mental structures that shape the way we see the world.”

To elaborate, frames are the mental associations that we make — involuntarily make — when we hear a word/phrase or see an image. For example, if I say the word “popcorn,” you might think movie or butter or theatre. You may even smell the popcorn’s buttery goodness. The word “popcorn” does not exist in a vacuum. It comes with baggage.

Back 2010, when Ezra Levant published his book, Ethical Oil, he established a powerful frame. The “ethical oil” frame is more than the title of a book. The “ethical oil” frame establishes the Alberta oil sands as “ethical,” in other words, moral, just, good. Central to this frame are two premises. The first premise is this: the Alberta oil sands produces the “most ethical oil in the world,” not like other oil producers: fascist theocracies, supporters of terrorism, suppressors of human rights. The problem with this argument is that it turns a blind eye to the problems inherent to the oil sands: GHG emissions, water and air contamination, habitat destruction, resource dependence — the bundle of foibles associated with the sands. The argument also generalizes by tapping into existing biases, prejudices and xenophobia. You know: black-bearded terrorists, women forced to wear burqas, and a thousand other associations and barely acknowledged preconceptions.

The second major premise inherent to the “ethical oil” frame is that if the oil produced by the Alberta oil sands is “ethical,” then anyone opposing the development of the Alberta-based industry must be “unethical.” This is the brilliance behind the “ethical oil” frame. Once we connect “ethical” to “oil,” we accept a package deal. If something is “ethical,” the opposite (or those opposing it) must be “unethical.” This sort of argument polarizes an issue. It’s an “either/or” argument that leaves no space for reflection or nuance. This is an argument that vilifies all those who don’t support without reservation. What did George W. Bush say to the world after the 9/11 attack? “If you’re not with us, you’re against us” — a sentiment that led to such cultural peculiarities such as “Freedom Fries” and logical absurdities like “The War on Terror.” You support either “ethical” oil or “unethical” oil production. Done.

To me though, the core problem with a frame like “ethical oil” is that it allows us to maintain a smug sense of self-righteousness. We are beyond reproach. We can justify actions and policies that are inherently problematic without honest discussion. We can simply invoke “ethical oil,” and the problems of fossil fuel consumption and extraction disappear. They become someone else’s. We are unsullied. No debate. No reflection. No problem.

You don’t hear the term “ethical oil” so much these days, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still alive and well. Enter the media scandal du jour, or as the Edmonton Journal put it, the “Hot Lesbians’ Ad.” The ad is not really unique, I’ve seen dozens of “ethical oil” ads on social media. What sets this ad apart is not its poor taste but its level of poor taste.

The ad shows two young, physically attractive (hot) women (lesbians) kissing. The text reads, “In Canada lesbians are considered hot. In Saudi Arabia if you’re a lesbian, you die. Why are we getting our oil from countries that don’t think lesbians are hot? Choose equality! Choose Canadian oil!”

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The poster was produced by Robbie Picard, formerly of the I Love Oilsands campaign, for his own creation, the Canada Oil Sands Community. Picard didn’t expect so much negative backlash, but he defends his choice: “When I say lesbians are hot, I don’t think there is anything wrong about saying that.” Yet the ad set off a social media counterblast: “When rednecks try to pinkwash, I turn green from nausea,” “It appears Ezra Levant hired a team of 17 year old boys to develop Canada Oil Sands Community’s “hot lesbian” themed ad campaign. I think I’m going to puke. How stupid can these people be?” and “I can’t wait to see the inevitable parody with two bare-chested male oilsands workers. Suck that up, Oilsands Community,” and that was indeed close behind. My favourite was a Brokeback Mountain still with the caption “Just can’t quit you tarsands crude.” Yes. I was amused.

In spite of the backlash, there were supporters, and there was a LOT of publicity. Maybe that was Picard’s intent. Whatever the case, the meme would not have worked without an existing frame. Without the “ethical oil” frame, the meme would have lacked resonance. It is given meaning because it expands on our existing perception that because there is intolerance for lesbians in Saudi Arabia, the bitumen extracted from the Alberta oil sands is “ethical.”

Frames build upon cultural norms, but they also help to establish cultural norms, and once a frame is established it becomes the air we breath. A strong frame is difficult to challenge because by talking about the frame, we engage it. We stop discussing issues with any sort of objectivity because the frame envelops the concept. We see it through the lens of the frame. The linguistic frame.

The “ethical oil” frame is more than two words, it informs our perceptions, our beliefs and our understanding. Like the smell of buttery popcorn, it has become part of who we are.

Summer Haiku

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Next week, I’ll be teaching a series of classes on nature writing for this year’s YouthWrite. I’ve been wanting to teach more creative writing for some time, so I’m looking forward to sharing two of my favourite things — nature and writing — with a group young writers.

As part of the class on form, I thought it might be fun to write haiku. Although haiku has evolved to explore many modern subjects, traditionally it was a meditation on the natural world. A sort of “look at this” or “see what I found” snapshot. The Instagram of poetry. Perfect.

The form is bendy. There’s more to haiku than 5-7-5. Capturing an image or conveying a feeling is its essence. The 5-7-5 is somewhat flexible. Also perfect.

It’s been a long time since I wrote haiku, so I thought I should practice ahead of time. I enjoyed the process, so I’ll share a few:

 

The mountain stands, touched

by slow-moving, sumptuous clouds

and holds its secrets

 

A warm wind flows

Through aspen leaves and branches.

Nature’s kaleidoscope.

 

Rose petals create

Hillsides splashed with pink,

Nectar for hummingbirds.

 

Yellow lady slippers,

Delicate and refined,

Collect the morning dew.

 

Cups of butter

Balancing on thin stems

Skip across the speckled meadows.