Thursday, September 19, 2013

things to remember

rimbaud's words on a wall near st. sulpice, paris, august 2013

backyard weaver, st. albert, july 2013

If there is nothing else I do over the next few months (and really, I have a million things to do), I must allow myself to write poems. Think poems make poems be poems. Because I am feeling more and more sick in the heart that I am for some reason not allowing myself the time and space to be creative in this way. I know that in order to get the PhD dissertation done I had to push so much aside (so much feeling, especially grief) but I need to recover it now, because I am feeling more and more ill at ease in my head, in my life. I don't know why I've done this, over this past year, why I continue to do this to myself. I do know that it feels increasingly destructive, like I am neglecting and thus punishing myself, and I know that I have to somehow stop.

"Whenever I don't write, I commit violence to myself. I write instead of kicking and screaming. I write instead of dying." 

--Kate Zambreno, #32 in 'Toilet Bowl: Some notes on why I write'


A Poet's Advice

A poet is somebody who feels, and who expresses his feelings through words. 
This may sound easy, but it isn't. 
A lot of people think or believe or know they feel -- but that's thinking or 
believing or knowing; not feeling. And poetry is feeling -- not knowing or believing orthinking. 

Almost anybody can learn to think or believe or know, but not a single human beingcan be taught to feel. Why? Because whenever you think or you believe or you know 
you're a lot of other people: but the moment you feel, you're nobody-but-yourself. 
To be nobody-but-yourself -- in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else -- means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting. 

As for expressing nobody-but-yourself in words, that means working just a little harder than anybody who isn't a poet can possibly imagine. Why? Because nothing is quite as easy as using words like somebody else. We all of us do exactly this nearly all of the time - and whenever we do it, we are not poets. 
If, at the end of your first ten or fifteen years of fighting and working and feeling, you find you've written one line of one poem, you'll be very lucky indeed. 
And so my advice to all young people who wish to become poets is: do something 
easy, like learning how to blow up the world -- unless you're not only willing, but glad to feel and work and fight till you die. 
Does this sound dismal? It isn't. 
It's the most wonderful life on earth. 
Or so I feel. 

-- e.e. cummings


"I do believe in poetry. I believe that there are creatures endowed with the power to put things together and bring them back to life".

--Hélène Cixous, in 'The Book of Promethea'

Thursday, August 01, 2013

poetry and projects

I have been having difficulty writing poems for the last year or so, as I pushed to finish my PhD dissertation. I am constantly feeling inspired to do so, and I have pages and pages of fragments collected and scribbled in multiple notebooks, but creating a whole poem has been out of my reach for awhile. This has alarmed me greatly, because I have been writing poems quite steadily for most of my life (since I was eleven years old) and beginning the PhD coincided with a swiftly-dropping lack of productivity in that area that has left me feeling emptied and dull, and even a bit anxious to attempt the crafting of poems despite the strong desire to do so. 

Part of this, I know, has been the sheer written demands of my program, to not only produce my thesis (117 000 words or so) but also conference papers and articles in an academic style, and that this has been incredibly draining for me, especially in the last six months as I've finished up. But today I came across a wonderful, unassuming little chapbook by Dorothea Lasky called 'Poetry is Not a Project' (go read it all online here, it is concise and brilliant and will not take long) and this has helped me greatly to articulate another block toward the making of poems: that I am trying to make poems like I made my thesis. 

(This sounds very simple, but I honestly don't believe I quite identified the problem until I read this, and I am going to write Lasky a grateful letter for helping me untangle that.)

Lasky notes that it is not that poets and scientists are all that different, but that she thinks that "poems are living things that grow from the earth into the brain, rather than things that are planted within the earth by the brain". For Lasky, poems are "not intention, but life". They are not planned out before they appear. They are created within an intersection between the poet and the poem itself, the poet's internality and the external world. They emerge through intuition, not overplanning.

And so I am realizing that right now, I am perhaps half-consciously trying to discern a theme, a greater cycle, an overarching purpose and point to prove for these poor little half-formed poems in my notebooks, and being unable to come up with one, I am thwarting myself before I even begin. I am trying to make a grand scheme, a grant proposal, a PhD out of my poems, and that is never going to work. I need to not worry about what is going to happen in the end, what it is going to become (so crucial to a thesis, where there is something I must prove) and let it be. 

In Lasky's anecdote about the friend who decided to write a poem about a piece of art in a museum each day, she shows that while such 'projects' can be motivational, they often become more about the particular project than the poems themselves, which are often forced out to conform to a theme and tend to fade out hollowly into the shadows. In another piece I read recently, called 'Being Dumb' by Kenneth Goldsmith, another example also resonated. He mentioned Christian Bök, a poet who came to renown for writing Eunoia, an experiment in univocalics--each chapter/poem contains words with only one vowel--and who is currently attempting to create the Xenotext. In the latter project, he writes that he is "striving to write a short verse about language and genetics, whereupon I use a “chemical alphabet” to translate this poem into a sequence of DNA for subsequent implantation into the genome of a bacterium". The bacterium then produces a protein, which is also a text.

That is a fascinating idea, I don't deny that. But I don't want to feel like I have to write something like that-- like a collection of poems all about one thing that all support that x = y, or forgo meaning for pure sound, or train bacteria to make poems for me. I don't want to feel like there is something I must prove.

While I don't equate what Goldsmith called 'dumb' as the opposite of 'smart', I do think that too often, poets try to be too 'clever'. And so many of these smart poems instantly make me feel distanced. They are cool and calculated, crisp and crafted; many also lack apparent emotion. While some do show a certain joy in language, language and meaning do not always dovetail in a way that really satisfies me emotionally and intellectually at once. (Eunoia, I would argue, divorces words from meaning quite thoroughly)  I try to go deeper into these poems, and I end up feeling like I just tried diving into a pool and finding out the water was a lot shallower than I anticipated, and I come up miffed with a sore head instead of feeling enriched and enlightened. 

I want to let my poems flow, and I want them to be smart, but not 'smart' in Bök's way, but intelligent in a way that moves me, and will hopefully move others. I want to express things for the sake of expressing them, because I have the need, I am drawn to create them.

Hélène Cixous writes of this deep desire to create so perfectly and passionately in her essay 'Coming to Writing', which I read recently, and I keep coming back to parts of a quote that Arwen highlighted for me:

Let yourself go! Let go of everything! Lose everything! Take to the air. Take to the open sea. Take to letters. Listen: nothing is found. Nothing is lost. Everything remains to be sought. Go, fly, swim, bound, descend, cross, love the unknown, love the uncertain, love what has not yet been seen, love no one, whom you are, whom you will be, leave yourself, shrug off the old lies, dare what you don't dare, it is there that you will take pleasure, never make your here anywhere but there, and rejoice, rejoice in the terror, follow it where you're afraid to go, go ahead, take the plunge, you're on the right trail! Listen: you owe nothing to the past, you owe nothing to the law.

This is the antithesis of creating a project, a clever 'exercise', and I do think that others, like me, also can get caught up in the need  to make a 'something', and this stops us from letting the poems out, the poems that are us, that we are being. I need no governing laws in my writing, no theses to cleverly defend, no I must think less, and write the things that ache to be written, that are squirming about in my mind like restless embryos and choking away in my throat. As Cixous says (and I think Lasky would agree), we must be "ourselves in writing like fish in the water, like meanings in our tongues, and the transformation in our unconscious lives".

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

alberta herbal: yarrow

Yarrow, along the Maligne Canyon trail, Jasper, July 2013.

Note the feathery leaves, too, divided pinnately into segments (not visible in the first photo). Very important for identification, because other white-flowered plants are very poisonous (e.g. water hemlock)

This is yarrow (Achillea millefolium). 
Parts to use: leaves, flowers to a lesser extent
Uses: clotting wounds (esp. nosebleeds), easing menstrual blood, improving general blood circulation, treating colds (esp. with fever), treating internal bleeding (ulcers, etc.) 

Yarrow—its cluster of whitish-green flowers, feathery leaves, tough and grasping roots—is a plant very dear to me. Not only for its myriad uses, but because it’s one of the very first plants my dad taught me to identify. Yarrow grows extensively throughout Western Canada, in the grasslands, parklands, mountains, and the boreal; it will also tenaciously takes over roadsides and ditches (and gardens, when you buy those alpine wildflower seed mixes…) and so we encountered it often on the trails we walked when I was young.

I happened to meet yarrow when in need of one of its key healing qualities –  it is high coumarins, compounds which contain vitamin K, and thus has the ability to clot blood. I used to get terrible nosebleeds when I was young, especially on hot dry summer days. I remember standing in the shade on a lakeside, anxiously pinching my nose while my dad brushed aside bushes nearby and gently plucked a few unfurled yarrow leaves. He crushed them up first with his fingers, and then gave them to me. “Just chew them up a little, get them wet with some spit,” he told me, “that will activate them”. I did as told—the leaves were aromatic, spicy and bittersweet. Then he rolled them up into a little pack, and placed them up my nose. I was fascinated by this experiment. In about five minutes, my nosebleed had stopped and I was left with a sweet earthy smell even after I removed the mass of leaves. Intrigued, I paid even closer attention as he named the plants and told about their many properties, and stories of times he’d used them out in the bush.

And so yarrow always reminds me of my father, and the care he took to teach my sister and me about what was growing around us, and how this healing knowledge has remained with us. My sister, who lost interest early on in camping and living outdoors, remarked recently that she did appreciated these teachings nonetheless, and was pleased she could still pick out yarrow when she saw it on the sides of the road.

Due to its aforementioned clotting abilities, yarrow is also called ‘woundwort’. The scientific name is Greek, after Achilles, because there are stories that a centaur gave him the plant before he headed into battle. Millefolium for a thousand leaves, and another name in English, ‘thousand-seal’. In medieval Western Europe, its flowers have been a constituent of gruit (a beer flavouring mixture) and its young leaves a tender, bittersweet spinach-like potherb.

My grandmother also knew yarrow (derevij or krivavnyk in Ukrainian). Yarrow tea made using the fresh (or dried) flowers and leaves and mixed with mint was good for colds, she said. Its anti-inflammatory properties could help reduce a fever. Its styptic properties also helped with internal bleeding, and could also ease bloody diarrhea ("People in the Old Country took it," she said, as when she grew up in Western Ukraine, cholera epidemics were still a great threat). My grandma drank tea from her garden yarrow to help with a stomach ulcer as well. She told me that above all, yarrow is simply ‘good for the blood’ and improved circulation. Most importantly, it can she first told me about drinking plain yarrow tea as a remedy for regulating menstruation. Its ability to regulate the blood means that it can help ease both heavy bleeding and also stimulate a scant period.

To make a yarrow tea, you can use the leaves (and flowers – but I usually just use leaves).

If it’s fresh, two long leaves will do it, and if dried, use 1 tsp. for each cup of boiling water. Steep it for 10 minutes either way (if you cover the lid of the cup, you trap more of the goodness in). It becomes bitter easily, so don’t oversteep it – be sure to strain out the leaves. Adding a bit of lemon and honey can make it more palatable. Good for colds, fevers, and also for reducing some of the pain and blood flow during a heavy period – or bringing on a stubborn one.

And, as noted, you can use the dried powdered leaves to stop bleeding as well, but fresh chewed leaves do work just as well and can be pressed again cuts and wounds (alone or as part of a poultice) as well as placed in the nostril as I found out early on. It has never failed me once.

*Some notes of warning – I’ve heard of a few people who have had skin reactions to yarrow (potentially due to taking drugs that cause photosensitivity), so be cautious of that. 

Thursday, June 20, 2013

alberta herbal: wild sarsaparilla

Wild Sarsaparilla, Edmonton River Valley, June 2013. Photo by Jason.

When I first saw these little white-flowered spheres popping up in the river-valley undergrowth a few weeks ago, I was confused, thinking at first they were a wild onion. I soon figured it out that no -- not onion-y at all, and that my difficulty in identifying stemmed from the fact that I only knew this plant by its late summer cluster of berries, rather than its early blooms.

This is the wild sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicalis). Also known as rabbit root, wild licorice (not to be confused with this true wild licorice), shotbush and small spikenard.
Parts to use: the roots only (berries are inedible) 
Uses: blood purification, energy tonic, skin washes for ulcers, rashes and pox.

Sarsaparilla is a delightful word. It is from the Basque words sartzia 'bramble' and parra 'vine', and reached English via the Spanish zarzaparilla -- the invading Spaniards encountered indigenous people in Central America using the plant both medicinally and in enjoyable beverages that were the precursor to our contemporary root beers. These plants, of the Smilax genus, are the true sarsaparillas, whereas the wild sarsaparilla is part of the ginseng family and was so named in English because the taste and qualities are very similar to that of the original sarsaparilla of the southern regions.

Wild sarsaparilla, which is found growing throughout moist and moderately shady woods in North America, is also now widely used to flavour many commercial traditional-style root beers. The plant grows about a foot high, and may have two to five-ish little branching umbels of greenish white flowers appearing in May or June. The purplish black berries that appear in July and August are not edible for humans, but bears seem to enjoy them. The part most useful for medicine are the dried rootstalks, which should be gathered in early autumn, as the plants begin to yellow. 

Once the roots are dried, they can be made into a tea, which has general tonic properties much like ginseng does, restoring energy and purifying the blood. It has a lovely peppery-balsamic taste, with a hint of licorice, like the dominant root beer flavour. Like ginseng, it can cause a bit of extra perspiration (which adds to its purifying qualities). 

While again, I am not a herbalist or botanist, I would advise that it should be used with caution if you are sensitive to other Panax or Aralia plants; however, while I have adverse effects from ginseng (blood pressure drops and heart palpitations) I can have small amounts of wild sarsaparilla in teas and root beers, so it makes a nice substitute for the stronger plants with similar benefits. 

My dad also learned from a Woods Cree friend that the plant was also used to make a skin wash that was helpful in soothing ulcers, psoriasis-like skin issues and shingles/chicken pox rash. In the past the plant had also been used to treat syphilis, though which symptoms he didn't know.

This plant always makes me remember my dad, because when I was little and being mildly mischievous, he would always scold me with 'you little sarsaparilla!', dropping the 'r' so it sounded like 'sass'. And this is a sassy and delicious plant indeed.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

alberta herbal: red currants in blossom

Red currants blossoming, Tawayik Lake, Elk Island National Park, May 2013

As a general note -- I am not a professional botanist or a herbalist. The knowledge I am passing along here was taught to me by my dad, who learned it from others who knew the northern bush, and my baba whose knowledge came primarily from her mama and baba in the Ukrainian Carpathians. There are probably many other uses for these plants; I am only passing on what I have been taught directly, and in most cases, tried myself, so this is not exhaustive by any means. Be careful with wild plants: do your own research too so you are well-versed in their identification and uses, and take into consideration your own body -- everyone reacts a little differently especially to new foods they have never tried before. So there's my disclaimer!


So here is the first entry in my Alberta Herbal: the red currant (Ribes triste).
Parts to use: berries, leaves (when young, never wilted!)
Uses: Vitamin C source, good for respiratory ailments (coughs and colds) and system immunity, gastrointestinal issues, anti-inflammatory and cleansing tonic.

Most currants are not a huge shrub, and this one is rarely found growing more than half a metre high, and tend to like wet, rocky woods, and swampy places. The ones in the photo are growing near a marshy lakeshore, in the shade of some balsam poplars and aspens. The leaves, which you can just see, have five palmate lobes -- a commonality among all the members of the currant and gooseberry family

The blossom of our red currants, with their pinkish-red centres, look quite similar to those of the prickly black currant (Ribes lacustre), also found in the northern Alberta parklands and boreal. However, at this stage you can tell them apart by the lack of raspberry-bush-like prickles on the stem of the red currants. They begin flowering in late May and the tart-tasting, bright, semi-translucent red berries will begin to form in July, ripening in mid-to-late summer here in Alberta. 

Both the red and black currant berries and leaves are highly edible, though North American black currant leaves give off a slightly-to-extremely skunk-ish aroma, and are less palatable in teas (European and Siberian black currant leaves are much more pleasant). The leaves, when harvested in spring and early summer, are also medicinal. (Never ingest them once the leaves begin to wilt, though, as toxins build up as they age and could really harm your stomach). Now would be a good time to gather some, as they are nice and fresh. 

My dad always told me that currants are among the best berries for preventing scurvy if you get lost in the woods as they are extremely high in Vitamin C (black are a little better than red, apparently, but both will keep you healthy!). They are also high in copper, an important trace element. He mentioned that chewing a few berries can help with nausea and stomach upset, and also stimulate the appetite after gastrointestinal issues. 

My baba would have told you to cook them down with sugar into a jam, sauce, or syrup. Porichky ('red currants' in Ukrainian)  were used in her village, she told me, primarily as simple sustenance but were also used as remedies for coughs (reduced into a thick syrup).  When her family first arrived in Canada, they lived on a farm east of Edmonton in the Beaver Hills, were red currants still grow abundantly. Doctors were few and far between, and red currants (often mixed with elderberries) were one of the most important cough and cold remedies, and were also taken to generally improve respiratory health (pneumonia, whooping cough and diphtheria were especially feared at the time).

My dad never mentioned much about the leaves, but my baba told me that fresh or dried leaves were also good in teas taken a few times daily to ease respiratory symptoms as well, and 'settle the stomach' after bouts of diarrhea. Back home in the Carpathians, she said that leaves were sometimes steeped in vodka, which was then diluted with water to be used as a cleansing tonic. People with arthritic issues also took it, so it's likely currants have decent anti-inflammatory properties as well.

So now is the time for leaf usage, if you've got coughs or colds or an ornery stomach. You can use them fresh (just pour boiling water over about 2 tsp. of chopped or torn fresh leaves in a 250ml cup, cover and let steep about 5 minutes, drink up to 3 times a day). They are also nice mixed in with other fresh berry-bush leaves, such as wild raspberry. If you dried the currants, you could throw some into the tea as well for extra flavour; on its own it is astringent but only faintly currant-y.

Unfortunately I never witnessed the making of the vodka concoction, but if you are good at making tinctures and infusions, you may want to experiment. 

I will include photos later in the season when the berries develop further as well as recipes for the berries. More general tips about drying leaves and berries to come as well...

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

herbal survival: a preface

In late April, I spied my moose-friend at Riverlot. At first I thought the tree had ears...

But no, it was my yearling moose-friend, who I'd been seeing all winter with his mama.

He's all grown-up now with his little antler-buds, and he's set off to eat saplings on his own...

* * * 
I have been absent awhile now, I realize, but the PhD has now been written and I wait for a defense, so (as unreal as it seems to me) I hope to rekindle my blog-writings in the meantime. While there were so many things I wanted to write about, I could not seem to muster or divert any energy and words away from my thesis. At the moment I can't quite believe that I am done that particular document, but already the impetus to write little things (and post a few months' worth of photos) is slowly returning. 

I have a lot of feelings right now that aren't really ready to be shared, but I'm feeling quite compelled to write about useful things, like plants. It's spring, almost summer now, and I am in my homeplace at this time of year for the first time in four years. The woods have kept me sane over the last few months, and now they are so alive and vibrant, all the old bones of winter streaming into green. I'm thinking a lot about my dad, and my baba, and how much I miss them. How far away I feel from them at times. But I've also realized that I can draw them much nearer to me when I focus on what they have taught me, imparted to me, and so much of that has to due with survival. I want to write about the emotional aspects of this eventually, but at the moment I want to pass on the knowledge they've bestowed regarding physical survival. My baba has taught me much about garden and semi-domestic plants, and my dad's teachings have connected me so deeply to the wild ones growing on this land. And so I want to pass along some of this knowledge, because it is not even so much the remembering of this knowledge that keeps them close to me, but the teaching and sharing of what they always shared with me. 

Over the summer, as everything blossoms, I will create my Alberta Herbal. The plants that grow here, with a focus on the ones that will keep you healthy and nourished, should you want or need to consume them.  And then, perhaps some other surviving-skills. But first, a long story about how I came to the idea. 

In the last month or so, likely due to PhD-related (which also includes the anticipation of being post-PhD) stress and a penchant for watching ridiculous National Geographic documentaries at 3am about people who are getting ready for doomsday, I've had a few apocalyptic dreams. The details of the cataclysms are usually vague, but the main flavour is extreme anxiety, coupled with a strange blend of frustration and annoyance. In these dreams, I am usually trying to finish writing the thesis, but am interrupted by having to organize things or figure out how to find my next meal, often whilst trying to cajole others to help me or teach them what needs to be done. 

In one dream I come down from where I have been trying to have a nap, in an upstairs bedroom in a large mansion, where I am hiding from the external chaos. This unfamiliar house is full of other people (some I know, most are strangers), and when I emerge from the room, they ask me where the food is, because everything in the cupboards has been eaten. I suggest that we'll have to go foraging, because apparently there are no more grocery stores. My comrades are not pleased. To gloss over some dull negotiations and strange twists of dream-logic, it turns out I have to go evade fast-moving rabid animals alone to find some wild salad greens and fishes. I manage to make it across a very vast lawn to a stream without meeting my doom, and I fish with a long twig and twine, and a fish hook that magically appears, and soon catch a fish. It's a pike, slippery and toothy but nice and fat. Good for dinner. I am going to cut it open, to clean it, flipping it over on its belly when I panic, remembering that's not the best way to clean a pike. They are incredibly bony, and I am terrified of choking on fish bones. But then I blank, forgetting where to start filleting. I start to panic. What if I cut it wrong and ruin all the meat and everyone dies with bones lodged in their throats? 

I wake up, glad that it not the end of the world, but the dream-remnants are still rattling about in my head, and I start to worry because what if I had to start fishing for my food and the river here is full of pike and what's that trick again that my dad taught me--I haven't cleaned a fish in nearly two years now, what if I forget... And I feel a wave of anxiety, not so much about the nonexistent cataclysm that would test my skills, but because I am terrified of forgetting what he has taught me. So I look it up on YouTube--how to filet bony fish--and begin the day looking at fish guts. It reminds me of my dad, of catching my first fish, a jackfish in Thunder Lake, and the sour-weedy smell of blood and viscera in the fish-cleaning stand, the grit on my knees in the bottom of a canoe. It's strangely calming, because of the memories, and because I instantly remember what to do as soon as the first cuts are made. And then I think a bit more about survivalism, and remember just how much my dad has taught me. 

This knowledge--of how to survive in the bush--is deeply important to me, and so incredibly valuable. Not necessarily because I'm waiting for a societal collapse, but because I strongly believe that the skills he has passed on to me are something that everyone should have. My dad, who grew up basically outside, supported that too, developing the first outdoor education program in the city when he first taught junior high in the early 1970s. He taught those kids what he later passed on to his own children. He took kids winter camping, taught them to ice fish and build a kwinzhee, introduced them to wilderness first aid, built canoes in the summer and showed them how to use a compass, read topographical maps, identify edible plants and learn their uses. They made fires with flint and even a bow-drill. Those kids could probably make it a few days at least, if they had to.

And I start wondering how many of those children he taught had children, and if they ever passed along any of the knowledge he imparted to them. I think of the kids now at the school where he taught, where they still have something like outdoor education but it's all focused on the sporty-ness of outdoor activities, and very little on learning how to live in the bush. Those kids there, at the school where my mother still teaches, could they name ten plants that grow around them? Would they know what to do with them?

(Or, says the curmudgeonly old woman in me, are they glued to their stupid phones and don't realize that if civilization collapses, so does wi-fi? And that you can't just look something up on wikipedia or youtube if you're stranded on a mountain somewhere? And even barring disaster, how do people live in a place and not know, or desire to be aware, of what else is living and growing around them?) 

It hurts my heart, I admit, that this knowledge is no longer esteemed. I strongly believe that alongside all the digital technology skills we should be taking kids outside in school and teaching them to plant a garden and build a fire and catch a fish and dig medicinal roots-- both for a deeper appreciation of the land but also for their own well-being. I am incredibly lucky that I had my father teach me so much over the course of my entire life, and instill in me an early value system that focuses on these types of skills.  Even my sister, who does not like to camp anymore at all, can still identify a yarrow plant, and could (if in dire need) chew it up to activate the clotting agents, and heal a cut. 

Despite my overactive dreaming-mind, I'm not anticipating an apocalypse, or planning for one. But I can't say that I don't feel a certain peace knowing that I could take care of myself, and others, in the forest if I had to, and a deep gratitude and closeness to my dad for teaching me all he knew about the land. And right now I really feel I need to pass that on,  all of the things he taught, because that ensures his continuing survival, too.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

brain chemicals: why i take medication, part two of two.

aberdeen, early morning haar-fog, may 2012

By this point in my life, I have gone over these events exhaustively, and I can’t seem to figure out what triggered this period in my life that made me decide to try medication. No one stress seemed so monumental that it could do this to me, it was everything and nothing. And it was something that I simply could not seem to muster up the will or strength to do anything about, and after nearly four months of it, it did not seem like it was simply a season in my brain, like other intense periods had been.  And now I could not do anything, and I wanted to not exist any more, which also catalysed further anxiety, and that was what made me decide that psychotropic drugs were probably no worse than what I currently was feeling. I was in the strange state of not wanting to exist, but not wanting to not want to exist; I felt like I had nothing to lose.

Again, at this stage, I was lucky. Lucky to have such an understanding psychologist, and a doctor who was patient with me, and warned me that I might have to try a few different medications to find one that helped. And I did try a different drug, before I tried the one I still take; it was one that made me quite ill right from the beginning. It made my frenetic thoughts slow down, but to the point where I couldn’t think at all. I went from highly anxious to strangely dulled, depressed. I remember one day when it seemed to only allow me to think about how I could hear the blood in my veins, and that the raindrops on the windows sounded like they were amplified and slowed down. I was nauseous constantly, and this was simply not feasible. So we tried something else, and I was tremendously lucky in that this one just fit. The first week was rough, but all in all, it happened quite quickly. There were side effects, but they were better than how I currently felt, perhaps even a welcome distraction, and so I continued.

Over the next two months, my thoughts slowly returned to something more normal for me: I could think clearly again, precisely enough to replace my incessant mantras with more sustainable CBT. I could better tell when my thoughts were  I stopped shaking, and panic attacks dropped off and I could do things, venture out, do healthy things. I could distract myself not with sharp things but with productive things to do with my hands. In essence, it simply allowed me to finally properly do the work I needed to do in order to deal with the anxiety I was feeling, before it got so bad I could no longer even think about doing anything. It allowed me to be clear and functional again, enough to cope. 

It was not perfect. It still isn't. Most of the side effects have faded, but some linger at times. I am afraid of running out, losing my pills; I can't forget to take one or I feel it immediately. But this is still many orders of magnitude better than what I was feeling before, and so I deal with it. Through a lot of experimentation I've found the dose and the timing that seems to be optimal for me, and I go with it, while trying as much as I can to do all the non-pharmaceutical things I can to stay healthy. 

Because I still get anxious, as I said; I still feel depressed. I have bad periods, very helpless-feeling, unproductive, waves that I have to get through. But these, while trying and unpleasant, are things I feel that I can deal with. They are something different than the pure terror, the neuronal storms of nonsense and inability to think. They arise from things I understand, most of the time, so they feel like something else. And I know that it could be argued that my brain with its faulty substrata predisposes me to have certain kinds of reactions to things in the world. This is not unlikely. However, I feel there is such a distinction between feeling depressed and anxious due to the state of the world and my place in it, the forces acting against me that I ultimately cannot alter, and feeling anxious because I am having paranoid, terrifying, irrational thoughts that I still recognize have no basis in reality. I am not trying to artificially separate the kinds of anxiety and depression I feel into purely chemical and purely situational; I am not trying to uphold the harmful Cartesian duality of mind and body that I think is one of the sources of the denigration of mental illness. That the medication seems to help one strain of anxiety though, and not others, though, suggests to my non-neurologist self that perhaps  there are different (but connected) kinds; the kind that stems from my brain structure, and the kind that starts from outside of it but I experience and process (of course) through my neuronal set-up. Maybe they are far too entwined to fully separate, and interdependent in myriad subtle ways; my reactions to the OCD-like thoughts certain do shape my reactions to situation-based anxiety too. I don't fully understand it yet, but I keep trying to. For now, I just want to acknowledge that some of what I feel is traceable and comprehensible to me, and some of it arose without such triggers; and the latter is what I find the medication helps.

It didn't magically restore my self-esteem, make me fearless, a better writer, make me love myself unconditionally, flood me with optimism. But it also didn't erase my personality and turn me into a mask-wearing zombie with stunted, inappropriate emotions, nor a shallow, uncritical consumer. It did let me feel more than constant anxiety and panic, though. That was all, and that is what I wanted.


I know, though, for some people, these kinds of medication make them feel horrible. They do feel like blank, stumbling automatons, just as clouded and fuzzy as they do while depressed, numbed and dulled. We know that for whatever reason, these medications are temperamental and finicky and quite unpredictable (just like people’s brains).  For some reason, what helps one person’s anxiety or depression does little to nothing for (or seriously worsens) another’s condition:  I’ve heard both just as many completely terrifying horror stories as accounts of neutrality or ineffectualness as I have successes. And I wish I knew why this was, wish we were at that point with neurology to have an explanation, but we aren’t. We still can’t always discern the messenger from the message, the excess from the essential; why some people’s brain waves look really different from other people’s even while in very similar states, why this drug I take that they thought would be good for epilepsy (but wasn't) might be good for depression (sometimes, it seems) would end up helping more people with generalized anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder (it did for me, anyway). 

Perhaps all this speaks to is the incredibly individual natures of our brains, perhaps more so than any other part of the body.  One issue with allopathic medicine is that it wants to assume that all human bodies are essentially the same, rather than specific systems, I feel; and perhaps the fact that not all anti-depression and anti-anxiolytic medications work on every person’s issues  I would hazard a guess that my brain chemicals were perhaps quite responsive to psychotropic medication because I seem to be pretty sensitive in general to any kind of chemical interference; sleuthing out the triggers of my migraines has made me realize that the foods I put in my body have a massive and often immediate effect on how I feel. Therefore, by fastidiously avoiding those foods and supplementing my diet with a concoction of vitamins does a lot toward making my migraines less frequent, because I seem to be pretty chemically suggestible.

I suppose it would be wonderful if I could find a vitamin-potion/food combination that did the same for my anxiety and depression. I’ve tried a lot of different combinations, both through my own research and seeing a naturopath, too, and I continue to try things even though I take pharmaceuticals. But unlike with my migraines, I wasn’t able to find anything that could stave off two breaking points. And that was when I decided (both times) to initially go on my medication, and to continue it after a hiatus. I was doing all the good things that they tell you to do with mental illness: to eat properly, to take the vitamins, to exercise. And that helps a great deal, but not enough for the worst bits, unfortunately.

Now, I did manage to get through a number of difficult stretches without any medication; the OCD-like periods, some of the self-harm. Sometimes I wonder if I could have handled my most serious breakdown that way, if I could have pulled through it too. I realize that many people do go through very similar things without it. And well – I didn’t. I did what I felt was best for me at the time, the only thing I felt I could manage. If that makes me weak, then I suppose I’m weak, but I’m alive, and I can deal with the periods of depression and anxiety that I still go through because at least I am not contending with that terror I could not will away on my own. I still struggle with doing a number of things, but I am far more productive than I ever could have been without it, I feel. This leaves me with the extra energy I need to deal with what the drugs do not touch.

Everything that I’ve written may just read like elaborate and desperate justification for my medication; so be it. For me, it is a potent reminder for when I start to criticize myself, for when I start to think that I am wrong to have started the drugs in the first place. I completely understand and respect why someone would never want to touch a psychotropic medication, as I've been there. I just happened to eventually change my mind. And if that makes me just another brainwashed, ‘addicted’, misguided consumer who will take this medication for the rest of her life, I suppose that is how it will be. I just want to be fine with that, to openly acknowledge and explain why I did it, and through I may always struggle with it, I also want to be able to freely acknowledge that I’m grateful that there was this option available to me. I'll settle for being weak, but functioning; for whatever the anti-psychiatry movement wants to call me, but alive.


Friday, February 15, 2013

brain chemicals: why i take medication, part one of two.

raven on a chimney, early morning Aberdeen, May 2012


I have never liked taking medication. As a young child I had to be bribed into it, because early experiences with penicillin made all medicine have pretty unpleasant associations, as did bad reactions to decongestants and cough suppressants. I remember tolerating the one penicillin that didn't  wreak havoc on my system, the infamous 'banana medicine', but that was it. I learned to accept that ibuprofen could do fine things for a tension headache, and take a few hours off a migraine even if it did nothing for the pain. Half a dimenhydrinate makes nausea evaporate. But I was always (and continue to be wary) of what was going into my body because of the element of the unexpected, the understanding of their power, and I still am. I remember learning in biology about the load many medicinal substances place on the liver and the kidneys, and I worried about my body's ability to handle these substances; I understood that it should be fine if drugs are taken sparingly, but what about something you take every day?

I do agree with many opponents of psychotropic medications; I think it is terrifying that you can walk into a doctor’s office and blithely ask for an anti-depressant or anti-anxiolytic of your choice; this has happened to me and a number of others. I want these drugs to be available, but I am concerned that many doctors really know little about them, because from my experience and stories I've heard, patients are rarely told about the trials and hazards of going on and off medication (or that their concerns are explicitly dismissed or downplayed). They can have very serious side effects and consequences and should never be taken lightly or without a lot of consideration, because they cannot be discontinued abruptly. And most definitely they can be worse than reasons why you're taking them; I have no doubt about that. But that doesn’t mean they’re worthless and should all be condemned, as they can be very effective.

I thought about providing links to medical studies and articles both for and against anti-depressants, but frankly, it's pretty easy to find these sorts of back-and-forths everywhere online, by psychiatrists and other clinicians as well as those who have experienced the drugs. Yes, it's true that we know very little about the brain as a whole, and also only a very small bit about what causes mental illness and about the mechanisms of these drugs we use to treat it. However, I just can't understand how anyone can make the leap to 'these drugs are no better than placebos' just because it is not precisely known at this point in time how and why they work. Some brain chemical imbalance theories may be outdated or (partially) debunked, but we do know that somehow these medications, these chemicals, can bring relief to symptoms by affecting the function of neurons. They did something for me.

I feel awkward writing this, because I really don't want to dismiss the fact that others have been miserable on them, and have found their conditions to worsen and become more debilitating. But I am also tired of having to downplay or deny my own experiences-- especially since it was not an easy decision for me to make, to take these drugs in the first place. I am tired of the subtle but insidious judgment that comes from taking them; the misunderstanding that it's a cheap and easy way to 'happiness' makes me seethe. I have done a fuckload of work to be able to function, before and after starting this medication. This is not the easy way out. I do not take these to be happy. These do not make you happy. I am not happy all the time. I sought out this treatment because I could not feel anything but pure terror and I wanted to have other feelings. I still get anxious. I still have periods of depression. But now I can have more than one feeling. Now I can deal with these things, most of the time. 

I don't know where my anxiety comes from. I don't really know if this predisposition comes from brain chemicals, even though I use other chemicals to help fix it. I think a lot of it comes from my brain, though, and I have memories of anxiety and panic for nearly as long as I have memories at all. It's been with me for a rather long time. I had a very un-tumultuous early childhood, with attentive and supportive parents, but I could really having a full-blown, hyperventilating panic attacks that came out of nowhere. When my dad found me crying and shaking on my bedroom floor, I didn’t know what to tell him. Even then, I realized that if you were upset, there had to be a good reason to be so upset – and it terrified me that I had no such reason. I made up stories; I told him that the girl next door had been mean to me. (That happened sometimes, and made me anxious too.  And I knew it was okay, it was normal to be upset about that, because that was a thing that happened. It was real.)

As I got older, I developed many more persistent anxieties. Some of these things were because of things that actually existed in the world, things that make many children anxious (being harassed in elementary school, etc.) and others, were not so rational, and definitely not so external. This duality that I could see developing in hindsight tells me something, too -- that in some ways, my anxiety and depression is Janus-faced: some of stems from my responses to my social and environmental factors, and yet some of it arises within my own mind, for reasons that cannot be traced (despite years of therapy). Many people, like Ann Cvetkovich, write that depression is 'the symptoms of a response to a fucked up world or a fucked up life' (see Depression: A Public Feeling, p. 15) and I do agree. I still get anxious, I still get depressed, even after a decade on psychotropic medication. However, when I look to the causes of this anxiety and depression, I can generally always link it to something in the world, in my life, that is shitty. Because there are awful things, both great catastrophes and daily microaggressions that build up and weigh us down. (And honestly, I find people who do not react to kyriarchal oppression as a little suspect, because things are pretty dire). I think anxiety and depression are completely normal responses, to certain things.

But then there are these other things, things inside my head. They can be exacerbated by less ideal conditions in the world, but they feel so internal, so idiosyncratic that they seem to come from my brain. Like my migraines can be triggered by things I ingest or by conditions in my environment, but also can just spring up from no traceable cause, so can my anxiety. And this is the kind that led me to not be able to function. The symptoms of this kind is what I like to remind myself about when I want to stop taking my medication.

The panic attacks that came on in class suddenly, that sent me running for the washroom often at school to hide there, because I often couldn’t explain what brought them on. And even if I could, it was a thoroughly awkward thing to do. And when not feeling that dizzy wash of fear, the accelerating breathing, the crush in my chest, I felt a constant tightness in my shoulders, a constricting mass in my throat, a vague nausea nearly every morning. When I was 10 and 11, there were times when I could hardly eat anything, terrified I would choke on each bite I took. I was underweight, my blood pressure was low, and my resting heart rate sometimes spiked up like a terrified rabbit until I thought I would black out.

There was the kind of anxiety that made me feel as if I was going crazy. It crept up for no reason. I deeply feared  losing my mind, forgetting who I was, saying and doing horrible things. I don’t know where those thoughts came from, what they arose from, what brought them on, but they definitely felt different than the other things that triggered anxiety, the people, the situations, my fears about things actually happening in the world outside of my thoughts. In high school, when I began seeing a psychologist, she helped me understand I probably had a mild form of obsessive-compulsive disorder (my sister and uncle have been diagnosed with a severe form of this), because I created rituals to assuage the anxiety: I washed my hands often, til they bled, not because of germs but contamination by frightening thoughts. I repeated phrases to myself over and over, mantras before I slept each night, a certain number of times, to make it so that everything would be okay. Looking over notebooks I kept at the time, I see pencilmarks in the margins tearing through the pages, fervently underlining the magical words I needed to write to prevent these awful thoughts, to straighten them out, to keep them in check.

As I got older, some of these rituals fell away. But when the tension in my body was too much, or I had a panic attack where I couldn’t stop crying, I learned to dig my fingernails hard into my palms. This sudden pain caused my focus to shift, and provided a momentary release from this internal intensity; it led to me scratching harder, and eventually cutting my skin – little vents for the anxiety, sort of like trepanning but for my flesh instead of my skull.  It helped at first, but eventually caused me greater anxiety for doing it, especially when I confessed it to others and received little empathy or support. This is when I started seeing my psychologist, because I was at a loss as to how to deal with this (I once had believed everyone dealt with anxiety like this, but trying to explain my feelings to others had come to understand this most likely wasn’t true) and was becoming afraid of myself in a way I could not handle.

With my psychologist, I engaged in Cognitive-Behavioural therapy, to help me deal with the moments of intense anxiety and the panic attacks. And so they still came, but I learned to manage them better, to fend them off as best I could without resorting to cutting or burning. She always told me that medication could be an option if I decided I’d like to try it, but we would work without it unless I asked, and I was still very much against it.  And I was doing fairly well managing with the CBT for awhile, but then things started cropping up again. Near the end of my first year of university,    I wasn’t particularly stressed about things in the world, external things; I was managing the new routines and workloads fairly well.

Then one day I had a very severe panic attack that coincided with a migraine that sent me to the hospital, and I was convinced I would die. The headache and panic attack subsided, and then a few days later I woke up with another one. And another one, and then suddenly every moment felt like constant anxiety, more continuous than it had ever been before; panic attacks were mere spikes on a high plateau of frantic unease.

It felt like my thoughts had aphasia; they came out in chunks that raced around and I felt nauseous trying to round them up. I felt lost in my own head, unsure of how I would ever make sense of anything again. The OCD-like fears returned, mantras were needed, but sometimes they were not even enough, and my mood began to sink when I realized that I really could not even trust my own thoughts anymore. I wanted to practice my CBT techniques, but I could not slow my thoughts enough to do so, could not even begin to do it no matter how hard I tried. Walking around the block, let alone running, was too terrifying, so I could not clear my head that way, feed myself the endorphins I hoped might help. Eating became difficult again, and I lost 15 pounds in three weeks. I would wake up shaking, convinced I was going crazy and/or was going to die. Nothing could convince me that I actually wasn’t.

I would have panic attacks that seemed to only subside when my body was too tired to keep shaking, too dehydrated to cry any longer; I then became afraid of always having a panic attack. When I wasn’t awake and worrying, I often had terrible nightmares, chaotic and violent; in the moments when I would wake from them I had the most scrambled thoughts, and it took all my energy to sort things out in my head enough so that I could get out of bed.

School term was over, I was working but kept having to miss shifts or leave early because I could not focus. Functioning was a little difficult though I tried so hard to not let on what was happening inside my head, and then I would feel worse because I could not function. But one day in the moments before waking I had by far the worst dream of my life, and I thought it was real, and I woke up and a cascade of thoughts started and I can’t even begin to explain it, can’t even type it out, could never even speak a word of it to anyone, but suffice to say that my shaky traitorous brain took about three seconds to convince me that it would come true and I would do a horrible thing and I was so fatigued and so tired that I had no energy to even summon up one of my spells to compensate for that hideous thought that I had another massive panic attack and decided that I needed to die, to not exist, to not be anymore.

I can’t express these thoughts very eloquently. I wish I could. I write them out and they feel suitably frenzied, but I do not know how to convey the terror and sickness I feel when I think of them, remember them; I can’t seem to capture it on the page. But this is why I decided to take medication. I can’t do justice to the lows I felt that day, I could not even calm down enough to speak until later that day when I went in to see my psychologist, and that was when I told her that perhaps I would like to try something, because at this point I was willing to try pretty much anything, frankly, that could even possibly make these particular feelings stop, because they were not really compatible with living anymore, and I thought I still wanted that.

So that, in a hastily explained, incomplete nutshell, is why I take medication for my anxiety. Not for the kind that comes from living in a problematic world and having feelings about it. Not the kind that is linked to my self-esteem and my place in the aforementioned world, but from living with a brain that antagonizes me and is uncooperative for reasons I may never quite discern, but seem to lie within it.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

brain chemicals: why i take medication, prologue.

 On Broad hill, 5 a.m., Aberdeen last May, after a night of no sleep
On the way to the beach, that same early morning, one of those times the landscape reflects the inside of the mind so precisely


As with my last post from a few months ago, where my running alleviates my anxiety and depression due to both its chemical effect (dopamine, serotonin, and their cohorts) and also for its emotional influence (catalysed by feeling strong and reclaiming space), this next series of posts is also a story about the two-sided nature of my brain’s condition: something that is both chemical and emotional, something that is partially helped by psychotropic medication and something that these drugs still cannot touch.

I’ve wanted to write this for the past year, really, because it occurred to me that I had been taking medication for anxiety for a whole decade.  That it has taken me nearly another year to sit down and write it speaks rather emphatically about my continued ambivalence about said medication.

Or really, perhaps I am not ambivalent about my medication anymore. If I ask myself honestly, I can frankly say that I’m grateful for it. I am deeply thankful for what it has allowed me to do and writing the long piece that follows is a way of reminding myself why, despite the currents of unease that still run through me.  I am indeed still afraid of being judged for taking it, for having positive feelings toward it, and for now being unwilling to stop, for accepting that I will probably take it for the rest of my life, and I need to keep making peace with this, for now.

I felt I had to write this now because I was reading a piece recently where the writer was describing her tapering-off period on an SSRI (not one I have experience with) that was fairly heinous. And it was almost funny how  I could have predicted the four camps the responses fell into: the voices encouraging her and sharing their own tips and stories with difficult drugs very neutrally; those who mentioned that they hated how they felt on SSRIs and also faced a difficult withdrawal and would never touch one again; those who had experienced depression or anxiety but had not medicated, and mentioned  their wariness; and then those who smugly informed the commentariat that they would NEVER put such POISON in their bodies.

I get it, those first three responses.  And I completely respect those who do suffer anxiety and depression and choose not to go on medication or not to stay on medication because of how awful or wrong it makes them feel either because they tried it or it simply feels like the wrong choice for them. I have felt those things and they made sense to me at certain points in my life; I just personally reached a point where they were no longer true for me at all. In writing this, the absolute last thing I want to do is condemn others for doing what they needed to do in terms of medication or the lack thereof. But  I just get so tired of hearing people who have never been depressed, never had constant anxiety or recurrent panic attacks say things like ‘Oh, I would never take an anti-depressant, I could never put that in my body, I heard they don’t work,’ and all manner of things like that. I feel the bile rise in me when people continue to conflate taking psychotropic medication to function is 'taking pills to find cheap happiness'.  And I cringe when I remember how at one time in my life I'd be nodding along and agreeing, something I don’t do outright anymore, but oh, I did when I was younger, all the time.

I did the nod-and-agree thing when I met a boy who I would later date. We were both involved in a number of activist causes at the time, and one day we were chatting about something, and something about pharmaceuticals came up, and of course all good lefties are anti-pharmaceutical, and I agreed with him on the dastardliness of such things, and he (who had never been depressed, or anxious, I would later learn) said, ‘If I were depressed, I’d NEVER put something like that in my body’, and I mumbled some assent, oh yes, how could anyone do that, etc.  Because I wanted to be his friend. And I felt ashamed, and guilty, impure, and weak; I had absorbed so many narratives about how these medications made your feelings inauthentic, or made you into a pliant and unfeeling zombie under the control of the capitalist market, took your most unpredictable individuality and tempered it into something palatable and controllable. ‘I’m so glad you agree with me, so many people just don’t understand how BAD it is, etc,’ he said, and oh, off I slunk, because it was just after dinner, and I needed to take my second dose of the day.

And we became friends, and then we dated for over a year, and that whole time I surreptitiously slipped my pills, always hidden in the internal pocket of my purse. I told him a bit about my anxiety, my panic (I had to, because he witnessed it) but I never, ever told him about the medication.  Not until a year or so later, when we were not in a romantic relationship any longer, and I had been off the drugs for a few months, but then had another breakdown and started again. I told him then I was taking them, but not that I had before. Maybe he was already tired of dealing with me, but we started drifting even further apart then, and I’ll now never know what he thought of that.

I’ve told people bits and pieces of this, but perhaps never all of it at once, or in sequence. I suppose, though, that this story is really for myself, right now, as a reminder to remember why I am taking the medication when I start to resent it, or feel guilty, or weak for doing so. To remind myself that this a choice I made after a lot of hardship and a lot of consideration; thinking back to the times where I could do nothing at all is helpful whenever I am presently too hard on myself (which is most of the time).

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

settler responsibilities + idle no more

 This is the land I grew up within, along the Sturgeon River here, before it meets the North Saskatchewan.

I was told by a local elder Métis woman that the river was originally called after the red willow, the  mihkwâpemak, and that's why the park is named for it in English.

 But now the signs downtown say 'names sīpiy', or literally Sturgeon River in Cree. It's certainly possibly though, that there are multiple names; however, I think perhaps this is a backtranslation from English.

         wacask, Cree for muskrat. 

So maybe you are hearing a lot about the Idle No More movement right now, in response to the Canadian government trying to sneak through Bills C-35 and C-40-- two big omnibus bills that could have a rather massive impact on a lot of Canadian land and waterways. Perhaps you are hearing about the fast of Theresa Spence from Attawapiskat who is frustrated with the lack of housing, running water on her home reserve, not to mention environmental pollution, and a whole host of issues, or another fast in solidarity with Idle No More.

Oh! These bills, yes. Look at what C-45 covers:

  • Bill C-38 (Budget Omnibus Bill #1)
  • Bill C-45 (Budget Omnibus Bill #2)
  • Bill C-27 First Nations Financial Transparency Act
  • Bill S-2 Family Homes on Reserve and Matrimonial Interests or Right Act
  • Bill S-6 First Nations Elections Act
  • Bill S-8 Safe Drinking Water for First Nations
  • Bill C-428 Indian Act Amendment and Replacement Act
  • Bill S-207 An Act to amend the Interpretation Act
  • Bill S-212 First Nations Self-Government Recognition Bill
  • “First Nations” Private Ownership Act

Look at all the mentions of First Nations here. Could it be that this bill also violates a number of pre-existing agreements the Canadian government has, with other nations? 

This is what a man named kâ-pimwêwêhahk, whose father signed Treaty Six, said the Queen's representative told the signers:

‘iskoyikohk pîsim ka-pimohtêt, iskoyikohk sîpiy ka-pimiciwahk, iskoyikohk maskosiya kê-sakikihki, êkospî isko ka-pimohtêmakan ôma k-êsi-âsotamâtân.’

‘So long as the sun should go along, so long as the river should flow, so long as the grass should come up, that is how long this promise I’m making to you will continue.’ (source)

(These things are still happening! You know, in case you didn't notice.) 

So, at the very least you should be angry that your government can't keep a promise, which in this case is a bilateral agreement (not a top-down law, but a TWO-sided treaty). You should be angry that your government keeps trying to distract from the issue by throwing out shoddy accounting as a decoy instead of owning up and answering questions. You should be absolutely livid because these two bills are going to endanger the water and the land, and the rivers and air and earth do not know any sort of border. And you should be seething because at the very heart of this issue are people, citizens of your country; this is an issue of human rights abuses, and this is happening on occupied territory. 

As much as I am inspired and heartened and feeling so hopeful about a movement like Idle No More, I am angry, so angry. So frustrated by the racism that flares at times like these, but also more terrified perhaps at how much lingers there, covertly, always, seeping out in the most insidious ways, colouring so many actions in this paternalistic, promise-breaking country. Not just the leaders, but the citizens. People in my family. 

I seethe at this lack of compassion, of empathy. I wonder how people can go about their lives like this, cut off from everyone else. Is it the dire individualism of the North American capitalist monoculture, the ridiculous bootstrap-pulling? Lingering fears of difference? That plus a head still full of colonial superiority, coated in ignorance because they have never been taught any different? And this refusal to listen, to learn? Perhaps the most frightening of all.

How can you just tell someone to assimilate? That there is nothing left of their culture? That 'it' didn't happen to them (which is patently untrue, because colonialism is continuous) so they should just get over it and move on? How is it that people complain flippantly about turning into their parents but have no fucking idea that trauma doesn't begin and end with one person, not in their lifetime, not in the lifetime of their children? (Are they that separated, disconnected, that individual?) 

Suffice it to say that I believe that nothing stops at death, and we inherit a lot of from our ancestors. Just as trauma doesn't cease when the individual who suffered it directly passes on with issues unresolved, neither does responsibility. I strongly feel that the most fundamental ethical act as a human being is to acknowledge our responsibilities to each other, and we have to understand that though we may have not have been the root of the problem, we are still twined up in the branches and they are ours to bear, to disentangle.

I am a môniyâw, a non-indigenous person. So were my ancestors. What do I do? What is my appropriate role in this?

Maybe it's difficult. So many people carry such noble narratives of their ancestors, who travelled over the ocean to Canada for a better life for their families. It's harsh to find out that your forebears accepted (knowingly, or less consciously) stolen goods. But they did, and whether or not they understood, whether or not they are still alive now, it doesn't change the fact that they were occupying a place that was not theirs, and that their prosperity depending, in many cases, on land and resources being funneled away from the indigenous communities-- that still is.

(It's perhaps a little uncomfortable to wonder what you might have done, in that circumstance, if you were the new settler and knew what was happening to the native peoples. It can hurt to think of these people you admire, to think of YOURSELF, as benefiting from the misery and subjugation of another group.)

I know my relatives at least three generations back on the most sparse branch, and back into the 1600s on other sides. They were poor, working class Scots and English on my dad's side and Ukrainian ex-serfs and peasants on my mother's. They did not come to Canada for fun, because they were wealthy and looking for vast lands to conquer or even possess; they basically wanted a chance to make a living, or not die in a famine or a war. The Ukrainians heard something about free land, and a relative of mine heard about it, and started the exodus, in fact.

I understand that we do valourize our pioneering settler ancestors, and to acknowledge that their actions were not entirely noble or respectful doesn't mean denying outright their narratives of hardship or persecution or the courage it took to leave their homelands; it simply means recognizing and honouring that some of the successes they certainly have directly been to the detriment of the indigenous population of this country. We need to see both sides, allow nuance into the story. It is essential. Too often I find, especially with the descendants of Ukrainian immigrants, a great deal of deification of your settler-ancestor. And while I personally am moved by my own grandparents' and great-grandparents' survival and resilience, I must always remember that even those who were oppressed could still oppress others (We all live at the intersections of various oppressions and privileges, and we need to learn to identify them). This is all too often forgotten.

I have relatives who married into Métis and Cree families in east-Central Alberta and Manitoba and farmed and hunted and lived together respectfully.  On the other hand, I also had a newly arrived Scottish great-grandfather waltz in and decide to fight against Riel. But the details matter little. The point is that as a whole, we, as settlers and descendants of settlers, need to learn humility and simply accept our responsibility as bearers of a colonial legacy regardless of the particular actions of our individual foremothers and forefathers; we benefit from the actions of the whole group, we continue to receive privilege as their descendants and we simply need to acknowledge this, remove our claws from it, and let go.

And with letting go of privilege comes the regathering of our responsibility as descendants of settlers, responsibility to act as allies for indigenous rights. We need to be humble, we need to criticize ourselves and listen closely to what others say of us. It will be awkward, and it will hurt. 

And this Idle No More movement gives everyone a perfect opportunity. So, in lieu of the New Year's resolutions that I never make, I have made a plan in the spirit of incorporating Idle No More into my daily life. 

1. Educate others.

Sometimes that's all you can do. But it's worth it, even if you make someone think just a little. I suppose it's always a little more than they would have otherwise.

There is rampant ignorance abounding, some of it horribly willful and virulent. As difficult as it is to engage with racists, there are also some people who are not deep and incurable bigots. They just don't know what's going on. And you can help them. 

Don't let it go, and don't give up. 

A tenacious and generous blogger, âpihtawikosisân (Chelsea Vowel) has written tirelessly lately, compiling the facts for you: about the Attawapiskat First Nation's financial situation, as well as dispelling myths about the lives of indigenous Canadians in general (in regard to the reserve system, etc.) Learn these things. Correct others. 

If you are having trouble keeping the points of the Indian Act (and what the bills C-35 and C-40 will mean) straight, listen to Russell Diabo here.

If you are looking for further resources for allies (information, facts, and how to be a supportive but not meddlesome, settler-splaining one) there's a collection here. The Idle No More page is also excellent for orienting yourself. 

2. Take care of the land. 

Not because you own it, but because you are of it. Do it in the spirit of land stewardship, of living in a place and caring for it. I love this land so much it hurts me, that I ache in my legs and my chest when I go away for too long. It's not my land, no, not my ancestors' land, but I am made of it and I was raised on it and of it and I want to care for it, honour it.

I am going to choose places that I go often and seriously care for them. Riverlot is already protected, but the edge by the water always needs cleaning in spring. Winter food for birds is always a good idea. And then in the road slump off the banks where I used to live in Edmonton -- the beer bottle golf ball graveyard amongst the saskatoons and hazelnuts. This needs love, and honouring. This is the kind of mindfulness I want to cultivate along with the time I spend in these places anyway, as a gesture to this place.

3. Learn nêhiyawêwin, Cree.

I have been meaning  to do this for years. Always interested in it, growing up, learning the place names and the few words my dad knew for plants and animals and places. My Musée/Métis centre volunteering introduced me more to local toponymy and I meant to start then. But then I went up to the Yukon, and I learned dän k'è there, and then to Russia and learned Sakha, and I've learned these other indigenous languages but not the one that is indigenous to where I am from.  And I want to honour the people whose land I live on, people whose names I have known in my elementary school (keenooshayo) and the woods (pitikwahanapiwiyin, Poundmaker) and all those who have moved through these places and known them and loved them too.  So I am starting to learn, in deference to this language of the land here, where I am from, and those amiskwacīwiyiniwak, the Beaver Hills people, and Métis who have made their lives here far, far longer than my own people, so I can know it along with my own ancestral speech.

I want to support all Treaty Six First Nations here, and all indigenous groups across Canada.

I just want to give all people the quiet support and space to heal, and allow them the self-determination and agency to do so. I want to remember my responsibilities, and I want to listen.

I don't know what to do. I don't know if these are the best things to do. But I am angry and I am at a loss and this is what I want to try.