Saturday, 21 January 2012

About Me, Part 21: To Be

"Last year, I turned twenty-one, I didn't have a lotta fun,
This year, I'll turn twenty-two, I say oh my and boo-hoo."  - Iggy Pop and The Stooges

As I'm sitting at home typing this, half a dozen tabs open on my laptop so that I have all varieties of information to take in at once, I realize that so much of how I relate to the world was shaken up in the years 1991 through 1995. The 1991-92 school year for me was decisive; I made many new choices, saw new options for my future, got glimpses of who I was behind all the ideas, got trapped by those ideas, suffered my first bouts of burn-out and overload, developed a series of psychosomatic symptoms whose cause remained elusive, demanded my own space (again), was denied that space, was told to grow up in my family, was made into an appendage by the same family. I became more politically active than ever, then I retreated to begin to take of myself. I avoided dating and fantasized about dating. 1992 was the Year of the Monkey, full of tricks, pitfalls, false hope, real sadness, fear that I was losing my mind. I became aware of how ungrounded I really was, but had not yet begun to do anything about it.

The summer of 1991, before I started my second year I volunteered for the National Campus and Community Radio Association conference, hosted by McGill University's radio station. CKUT had been CFRM for decades before getting its FM license in the fall of 1987. Ever since then, I had been trying to get involved. Four years later, the conference became my opportunity. I helped work on the conference schedule, including a list of local attractions. The conference week was euphoric; I met campus radio folks from all over North America, even a few from overseas. There was a week of free concerts on the lower campus lawn. CKUT was a kaleidoscope of various cultural communities, the LGBT community, English and French program hosts, technical folks, new media artists, writers, students, seniors, and youth interested in getting into radio. The radio art folks had an interactive dinner event live on the air. There were parties at night, given by those who were billeting in apartments in the adjacent McGill Ghetto and Plateau Montreal neighbourhoods. That week in July, friends were holding parties of their own. At one I found a comic artist willing to collaborate on a comic version of a short story I had written. By the time the conference ended, I was determined to get more involved in radio somehow.

That summer I went to visit my mother whose condition had improved a great deal, but could no longer go to work full-time. She had begun going to an Anglican church in her neighbourhood and was making many new friends. I returned to Montreal confident that she would be okay.

My second year, officially as a Creative Writing student, included classes in Canadian Literature, Modern Canadian Poetry and Editing and Publishing. I decided to take the next level of Short Fiction Writing and not Poetry; looking back, I should have taken poetry instead. Ideally, there would have been a nonfiction course. I became involved with a small literary zine during that winter. We managed to put out one issue, but the ego battles were a nightmare. The whole project disintegrated the following year. My experience in the fiction writing course was very unenjoyable. I began having misgivings about continuing on with the Creative Writing program in my last two years and looked into other ones. Underscoring my preference for poetry writing, a poem I submitted to the Irving Layton Award got short-listed that spring. Although I didn't win the award, I was glad for the recognition. I didn't do the best job of recitation however, something I have felt embarrassed about since then. By the end of the school year, I was back on the hunt for a new program to transfer to.

My years of being so insular had made me quite alienated and numb. I tried to date unsuccessfully, once in the spring, again in the fall; I think that both times, my aloofness was to blame. I had learned to detach from not only others, but my own feelings. What I felt, other than numbness, was anyone's guess. At home, things became more stressful. Work at the McGill library had dried up. Montreal was in the midst of a wave of high unemployment. The badgering and pressure to take anything started up again and lasted most of the summer. I worked a series of dead end telephone jobs and had many promising interviews that never materialized into anything. Meanwhile, I was trying to get into Concordia's Communication Studies program and spent the summer trying to get their admissions department to put me on their waiting list. My future seemed unclear.

My mother was wanting me to visit more frequently; I had no money and my father wasn't about to pay for me to visit. Trying to prevent a outright three-person battle between both parents and a step-parent took a lot of pleading. Meanwhile, my mother's parents were needing me as well. Traditionally, my mother was the one who was supposed to look after them, but with a cold war between them and her, the task seemed to fall to me. When my grandmother went to Barbados for a family reunion, I spent the week at my grandparents. I painting job I was doing then involved doing some work nearby. There was always taking care of others when I felt invalidated, but in my family, that was a vicious circle.

I had my first inkling in years that I was much more different from than I had thought. I would feel attraction to some guys I knew and, then, quickly, try to think of something else. I would feel a kind of inner softness, and also try to distract myself. But, the books and music and writing, though great ways to learn and develop creatively, could no longer hide how unhappy I was. And as the summer continued, no steady work in sight, street tension between the public and the police (in the aftermath of the LA riots) as well as more and more unemployed youth roaming around, all combined to make the mood tense. There seemed nothing to escape into except further inside and I did not want to do that.

I began having anxiety attacks that summer. I was also allergic to cigarette smoke. My chest pains sent me to the doctors a few times. In the end, I got an inhaler, but I also began to look into some sort of relaxing physical exercise to take up.

By the end of the summer 1992, I had left behind my writing life and was also beginning to leave behind activism. I did a stint at CKUT as the host of a literary program before leaving that as well in October. By then, having been admitted to the Communications program, I was too busy for it anyway. I had also began working an independent bookstore not far from Concordia's downtown campus. I spent my twenty-second birthday at my mother's. Her congregation wished me a happy birthday. I remember a sense of weariness and wanting quiet. Not the isolated quiet I was already familiar with, but a healthier more wholesome quiet in which I lived right, ate right and dealt with stress right. A quiet where I could begin to be grounded in who I was. Changing the world was replaced with changing myself.

To be continued ...

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