Sunday, 22 January 2012

About Me, Part 22: Where I'm From

By the end of 1992, I was more than filled to the brim with course work and my job. But, I was looking for something else, not another task, but something to help ground me. As the year turned, I started taking a t'ai chi class through the university athletics department. Within weeks, I began to relax. My chest pains were gone. I no longer needed my inhaler. What's more the philosophy behind t'ai chi appealed to me: soft overcoming hard, small overcoming large, not what I grew up with. At first, my folks couldn't see the value in what I was doing; they felt that I belonged in the hard sports "to toughen me up", and "put some meat on those bones". I didn't care, I knew what I needed and I was footing the bill.

Over the Christmas holidays, there was a truce between my mother and grandparents. The cancer had come back again and after treatment, my mother came to Montreal to spend a week. I'm not sure to this day what the terms were exactly, but I noticed something very strange over the holidays. During a dinner out with mother, grandmother and a few of my mother's aunts, I notice that she was very quiet, subdued. Most bizarrely, she was dressed head-to-toe in a very Victorian-looking outfit, complete with a high collar. I felt she was more than compromising herself. I felt embarrassed not understanding why someone would sell themselves out this way. More than me, I think she needed to get grounded in herself and this seemed like capitulation. She went back to Ontario just before New Year's Eve. By mid-winter, the truce was off.

My readings the previous year had led me to bell hooks whose books and analysis of popular culture and literature from a black feminist point-of-view fascinated me. In one of her books, I found out that she practiced Buddhism. A black Buddhist. I need to become centered, to see through my own habitual patterns, and not get swayed by my own, or another's, ego agendas. I began to read books by Buddhists like Thich Nhat Hanh (who was nominated for the 1967 Nobel Peace Prize by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) and D. T. Suzuki and Ajan Chah. You could say a flower was planted within me that year.

In Communication Studies, I finished my mandatory core courses that year and decided to focus on sound production, based on my radio experience, and new media in my second year. The word "internet" was starting to become a household word in 1993. Around the department, there talk about using the university's Gopher site to explore other ones around the world. There were private networks like America On-line and the Microsoft Network. People also subscribed to newsgroups and bulletin board systems or used telnet to get into remote databases and catalogues. All of the quasi-psychedelic 1991 and 1992 talk about "virtual reality" had simmered down and replaced by less heady examinations of digital media. The smart drugs fad of the early 90s ebbed leaving behind the term "smart" to be applied to everything by marketing consultants, ad people and the pseudo-hip in order to make their product, service or event sound oh-so futuristic. It was an interesting time to be in the field and talking about these media as they were being developed.

I went to visit my mother in June, for her birthday, and accompanied her to Credit Valley Hospital for a check up. She seemed to be pulling through, but was talking less about her condition. She had been off work and on disability since late the previous year and was involved in a dispute with her employer over issues related to her medical evaluation and benefits. All the while, after having some of her lymph nodes removed, she developed lymphedema; her arms became swollen and she had to rent a costly pump for them. The sight of her broke my heart. I had no idea what to do.

That summer, the recession and unemployment grew worse than the previous year. The mood on the streets was ominous. Every week or so there was another police brutality news story or another story about disaffected youth. Then in mid-June, after the Canadiens hockey team won the Stanley Cup, riots erupted along the main artery of rue Sainte Catherine (where the bookstore I worked in was situated) and vandalised businesses and vehicles the whole length of the street well into the city's east end. There was a riot at the end of the Carifete parade a few weeks later. Not long after that, the bookstore went bankrupt; it had been having financial difficulties for some time, but now publishers and wholesalers were not even sending us books. Our shelves were almost completely bare. I got a call one day from the boss saying that bailiffs had pad-locked the doors and that he would write my reference letter if I needed one. I started looking for work once again.

I did some volunteering in CKUT's production department in August working on a few station IDs, but the start of my final undergraduate year, I still had not found any work. September passed, then October. My mother had come to Montreal for my birthday and stayed with an old friend of hers in the west island. My birthday dinner was at a restaurant in Sainte Anne-de-Bellevue. It was raining. I remember getting a few balloons, but not much else. We all went back to her friend's house until my father picked me up later that evening.

As my classes started I also continued to take t'ai chi, as I had over the summer. My mother's employee scholarships had still kicked in for school every year since I had started, but applying for them every year meant that I never knew that I was going to get them. I dove into my courses that fall with a vengeance trying not to think about what I would do beyond graduation.

My interests in contemplative practices and psychology (I was seeing a therapist since the summer) were furthered by a course called the Psychology of Communication. The professor acquainted me with the writings of Chogyam Trungpa, the late Tibetan Buddhist who moved to the US in the early 70s and started an organization and community based around Buddhist practices and applications modified for North American consumption. His down-to-earth writings appealed to me. I began to look for a place to practice and attended that year's Tibetan Bazaar in an effort to connect with a local meditation center. The search would take me over a year.

As the weather got colder, much like when I was a young teen, I began to cocoon, watching a lot of television: cartoons, old sitcoms, public television marathons. A mini-series on PBS based on Armistead Maupin's book Tales of the City captivated me. I was fascinated by its depiction of San Francisco in the 70s with its gay and lesbian communities, but in particular, I was drawn to the eccentric, yet warm landlady Anna Madrigal, who was a transwoman. In fact, I was split in my loyalties between her and the lead character, the young single cisgendered woman, Mary-Ann Singleton who had moved across the country on her own to get her life started. This is what I needed to do. I knew it.

To be continued ...

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