Monday, November 3, 2008

Three Things

I met Emily eight hours ago. How or why isn't event important right now. I could go on for several paragraphs explaining why she is likely one of the most inspiring people I currently know. None of that matters all that much. What is most important are the questions she asked me tonight before saying goodnight.

Emily: What are 3 things you love and hate most about Ottawa?

Me: For sure, number one is that I grew up here. There's a part of me that will never let go of that. I left the lifeless suburb where I grew up convincing myself that I had moved on. Needed to move on. That this place was a barrier to my greatest dreams. That I was going back to a place, clearly figurative, but also quite literal, that one should never go back to...for a while there was no possibility for progress in that.

Emily: Wow, you started with hate...

Me: Number two...that I seem to find so little people who share my politics. I don't even know what I mean, but I get the sense that in other places I've lived this was more of a given. This place can be conservative and stifling and I always yearn for people who care, deeply, in some of the same things I care deeply about. Or maybe I will always yearn for that because a part of me needs to, because 'being' means yearning for more compassion, for desiring that look someone gets when they're bowled over by some visceral injustice that has nothing to do with them, nothing at least in a spatial sense, but everything in an ethical economy that is all about who and how we love the people we do.

You know, for being able to feel the joy of walking in a fading sunlight as the sun drops or rises. Without [the threat of] bombs falling on anybody's head. Of seeing how a note in a song awakens your heart to a new beat. And that beat transports you to your own understanding of the beat before, and then you see how your liberation is so bound up with another's that we are all lost together alone. Those moments make my heart flutter, my passion roar more than any material consideration could ever dare.

Emily: Hate it. Just hate it.

Me: Hmmph. Are you mocking me?

Emily: Never think of it.

Me: Number three. I hate that I can't really like someone in this city, you know, someone in any sense, without them knowing one person in my life. There's less than one degree of separation in my life here, and for some reason I can't stand it. You know, I meet someone and their best friend is my classmate's best friend or my friend's hairdresser. Or better yet, her hairdresser's lover, which is fine because she's in a poly-amorous relationship that involves at least six other people you know. And the last time they were all in a room together you developed a now-recurring migraine trying to get your head around all of them shooting the shit over the punch bowl. Did I miss something along the chain of command, or perhaps the Fordist assembly line, 'coz if I was any one of those people and I knew that my partner had fucked or is fucking, without any sign of me or my sorry ass, not just five other people in the room, but the five people who are hovering over her/him like wolves as we gaily discuss the latest Coen brothers film, than I'd have much more than a migraine. I'm not equipped with that technology, because I think it is technology, in that some of us can learn it, and some of us are still using the Commodore 64 and think the graphics are ok.

Emily: Like if you break up with someone than it all gets really messy. I get that.

Me: Well, it's more than breaking up with someone. I just mean everyone is up in your business, you can't find any anonymity.

Emily: I get that.

Me: And it's not that people mean anything by's just you know, I hear about X through Y and Z, you know, they do this, and I know them, and you do this too. That type of stuff. So I get to a place and meet my neighbour and I only see her through the things, whether laudatory or awkwardly personal, that I've been told. It becomes hard sometimes to just see the person.

Emily: Yeah, it's like pre-determined.

Me: Sure. I was going to say warmly personal. Number one.

Emily: Whoa, that was fast...

Me: I struggled with these things a lot when I moved here. The only way for me to let go of them was to mold them into things I could change. Like you were saying earlier tonight, so much of life is being open at any given moment and I have developed the uncanny ability to wander away from the current moment into archives that hurt bad and I question whether other people out there could ever get it. And realize that nobody is meant to, it's only for me to understand, and feeling lonely because nobody else could get it is a gimmick. A powerfully-programmed gimmick.

Emily: You were saying, number one things you love?

Me: That at any moment I pretty much know I can find a space where I will feel the loving warmth of somebody I love. Even if at that very moment it might not seem like I love them or that they love me. Just that I'm loved and love. This is embodied in so many places in this city that I already feel nostalgic for when it stops to feel that way. I feel it slipping away, is that loneliness I sense coming on, and then, no, that loving warmth is centre stage again. It spills messily into my body.

And number two. I love my relationship with place here. The landscape. How I know the colours will change and the spring will smell in that way only the spring can smell and the snow will fall and I'll get out onto it and rejoice in its appearance. Because if it didn't and I couldn't feel joy on it, I'd slowly wither away into nothing before the bleak coldness and the cracking trees. When the trees crack I know I can't stand outside without mitts and a toque for more than mere seconds. And knowing that, and the contours of the rivers and lakes around me, fills me with strength. And this isn't my way of avoiding any reflection on my role as a settler here in this place, but it is my way of saying that as a settler I'm constantly amazed at even the tiniest amount of knowledge I may have garnered through my time here, and cannot fathom what it must feel like to hold knowledge that overflows my sense of time.

And last. I love that one day I'll leave. It doesn't matter when. But I'll leave, and I'll remember like someone who only remembers in their hearts, so they can see the moment as it presently unfolds. Like someone I'm not right now, but can only be with foresight, with a sense of a new geography.

Emily: Wow.

Me: Thanks for asking. I never get to say that.

And that's why, in this case, spending time with a complete stranger was just what I needed. Emily, I may not know you, but we once wished upon the same falling star, and while nobody else is likely to wish on that same star, the feelings behind the wish will resonate well beyond that moment. Thanks for appearing right then.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Derek Gregory at Counterpoints Conference

As one of the organizers of the Counterpoints Conference: Edward Said's Legacy, I had been looking forward with glee to Derek Gregory's keynote address: War, Culture & Imperialism.

Gregory's presentation at the University of Ottawa yesterday afternoon -- attended by 120 people, standing-room only -- was fantastic. It was a chilling overview of military (im)precision and strategy from a geographical perspective, one that is sorely lacking in social theory more generally.

After patiently laying out the two types of war currently being employed by the U.S. military in Iraq, i.e., precision warfare (smart bombs, remote control drones, etc) and 'armed social work' (winning hearts & minds- re-building schools, etc), Gregory proceeded to debunk the myth of the humanitarian war by demonstrating how 'armed social work' actually solidifies the use of precision warfare.

The irony is that this new military humanism is meant to 'people' previously unpeopled military targets, to render empty spaces into human places. Gregory explains how this allows the attention to turn to the space of the encounter between soldiers and civiliians, for example, soldiers handing out candies to children or blankets to mothers, and facilitates our forgetting that behind this image bombs continue to rain down on people a couple of blocks away.

Of course, there was much more to Gregory's presentation, including a brilliant overview of the new military operations manual and a succinct explanation of the difference between 'our' wars (the West- smart, disembodied) and 'their' wars (the Rest- savage, visceral ). Overall, Gregory was well worth the hype.