"No? Just me? This guy knows what I'm talking about."

As Old as Mom

Note: I wrote this essay on my birthday, five months ago, when I turned the same age that my mother, Robin, was when she died. After this month, I will be older than she got to be.

“As I move past you to middle age”
– Kenneth Rexroth

When he was teaching poetry to the novices at Gethsemani monastery in Kentucky, in the 1960s, Thomas Merton read aloud to his students a poem published by the same house, New Directions, as published some of his own writing (including the poetry, which I’m told isn’t great, but seems pretty good to me). That’s how I first heard “Delia Rexroth,” by Kenneth Rexroth, the poem that becomes my story (or one of my stories) starting today — I heard it on a warm and relatively clear recording of Merton’s classroom sessions, now sold as audiobooks. I read recently in a quite mean-spirited, or at least very cynical, hit piece on Merton’s reputation in Harper’s magazine that the monk was full of contempt for the dullards by whom he felt surrounded before his hermitage, but throughout the sessions I’ve heard, Merton is good-humoured and patient, if slightly astounded by the anemic quality of the educations his novices had received before arriving at Gethsemani; in any case he is suffused with passion for the material and the chance to share it. “Under your illkempt yellow roses, Delia, today you are younger than your son.”

Donald Grayston, my mother’s priest at All Saints church in Burnaby in the late 1970s and early 1980s — the man who performed my parents’ marriage (1979), mine and my brother’s baptisms (1980 and 1983), Mom’s memorial service (1991), mine and my wife’s (secular) marriage (2007), and my grandmother’s memorial (2009) — was a Merton scholar, but I wasted every chance to swim in that pool until Don, too, was dead; only after losing my relatively intimate connection to one of the people in the world who I’m guessing knew the most about Merton, and certainly understood the animating spirit of Merton’s work better than just about anybody, did I start to think that maybe there was something to think about, something worth contemplating, about the monk.

Mom, who was very excited to be marrying a Québecois man and raising genuinely French-Canadian kids on the West Coast of what was back then a still very British Columbia had been prepared to convert to my father’s church, Thomas Merton’s church, Roman Catholicism. Admittedly, the journey from Anglican to Catholic isn’t as significant as, say, a conversion from Baha’ism to Chassidism — it doesn’t even really cover the whole distance between Protestant to Catholic, to be honest, although as we know, Tony “Somehow-Not-At-the-Hague” Blair felt the need to make it official, as did G.K. Chesterton, whose politics, in the main, also sucked, but who left a far richer legacy than Tony, who instead subtracted an incalculable portion of that left by Mesopotamian civilization in its entirety.

But Mom’s Chestertonian accession to Popery wasn’t to be; when she and my Dad went to see the priest — the same priest, I’m told, who magicked Margaret Trudeau into the Mother Church so that she could marry Pierre — he barely addressed my mother at all, coldly stacking the books she would have to read before swimming up from spiritual Beavers to religious Cubs (having now studied some theology myself, I feel I can say without too much exaggeration that the differences between the two churches that an Anglican would need to master in order to carry off a conversion could probably be effectively summarized in a tweet). Thoroughly turned off — which in fairness is the mode in which a great portion of the Catholic clergy prefer women to operate — my Mom got no sympathy from my father, a man who’d grown up as a gay boy in Quiet Revolution-era Québec, and so had no love for Catholicism: “I told you that this is what my church is like.” The couple stayed at All Saints, and that’s why I’m an Anglican instead of a Catholic.

There are no yellow roses, illkempt or otherwise, over the spot where Mom’s ashes were laid in the memorial garden beside All Saints, on Royal Oak avenue, site of rising property values and lowering aesthetic standards; there is a bush. I leave the knowledge of what kinds of plants are which to my brother, the horticulturalist by training; I just know that the bush is green, with shiny, waxy leaves, and that in my pseudo-scientific understanding of the transmigration of, let’s say, particles (?), it has grown in part from my mother’s energy. When I go to visit, or to pay respects, to speckle the insides of my glasses with salty stains and spots, I will take a leaf from the bush between my fingers just to try to get closer.

One quick digression: death is inescapable. What’s more, so is the fear of death. From a combination of parental instinct and parenting instruction, I decided that I would never tell my daughter Joséphine anything at all that I didn’t believe about death. Before I went back to church, I had no sense that there could or would be a Heaven where we saw our loved ones again, and even now, more than a year back into regular religious observance and relatively deep Christian study, nothing has changed my mind about that. Regardless, when Joséphine — who was introduced to the concept of death earlier than many kids in her social or geographical strata are — asked me what happens when we die, I did my best to offer her something that I considered to be the hopeful truth: that the memory and the love of us live on in the people who cared for us, and that our bodies return to the earth, to come back as part of the grass and plants and flowers that grow from where we are. We both seemed pretty satisfied with the answer. The next day, I got a phone call from my wife:

“Did you tell Joséphine that when she died she would come back as a flower?”
“Sort of, yes.”
“Because I put a vase in the middle of the table and she started screaming, ‘I don’t want to be a flower!’”

I, Joséphine’s father, am today the same age as her grandmother. Over the coming year, I am passing her, to middle age. That’s the best case scenario.
Today is my 39th birthday; her 39th birthday was the last one my Mother celebrated. (In the years after she died, my Dad never wanted us to fetishize the anniversary of her death too much, and so to avoid morbidity, we could always look to her birthday: September 11th.) By my calculations, as the countdown finishes on New Year’s Eve, I will become older than my mother.

The apprehension of this birthday has been the background radiation of my life since I was ten years old. The two most terrifying prospects of today were:

  1. I wouldn’t make it
  2. I would

July 1, 2019

Every neighbourhood for everyone

For close to twenty years now, the struggle against displacement & for inclusion in Vancouver has primarily been about “anti-gentrification”; and a lot of really good, important work was done under that banner. But anti-gentrification is, by definition, a defensive strategy — and, all too often, it becomes about making sure that an ever-dwindling group of city blocks simply stays too shitty for people with money to want to take it. But the real problem with this city & its history isn’t primarily to do with a few blocks in the DTES; it’s about the huge swathes of town under lock & key against anything but detached, single-family dwellings, which protect enormous, untouchable cantons of multigenerational wealth. This incredibly important & victorious resolution by Christine Boyle lays out a different strategy: one that says, “Fuck it, we’re not going to settle for a few blocks. The WHOLE city belongs to everyone.” This should be the future of the fight for equality, access, & inclusion in Vancouver.

We will mostly lose 🤷🏼‍♂️

Okay, Gindin & Panitch are brilliant, & the book is worth reading, & I love that Canada has this Marxist heavyweight duo — but these two also have an incredibly annoying habit of using the phrase “building capacities/capacity building” in the same way the writers of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles used to have Donatello say he would “reverse the polarities” of such & such a thing — it’s basically meaningless, but does a major amount of heavy lifting to move the plot forward. One of the most consistent mistakes made by very smart people on the left is to assume that our side hasn’t won because we haven’t “figured it out” yet; we accordingly sink into recriminations & pedantry. But the reason the left has trouble is because we’re the side of people who have less — less money, less power, fewer weapons, fewer well-placed friends. That’s just how it is. We’re going to lose most of the time, just like we always have. But we keep fighting because to stop would be to abandon our dignity & our humanity, & because every now & then we win one. It’s a downer, but them’s the breaks. If you wanna win a bunch, play for the capitalists; make like LeBron & get traded to the Lakers.

We lost on electoral reform. It’s done now.

This totally sucks, but it’s definitive, & the conversation is over. Electoral reform is not going to happen in B.C., or in Canada, anytime this generation. It was a mistake to have the premier be the face of the campaign because it allowed what should be a supra-partisan issue to become one of NDP versus Liberals. Lots of big strategic changes need to happen on our side now, the most urgent of which is healing the urban-rural-Indigenous divide between natural NDP constituencies. What makes that even harder to do is that we now need to make a real bid for left-wing Greens to join, or vote for, the NDP (they’re not going to want to). This totally fucking blows but we lost, it’s over, & it’s time to admit defeat & get ourselves ready to keep fighting within the existing framework.

Hey, a new website!


Jump into the late 1990s with me!

The “Taco Nazi” lives!

Check out the incredible work that Atomic Cartoons have done, animating the Taco Nazi track from my album ‘Fatherland.’

Not mourning Dave Barrett, but organizing

I was honoured to join the many hundreds of people in East Van this afternoon to pay tribute to the greatest premier in BC history, one of the greatest premiers in the history of the country (along with Tommy Douglas & René Lévesque), & one of the great leaders of 20th Century socialism. In less than three years as premier, Barrett’s government raised the minimum wage, banned corporal punishment in schools, saved farmland from real estate development, & created the public auto insurer, the BC Cancer Agency, the Human Rights Commission, & the BC Ambulance Service, from which he had a memorial Honour Guard. His story is an essential & invaluable one in this historical moment, as we try to re-radicalize social democracy as a vehicle for building socialism. Dave Barrett, el Allende del Norte, presente! Ahora, y siempre! ✊🏼🌹