Remembrance Revisited

remembrance I have stood silent for two minutes at the eleventh hour, on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, many times.   Dutifully, I have worn a red poppy, recently, with reluctance.  My mind becomes a battleground in the yearly two minutes; I  question whether remembrance day does not glorify armed conflict, in a world unwilling to rid itself of guns, violence, and war.

Last year, November 11th fell on Monday.  I was to be teaching a class on death, dying, and grieving, to theology students at Toronto’s Emmanuel College.  Because the classroom faces Queen’s Park, site of Remembrance ceremonies – cannon shots and fighter jet flypasts – I could not ignore the eleventh hour, despite that, like me, the students had probably stood for two minutes of silence in church the previous morning.

In the early morning hours I had lain awake struggling with how to incorporate the act of remembrance into the class time.  One of the students, a military chaplain, was scheduled to present in the afternoon on suicide and complicated grief in the armed forces. The idea came with obvious force; I asked him to do his presentation early and end with two minutes of silence at eleven, which he would facilitate.  He agreed.

His presentation of sobering statistics and stories put a human face on the military.  I was riveted as he described how a soldier, age twenty-one, having returned from Afghanistan, one morning left his bedroom unusually tidy, came to the armoury and shot himself close to the chaplain’s office.  He spoke of a military culture that understands grief as weakness; where mass casualties are taken for granted, and in which there is little help or re-integration on return home.  Leading into the two minutes, he reminded us that the precise hour and day is when the last shot was fired at the end of World War One – framed as the war that would end all war.

My heart had been opened by his stories, but as he spoke, I felt viscerally something I had always known: My maternal grandfather fought in the trenches for four years.  He returned home at age 23; most of his buddies did not.  I only knew my grandfather as gentle and loving.  An aunt recounts the time she asked him about the war.  In a completely uncharacteristic voice and demeanour he replied:  “Don’t you ever ask me that again.”

I remembered something else about my grandfather and experienced the full irony of his death at age sixty-five, on November 11, 1961.  Two weeks earlier a knock at my classroom door summoned me to the school office.  I was sent home.  There I learned that my grandfather, at the bank to cash his pay cheque, had been shot during a robbery.  Two others were shot and died.  My grandfather lived two weeks.

But my reflection on November 11 was not over.  When my holiday plans for this past August included time in Dresden and Berlin, I did not know just how much more cracking open both my head and heart were in for.  Also, before leaving on that trip, I read a recently published book by Jan Hatanaka titled ‘The Natural Brilliance Of The Soul: A Soldier’s Story Of War And Reconciliation.”  This small book made a big impression. I began to understand and feel compassion for the untenable situation that the training, combat, and then return home, creates for the young people we send to war.  Self-medicating with alcohol, drugs and the rush that comes from high-risk behaviour shuts down the pain of thinking and feeling on return.

In Dresden and Berlin, massively bombarded during World War Two, there are constant reminders of the horror, the destruction, human loss, and cost of war.  The capacity for human evil is memorialized in little brass “stumbling blocks”, embedded among the paving stones of Berlin.  These blocks name those who lived in adjacent buildings that were taken and murdered by the Nazis. Both cities also speak to human resilience: Cathedrals and other buildings have been rebuilt with remarkable care, detail and beauty.  After the war it was the women who literally cleaned up the stones and rubble, the men missing or dead.  While those women were attempting to eke out survival in the post-war years, Canadian women were having babies – I was one of many, born in between 1945-55.  I felt both gratitude and guilt for the privilege of being born in Toronto in 1947.

One the trip, I wrote in my journal about the pain and deep sadness I felt witnessing places that knew such destruction and bloodshed. I also wrote about the amazing spirit of people to rebuild! I guess it has always been this way: evil, destruction, power, greed; in contrast to the human spirit, the impetus for good, compassion, and life which can never be totally extinguished.  One evening as I wrote, my iPod gently playing through my music, the following words caught my attention, evoking yet more tears:

My heart is moved by all I cannot save
So much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those, who, age after age,
Perversely, with no extraordinary
Power, reconstitute the world.

(Poem “Natural Resources,” Adrienne Rich; music, Carolyn McDade)

This and every Remembrance Day I will no longer carry on the war in my mind, I will simply breath and remember where I “cast my lot.”

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Breaking Silence

breaking silenceIt was the mid nineteen-eighties. I was thirty-eight, a single mother with two young children, had recently graduated with my Masters of Divinity degree, with specialized training in hospital chaplaincy, and fortunately had found two part-time ministry positions. In one of these, I was as an assistant minister in a mid-sized United Church. Things were going well. One weekend my senior colleague was going out of town and asked me if I would lead worship with another clergy who attended the church, but worked in a position outside the church. I had met Carl several times during coffee hour. He was friendly. There was no reason to say no.

Several days before the service was to take place, Carl called and suggested we meet close to his work place to discuss the details. His invitation to dine at a restaurant in the Windsor Arms Hotel felt like a special treat, given my limited income. We met at the entrance and the waiter motioned us to a table in the bar where we sat opposite one another. We gave our order for drinks, however seconds after the waiter had turned his back, Carl looked at me and said: “I know you want to make love with me Anne.” I couldn’t speak. Literally stuck dumb! Did I hear him correctly? He repeated it with more force: “Anne, I know you want to make love with me.” “No” I blurted out, frantically scanning my behaviour and appearance to see if I was sending out a message that I wasn’t aware of.

I was single and not in a relationship. Could he have known this was not how I wanted it to be for the rest of my life? Could he tell that I did not feel sexually attractive or confident? I never attempted to dress provocatively, nevertheless I did a mental check of my clothing. I could not shake the feeling that with whatever I was currently doing, I was inviting this unwanted solicitation. After all, I was not incapable of feeling sexual attraction, but I had not felt anything like that toward him. In hindsight, with the benefit of 30 years distance, I am astounded at his audacity: that he should assume I found him attractive!

When the waiter returned to see if a second glass of wine was on order, I said “No, Thank you.” “Of course she will”, he intervened. “No I really don’t want it,” I protested, but it was too late – the waiter listened to him, not me. Increasingly, I felt out of control, as I attempted to steer the conversation to planning Sunday worship. In my mind he was the authority, the one ultimately in charge of the service. In addition, he was on presbytery committees that were responsible for my process towards ordination. I felt trapped. It did not occur to me that I could leave.

The sexual pressure and innuendo continued through dinner.   Each comment that was a version of the following – that Carl was available when I wanted him and that he was convinced I did want him – took me further into confusion, toward panic. Dinner over and enough to go on to prepare my parts for Sunday, we finally left the restaurant. He asked if I could drop him at his home, which was not far out of my way. I wasn’t thinking. It was as if I was under a spell. We got in my car and he tried to embrace and kiss me. As I fought him off, I was beating myself up for having been so stupid as to let him in the car. Fortunately, he was not bigger or stronger and the gearshift and parking brake were in my favour. I started the car and dropped him in front of his house, where he lived with his wife and children. I couldn’t drive away fast enough. Several blocks later I pulled to the curb and tears laced with anger came pouring out. I felt kicked in the stomach, beaten up, verbally and emotionally. What I had done to bring this on?

The question hounded me throughout the night. I slept poorly and was awakened with the phone ringing at seven am. It was Carl. “I bet you want me now, don’t you?” he whispered into the phone. “No!” I hung up. I felt even more sick and invaded. Not having any awareness that I might have a choice here, I went through the usual motions Sunday morning of arriving at the church to set up for my responsibilities with the children and the workshop service. My office door was ajar; this was before the days when they were locked, and I immediately saw a piece of paper stuck in the front of my Bible. It read: “I’m looking forward to working with you this morning. Here is how to reach me.” It was followed by his work contact information. Now, I was not only repulsed, but also frightened. I managed to get through the morning, making sure Carl and I were never alone and left the building as soon as I could when the service was all over. In fact, I never spoke to him again and avoided being anywhere near him.

That day I was too ashamed and embarrassed to tell anyone. Fortunately I was seeing a therapist who had been supporting me through my marriage separation. I did not immediately tell him what had happened. When I did, he helped me to understand that it was not my fault. I began to tell women friends who told me the same.

This took place at a time when as a culture we were just starting to acknowledge and talk publically about sexual harassment and abuse. I was close to thirty when I heard for the first time a story of childhood sexual abuse. Until then, I did not even know it existed, even after education and experience as a nurse. When I heard about the notion of sexual harassment, I had thought it was possible that some women were uncomfortable with their sexuality, and overly sensitive to touch and flirtation.   Did I ever change my mind in a hurry after this experience! Had I also been complicit in “blaming the victim?”

Throughout the almost thirty years since this incident took place, I have listened to and worked with hundreds of women who have heart-breaking, life-altering stories of sexual abuse. This, however, is the first time I have written of my own experience.   Why now? Why at all? Here are the reasons: On a scale of how severe and traumatizing my experience was, it is low. I felt that some would easily dismiss it, as indeed I might have done myself at an earlier time. I might appear foolish. I was, however, in a writing class and needed to write a personal story on which the class would offer feedback. While trying to decide, I read an article in the Toronto Star of how survivors of rape are fighting to break the silence. These women are trying to promote international global awareness about rape and sexual violence.[1] I wanted to offer my voice and my story, trusting that I am not the only one who has had such an experience and remained silent. I believe we must work to expose the underlying roots that consider women subservient, roots that are quietly nurtured by culture and perpetuated by the three religions that grew from the ancient patriarchal Abrahamic tradition.

The writing feedback from my classmates encouraged me, but before sharing some of their comments, let me tell you the end of my personal story.

After I stopped blaming myself for the incident, I told my senior colleague what had happened. He listened and he took me seriously when I asked him never to put another women in a similar position with Carl. We both realized that it was fortunate the Carl and I had not agreed to meet at the church, in the evening, when no one else would have been in the building. He encouraged me to meet with the conference oversight minister. Since I knew Don from previous training, I felt comfortable doing so. He listened with compassion and understanding and reinforced the notion that this was not something I had “asked for.” He agreed it was completely inappropriate, however, suggested no further conversation or action. It would take a further seven years before a mechanism to take formal action within the church would be in place.

In my earlier version of this I had written: “Systems to deal with such issues are now in place in all professions, schools, and most work places. Even though women have made great strides, at least in some aspects and in some countries, we cannot be complacent.” My young female writing classmates encouraged me by acknowledging that these experiences are still common, but not commonly shared. One woman wrote at length: “Anne, I feel very empowered by your piece, as a young woman who has had a similar experience and friend of others who have lived similar traumas. I would challenge that ‘all has changed,’ as someone who has worked with young women who have experienced sexual assault. Although I acknowledge the great strides, the system is still deeply flawed and a blame/rape culture is still strong when a woman takes legal action against sexual assault.

But here is my final and most important reason for sharing this story now. I have granddaughters and grandsons who have been born into a culture where under age five they are already well versed in the use of electronic devices for entertainment. I have read articles and seen documentaries that suggest children are being sexualized at much younger ages and getting their sexual education from the Internet, with its widely available pornography. Young people find themselves living in a “hook-up” culture. How will parents and grandparents compete against such a market-place and the more sinister sources that see our children, their bodies and sexuality, as a commodity? How can we support healthy education and experiences so that children learn that their bodies and sexuality are precious and not for sale or abuse? Telling my story and inviting other men and women to do the same reflects my life-long commitment to the generations who will come after me.

[1] Toronto Star, April 16 2014, page E9.

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Never Too Late To . . .

Presence coverRight now Tuesday is my favourite day of the week.  A little after nine o’clock in the morning I get on my bike (weather permitting!) and ride 6 kilometres across the city to the newly re-opened Toronto School of Art.   It happens to be housed in a former public school building owned by the Toronto School Board.

The irony of this is not lost on me.  It was in just such a building that my grade three teacher leaned over me and said: “No, Anne, Can’t you see that this is not what a tree looks like? Look out the window, look at that tree.  Your problem is that you are too quick.  You do not listen when I tell you what to do.  Now clean up your mess.  Our paint time is over.”  My 8-year-old excitement in handling paint and brushes drained out of me.  As hard as I tried, I couldn’t make anything look like what I saw.  Others could.  As soon as I could, I dropped art.  I didn’t miss it.  I told myself: “I have no artistic ability.”

Approaching the age of fifty, I found myself stopping in front of watercolour paintings.  An inner voice said;  “I want to do this.”  One day, prior to going on a retreat, I was in an art supply store.  A book caught my attention:.  the cover read: “Anyone can learn to paint watercolours.”  I leafed through the detailed step-by-step approach.  I bought the book and recommended supplies.  On retreat, I carefully followed the instructions.  At the end of the week I had a picture of flowers that looked like flowers

That autumn, I signed up for a watercolour course.  At the end, I had one picture that looked like the vase it was meant to depict.  Encouraged I went to a week-long watercolour course at the Halliburton School of the Arts.  It was a soul-destroying experience.  On the second last day, the teacher took us outdoors to paint.  I gave up.  I wanted to throw everything into the river.  The teacher suggested I take a drawing course.

That is when I met Denis Cliff.  It was a beginner drawing course.  On the first day, Denis sent us outside to draw whatever we wanted.  I picked the trunk of a tree.  What was I thinking?  On returning to class, he asked everyone to put his or her picture up at the front.  I couldn’t.  He didn’t force me.  I realize now he was just trying to get a sense of people’s level of skill.  He made it clear that he believed anyone could learn how to draw, and he set about to teach us.

Yes, people have different levels of natural ability, but like any skill, much can be learned through practice and instruction.  The greatest gift Denis gave me was this:  He took me seriously and believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself.  He was a gifted teacher.  He was able to engage every student where they were and gently encouraged them to the next opportunity for learning that is present in their work.  I have since learned that watercolours are the most difficult paint medium in which to work.  Over years now of taking many courses I know I will be a life-long learner in the art department.

Sadly, Denis Cliff died of a brain tumour in the autumn of 2013.  I wish I could show him the attached image which was one of many in my last show.  Thank you Presence Journal for publishing it.

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