SIX

I’m trying to write an application to an academic program, but am totally unsure about how honest I can be in a “statement of purpose.” Whenever I do something like this, I get the sense that I’m in competition for these spots with a lot of the same people that made me feel uncomfortable during my undergraduate degree. No matter how certain I am in my skill set, the depth of my analysis or my interdisciplinary background, it feels a bit hopeless to be compared to people from privileged families with a long list of bake sales and voluntourist adventures to their names. I also struggle to explain the incredible impact of my experiences in social movements and the community sector without relying on hokey (and untrue) hyperbole about “empowerment” “inspiration” and “saving the world.” A draft to share while I manage the writers’ block:

“I know, however, that I am not asking to continue university studies with the same wonder or naive sense of purpose with which I walked in to my undergraduate degree. While my commitment to social and economic justice has remained unchanged, my perspective on how that social change takes place has become substantially more nuanced and admittedly more jaded over the last few years. Models of community organizing in which I found depth and meaning in the first years of my degree—direct, confrontational, laden with urgency and tension—now appear less romantic and more self-indulgent than they used to. I have often felt that those activists committed to these more revolutionary approaches seemed to derive an inexplicable smugness from their lack of efficacy—as though rooting one’s actions in philosophical purity was enough to compensate for work devoid of long-term impact. At the same time, I remain wary of and ultimately exasperated by most formal political channels, unconvinced that any cause succeeding in a system founded on principles of inequality, exploitation and disposability can be much of a success at all. Perhaps the only reassurance I’ve consistently found in what is by all accounts a bleak situation has been in the enormous creative output of my generation, and in the boundless energy of my peers to improve the world around them.”

And there you have it — a glimmer of hope, folks.

Five

Today I found a photo collection from Jon Crispin of abandoned suitcases discovered at the Willard Asylum for the Chronic Insane. Crispin talks about having to obfuscate the identities of their owners:

“Here’s a weird story: When I do the shooting, my digital photographs are labeled with what’s called IPTC information. It’s all the camera metadata stored with each photo, and you can add whatever you want. I typically add my copyright information, and also the names of the Willard patients for my own records. But when I upload photos to my blog, I strip that out.

For one person’s suitcase, I forgot to delete their name. Two days later, I got a call from someone who’s desperate, saying, “Do you have the objects of —?” and she gave the name of the person. And she said, “That is my grandmother. We didn’t know anything about her.” She had Googled her grandmother’s name and came across the Willard suitcases on my site. But even in this situation, the woman had to prove to the state that she was not only the granddaughter of this person, but that she was legally the recipient of her estate. So, in other words, if the grandmother had willed her estate to the other side of the family, this woman would not have been able to get access to her things.”

[…] I’m still trying to figure out how I can name these people, because I think it dehumanizes them even more not to. People who’ve been in mental institutions themselves have said, “Your project is very moving to me, but I’m very disappointed that you have to obscure names.”

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Four

“…Before I go on with this short history, let me make a general observation — the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise. This philosophy fitted on to my early adult life, when I saw the improbable, the implausible, often the “impossible,” come true. Life was something you dominated if you were any good. Life yielded easily to intelligence and effort, or to what proportion could be mustered of both.”

From “The Crack Up,” F. Scott Fitzgerald, Esquire, 1936

Two

There’s this incredible gentleman in my life, and it’s his birthday today. I shipped him a box of homemade cookies, which travelled six hundred kilometres to his door and arrived a day late. They were delayed at the border, and—because they were a surprise—I had to worry in secret about what a disappointment it would be if U.S. Customs ate them all.

They arrived, supposedly, intact. 

He’ll be moving back home here in two and a half months, but I’m still not used to his physical absence in my day-to-day life. We talk constantly, but it’s not quite the same (anyone who has been in a long-distance relationship knows this). In fact it’s a strange and altogether disorienting feeling: some combination of feeling lost and feeling loss.

At the same time, it’s given me a really important chance to reconnect with friends in the free time his absence leaves me, and maybe more importantly, I’ve had the opportunity to practice being alone. I grew up in a big, loud family, constantly surrounded by people and rarely with time for myself. Now I have a little place of my own in St. Henri, quiet and calm and warm and a little bit empty feeling without him.

I guess I have the tendency to try to fill that emptiness with cheaper kinds of interaction: surround myself with people just-because, to talk about the weather, to be out. I’m glad that I’ve resisted the temptation to avoid loneliness; it’s helped me practice solitude. It’s forcing me to figure out what kind of flow and pattern my life has when I’m not sharing someone else’s clock — and to find some comfort in that rhythm, feel whole because of it. I recall that bell hooks was actually writing about seeking community when she said it, but surely it still resonates here:

“Knowing how to be solitary is central to the art of loving. when we can be alone, we can be with others without using them as a means of escape.”

And I’ve been thinking about that a lot today. I hope that our time apart isn’t wasted, and that this practice somehow makes me a better person. Maybe more grounded, self-aware, ready to share and be present. Other than the cookies, it’s probably one of the better birthday gifts I can give him.

One

I love autumn. It feels transitional, full of change and newness, but is still somehow so deeply comforting and familiar. It’s my favourite time of year, and until about two months ago, I thought this would be the first autumn I’d spend since toddlerhood without the experience of going back to school. I had finished my undergrad, was (and still am) working full time, with a half-dozen projects on the go, and thought I wanted to take time away from the classroom.

It didn’t quite work out that way, and some last minute gut feelings coupled with an incredibly kind program coordinator landed me back in a university sooner than I expected.  Luckily, the program is designed with my sector in mind, so I suppose I’m getting the best of both worlds: space and new perspective out of the class, and a pretty rigorous academic program to complement it.

So today was basically my first day as a graduate student. My program is in Community Economic Development (CED) at the School of Community and Public Affairs — it’s a year long intensive focused on social change and the social economy.

Today was also the first time I found myself in a purely French academic setting, and honestly, it was harder than I thought it would be.

I guess I didn’t expect to walk in and have to introduce myself to a room full people right away — particularly not the intimidatingly competent, interesting people there today. I’m not the most extroverted person, but I believe in making others feel welcome and comfortable. Had that class run in English I probably would have been the first to talk to strangers, share some positive thoughts, and open up about my goals. Today though, I found my voice shaking and felt nervous and awkward, for the first time in ages utterly terrified of speaking out loud. It’s not that I don’t understand French — I do, fluently, and it’s a requirement of my program — but my accent is notably anglophone, and I lose words when I need them most. Struggling to introduce myself was an unexpectedly humbling experience, and probably only the first among many over the next twelve months.

Like most people, I pretty intensely prefer to keep my awkward moments and failures private: I’m unfortunately one of those people who is either good at something immediately, or who avoids doing it at all costs. It’s more than a little out of character to put myself in a situation where I feel so vulnerable (even though of course, if I divorce myself from my nerves, I’m quite sure that nobody else in class notices or cares). But you know, sometimes you just have to do things with guts and confidence, even when you suck.

After all, my speech will only get better, my nerves can only get calmer, and I’m sure I’ll feel more comfortable eventually.

So today is full of beginnings: the beginning of speaking better French, the beginning of a new program and a new school year, the beginning of learning to fail and being vulnerable in public… and apparently, the beginning of a new blog.