In 1872, Robert Francis Burton spent a summer in Iceland. He was a famous world traveler. During his travels, he took great risks. He was the only non-Muslim to participate in the hajj, traveling to Mecca in disguise at risk of his life. He learned twenty-eight languages plus the customs of many cultures. He came to Iceland obsessed with the idea of re-starting the sulfur mines as he saw them as a way to create employment in Europe’s poorest country. He was a keen observer, highly educated, an experienced traveller who was interested in everything about the countries he visited. His two volume book, Ultima Thule, describes, in great detail, the Iceland that our ancestors were shortly to leave. The first volume is crammed with statistics about Iceland. The second volume is an expanded diary about his travels around Iceland by horse.
When we travel, we all must stay somewhere and, in the Iceland of 1872, there were few commercial places to stay. Reykjavik was the size of a small town. Travelers went from farm to farm and church to church for churches served as storehouses and places of shelter.
Here are three descriptions by Burton of the places he stayed.
“We sat, after reaching Hruni, amongst the graves, which had just been utilized by mowing. Seeing our forlorn plight, the Prófastr, Síra Johann Brím or Briem, came out of his house, kindly greeted us in Latin and did the honours of his little church. On the right of the entrance was a small library, containing the oldest Icelandic translation of the New Testament…Better still, he led us to his home and, enlarging on the mal paso before us, he adhibited a most copious feed of Hvíta salmon, smoked beef, cheese, biscuits and white bread, with golden sherry and sundry cups of cafe au lait. And as we mounted with many vales and gratias agimus, he insisted upon a final Hesta-skál (stirrup cup) of distilled waters. I afterwards learned that we were not the only travellers the good Prófaster has sent on their way rejoicing, he extends a similar hospitality to all strangers.”
“At half-past nine P.M. we entered the Thingvellir church: the altar-piece, a Last Supper, is old: the pulpit dates from 1683; and the loft is not, as usual, a store-room for the farm, but a sleeping apartment for travellers, provided with pillows and mattresses, decently clean. Prófaster Bech was happily absent: his wife sent us forelles and Kaka, thin rye cakes, but Icelandic modesty did not admit of our seeing the lady.”
“Returning to our horses, we descended one of those staircases of earth and stone now so familiar, and fell into the valley of a northern Laxá, called for distinction, “of Reynivellir“ (the sorb-apple plains). The surface, so fair to sight, is swampy, despite its main-drain, and must be traversed by earthen dykes. The lower part is protected to the north by the Reynivallaháls (neck of Reynivellir), and to the south by the Miðfell (mid-mount) and other outliers of the Esja. Here many houses are scattered about; we recognize the sweet scent of hay; and the dock-fringed plots of potatoes and cabbages look exceptionally flourishing. In winter all freezes, but as the grass never protrudes from the ice, however, shallow, the neighbouring farmers visit one another on skates, which are those of Europe generally.
“At eleven P.M. we reached the parsonage, which showed three gables pointing southwards and a fourth to the east. A cart and a wheel-jack gave signs that improvements were not unknown. The hour was unusual for calling, but Iceland knows nothing of these fine distinctions: the house dogs bayed the alarm; the host awoke the household; and, before turning in, we supped comfortably at the parsonage.
“On the next day Síra Thorvaldr could not accompany us, having service to read. The only son of a widow, he entered the Church at her desire, but his heart is book-hunting at Copenhagen…He kindly gave me a copy of the Reykholtskirkumáldagi, the Authentic Inventory of the Reykholt Kirk, facsimile’d by the Icelandic Literary Society: the three specimens bear no date, but the Sagas fix the time between A.D. 1143 and A.D. 1222.”
Burton travelled to Iceland and around Iceland with great difficulty. S On the way to Iceland travellers often encountered storms so violent that ships pitched and rolled violently, so much so that people were thrown out of their bunks, were plagued with seasickness, were often in danger of their lives.The trip from England to Iceland could take a week or more. Today, we get on IcelandAir or Iceland Express and are in Iceland in a matter of hours. In Burton’s day there were n o roads, no country inns. He travelled everywhere on horseback, often in pouring rain and high winds. After riding a horse all day, soaking wet, cold, hungry, Burton found farmhouses where he could rest, dry his clothes, be fed, be given a hot cup of coffee, be given a place to sleep. Some farmers took payment. Others refused it. They all shared that most precious commodity of all: grass for the horses.
The kindness to visitors Burton describes is in 1872. That was a long time ago, just before our ancestors emigrated. That kindness is still evident today. People returning from visiting Iceland praise their relatives, many of whom have just been discovered. Generations have passed, the distances in miles are great, but whatever our physical destination in Iceland, to the North, South, East or West, we come home not just with our luggage full of Icelandic souvenirs, but with memories of how kindly we’ve been treated. It’s a long tradition and may we have many opportunities to reciprocate.
(This article in slightly different form appeared originally in Logberg-Heimskringla. LH is 125 years old this year. Consider giving her a birthday gift and buying a subscription.)
What Kind of Society Are We?
Last weekend, when I was driving to the ferry, I saw one of my old colleagues. We’d been professors together. He had two grocery carts filled with returnable bottles and cans, black plastic bags full of something, maybe his clothes, what might have been a sleeping bag.
The weather has turned cold. Not Manitoba cold but, in the morning, there’s frost on the ground. My former colleague is wearing a quilted parka now. The hood was partly up. I saw that like most of us, he’s going bald. He’s bent over so I assume he’s suffering from osteoporosis. He was counting the bottles and cans he’d collected from the recycling blue boxes.
He was a professor until mental illness claimed him. His medical leave ran out. He lost his position but stayed around campus. He spent his time cleaning up the grounds, collecting paper and putting it in garbage bags. He spent time reading in the library. Eventually, he became threatening and was banned from campus.
Being intelligent doesn’t protect you from mental illness.
I had a brilliant student who suffered from bipolar disease. Handsome, intelligent, creative, personable. He was a pleasure to have in class. But by third year, the disease had taken over. He came less and less and, finally, not at all. I ran into him a year or so later. We talked about poetry and writing on a street corner. Two years after that I saw him again when I was downtown. He didn’t recognize me. His hair was long and matted, his clothes filthy. He was lost in his own head.
I had another student. Beautiful, quirky, charming. She tried very hard to attend classes, get good grades but, eventually, couldn’t organize her life to fit the necessary schedules. She left campus, tried various jobs. She wasn’t lazy or irresponsible. She wasn’t stupid. But whatever was wrong, she simply couldn’t organize her life enough to hold a job, keep a place to live. Any time I saw her, I always had the sense of a lost child in a woman’s body. A lost child in some crazy funhouse full of distorting mirrors and endless rooms with doors that just led to more strange, confusing rooms. She eventually committed suicide.
At one time, we believed that we were our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. We recognized that there will always be people who cannot look after themselves, people who need a structure created and run by others. Other people who are capable of building accommodation, who can look after it, who can provide meals on a schedule, who can see that medications are taken on time, who can see that those who are vulnerable are protected from exploitation.
We got rid of these places because there were new pills that would fix everything. New pills that would mean we didn’t need to pay taxes to build places for the care of the mentally ill. It’s all about money, you see. It’s all about our allowing some people to pay themselves and their cronies 40 million dollars a year plus perks plus options while attacking the waste of tax money in providing entitlements for the poor, the ill, the mentally disabled, the unemployed. The same people who rail against things like unemployment insurance are the same people who have moved their factories offshore so they can exploit even poorer people. We allow this one percent to pay less taxes than someone making 40,000 dollars a year. Give a political donation and, in return, get a loophole.
We can have any kind of society we want. At the moment, we’ve got a society that was conned into believing greed was good, in the trickle-down effect, in the global economy whose sole purpose it turns out is to let the rich become even richer by giving them the right to exploit the vulnerable not just in ourr own country but in countries around the world.
When you are making 40 million a year, or more, you haven’t got time to be your brother’s keeper. When you drive by in your Pagani Zonda, or your Porsche Carrera and you see someone with two shopping carts filled with all his wordly goods, with his daily collection of returnable containers, you know that he’s not your brother. You probably aren’t even sure that he’s human. Or, if you see the pretty young blonde who looks confused, uncertain, standing at a stop light you probably don’t think she’s human either, unless she might be momentarily usable.
These are the homeless. These are the people who need low barrier shelters, who can’t afford a million dollars for a house or condo, who can’t afford anything. Our shame as a society is how well we take care of the wealthy and powerful and how poorly we take care of the weak and vulnerable.
We could hear the music as we threaded through the trees, down the twisting, rocky path. Fir trees, moss, ferns crowded the narrow trail. The cedar house to which we are going sits on the edge of a sharp fall off. It’s Allen Dobb’s (http://www.allendobb.com/) fiftieth birthday. His wife, Vivienne, is holding a party for him and the birthday party has morphed into a concert. Allen has put a temporary frame over the upper deck, covered it in plastic to accommodate everyone who can’t fit inside.
When we arrive, Allen’s already on stage, the stage being the dining room that is raised a couple of feet above the living room. This room is really three rooms, raised dining area, living room, kitchen. We take a seat in the chairs on the deck. When the set is over, everyone gets up, heads for the wine and cheese and conversation.
Allen loves apple pie so I’ve baked him two. I’m also giving him a copy of my latest book, What The Bear Said. I get a quick hug from his wife, Vivienne, but then she’s gone. She’s a dynamo in action, checking on the chili and the Jamaican curry that’s cooking, making sure there’s wine and wine glasses, greeting everyone. There already are baskets of artisanal bread on the counter.
The house is quite amazing. The roof of this central room is held up by a massive post, a tree trunk that has had the bark stripped off. From this post, pie shaped sections of roof fan outward. The walls angle away from each other, forming a semicircle. There’s a wood stove to one side and I edge up to it because the weather has turned cold, colder than in Victoria and I’ve got chilled on the hike to the house. The stage holds sound equipment, guitars, a banjo, keyboard, accordion, drums. Here and there are lit candles set out in groups. On the walls, woven African baskets, a woven native hat.
At one time, Allen and his brother, Cameron, (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PcF70vrbH58) were part of a highly successful band called Dobb and Dumela. For six years, they played across North America and in Europe and produced two albums. Before that, Allen spent time in Lesotho, Africa doing rangeland and livestock development. When the second set starts, Cameron joins Allen on stage. He plays the accordion and keyboard. I’ve heard him play in Vancouver at the The Railway Club when he was releasing his CD, “The Ride”, and look forward to hearing him again. Allen tells the crowd a little about each song before they play it and shares some anecdotes about his time in Africa.
The band split up and this is the first time that Allen and Cameron have played together since 1996. It’s good to see them playing together again. Both have pursued musical careers singly, Cameron in Vancouver, Allen in Victoria. Both have their own followings. The evening is full of reminiscence. Allen tells a story about Dobb and Dumela playing before a large crowd, two thousand plus, when they were a lot younger, still single, and Allen says that the young women at the front of the stage kept trying to get onto the stage with Cameron, kept flashing him, trying to get his attention. Now, he has settled down, has a house, a wife, children but it’s easy to imagine him, tall, lanky, handsome, playing to the girls at the front of the stage and them screaming and yelling in excitement.
Vivienne’s Jamaican background infuses everything, the food, the music, the warm hospitality, Allen’s music. Her mother is visiting and has made the Jamaican curried chicken we will eat later, heaped over rice. Her mother and I crowd close to the fire and catch up on news.
Some people dance on the deck. A boy takes the drum from the edge of the stage and joins in. Allen says they need back up for a song and asks Vivienne to join them. You can feel the crowd starting to move with the rhythm. It’s a good moment.The crowd demands an encore and Cameron, Allen and Vivain do “No woman no cry”, a Bob Marley song. When it’s over, we eat and talk and meet new people.
To get to Allen and Vivienne’s, you first have to go to the Highlands outside of Victoria. Then you turn off onto a narrow, twisting road nearly engulfed by forest. There are large trees and steep drop-offs. If you meet a car, you slow nearly to a stop and edge past each other. Or, if there is a place where you can creep to the side, you do that so the other car can squeeze by.
There’s never enough parking space so we had to park at the very bottom of the road where it meets the turnoff to the house. The hike up was steep. Winter is coming and the air is cold. Vehicles have been parked anywhere that there is an opening in the bush. It’s daylight on the way up but when we leave, the moon is hidden behind clouds and the night is so dark, we can see nothing. We follow our flashlight beam down the driveway.
Years ago, when I was an avid folk dancer, I discovered one of Victoria’s secrets. The really good musical parties are always in private homes. The memorable evenings aren’t in arenas. Sometimes, like when we spent an amazing evening listening to the local Doukhobor choir, they’re in churches. Or in rose gardens or secluded beach fronts. But most of all, they’re tucked away somewhere, in a nook or cranny where friends can crowd in and share the moment.
When my son was in high school, he came home one afternoon all excited. He said there’s a new girl in class and I’m in, in and he paused, he was going to say love but he was too honest for that, he burst out I’m in lust with her. We all got a laugh out of that.
But what is love? Someone once said to me that the three most dangerous words in the English language are “I love you.”
I’m not sure what love is but I know I’ve observed it, not among the young who are pulsating with hormones, but among the elderly. When I first began to visit Betel because my mother was there, I saw a relative come every day to feed her husband and to wheel his bed outside. He couldn’t speak, he couldn’t move, but she sat with him and sometimes her daughter came and sat with her mother and father.
Every day in the good weather, I saw a man come to get his wife. They would sit outside on a bench, saying nothing but holding hands. Sometimes she would rest her head on his shoulder.
There’s another kind of love that is more diffuse, more general but it is still love. That is the love that brings a group of local singers to entertain at Happy Hour every Friday evening. Sometimes Oli Narfasson sings songs in Icelandic. No one gets paid. They sing the old songs that the residents will recognize. The residents come with walkers and in wheel chairs. The more fortunate ones make it on their own. My mother’s toes tap to the tunes. When the singers ask if there’s a song anyone wants, she always says “School days.” I expect that her school days were the happiest days of her life.
There is kindness in the way that people are brought to this happy hour. There is kindness in the singing. There is kindness in the offering of a soft drink. I think that is a kind of love.
Some residents never have a visitor. That is not necessarily neglect. Families are spread far apart. A friend of mine who is ninety-five says there is no one left whom she knows or who knows her. She’s outlived them all. The lucky ones are the ones who have relatives close by who come to visit regularly. You see them, maybe three people sitting at a table having tea and cake with a mother or father who is a resident. Or you see someone being bundled off into a car for a ride or a Sunday dinner.
These are the families who are not embarrassed or ashamed because someone in their family suffers from dementia. No one asks for dementia. No one says oh goody, I’m getting Alzheimer’s. It’s a disease with no cure. But then there are lots of diseases with no cure. Diabetes. Celiac disease. Primary bilary cirrhosis. There’s a whole host of them. All of them change our behaviour. Just as Alzheimer’s changes our behaviour. The difference with dementia is that the new behaviour is often bizarre. It is often hurtful because the victim of the disease no longer sees the world except through a distorted lens caused by changes in the brain. Eventually, many Alzheimer’s victims forget who even their closest family and friends are.
I’m not a doctor or a psychologist or a psychiatrist. I’m just a son. I don’t know how much of my mother’s fantasies are the result of Alzheimer’s and how much is because she has macular degeneration and can no longer read or play cards or do cross word puzzles or watch TV. I don’t know how much is because she is nearly deaf. Prisons punish prisoners by putting them in solitary confinement. Even healthy people hallucinate after awhile. I don’t know how much is because of medication, although Betel is wonderful because they don’t drug the residents to keep them from being a nuisance.
Once in awhile she knows me. How this miracle happens, I don’t know. She says Hi, Billy, and gives me a hug and I hug her back and greedily, I talk to her because for a time, I’ve got my mother back. It is like having someone whom you love who has died come back to life for an hour or two. I’ve learned not to go and get us tea because when I return, the miracle may be over. And I wish and I wish that somewhere there was someone who could discover how this miracle occurs so she could come back from her internal world to join me for more than a minute or an hour.
There is a terrible guilt that goes with being a caregiver, with having the authority of a Power of Attorney. The decision to seek a medical opinion on a loved one’s mental state is like a betrayal. The decision to take away someone’s access to their life’s savings is a betrayal. The decision to have their driver’s license cancelled is a betrayal. The decision to have them put into a nursing home is a decision filled not with relief but guilt. When you go to visit and they say “I want to go home.” And you say “This is your home now,” you feel dreadful and when they follow you to the door and you punch in the code and they get left behind because they wear a bracelet that closes the door so they can’t leave, you feel guilt. You are on the other side of the glass door. You can go anywhere you want. They are standing there, their hands against the glass watching you, wanting to go home to their kitchen, their bedroom. You feel like a failure. You ask yourself could I do more, could I still take care of them?
It is not all quiet tragedy. At least not in retrospect. Friends of mine were taking care of the wife’s grandmother. The grandmother was short, thin and had very pale white skin. Her wandering had reached a point where they had a lock with a code on the front and back door. One day the door got left ajar and the grandmother, clad only in a bra and panties fled down the stairs and along an exclusive street in Oak Bay. Her grandson-in-law is big–think football linebacker—and partly native so he’s swarthy. Grandma got a good head start and as she ran, she screamed help, help me, I’m being kidnapped. Behind her, her grandson-in-law was running as fast as he could. A block from the house he finally caught her, picked her up and tucked her under one arm. She kicked and waved her arms and screamed for help the whole way back. It was a difficult moment but now, some years later, it is a story that brings wry knowing smiles because many of us have had similar experiences.
What’s love? Chasing a grandmother- in-law down a tony street and not worrying about what it looks like. Making decisions for someone who no longer can make them for themselves. Never taking advantage of a person no longer able to make good decisions. Putting their welfare ahead of your own feelings of guilt. Not forgetting someone once they’re in an institution. Making time for them even when they don’t know you. Remembering the way they were before being afflicted by a terrible disease. Not being ashamed of them. There are many ways to love someone.
My son was right. It wasn’t love he was feeling. Love requires giving and expecting nothing in return.
When I’m walking from Cattle Point to Willows Park in Victoria, I see the Sunday joggers. Pale legs, shorts, T-shirt, their faces pulled tight with pain. I’m encased in GoreTex and a sweater and shirt, wool pants. They slog by, whump, whump, whump, their Nike Air Max running shoes beating against the concrete. No knees in three years if they keep this up, I think. When I folk danced, the instructor wouldn’t let us dance without shock absorbent soles in our shoes, wouldn’t let us dance on concrete, wouldn’t let us stamp. If the runners passing me keep this up they’ll end their days walking like they’ve got legs carved from wood.
These are the weekend warriors. The Tarzans, the Roman centurions, the tribesmen hunting gazelles with nothing but their speed and a spear. Five days a week they sit glued to a chair, staring at a computer or answering a phone, drinking coffee and eating Tim Bits, their flesh loosening itself from their bones, then someone at the computer screen beside them goes toes up and that day they leave work early and buy sweat pants and shirt, shorts, running shoes. A day later they jog past me driven by fear.
I’m strolling along the sidewalk enjoying the view over the rose bushes that have been shaved by years of wind into an angle away from the cliffs. Two joggers stagger by. One of them has eaten 1376 donuts in the past year. That’s the only thing that will explain the loose rolls jiggling under his sweat shirt. His breathing sounds like someone dragging a metal file over granite. Behind them comes Harry. Harry worked down the hall from me. He had a passion for Danish, cream pies, chocolate croissants, butter. He’s twelve years younger than me but recently, his doctor told him that if he didn’t lose weight and get into shape he wasn’t going to be around much longer.
Men used to spend all day cutting down trees, digging holes in the ground, breaking concrete, picking rocks. My great grandfather and great uncles used to walk thirty miles from our home town of Gimli to Selkirk, buy a sack of flour, put it on a trump line or over one shoulder and walk back with it. There was no market for walking machines, no Nordic Track, no health clubs. There was just daily life. My father was amazed when he heard about rowing machines. Spending all that time going nowhere. He used to row his boat out to his nets, lift his nets, then row back to shore. He did it every day, sometimes twice a day, in the morning and evening after he’d spent eight hours cutting hair in his barbershop. He had a stomach of steel and could eat butter on everything including his oatmeal cookies.
On our block there’s a civil servant who power walks. He thrashes his way down the street like he’s a non-swimmer and someone threw him off the dock. He walks on his heels and swings his arms. If I swung my arms like that, I’d be afraid they might fly off. When he drives to the health club, he circles the block three times until he finds a parking spot close by rather than park three blocks away, then runs on a conveyer belt until sweat pours down from his crotch to his ankles.
I hate jogging. There seems to be a taboo against saying that. But it’s true. It has to be the most boring thing anyone can do. I know about endorphins and runner’s high. It isn’t worth it. Instead, I hike Mt. Finlayson. Mt. Finlayson isn’t a big mountain. Old people and kids can hike it but there are places where it’s steep. When I was hiking it once a week, I got so I could reach the top in an hour and come down in half that time.
Hiking uphill is more interesting than jogging. For one thing, you’ve got time to look around. There are banana slugs. Eagles. Hawks. The occasional deer. Waterfalls of ferns. Arbutus whose bark turns from pale green in spring to deep purple in winter. Cedar and broadleaf maples. The maples have licorice fern hanging from the crooks of branches. Old man’s beard and lungwort. I got runner’s high about one third of the way up. I also got my second wind there.
It’s amazing the things we can be vain about. I was quite proud of my hiking. I couldn’t run up Finlayson but I could go at a pretty steady pace. Feelings of superiority snuck in. I sneered quietly at the joggers straining by on the Esplanade. Then one day as I was descending Mt. Finlayson, I met a man coming up. Older than me. He stopped to say hi.
“What’ve you got in your knapsack?” I asked him.
“Magazines.” This was a large knapsack and it obviously was full. “I’m getting in shape for hiking in the Himalayas.”
I even met the occasional jogger on the trail. They’d come chugging by. These were the kind of joggers who run in marathons. Iron-men to be. The kind who’s bodies are encased in bone, not fat. They’d appear behind me, pass by me, and disappear on the trail ahead. Me-nearly-Tarzan kind of people. Maybe even Tarzan’s younger brothers. But they didn’t look like they were having any better a time than the Tim Horten’s men who jog the Esplanade.
Harry saw me and stopped to chat. “It’ll all be worth it,” Harry of the white legs, pot belly and red head-band declared, “when the endorphins flood in.” When he finishes wheezing, he gets me to admire his two hundred and ninety five dollar runners, his Gamin Foreunner 305 wrist watch and his Runlite 4 Hydration Belt. This is the third week he’s been jogging. He likes to be well equipped. He also thinks the equipment will be chick bait. Harry is sixty and given to strange fantasies.
“It seems a tough way to get some babes,” I replied.
They haven’t got it. The world has changed but the politicians are from another age. They think it’s business as usual. The Occupy Wall Street movement is just one of those annoying moments that can be brushed away. A bunch of young people who, if ignored, will disappear when the next hot computer game or sexy singer appears .
The politicians don’t get it. They don’t understand the significance of flash mobs. They don’t understand that with IPads and cell phones and laptops, people can communicate, can organize, can join together in a way never seen before.
The politicians are asking old questions. Dismissive questions. Contemptuous questions. They sniff and say, “What do they want?” and when the answer comes back that the protesters want many things, the politicians say “They’re not organized.” As if to be organized, everyone has to be mad about the same thing at the same time.
It’s as if at a war crimes’ trial, one person said, he killed my son, another, he raped my sister, still another, he burned down our house and the defense said, “Drop the charges. They can’t agree on anything.”
A CNN poll (http://ireport.cnn.com/blogs/ireport-blog/2011/10/13/ireporters-define-occupy-wall-street-movement?hpt=hp_t2) revealed that protesters are mad about job scarcity, corporate greed, bailouts, Wall Street impunity and government corruption. How are any of these not the same? Irresponsible bankers, financiers and politicians have brought our financial well-being to the edge of destruction. They’ve done it with greed, but they’ve been saved by bailouts using our money.
The bankers and financiers have given money to the politicians to get elected and the politicians, in return, have used our money to save their donors from their incompetence. The bankers and many corporate leaders have looted their companies. The politicians made the looting possible with compliant legislation. This is usually called aiding and abetting.
There is never enough to satisfy corporate greed. The leaders of these organizations want all the power, all the money, all of everything, except, of course, responsibility.
At one time the United States was prepared to go to nuclear war to stop the spread of communism. What was communism but the taking over of private enterprise by government? Now, governments in the USA, England, the EU are socializing the financial institutions’ losses. The rewards go to the privileged few and the costs and passed on to ordinary people. And no one is being held responsible. That’s because the crimes are too big. You can send someone to jail for stealing a donut. The crime is simple. Proving it is simple. But how do you convict someone of taking all the assets out of a company by giving himself and his friends massive salaries, bonuses and options? They shrug and say, we earned it but all you losers have to be laid off.
The people, as an entity have woken up. They recognize they’d been had. They know that was their money that business executives were helping themselves.
In Canada income inequality is growing faster than in the USA. Income inequality? That’s what its called when the president of a bank makes $44 million a year and the average Canadian worker makes $42,988.00. That’s what it is called when the average CEO income is $6.6 million and someone on minimum wage receives $19,877.00. Income inequality? That’s what it’s called when Canada’s top paid CEOs get an increase in their salaries of 444% and Canada Postal workers and Air Canada flight attendants get ordered back to work when they say they want an increase in salary.
People are angry in Iceland for the same reasons. That’s why they voted against being saddled by debt for generations because some bankers became egomaniacs and rewarded themselves handsomely. Privatize profits and socialize losses. I make a lot of money, I keep it. I lose a lot of money, you pay. And pay and pay.
That’s why people have been standing outside the parliament building in Iceland and banging on drums. They’re reminding the politicians that they’re there. It’s not business as usual. That’s why people are rioting in Greece. That’s why Occupy Wall Street is happening. And now, with new technology, people can organize against incompetence, greed and corruption.
It’s not just in Greece where the people have been told that they have to sell at fire-sale prices everything that they have worked for generations to create. That what was public and belonged to us will now become the private property of the few. Already, we have heard that those institutions that generations in Canada have built–libraries, theaters, public space, roads, parks–need to be sold to individuals who have lots of money to pay for them. One could, if one were paranoid, think that it was all planned. Steal people’s savings, their pensions, their jobs, then grab all these things so the rich and greedy will have even more of the wealth of the country.
Occupy Wall Street ending? It’s just beginning.
Today is a real West Coast day in Victoria. Drizzle collects on my glasses in beads that aren’t heavy enough to run down the glass. They pebble the surface just enough to slightly distort everything in the soft gray light. Collecting seaweed, you need warm socks in your gum boots and a good, thick wool sweater under your jacket. A drizzle is not something to go out in without a cap. I prefer a seaman’s cap, one of those blue kind with the hard brim in front that you can buy in places like the basement of Capital Iron. They’re stacked somewhere between the bins of brass bolts and the deep sea diving suit.
It’s the perfect kind of day for collecting seaweed for the garden. The soil on Vancouver Island, in spite of all the lush growth, is thin and very poor quality. Gardeners here would kill for the kind of soil any Manitoban has just for turning over some sod. I keep a compost box into which I dump grass, chopped up small branches, oak leaves, blood meal, every vegetable and fruit scrap from the kitchen, horse manure and seaweed. The seaweed speeds up the decomposition.
I always go looking for seaweed after a storm. I stuff plastic bags behind the seat of the truck and the throw some of those big white plastic buckets into the box. I found them behind the Ogden Point café. If I can get someone to go with me, I take a pitchfork. If not, I don’t. Filling garbage bags is a two person job. One person to hold the bag open while the other put the seaweed into the bag.
The storms tear seaweed loose from its moorings and deposit it at the tideline in green windrows. Some people leave the bull kelp but I take it. Some pieces are twenty feet long. Bull kelp has a cluster of roots the size of my hand with which it holds to the bottom. Then there’s a long pliable stem that forms a hollow bulb at the top that is a natural float, holding it upright. From this grows a crown of flat leaves that spread out on the surface of the water. The stems are hollow and when I snap them into smaller pieces to put into my bucket, I point it away from myself. The first few times I broke apart bull kelp it squirted water into my face.
All seaweed is good for the garden but I walk the beach looking for seaweed that doesn’t have a lot of sticks and gravel in it. Behind and in front of me the seagulls and the crows are searching the seaweed as well. There are small crabs and starfish tangled in it. Sometimes there’ll be clams and mussels. With a jerk of their head, the crows tear away the seaweed, snatch up their prey and with a few thrusts of their beak, pull out the flesh. In the winter there’s so much food washed ashore that there’s no fighting among the birds.
There’s something satisfying in getting out of the truck enclosed in warm clothes and waterproof boots, and gathering up bag after bag of seaweed while all those other people lined up in the parking spots along the sidewalk sit timidly in their cars and watch. They’ve driven down to look at the ocean and the passing ships, to view the islands and the American mountains beyond, although in a drizzle, the most you can see of the USA is a misty blue outline like you see in Chinese paintings. Come on out and get your hands dirty, I want to say. Get involved. When you get home you can have a shower and wash it off. It won’t hurt you.
One woman with a heart-shaped face stopped to say, “Are you sure you’re allowed to take seaweed off the beach? Don’t you need a permit?” I said no, it was just fine to help yourself. She said she was a retired librarian from Saskatchewan. She had spent a lifetime keeping books organized. I expect that her library was spotless. She surprised me by offering to hold the garbage bag open. “I was brought up on a farm,” she said. She just had plants on the patio of her condo and she bought her compost already made from Home Hardware. She hadn’t realized it would be so hard to meet new people and she was thinking about going back to Saskatchewan in spite of the winters.
Storms tear the seaweed loose and pile it onto the beach in windrows. I prefer rainy days because the rain helps to wash off the salt. After a big storm, there’s usually more than just me collecting seaweed. Today there was a family about a block away. They were very organized. They had six or seven garbage cans, a collection of bags, and they were working two to a team. They looked like the kind of family that got things done. I could imagine them painting their house or cleaning their yard. Each one assigned to a definite task. I wondered if they were a military family. Nowadays, it’s so unusual to see a family working together that it calls for speculation.
The ocean was calm, as it always is in a drizzle. Not quite flat, there being a slight rolling motion to the surface even though there was no wind. There were kayakers out. They had their weather gear on and were keeping close to shore. A tug went by towing a barge full of gravel. Then there were three sail boats, one of which had toffee colored sails. I thought I saw a couple of seals but they turned out to be deadheads, those dangerous waterlogged logs that float nearly upright and can stop a boat cold or shatter a keel.
One of the things about collecting seaweed is that people talk to me while I work. I get a chance to tell them about the virtues of compost. The fact that it provides natural nutrients for plants, improves the quality of the soil, holds moisture and, in the compost box, hastens the composting process. The conversation usually veers off in various directions with stories about where they are from (most people in Victoria are from somewhere else), their or their parents or grandparents gardening experiences, or their career or bereavement. Victoria is Canada’s premier retirement city so there are a lot of widows and widowers. Loss is often softened by walking on the beach, by having someone listen to what has happened.
If I just stand around, staring at the water and the view, no one stops to talk. When I’m filling garbage bags or five gallon pails, a lot of people stop to chat. Some, like the librarian, offer to help. I think the difference is that my collecting seaweed gives people an opening line. “Good for the garden?” or “What’re you going to use that for?” When I’m staring into space there aren’t many possible opening lines. “Nice drizzle,” doesn’t seem like a possibility so they go on their lonely way. Maybe that’s the thing about city living that’s needed. More seaweed to collect so people can risk starting a conversation.
Over the last decade or so, a lot of people have become confused about the difference between a home and an investment. They sit at dinner parties and talk about how much their house has gone up in value since they bought it. They talk about how it’s an investment. They don’t talk about it as a place to live. Some brag about flipping, about buying, making a few improvements to give a house curb appeal, then selling it.
Maybe that’s why, as a society, we’ve lost the ability to understand what it means not to have a home.
My grandparents understood what it meant to lose a home. My grandfather had fought in WWI. He’d been wounded, then gassed. He suffered from the damage all his life. When he got back to Canada after the war, he married my grandmother. They bought a house. Two storey, brick. In a nice working class neighbourhood. But then there was a depression and his wages got cut and cut again. He couldn’t pay the mortgage. The bank foreclosed. I think that hurt more the rest of his life that the shrapnel wounds and the mustard gas.
My grandparents were lucky, I guess. They were able to move to a smaller house in a poorer neighbourhood. They weren’t homeless. When that mortgage was paid and they had some savings, they bought a lot and had a house built. It was small. Two bedrooms, a small kitchen and living room. One bathroom. No dining room. It was enough.
It wasn’t an investment. It was their home. They lived out their lives there. For a number of years, I lived with them. It was my home, too. It had a small front yard and a garden at the back. I felt safe there, protected, comforted. Upwardly mobile types wouldn’t have given it a first glance, never mind a second glance.
When I was getting married, the first question was where are we going to live? It came before every other decision. What can we afford? What’s available? We searched the newspaper. We went looking at apartments. When we found a converted apartment in the top of a house, we were thrilled. We had a place. We didn’t own it but we had good landlords who lived just across the street.
As I changed jobs, went to graduate school, found more jobs, we moved many times. Always, the first question was where are we going to live? Sometimes we couldn’t afford to live where we wanted to but we could always afford to live somewhere. We were never homeless. We always had a place. At first, our furniture would fit into the back of our station wagon. It didn’t matter. When it was all in place, we were at home.
People need a place to call their own. A doorwell and a shopping cart aren’t a home. A dumpster isn’t a home, not even if you sleep in it every night. Under a loading dock isn’t a home. None of those are home. They’re not even a house. They’re definitely not an investment. A family living in a car isn’t living at home.
When I was a kid, my parents used to go north to commercial fish on Lake Winnipeg. They paid people to give me board and room. Even though they were paid, nobody wanted an extra kid. Sometimes, I was moved every two weeks. Nobody was ever bad to me. Most people were very kind. But I knew I was living in someone else’s house and it wasn’t my home. Our home sat empty. I used to sneak into it through a basement window and, even though there was no heat, I’d wrap myself in a comforter and sleep or read my comic books or play with one of my toys. You see, this wasn’t just an empty house. It was my home.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of people in Canada who don’t have that option. They don’t have an empty house, unheated or not, in which to read or to keep their belongings. They don’t have a home where they can feel safe.
Something is wrong when we’ve allowed rules to be made that deprive people of the ability to have homes. When families consider themselves lucky if they get to live in a motel for a time. When homes are no longer homes but investments.
When I recently checked into the Delta, the woman checking me in said, “I’ll show you on a map the most direct route to where you are giving your reading. However, it goes through the East Side. There are a lot of homeless people there. Don’t worry, they’re harmless. They won’t hurt you. Just don’t look.”
Don’t look. Don’t look. That’s always the message, isn’t it? Don’t look.
The suite at the Delta was beautiful. A bedroom with a big TV. A living room. A bathroom. A small fridge. A desk and chair. An easy chair. A good sized closet. An iron and ironing board. A person could live there. They had a promotion on so I got it cheap.
As I passed through the East side on my way to my reading, I looked. I looked long and hard. I saw hundreds of homeless people. I saw what I never expected to see in Canada. A line of people more than a block long waiting to get a free meal from a tent soup-kitchen. People with shopping carts piled high with their belongings. A lot of these people are mentally ill. No one chooses to be mentally ill. No one says, “Oh, goody. I’m going to mentally ill. Lucky me. I’m going to be free to live on the street because I don’t have the capacity to take my pills every day. I get to keep my belongings in a grocery cart. I get to sleep in doorways. I get to compete in dumpster diving competitions.”
No one says that.
Some of these people are drug addicts or alcoholics. Some of them are just unemployed and can’t pay for an apartment in Vancouver. Even some full-time employed can’t afford an apartment in Vancouver.
Or Victoria. Or Toronto. Or lots of other places.
Some of these people are extremely difficult to deal with. Mental illness and addiction are difficult to deal with.
But not looking shows the mentality of a socio-path. I insist you look. That’s my job as a writer. To make you look.
The Business Cycle usually gets it right. It now says that we are going into or have already entered another recession. That means there are going to be longer lineups at the food kitchens. There are going to be more people whose home is a doorway and whose vehicle is a shopping cart. These won’t be the mentally ill, the mentally retarded. These will be those let go as companies cut back even more. You may be one of them. In the USA, tent cities made up of the unemployed are appearing. Unemployment benefits are running out. It may be you that I’m told not to look at as I drive by.
There is a new report out from England. At 8.1% unemployment is at a 17 year high. The unemployment of young people, 16-24, is at a record high of 991,000. Half of the people in this age group are unemployed. 150,000 lost their jobs in the last month.
Future Shop has large screen TVs at 1,000 dollars and up. Up being around 4,000 dollars. As unemployment in Canada moves up, who is going to buy these TVs? Who is going to buy automobiles at forty to sixty thousand dollars or houses at $600,000.00. If no one is buying them, the people producing them are going to be laid off.
Canada has been sheltered from the worst of the last recession but our prosperity comes from natural resources. Those unemployed people in England aren’t going to be buying anything made from our exports. Nor are the unemployed in Greece, or Spain, or Italy, or Portugal.
What the rooms at the Delta show is that there are places for people to live. Really nice places. Lack of places to live isn’t the problem. It’s the fact that the people who need places to live haven’t got the money to pay the rent. Unemployment benefits, welfare, disability benefits won’t pay for rooms in Vancouver. It’s a bit like the Irish potato famine. All those people didn’t need to die of starvation. There was food. They just couldn’t afford it. So it was shipped to England.
As the lines grow longer at the food kitchens, as more downtown doorways become bedrooms, as more shopping carts become the vehicles of the unemployed, should we just not look? When you’re in that line up or sitting on the street, how will you feel about being invisible?