Monday, November 28, 2011

Banana Bottom

I recently reread one of my favourite novels, Banana Bottom by Claude McKay. I first read it twenty or so years ago, and that left a clear and deep impression on me. I've never forgotten the name Bita Plant, nor her spirit and love of life. And it is just that quality of life-lovingness that has endeared me to this novel and made it one of my great favorites.

McKay was a Jamaican, born in 1890, who emigrated to the US as a young man, and eventually became a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920's and 30's. Though he lived in Harlem for several years, during much of the Renaissance itself, he lived in Europe and North Africa. His most famous novel, Home to Harlem, and its follow-up, Banjo, take place in the urban centres of New York and Marseilles, respectivel. Banana Bottom, the final of his three novels, published in 1933, is set in his native Jamaica, which he left at age 15, never to see again. And it reads almost as a love story to the island.

Banana Bottom tells the story of Bita Plant,a young, black girl, who after being seduced and ‘spoiled’, is adopted by white missionaries and sent to England for 7 years of refinement and a proper education. The novel begins with Bita’s return to her homeland. She is now perceived as belonging to a different social order, unfit for the simple life and the simple company she once enjoyed, and destined to serve as an example of the better life that western civilization offers.

Over the course of the novel, Bita interacts with representatives of every stratum of rural and small town Jamaican society, and ultimately rejects the narrow, hierarchical values of the elites, as well as the hedonism and ostentatious ways of the native pleasure seekers. Among all the suitors vying for her hand, she chooses the simple, earthy drayman, Jubban, who works for her father. There’s lots of examination of values, of one’s place and duty in community, and the challenges of simple desire – how to regard it and what to do with it. And Bita, though surely she’s a thinker, confronts her challenges with a combination of thoughtful analysis, intuition, and the movement of her heart and spirit.

So, it’s a book with a clear message and set of values to put across, but it does so with humor and naturalness. And its rich and multi-faceted examination of the social, cultural, racial and religious forces at work in the world it describes is gentle but deep, thought-provoking and life-affirming. The characters mostly fit the stereotypes of the time and place, but they think, feel and breathe, and so come to life – even those whose values and outlook can be easily rejected.  

Often in reading historical fiction, I find it impossible to understand the actions and motivations of the characters. I love Dostoyevsky, but I often simply don’t get the passion that drives his characters in particular situations. I guess part of what makes Banana Bottom work so well for me, is that McKay isn’t afraid to tell as well as show, which is something that almost all instruction on fiction writing advises one not to do. Mckay makes it work, though. Throughout his novel, he shares bits of history, social custom and religious practice, and he breaks down the biases and psychological needs that inform his characters. And it all makes for a rich and moving portrait of a world that is decades removed, but still relevant to now.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Floating In A Different Season

A gorgeous day today. I couldn't resist pedaling circuitously around the city as I travelled from home to drop-in, to office.

Going through Grange Park, I came upon this vision, this anomaly, this beautiful contradiction. Throughout the park, all the trees were bare, stretching their dark, naked limbs against the blue sky. And then...there was this one tree.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Makes Me Wanna Holla - Pt. II

I despaired today.

I despaired at the inability or unwillingness of human beings to rise to the call of their humanness, in service to another.
I was self-righteous today, and over zealous in my challenging of others who would not – or could not – be bold, and do something right simply because it was right, and logical and humane, though it did not fit within the guidelines and the procedures they are saddled with.

Here’s the situation:
I found and arranged a rental for one of my young clients in a property owned and managed by Toronto Community Housing Corporation. She moved in on September first. I got a message from her last week that she wanted help with her utilities, but I only learned today that she’s not had any heat or hot water throughout these two plus months.

Today I was on the phone with representatives of Enbridge, the utility company concerned, a number of times, speaking to people in various departments, in a vain attempt to get service for this young woman. The problem is clear: a previous tenant allowed the utility bill to go unpaid for quite a long time, and service was ultimately shut off. Enbridge has been attempting to recoup its losses from TCHC and so far, TCHC hasn’t made good. Enbridge is refusing to give my client service, isn’t allowing her even to open an account, until their demands have been met by TCHC.
Today, I spoke with no fewer than six Enbridge employees, including two mangers, in various departments, including service, collections. They all acknowledge that my 19-year old client is not in any way responsible for the problem. They also know that she has done everything in her power to have the matter resolved. She remains ready – as she was when she moved in – to open an account and to take responsibility for paying for the service she hopes to receive. But all those I spoke with today remained adamant on the point that she will receive no service until the unpaid bill left by some stranger has been paid.

I am so infuriated at this situation. It’s getting cold here in Toronto. This young woman has so much on her plate already: issues around her income, plans around education and training, relations with friends and family, and her mental and emotional health. And now, two massive corporations, entrusted with responsibility for basic public services, are using her as a football to kick back and forth, over a matter involving a few hundred dollars.
I don’t see any justification for this treatment. It isn’t a life and death issue. Lots of my clients face far more serious issues than this. But there’s something so fundamentally unfair about this young woman being held hostage over a matter she has no responsibility for and no power effect. And I’m infuriated that two vast commercial entities, entrusted with the public wellbeing in their respective areas of concern, could be so unmoving and unresponsive on this matter.

I hope that when I am next in a situation when it is me who has an opportunity to be bold in the face of a rigid and impersonal structure , that I will rise to this level of consciousness and empathy that I have been championing all day. I know that it’s so much harder to act in such circumstances when you feel your own security to be at risk, when there’s a danger that the unthinking and unfeeling machine – massive with inertia – will turn on you should you dare to be insubordinate.
But if we can’t do this...what then?

Friday, November 4, 2011

A Worthy Occupation

I finally made my first visit to the Occupy Toronto site, and I'm very impressed with what I saw.

In Toronto, the movement has encamped itself in St. James Park, a medium-sized plot, taking up a full city block just east of St. James Cathedral, and just bordering the downtown commercial core, but perhaps half a mile from the heart of Bay Street, which is Toronto’s – hence, Canada’s – financial heart.  King Street forms the southern border of the park, so that many of those who commute to Bay Street will pass right by it on their way to the financial towers in which they toil.

My first impression, upon walking into the park along one of its diagonal walkways, is of a small village coming into being. There are tents of all types, sizes and condition pitched everywhere, but they have begun to take on the informal, impromptu order of a community. I didn’t consciously recognize the signs of this order at first, merely took in the impression of it. But later, I learned that committees have formed to take on certain areas of responsibility, like Logistics, Media and Food. I realize now that there was none of the random trash nor the foul odors that I’m accustomed to finding at urban encampments, when I encounter them in my profession as a Street Outreach Counsellor to Toronto’s homeless community. While some of the street homeless have found their way to St. James Park, or have been recruited there, it isn’t the culture and ways of the random homeless that has asserted itself here. It is in fact an Intentional Community.

There are signs everywhere - promoting various positions, thoughts, viewpoints related to the wide and increasing imbalance in fortunes that we experience in Canada and in the world. Many of them come across as gentle provocations, invitations to thought. And the feel of the Park, despite it being so densely packed, is open and inviting. People walk about variously clothed against the elements. Many are eating, out of bowls, cups and assorted other containers, with spoons, ladles and fingers.

The most impressive thing I come across during my brief visit is the small grouping of about twenty people, forming a loose circle just east of the gazebo, and discussing issues, logistics and strategy. They are mostly in their twenties, but a few are older. They are about to break into smaller groups to address a number of subjects: violence (and I’m not there long enough to discover what violence they mean); the Remembrance Day activities being planned at St. James Cathedral, and the proactive intention to avoid any negative interactions between pro and anti military sympathizers who might be there; and the overarching topic: "Why We Are Here". Individuals volunteer to facilitate each group, and others are invited to join whichever group they prefer. One of the two people facilitating this larger group, a well-spoken young man wearing a tuque and a skinny tie beneath his wool blazer, suggests that, if a breakout group is too small, others be recruited from around the park to give input.

A man who appears to be in his fifties and middle-class, in smart, casual dress, and wearing a soft, wide-brimmed hat, asks to speak to the assembled before they disperse. He appears to be a bit apprehensive about speaking, and his audience is slightly wary. “It depends on what it’s about,” says the young man. But once assured that the interruption will be brief, he invites the older man to share.

The oldster announces that he and two companions are from St. Catherine's, a small city an hour’s drive away. They are planning an Occupy movement in that city, and they’ve come to consult with the organizers and to glean some do's and don't's before proceeding.

There are pleased looks all around, and a smattering of applause. The man is invited to "speak to everyone", but the second of the facilitators, a young woman wrapped in a blanket and eating stew from a bowl, gives practical and focused advice: "You should take time to connect with all of the committees that have taken responsibility for different areas," she says. Which is when I myself learn of the various committees. "The people in those groups can give you the best overview, tell you what problems arise and the best solutions so far."

The older man thanks them and tells them what a model and inspiration they are. There are smiles, and a young man who’s been videotaping the whole thing asks that something he didn’t catch be repeated. I notice then that one of my young homeless clients is sitting on the opposite edge of the group, smiling broadly, clearly pleased about the circumstance in which he finds himself. I tried to catch up with him as the group broke up, but he’d disappeared into the group, which by then had doubled in size. I left and went about my day.

The impression lingered, however. As it always does, and always will, going to the encampment and experiencing it live, for even a few minutes, brought a sense of reality and context to this fledgling movement that would not have been conveyed through an hour or two of media clips. What comes across on television as chaotic, indulgent and unfocused (to the unsympathetic), in the flesh reveals itself to be, if nothing else, earnest. I haven’t bothered to report any of the specific political messages I saw declared on various signs, because, to me, they aren’t the point.

It’s obvious to everyone attending to the current, world financial crisis, that solutions will be complex and will take time. What the Occupy movement reminds me of is that, even while the media and politicians try to wean themselves from the conditioned obsession with daily and quarterly fluctuations in currencies and markets, to get at more long-term indicators and mechanisms of the global economy, they haven’t come close to digging deep enough.

What the Occupiers are saying – all around the world – is that is won’t be enough to restore smooth, predictable functioning to an economy that bases itself on fiscal and monetary values, but ignores human values. They are saying this in many ways, pointing out lots of specific aberrations and injustices. But it seems to me to boil down to a howl of protest, a loud and sometimes ineloquent insistence that we’ve simply gotten things all wrong.

In recent years, I’ve often reflected back on the world I was entering into in my late teens, and what’s happened since. In the late sixties and the seventies, it seemed that my generation was going to be the one to tear down the moral and intellectual mindset that rationalized and upheld oppression of all kinds. It almost seems as though we were raised to do so. At that time, in the US at least, income disparities were shrinking. Oppression based on race and gender and sexual identity were all slowly being eroded. And yet, all that while, we allowed our attention to slip somehow, or we began to take too much credit for our own well-being. And the current monstrosity that wears the guise of international finance was allowed to grow. We blew it!

And so, my feeling, as I walked through St. James Park yesterday, was a combination of appreciation, excitement and hope. “Look at them,” I thought. They don’t seem as angry as we were, and not so extreme in their rejection of us as we were of our elders. There’s a focus and confidence about what I’m witnessing in these movements that inspires and touches me. And it’s all encapsulated somehow in the fact of seeing my homeless client in the midst of this rag tag group of young, practical activists. They sought him out and took him in, made him a part of their community and listen to what he has to offer. Maybe they will succeed. They’ve already sparked imaginations, shaped dialogues and enlarged the playing field.

My request, to each one of you who may read this, is that you go to one of the occupy encampments yourself, that you not simply dismiss it. Explore it. Talk with the occupiers. And Listen. Despite what you may be hearing, the lack of focus, and the organic, embryonic qualities of this movement are its strengths. And each of us has something to give.