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Dear Jian Ghomeshi: you inspired my list of heroes. Now what?

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Dear Jian,

In March 2013, I was inspired to write a blog post entitled “Living Canadian Heroes.” I had been moved by the interview I’d just listened to on Q – the one you had with Stompin’ Tom Connors, replayed on the occasion of his death.

I remember thinking how often we talk about Canadian heroes who are not alive – how it’s somehow easier to call someone a hero once they’re gone, and how we should be celebrating those people who are making Canada better every day, right now – people who represent Canada with integrity, thoughtfulness, respect, and skill.

You have been one of my Living Canadian Heroes for a long time. That blog post is still sitting in my drafts, for myriad reasons. Now, I am feeling frankly disillusioned about it.

I remember talking about you with my sister one time. She wasn’t a huge fan of yours – thought you were a bit pretentious or conceited or whatever. I defended you: “But he’s AWESOME. He can interview anyone, and he’s knowledgeable about everything, and he asks amazing questions, and all kinds of people just open up to him, and plus Moxy Früvous, hello?? He’s a CANADIAN ICON.”

When the news broke last weekend that you and CBC were breaking up, I was genuinely upset.

I have been struggling to write about it ever since, but I’ve been paralyzed, watching the hope/grief scale tip inexorably toward the side where you are actually an asshole.

At first, like all your fans, I wanted to think that the CBC had made a mistake. I thought: There is no Q without Jian.

But then, I deeply love my CBC Radio, and I have always trusted it to do its research. Back when you were a teenager obsessing over Bowie, I was a wee nerdy kid already listening to Ted O’Reilly on “Stories and Music for Children,” Jay Ingram on “Quirks and Quarks,” and Jurgen Gothe on “DiscDrive.” That connection was there long before you were, and it remains.

All the same, I wanted to believe your Facebook post, so seemingly earnest (except I wanted to forget your use of the word “jilted” – a distinctly un-classy term, for you). My first impression was: who gives a crap if he’s kinky in the bedroom? Not my business, and after all, BDSM is a notoriously misunderstood form of sexual expression.

But somehow, I couldn’t find the conviction to make a comment of support.

As more opinions poured in, I wanted to remind folks – aren’t we supposed to be innocent until proven guilty? Still, I couldn’t write about it –  because something was off.

Then, more and more stories, more women coming forward, more supporters backtracking. Loyalty fizzling. Worst-case scenario looking increasingly plausible. The sleaziness that was, apparently, common knowledge in the national arts industry was shocking to the rest of us suckers… but somehow still believable.

At this point, the scale has tipped. Now, I’m finally able to write, even though it’s all been said. Even if what I write here is now irrelevant or over-discussed, I have to process this for myself.

At the risk of sounding maudlin: it feels like we, your international audience, have been cheated on. The evidence looms large that the person we thought we knew and loved has been doing slimeball things for who-knows-how-long. We’re reeling, wondering how we could have failed to see it. We’re realizing our entire history with you is tainted, and we’re questioning whether all our memories involving you are valid or even worth keeping. There were moments where we hoped it could still somehow turn out to be just a big misunderstanding, or even a bad dream.

But at this point, I don’t see how any kind of “misunderstanding” conclusion could fix this. This kind of chronic violence can’t be blamed on a misinterpretation of BDSM, or a false inference of consent. This isn’t just a bunch of “jilted” women getting mad and conspiring against you. Those who have gone public are not the vengeful connivers you describe; they just want your audience to know that there are many cats to exit the bag.

What were you thinking all this time?

Maybe you thought what you were doing really was fine. A delusion of that magnitude, superimposing enjoyment over the pain of your sexual partner, is a serious health issue. A case of hyperinflated ego that has squeezed your brain, perhaps, resulting in galactically stupid behaviour.

Maybe this is an addiction, a mental health issue you’ve struggled with. But in that case, wouldn’t a reasonable person seek help? Wouldn’t there be remorse?

Maybe you knew it was bad, and you didn’t give a shit. Or felt you were untouchable in your stardom. Which surpasses the “asshole” category. That kind of duplicitous depravity is actually filed under “evil.”

Your unsuspecting former fans will not be able to brush this off for the sake of your past work. Because unlike Sean Penn, Woody Allen, Mel Gibson, Sean Connery, and any number of other celebrities who are still popular despite violent track records, we didn’t know you were in the acting business. Your popularity was based on you being, ostensibly, you.

Ugh.

It sucks that you were so great at your job. You really could converse with anyone – you talked to Joni Mitchell, Mike Tyson, Taylor Swift, and Justin Trudeau with equal grace. You were eminently knowledgeable, intelligent, adaptable, insightful, charismatic. A champion of all the right things. I was proud to have you represent us all, as one of the most recognizable public broadcasters Canada has ever had.

I hate that if I ever hear one of your interviews in future, I will be listening for deceit and misogyny, and thinking about how your oh-so-listenable voice must trigger ugly flashbacks for a lot of women.

And Moxy Früvous… oh. God. You will not destroy The Gulf War Song or Fell In Love for me. And breaking into “your” version of Green Eggs and Ham is all that gets me through that confounded story some days. Even if you were already a reprobate in your musician days, you sure could sing one-quarter of a beautiful song. I hate that you have befouled those songs, and betrayed your bandmates.

At least, not unlike the shooter in Ottawa, through your dishonour you have provoked a useful conversation in this country – this one about rape culture and violence against women, still all too pervasive, even in Canada.

And at least we can be confident that the CBC will find someone brilliant – and decent – to replace you. It was a relief to find out that your opening essays – which have awed me on many occasions – are not actually written by you. A lot of extremely talented people contributed to your success, and will continue to do so with someone better. (While you try to get a date on some other continent.)

I can now assuredly say that I’m looking forward to it.

Signed,

Dilovely

P.S. I was really sorry to hear that your dad died. Now, I’m just hoping it means he was spared the knowledge that his son is not one to be proud of after all.

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Killing the White Poppy

As always, humans are up in arms about stuff right now. The thing I’ve been reading about today is the white poppy.

Image from torontosun.com
Image from torontosun.com

Traditionally, the red poppy is worn to remember and honour war veterans, both living and dead. In the past, I’ve worn a red poppy to indicate that I am thinking prayerfully of soldiers, like my grandpa, who did what they felt they had to do, and experienced things no human should have to experience, in the pursuit of an end to conflict.

Every year on Remembrance Day, I also think about the others who have made (and continue to make) sacrifices in times of war. All those who die or are broken or see their lives torn apart. They are innumerable.

That is what I understand the white poppy to be about: the recognition that peace is the goal. That war equals tragedy. Lest we forget.

In the past few years, I’ve been aware of another belief: that by honouring those other people, the civilians, or by expressing the wish to make peace a priority, I am disrespecting the soldiers and veterans.

I am not wearing a white poppy… because I do not want my message to be mistaken.

The “I Remember for Peace” campaign at Ceasefire.ca has elicited many heartfelt messages from people who wish to respect soldiers and veterans and also honour their pursuit of peace. Inevitably, there are people who feel it’s appropriate to add messages like these:

“White poppies are bull shit and everyone involved in this should be shot.”

“wear a white poppy? expect a white loogy in return for spitting in the face of every soldier who sacrificed their blood on the battle fields so you can have the rights and freedoms you enjoy today. I will gladly spit in the face of anyone I see wearing a white poppy and I will be encouraging others to do the same.”

Incredibly, these people believe that they are showing respect. I am not wearing a red poppy this year because I know these people are wearing them. Again, I do not want my message to be mistaken.

Every year since I’ve been blogging, I have posted on Remembrance Day (and Veterans Day). This year, I am giving the floor to veterans. Even so, I know there will be people who read this and want to spew ugliness over it. I’ve decided that tomorrow, I am just going to be silent, and show my respect that way.

*

The soldier above all others prays for peace, for it is the soldier who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.

– Douglas MacArthur

Any soldier worth his salt should be antiwar. And still there are things worth fighting for.

– Norman Schwarzkopf

I am tired and sick of war. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance, for desolation. War is hell.

– William Tecumseh Sherman

An honorable Peace is and always was my first wish! I can take no delight in the effusion of human Blood; but, if this War should continue, I wish to have the most active part in it.

– John Paul Jones

No one hates war like a soldier hates war.

– Tommy Franks

War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.
– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers

This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron.
– Dwight D. Eisenhower

We know how to win wars. We must learn now to win peace…
– Stephen E. Ambrose, Band of Brothers

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Oh, Rob. *Sigh*

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Image from cbc.ca

Dear Rob Ford,

When you were elected as mayor of Canada’s largest city, all my Torontonian friends were aghast. They never thought you’d make it in. Having lived in Toronto for a couple years myself, I had to agree that you seemed pretty incongruous: Toronto is, after all, known for its diverse, savvy, cosmopolitan character, and you simply did not seem to reflect that. But hey, obviously you had enough voters. Who am I to argue?

I admit that I felt bad for you, that time you made a resolution to get fit and, um… failed. We’ve all had those times when we didn’t measure up to our own dreams for ourselves, and I’ll give you kudos for trying so publicly.

Suddenly, I could picture you as a high school kid, the kind who masks social insecurities by being a boor and drinking too much. It seems you never really got over that.

I heard your apology speech yesterday as it happened. Again, and rather in spite of myself, I felt pity for you. You did sound truly sorry (that triple “sincerely” really drove it home) and I’m sure it was all very difficult for you.

Also, I’m glad you admitted you were ashamed, that you’re an embarrassment, because that’s the first step to admitting there’s a problem with you. The question is, what took you so long? How were you not ashamed earlier? How were you not embarrassed by getting called out for those city buses you commandeered for your football team, for those pictures of you reading-and-driving on the Gardiner, for swearing on camera, for getting drunk in public, or for all the times you cut out early or didn’t show up for important events?

I didn’t actually see you fail to stop for a streetcar, and I don’t actually know if the sexual harassment charges hold true, but as a public figure, you must know that none of that matters. We’ve all lost count of the number of times your name has come up on the radio, followed by a report of sleazy/unprofessional behaviour, and we’ve rolled our eyes, thinking “How the hell is that guy still in office??”

Then we thought you were finally done for when you went on trial for Conflict of Interest. It felt like the one-jillionth strike against you, in a world where three strikes is usually enough to take you off the field. Honestly, I have no idea how you managed to wrangle your way back to the mayor’s chair from that one.

Furthermore, I don’t know why you wanted to. I simply don’t get why you think this mayor job is for you. Generally, when a city needs a mayor, one starts with UPSTANDING CITIZENS. I don’t mean to be uncharitable, but you simply ARE NOT ONE. Anyone who uses a “drunken stupor” as an excuse for smoking crack has a wacked-out idea of what it means to be a respectable person.

You have, in the past, lashed out at the media, saying “Show some respect.” (I can’t deny they’ve hounded you.)  But you neither show respect nor inspire it.

You apparently want to “regain the trust” of your constituents and “continue the work” you’ve already been doing. But seriously, there is no way to regain the trust at this point. It is gone. And as for continuing the work, I have to ask: does the amount of work you’ve done for the city even come close to the amount of time wasted on all the stupid shit you’ve done?

So why do you want this gig? Are you showing up some former bullies? Is it sheer pathological doggedness? Maybe it’s all a joke, just to see how much you can get away with and still hold onto your post? Or perhaps you’re being paid off by the federal Conservatives, to make them look less evil. After all, who cares about gross Senate overspending and Harper’s warmongering and duplicity – at least they don’t smoke crack!

To be frank, I’m not even sure what you love about Toronto. If you don’t like streetcars or cyclists or immigrants or refugees or women or Pride or homeless people or journalists, then you’re in the wrong city. You could definitely find football teams in towns more suited to you.

The bottom line is that, as mayor of Canada’s largest city, you represent all of us to a degree – regardless of whether any of us want you to. Thanks to you, in this way, we ALL look like idiots and we are ALL a laughingstock. And that is not okay.

Please, don’t be that obtuse, untrustable boyfriend who refuses to see he’s being broken up with. You do not need this job. You need help. You need to fix yourself before you can fix anything else. And I’m afraid Toronto’s just not that into you.

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Are police officers supposed to be scary?

If you’re Ontarian, or even Canadian, you’ve probably heard about Sammy Yatim, the 18-year-old who was shot dead by police a couple weeks ago on an empty Toronto streetcar. You’ve probably heard that he was armed with a knife, that he was acting threatening, and that he was shot at nine times. (Eight of the shots are said to have hit him.) And you’ve almost certainly heard that Constable James Forcillo has been charged with second-degree murder in Yatim’s death.

In the car with my four-year-old, a piece came on the news about a protest being held by the families of people who had been killed by police. (This kid has really started listening to the news, and often comments on what he hears.)

“Killed by police?” he said. “The police don’t kill, they rescue.”

That’s verbatim. Broke my heart.

So I commenced an awkward explanation: police officers carry guns, and sometimes when they’re on duty, they use them… and guns can kill people, so sometimes that happens.

He thought about that. “Mummy, I never want to meet the police in person.”

“Oh, honey, you don’t have to worry if you meet a police officer. They’re not going to hurt you. They’re here to keep you safe.” I reminded him that his Uncle R is a police officer and a really nice person – that most of them are.

But he insisted: “I just don’t want to meet them.”

It makes me think of the little kids at my school who cried with fear when the police officers visited. Mind you, there are children who cry and dramatize over any old thing (my own almost-kindergartner included), but it still seems sad. There are local officers who come to the school to talk about bicycle safety, and they’re always lovely and sincere, and yet some kids are scared.

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I still remember the time a police officer visited my class when I was a kindergartner myself. He wore a blue shirt and had a fancy hat, and mostly I remember his shoes were very, very shiny.

My husband and I were recently discussing this topic. Sean has been both a corporal in the Canadian Armed Forces and a correctional officer in an Ontario Detention Centre. He knows some things about uniforms and weapons and boys’ clubs and the psychology of violence. I asked his perspective on all this. This is what he had to say.

I think it’s right that the officer was charged with murder. I read that 15 officers have been charged with murder since 2008, all acquitted. The charge has never stuck to any of them, but the consensus is that the video evidence is overwhelming in this case.

It has been true forever that there’s an omertá* feeling within police departments all over the world. It’s disconcerting, especially in a democracy, that people who are given, by society, the goal of protecting society, and the right to use deadly force when necessary, can abuse it with impunity. Of course, because we’re human beings, there are bound to be times when deadly force is used inappropriately, but there need to be consequences for that, just as there are for anyone else who uses deadly force inappropriately.

But within the police department it seems there is a different standard. Let’s say I – a normally law-abiding citizen – used deadly force on someone who was going to rob my house. In Canada, I would be charged with murder. (Maybe not in the States, I’m not sure, because their gun laws are crazy,** but in Canada I would be charged with murder.) And a police officer would come and arrest me.

But if a police officer kills someone who appears threatening, no other officer goes up and says “You just committed a crime, you’re under arrest.”

In the Yatim case, there were six officers there. It is supremely obvious from the video that the constable acted way outside legal use of force precedents. So in any other situation – if he had been a civilian – the police officer nearest would have turned around and arrested him for murder. But in this situation, even though all of them were there and they all witnessed it, none of them turned around and said “Whoa. What are you doing? You’re under arrest for murder.”

Why not?

If we give you that responsibility, you need to uphold it. It’s a big thing. You’re paid well, you’re given this massive responsibility and the power that goes with it, but you need to understand that if you go into that kind of work, you’re going to be held up to a particular standard, or at the very least, the same standard as the general public.

Police officers are not soldiers. Soldiers are ostensibly in combat zones surrounded by potential enemies. A police officer is not. But we’re getting into this mentality of the “war on crime”, the “war on drugs”, etc., and many police officers I think have that mentality of going into a war zone, of being surrounded by bad guys who are out to get you, and that’s simply not the case in a place like this.

But if you see everyone as a bad guy, of course you’re going to shoot the kid with a knife. On an empty streetcar. Nine times. Absolutely ridiculous.

I think that if he’s found anything but guilty, there are gonna be riots – as there should be. We cannot allow police officers – those to whom we give the power to use guns – to kill other people casually in the course of their duties. We cannot allow them to utilize that force without major consequences if it’s not done properly.

There’s no excuse for this. The kid was cornered on an empty TTC car. Nobody – not the officers, nor any member of the public – was in any danger. So there was zero reason to do this. NONE. The situation would have been different if he’d visibly had a gun out; then yes, the officers could reasonably say they didn’t know if he would point it at them and fire. But it’s a knife. I mean, by all accounts it was a little jackknife. For God’s sake. He probably couldn’t even throw it at you and do any harm.

Why couldn’t those six officers just wait him out? It seems to me, whenever I see videos of police officers nowadays, they no longer seem trained to deescalate. They actually seem trained to do the opposite. They always seem to talk to people in this overly authoritative voice, not quite yelling but very strong, and to present themselves as bigger than they are, and they sort of move forward as a group, deliberately intimidating.

And in certain situations that’s warranted, but it seems they use these tactics in every situation. And that’s not cool. It’s not their job. And that’s the thing that police officers need to realize. Their job is there because the public allows it. The scariest thing would be – and we seem to be heading in this direction – a feeling among police officers that they have a right to be here, whether the public says so or not. And that cannot ever be the case. Because that’s how fascist states and police states come into being. As soon as a police force realizes “Hey, we’re the only ones around with guns, so we can do what we want,” then you get Egypt. You get Syria.

{I asked him his opinion on the weapons used by police officers in Ontario.}

They carry way too many rounds. First of all, it’s heavy – I’m not sure why you’d want to carry all those rounds – and second of all, it’s completely unnecessary. Just like the all-black uniform, the hip holster. Again, it’s part of this uniform that looks intimidating and scary: “We’re here for business, and our business is kicking ass and taking names…” and this sort of macho B.S.

And yeah, it’s totally unnecessary. We’re not in Beirut, we’re not in South Central L.A. Even there, I’m not sure how necessary it is. But certainly in Toronto and Southwestern Ontario, all the places I grew up, it’s not necessary. You’re never getting into a firefight where you’re going to fire all – whatever it is – fifteen rounds in your pistol and drop a mag and slap another one in to fire fifteen more rounds.

Unless you like to fire nine rounds into lightly armed young boys… in which case, maybe you do need all those rounds.

The key here is awareness and training. Officers need to be trained to deescalate situations. I was actually commended a number of times as a jail guard, by my captains, because I wasn’t the type of guard who went in, chest out, looking for trouble, wanting an inmate to say or do something so that I could come down hard on him. I learned how to talk, how to deflate potential trouble. I don’t know, maybe other guards thought of me as a wimp or something, but my goal and job there were to always have things as peaceful as possible. And that meant not being macho. Not having an attitude of “I’m gonna kick your butt.”

Police officers seem scary now in most situations. They don’t seem approachable or friendly anymore. The “serve and protect” motto seems to be rarely remembered. I would not approach an officer in Toronto and ask for directions somewhere, even though that’s what people used to do all the time. You’d look for a friendly neighbourhood police officer if you needed help. But nowadays, I don’t know. I would be intimidated and I wouldn’t want to do it.

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Another occasion when use-of-force went haywire: Toronto Police and Ontario Provincial Police officers near the intersection of King Street West and University Avenue during the protests surrounding the G-20 Summit in Toronto in 2010 – from Wikimedia Commons.

I have so many questions. Is there really an increase in police violence, or does it just feel that way right now, since there was also a fatal police shooting (of Steve Mesic) in Hamilton this past June? And we still freshly remember the Taser death of Robert Dziekanski – and the investigation that seemed to go on and on, but also featured police overreaction. Do we just hear more about it because now every other person (at least) has a pocket video recorder?

In this CBC article on the police’s use of force in Hamilton, it’s said that violent crime is down, but use of force is up. Assuming that’s true, is there a good reason for it? Do we actually know which came first? Is the visible use of force effective in deterring crime? Are would-be criminals less likely to mess with authority when officers look more forbidding?

Certainly my husband would argue that meeting machismo with machismo leads not to calm, but to desperate behaviour – particularly violence.

I watched the video of Sammy Yatim’s shooting for the purpose of writing this post. What I saw was fear. Police officers who yelled at the nervously shifting figure on the streetcar from their phalanx position on the sidewalk, pointing their guns in an urgent stance, as if they were expecting a small army to exit the vehicle and attack. Then three shots. Then six more. All from the same side.

There was nothing about that group of officers that conveyed a feeling of control, of calm, of “We’ve got this,” even though there were six of them dealing with a single kid. They should have felt complete confidence to simply walk in and do their job.

Everybody knows you don’t put guns in the hands of twitchy, nervous people.

Is it true that police officers are feeling more fear? Is it because guns and gang violence are infiltrating Canada to a greater extent? Or is it because of the “war” terminology that’s been all the rage, especially since 9/11? Is it because of that new SWAT-team look that someone somewhere in some government decided was better? Are insidious expectations changing outcomes?

Does it suck to be a police officer in this position? How are you supposed to be the friendly neighbourhood police officer AND a soldier in the War On Everything? How are you supposed to serve and protect the public as well as intimidate and subdue the enemy? Those are totally different people skills.

Or maybe all this has to do with a few isolated incidents, and there is really no issue at all.

I have great admiration for police officers. I know I could not do their job. I couldn’t hold up to the stress of being faced every day with the most troubled and needful members of society – and being expected to know what to do with them.

I don’t know where we are headed, or how worried we should be. I’d like to hear your thoughts.

***

* I had to look this up: “As practiced by the Mafia, a code of silence about criminal activity and a refusal to give evidence to authorities.”

**Reminder of how crazy those American gun laws actually are: today I was asked to sign a petition to ban guns in Starbucks locations across the U.S. What the what?? People bring their guns to Starbucks??? NOT A JOKE, apparently. (And it makes the customers nervous. No shit.) No offense, Yankees, but we Canucks can’t process this. At Starbucks up here, we’re like, “Wear a shirt and shoes, please. Have a lovely day.”

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A Review of All Things Misérables

So I finally got to see the new Les Mis movie in mid-February, when it had been in theatres for a month and a half.

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Just learned this awesome word: “oscarisé”. This director has been previously Oscarized. Way to go, Tom Hooper.

This is rather a travesty. I’m a musical geek. I could sing you most of the soundtracks for about a dozen different musicals.* I was also a French major; I studied much French lit, loved the Romantics, and I’ve even been to the Victor Hugo museum.

As you can imagine, this movie gave me a lot of feelings.

First, some back story. (Victor Hugo would want me to include this.)

Dilovely’s first exposure to Les Mis in any form was on a visit to family friends in Toronto. She was about 11. This family had the piano music for the Schönberg-Boublil-Kretzmer musical, and the dad was playing it while another friend, a girl around my age, swished her long skirt around and sang “Master of the House” and “On My Own”. She knew all the words. Mini-Di wished she were like this girl: confident, knowledgeable, able to sing in front of people. And the music… it was compelling. There was obviously great drama behind it.

It was the spring of 1990 when a copy of the Original Broadway Cast Recording, with Colm Wilkinson as Jean Valjean, came into Mini-Di’s household, via her aunt. It was a home recording, on cassette tape, of course.

She and her sister Emily became totally obsessed. ‘Twas in the days before lyrics.com (or anything .com), so Em transcribed the lyrics by hand in a little spiral-bound notebook, and Mini-Di read them and listened for the parts she couldn’t get. They knew every word – and every inflection, every quirk of accent, every nuance of instrumentation. They were of an age where they understood the concepts of poverty, prostitution, homeless people, revolution, and death – but only superficially. Suddenly this story, with its gorgeously sad music, was making tragedy real.

Soon, Dilovely would see the musical live at the Royal Alexandra Theatre – twice – and receive a Les Mis T-shirt for her birthday.

Fast-forward ten years. [That’s a Hugo tactic too.] In 2000, Dilovely was in France, having finished her French degree during which she was, inevitably, moved by Victor Hugo’s poetry. That year, the musical version of Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris was a wild success in Paris, starring Canadian Pierre Garand (a.k.a. Garou) as Quasimodo.

Dilovely found a copy of Les Misérables in the original French at Dunkerque’s Virgin Records store: two hefty paperback volumes totalling 1,948 pages (not counting appendices). She decided to make it her Everest.

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“Cosette Sweeping” by Emile Bayard, 1862.

She spent over three months reading this chef-d’oeuvre (in between teaching and gallivanting), with her French-English dictionary close at hand. She adored it. She cried frequently over the story. When it was over, she mourned its finishing and missed the characters terribly. They had become family.

As you can imagine, she was rather stoked to find out that there would be a new movie of Les Mis, the first to incorporate the music from the musical, and the first movie-musical to use live (rather than pre-recorded and lip-synched) singing by the actors. She anticipated great things.

Then, poor Dilovely wasn’t sure she would even make it to see the movie in theatres.

It ended up being almost a covert op: get baby to sleep just in the nick of time, leave the house in a hurry to arrive less than two minutes before the opening scene, keep phone in bra for whole movie in case of emergency text from Auntie Em, return home as swiftly as possible once the movie is over, before baby remembers that she doesn’t know how to drink from the bottle. (She was chewing on the nipple happily enough when we came in, so it was better than nothing.)

So, here are my thoughts as a francophile/Les-Mis-devotee.

Firstly, A Note About The Book:

To be honest, after I’d read Les Misérables, I returned to the musical’s soundtrack and found it lacking. The book is incredibly rich, teeming with history both real and imagined.** Every character, major or minor, is endowed with a superbly crafted, heart-wrenching personal history. And Victor Hugo knew what he was doing; though I haven’t been able to find it for you, I remember reading a quotation from him in which he admitted that he strove to evoke powerful emotions in his readers – something on the order of “If y’all don’t cry reading this book, I’ll eat my hat,” but in erudite, Romantic French.

It was gratifying to see the movie and realize it recaptures some of the depth that was lost in the stage play.

General Notes:

  • This movie thoroughly impressed me: the performances, the singing abilities, the method acting, the sensitivity of the adaptation, the sound mixing (bonjour, Oscar!), the makeup (Oscar again), the costumes, the set design, the overall vision.
  • This movie contains some of the most raw acting I’ve ever seen. And I don’t mean raw as in under-done – I mean naked, harrowing, bare-your-soul-to-the-camera acting.
  • The main actors are apparently all Les Mis geeks, for whom playing these roles is a dream come true.
  • Their dedication to their roles is remarkable. For example:
    • Hugh Jackman drank no water for 36 hours prior to filming his convict scenes, to achieve the “gaunt” look;

    Film Religion

    • Eddie Redmayne sang 21 takes of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” to be satisfied with his work, even though the director was happy with take #12;

    eddie redmayne empty chairs at empty tables

    • and Anne Hathaway had them actually cut off her real hair, on camera.

    anne-hathaway-haircut-les-miserables-fantine

  • Sean, without previous exposure to the music, was not as thrilled with the movie. There were many scenes where he felt it would have been better if they’d spoken the dialogue instead of singing. I think that’s an unsolvable issue with movie musicals: when you put them onscreen, it’s just kinda strange that they’re singing. The same is true of Rent: when it’s a movie, you expect them to speak their dialogue, not sing it.
  • To combat this, I recommend listening repeatedly to the soundtrack until it’s part of the fabric of your being. Then it doesn’t seem incongruous at all.
  • While watching, I had occasional glimpses of how the movie might seem to an outsider, how it could be perceived as maudlin. I mean, the pathos is so thick you can chew on it. But that’s part of why we love it. I believe Hugo would have approved.

Comparison to the Stage Musical (spoiler warning, if you don’t already know the story… but who doesn’t?):

  • I noticed every time the music differed from the soundtrack in my head – alternate lyrics, more delicate instrumentation, and lots of abridged songs. (“Dog Eats Dog” was all but eliminated.)
  • The grit and sordidness of the time and place really come through on film. From the dizzying nosebleed section of the Royal Alex, you can’t fully appreciate how filthy everyone is. (Teeth especially.) On a movie set, one can achieve truly repulsive squalor. “Look Down”, “Lovely Ladies” and “Master of the House” are outstanding examples of this.
  • Similarly, the intimacy of film allows for plot subtleties that aren’t possible in stage format. Suddenly certain realities are clear:
    • Fantine’s dawning acceptance, as her hallucinations dissipate, of the fact that she is dying and must give up care of her daughter;
    • the poignant youth and naïveté of the students;
    • Valjean’s jealousy and panic when he realizes Cosette will not always be his;
    • the gendarme’s regret after shooting Gavroche;
    • the pathetic haphazardness of the barricade, and indeed the “revolution” as a whole.
  • I loved the new song, “Suddenly”, sung by Valjean when he takes little Cosette into his care. This was one of the book’s plot points missing entirely from the musical: rescuing Cosette completely changes Valjean’s outlook and priorities. His love for her is immediate, intense, beautiful, and drives basically all of his subsequent actions. He is fiercely protective and fearful at the same time, as parents are. I was very glad they reincorporated this element.

Specific Notes:

  • The opening scene blew me away. “Goosebumps” doesn’t remotely cover it.
  • Hugh Jackman made me cry, especially in the Soliloquy at the beginning. I loved almost every aspect of his performance.
  • My only quibble was that I wished “Bring Him Home” were more wistful/delicate. But it’s, like, one of the hardest solos in the world, and he sang admirably.
  • Anne Hathaway made me cry multiple times, even though her character lasts for less than half the movie. I’m glad she won the Oscar.
  • I’d been warned that Amanda Seyfried as Cosette sings like a Chipmunk. I understood the reference immediately – it’s true that her vibrato is very trembly and the part is written super-high – but her pitch is right on and I thought she did a good job overall.
  • I was also warned that Russell Crowe as Javert was the weak link. I can’t disagree; his singing – especially his consonants – were tentative where they should have been full of conviction (no pun intended). His performance was lacklustre. But again, his pitch was good, and his duet with Jackman was solid – especially the low note on “Monsieur le maire, you wear a different chain” – so I forgive him.
  • Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham-Carter as the Thénardiers were appropriately gaudy and repellent, although I didn’t love Sacha’s constantly mutating accent. But I guess accents are his thing.
  • Eddie Redmayne is totally endearing as Marius. Earnest and freckly and boyish. He completely won me over with his delivery of the line, “I’m doing everything all wrong.”
  • Colm Wilkinson! Was in it! As the Bishop of Digne. I didn’t even recognize him – or his voice – while I was watching… so I guess I’ll have to see it again.
  • I appreciated the parts that recreated certain stage moments, like Valjean’s burdened silhouette in the sewer, and the angle at which Enjolras dies. My inner geek-self was tickled. (If you’re thinking, Um, Dilovely, what other self do you have? then yeah. Touché.)
  • I also appreciated the bits that gave us information from the book that was not in the stage version; for example:
    • we get to see the elephant statue that, in the book, is home to Gavroche and a bunch of other urchins.
    • we also catch sight of young Cosette’s doll that looks like a bundle of rags tied together; readers know she has wrapped up a little lead knife to be her doll. (I KNOW – how heartbreaking is that??)
  • I was confused for a moment by the enormous barricade that appears in the finale, with the whole cast singing atop it. I guess it’s probably reminding us that less than 20 years after the end of the story, in 1848, the French people would rise up for real and force King Louis-Philippe to abdicate – using a MUCH bigger barricade.

Notes on Revisiting the Story After Many Years:

  • As my understanding of the world increases, this story seems more and more relevant – and sad. There are people all over the world who still face tragic circumstances like those in Les Misérables, even though as a species, we should know better.
  • Fantine’s story touches me more now that I’m a mom. The idea of being obliged to give my child to someone else to look after and just hoping for the best, yearning for her all the time… Furthermore, knowing I’m going to leave the mortal plane and never hold her again… Just awful.
  • Hugo’s own story also hits home a lot more. His firstborn son died in infancy, and his second child Léopoldine drowned at age 19, shortly after being married. He knew all about pain, and also about passion, and politics. And he observed poverty all around him – the conditions he describes in the Les Misérables were not imagined. No wonder it’s an amazing book.
  • I need to read it again someday, even though it would probably take me… an embarrassingly long time.
  • And if you enjoyed the musical or the movie or even just the plot, I highly recommend reading it yourself.

***

  • BONUS Factoid/Recommendation:
liberty-leading-the-people-1830
La Liberté guidant le peuple, by Eugène Delacroix.

This is one of my favourite Romantic paintings, commemorating the July Revolution of 1830 in Paris. The little boy right beside Lady Liberty is said to have inspired Hugo’s Gavroche. I fell in love with this after seeing it discussed on video by Sister Wendy, and later had the privilege of seeing it at the Louvre. Sister Wendy is amazing and so is the painting.

***

*West Side Story, Showboat, Cats, Evita, Les Mis, Joseph, Miss Saigon, Assassins, Falsettos, A New Brain, Once On This Island, Rent, Parade… Sisters, what am I forgetting?

**For example, there is a section entitled “Waterloo”, a gruesome 70-page depiction of battle and its remains, related to the story only as historical context – and a vehicle to introduce Thénardier in the last few pages. I wrote a paper on it, about Hugo’s manipulation of time, during my M.A. That’s how much I love Hugo.

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Dilovely’s Extra Oscars 2013 + Defense of Seth MacFarlane

Might as well make a tradition of the Extra Oscars! I know it’s two days later so in Internetland, the Oscars are ancient history. But whatever. I have this thing called a baby. She sabotages my deadlines, dudes.

I do watch the ceremony almost every year now, thanks to Karissa’s parties that make it all worthwhile. It was a really fun evening. I think that if you’re going to watch the Oscars, you need to have lots of delicious snacks and some friends around. That way you can be in a good mood and enjoy the show – and not take it too seriously. MOTL (below, in fact).

First, the actual Hollywood-Related Extra Oscars:

  • Best Dressed: Jennifer Lawrence, even though the dress proved problematic, and Jennifer Aniston. I like pretty skirts.
Jennifer Lawrence 2013 oscars
Jennifer Lawrence
jennifer-aniston-oscars-2013
Jennifer Aniston
  • Honourable Mention: Helen Hunt, who famously wore a dress from H&M for its green cachet (made entirely from sustainable, and some recycled, materials).
helen hunt oscars 2013 h&m gown
Helen Hunt
  • Worst Dressed: Halle Berry (I think she’s awesome but I didn’t like the robot look) and Anne Hathaway (oh, nipple-darts, you are not attractive).
halle berry 2013 oscars
Halle Berry
oscars-2013 anne hathaway
Anne Hathaway
  • Most Surprising Dress: Salma Hayek. No cleavage showing WHATSOEVER.
salma hayek 2013 oscars
Salma Hayek
  • Strongest Shoulders: Kristin Chenoweth. She’s so tiny it’s almost ridiculous, so no matter who she’s interviewing, she has to hold the mike way up.
  • Best Name: Quvenzhané Wallis. Names don’t get cooler than that. It doesn’t hurt when they belong to 9-year-old acting prodigies with serious moxie.
quvenzhane-wallis 2013 oscars
Quvenzhané Wallis
  • Best Song About Boobs: Seth MacFarlane, We Saw Your Boobs. Okay, it was the only song about boobs. But we, in the room, chuckled. People have been complaining that this silly little song was offensive, but because MacFarlane pre-acknowledged that it was, I personally took it to be a mockery not of women who’ve been topless in films but of men(‘s obsession with boobs). It’s possible I also got a kick out of it because I happened to have my boob out at the time.
  • Best Spats: Channing Tatum. Okay, they were the only spats, as far as I could tell, and he only wore them for his dance number. But seriously, there aren’t enough spats-wearing gentlemen these days.
charlize theron and channing tatum dancing oscars 2013
Charlize Theron and Channing Tatum
  • Best Surprise Talent: Charlize Theron is a lovely dancer, and Daniel Radcliffe can totally sing. Maybe you guys already knew those things, but both were pleasant surprises to me.
  • Best Earrings: Norah Jones, singing Everybody Needs a Best Friend from Ted. Dress was good too. And hey, might as well mention that the singing was spot-on.
norah jones oscars 2013
Norah Jones
  • Best Tie: Sound Editing. (Get it?? Zero Dark Thirty and Skyfall tied for Best Sound Editing. Haw haw.)
  • Best Klutz: Jennifer Lawrence. Kristen Stewart was in the running – she apparently had crutches backstage because she’d “stepped on glass” at some point, and opted to hobble for her presentation instead of using them. Her heart was clearly not in the whole experience. Jennifer Lawrence, despite falling up the stairs to accept the Best Actress Oscar, managed to be gracefully self-deprecating (seeing the audience standing for her, she said, “Thank you. You guys are just standing up because you feel bad that I fell, and that’s really embarrassing, but thank you.”) Love her.
  • Best Joke: Christopher Plummer’s intro by Seth MacFarlane. The camera swung with the spotlight over to the doors, where Mr. Plummer did not appear. MacFarlane announced, “Family Von Trapp!” with the perfect fanfare from Sound of Music. While it may be hackneyed to refer to the movie around Mr. Plummer, well… The S of M is dear to my heart. So I dug the tribute-joke.

Okay, segue into mini-Diatribe. As mentioned re the Boob Song, the Twitterverse and Internetland in general are all hating on Seth for his hosting job. He predicted it himself (that is, he had Captain Kirk come from the future and tell him he was going to be the worst host ever). People are saying they should bring back Billy Crystal. Two responses from me:

a) You’ve forgotten how bad Billy was last year. I mean, I love him, he’s a funny guy, but last year… even our good-natured group found him very unfunny.

b) I don’t think Seth was that bad. Maybe I was all high from getting out of the house for the evening, but I took his jokes in the most positive light, and it wasn’t that hard to do.

People are all “He’s racist and sexist! He’s homophobic! Shocking and offensive!!

Firstly, let’s keep in mind that part of the job description for an Oscar host is to be politically incorrect, to jokingly cross the lines of appropriateness. Can you name a host who hasn’t? And if there ever were one, people would jump on that person for being wimpy and boring.

Secondly, he is not homophobic. He is, in fact, a well-known and vocal supporter of gay rights, including gay marriage. If there were jokes that sounded homophobic (I personally don’t recall any), they were not intended as such.

Thirdly, about the racism. He joked to Daniel Day-Lewis about his staying in-character on and off set: “If you bumped into Don Cheadle on the studio lot, did you try to free him?” Maybe I’m being thick, but how is this racist? Don Cheadle is black. Lincoln was against slavery of black people. I actually think that’s a very interesting, even insightful, question. What would Lincoln think of today’s civil rights situation in America?

He joked, regarding Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem, and Salma Hayek, that “they get up on stage and we have no idea what they’re saying, but we don’t care because they’re so attractive”. You could take that as racist. Or, since the statement is so obviously untrue (with respect to language, not attractiveness), you could take it as a nod to those same actors for being critically acclaimed successes in more than one language – and even a little jab at the monolingualism of most of America.

People got up in arms about “I always thought the actor who got most inside Lincoln’s head was John Wilkes Booth.” Our party groaned along with the audience, but come on. The play on words was a little bit funny. Seth acknowledged the groans with, “So, 150 years and it’s still too soon, huh?” Good point. Yes, we know Lincoln’s assassination was a tragedy. Joking about it serves the same purpose as gallows humour: sometimes you have to make light of things that suck.

Even the jokes that failed with the audience could be given the benefit of the doubt. There was Seth’s comment on Django Unchained: “This is the story of a man fighting to get back his woman, who’s been subjected to unthinkable violence. Or as Chris Brown and Rihanna call it, a date movie.” I agree that this joke isn’t in good taste, but domestic brutality needs to be talked about; sometimes we joke just to get an issue out and give it airtime. And after all, “unthinkable violence” is strongly condemnatory language.

I admit I didn’t enjoy this one: “For all those women who had the ‘flu’: It paid off. Looking good.” This may have been an attempt to address Hollywood’s unhealthy preoccupation with thinness; if so, it was clumsy and fell flat. But I do think it’s important to bring up. Hollywood’s female actors as a group are TOO THIN. Period.

FYI, I’m not a particular fan of Seth MacFarlane. I barely knew who he was before Oscar night. In all honesty, I’d rather have Jon Stewart or Ellen Degeneres back to host. But it irks me when people get unnecessarily hatey. Why are you watching the Oscars if you’re in such a bad mood?

It’s the same with Anne Hathaway – people were all a-Twitter with how she’s insincere and overeager and blah blah blah. Whatever. She’s a human, and I don’t see why she deserves such nitpicky bullying. People will pick on any random stupid thing and get internet validation for it. Anne Hathaway did an amazing job in her nominated role, and she fully deserved to win. And I don’t think she comes off as insincere; could you do any better on the Avenue of Awkwardness that is the red carpet?

Bottom line: if you’re jaded and humourless, you should probably do something else with your Sunday night.

Now, our personal party Oscars:

  • Best Co-Hosts: the kids. Karissa is the hostess with the mostest, but I also appreciated that her five-year-old daughter made absolutely sure we had napkins and her three-year-old son filled in for E by giving my baby a kiss when we arrived.
  • Best Potluck Dish Name: Finger Lickin’ Chicken Lincoln Wontons, by Krissy. Just say that to yourself – it’s fun. (For the record, my flourless chocolate cake, dubbed Cocoa Unchained, did get a couple votes.) (Hey, attendees, if you’re reading this – could you put your dish name in the comments so I can remember them all?)
  • Best Celebrity Detective: Carrie, for identifying the most magazine-cutout celebrity smiles and bodies AND answering the tie-breaking question.
  • Trivia Winner: technically Karissa, but since she was host and thereby ineligible, my sister Em (Oscar trivia rookie) got the next best score.
  • Most Flabbergasting Trivia Fact: How many times do you think John Williams has been nominated for his movie scores? Twelve? Eighteen? Twenty-five? No. Try forty-eight.
  • Highlight of the Evening: finding out, through the subtleties of trivia, that our friend Meg is expecting! YAY!!
  • Best Dressed Guest: Skye’s Baby G, with his necktie onesie. Even without pants, it works.
  • Best-Behaved Baby: Normally Baby G would take this category too, because he’s basically the best-behaved baby on the planet, but he had a couple of uncharacteristic bouts of screaming, so I’m going with Baby A (a.k.a. mine). Of course, I paid for this… dearly. She was in great spirits all evening, snoozing on-and-off, getting passed around and flirting with my friends, until abruptly she was not fine anymore (two presentations before the end of the show). This leads to…
  • Worst Parenting Decision: goes to Dilovely, for allowing the overstimulation of my daughter. She was up every hour that night. Not restful for anyone. Lesson learned.

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Too much to say, too little to say

wooden angels in newtown connecticut

Sean asked me yesterday if I blog to try to “make sense of the world.”

Yes. Absolutely. That has never been more true than now.

I also blog because, as I know from keeping a diary for so long, it helps a lot in painful moments. It’s a way for me to remove a piece of what’s making my mind hurt, look at it from a small distance, not quite so close to my heart, and begin to let it be… if just a little bit.

I know there’s an overabundance of writing on the topic of Newtown, but I am compelled to add to it anyway. This week, I can’t write a normal blog post about funny things my kid says, or Christmas preparations, or teacher politics.

Because this week, when I think about teachers, I can only think about the educators at Sandy Hook – the ones who never expected to lay down their lives in the course of their jobs, and the other ones who, from now on, will always wonder when they might have to. I’ve only read two news articles about the shooting, but they were enough to brand forever on my brain the thought of a teacher shot dead while shielding her tiny students with her body.

I don’t know how you ever teach again, after surviving a catastrophe like Sandy Hook.

This week, when I think about kids, it’s worse. Obviously, I think about my children all the time, but now there’s this underlying horror with too many strands to put my finger on… I look at them, my vivacious three-year-old son, my wide-eyed baby daughter, both so beautiful it makes me ache, and I feel guilt-gratitude-tumult-terror-overwhelminglove…

… and I wonder… How do I deserve these beautiful children… How could I have brought them into this messed-up world… What would I do if something like – what would I do if – what would I…

… Oh God. And I can’t wonder any further.

It might sound like a strange thing to say, but I’m thankful that Sebastian died the way he did. If I had to lose a son, it’s a blessing to feel sure that he didn’t suffer, never had a chance to be scared or alone or even to cry. His was the most peaceful death possible.

Of course, I know this doesn’t death-proof my other children.

There is no word for how crazy it is to me that pro-gun types are advocating more guns right now. The idea of guns in an elementary school is so, so wrong that my brain can’t even process it. People actually dare to make the argument that if the teachers at Sandy Hook had had access to their own guns, not as many people would have died that day. This may be mathematically true (maybe), but guns in school classrooms is a tragedy unto itself. And let’s be realistic: there’s no way those guns wouldn’t do harm, and most likely unnecessary harm.

As a Canadian born of pacifist parents, my mind is boggled that anyone could possibly believe anything contrary to

MORE GUNS = MORE DEATH FROM GUNS.

It’s already proving to be true in Canada, even though we have no “right to bear arms”, and we don’t generally have the cowboy mentality toward guns that is common in the U.S. We are still utterly shocked and outraged when someone opens fire in a public place in Toronto, but the frequency is increasing: our gun problem is growing. As more illegal firearms enter the country across the border, more people get shot. Period.

It’s common knowledge that the majority of gun crimes are committed by males. I don’t disagree with people who say it’s because society puts too much emphasis on male toughness of a certain kind, but I think it’s deeper than that.

It’s scary: somehow, little boys seem hardwired to think guns are cool. I noticed it while teaching kindergarten last year: young boys – even the quiet, gentle ones – seem to gravitate toward games involving guns. They’ll turn almost any inanimate object into a gun – to “shoot bad guys”, of course.

My father, who, along with my mother, transplanted himself decades ago to a new country to avoid being obliged to kill people, has admitted that he ate puffed wheat as a kid solely because it was “shot from guns”. (So ironic that it’s “Quaker”.)

My own son, with no toy weapons and zero violent TV or video games in the house, has been known to say, “Guns are cool,” and, if we allowed it, would do plenty of pretend-shooting.

If I were to see him do that that right now, I think I would burst into tears.

To me, this is the greatest argument for gun control. Wherever this “manly” urge to shoot stuff comes from, it’s far more likely to reach fruition if there is easy access to guns. Add mental illness into the mix, and obviously, it’s deadly. Since neither the urge nor the illness is going to be eradicated, it’s the third ingredient that has to go.

The other question that I can’t get out of my head is: Why is this so much worse?

I remember the massacre at Ecole Polytechnique in 1989 – the one that deeply shocked our nation, and spurred much tighter gun control laws, along with discussion of childhood abuse and mental illness. It filled us all with fear and incredible sorrow. I also remember Columbine, and Virginia Tech. And I know that countless innocent people die violent deaths every day in countries filled with war and terrorism. On the same day as the Newtown tragedy, sixteen people died from a car bomb in Damascus – which was forgotten by news sources almost immediately.

Why does this awful event haunt me – and all of us, it seems – so much more?

Not just because it’s still so raw. Not just because it was so unexpected, so appallingly incongruous in that little town. Not just because a massacre in America is so much rarer than a car bombing in the Middle East.

I think it has to do with how easy it is to put yourself into the scene. I saw pictures of those parents, rushing to the school to find out if their children were safe or dead, powerless to stop the world being ripped from under their feet… and they could be me. I think of those traumatized teachers and students, and I can’t help picturing the faces of my own wonderful students and colleagues at my school. They could be us.

And then. They were so young.

The murder of innocents is almost impossible to take.

On Easter Sunday in 1997, I was eighteen years old. I sat in silence at Quaker Meeting in my hometown, reeling from the news of the murder of two-year-old Zachary Antidormi, remembering the Dunblane school shooting a year before, feeling like the world should be ending, and composing this poem in my head.

Light is in everything
But a shadow fell upon a woman
at a moment
Blade in hand she slayed Innocence
and God was not in that knife.
Baby Angel of momentum growing
    now impossibly stopped.
This is a shadow where anguish is complete and
Innocence hides.

Light is in everything
But a darkness possessed a man
on a morning
A score of bullets tore Innocence
and God was not in that gun.
Tiny Spirits of energy flowing
    now indelibly cut.
This is a darkness where heartbreak is real and
Innocence cries.

Your words     life      rebirth       hope        spring      chances
fall alien on my ears like a sick joke

Tell me God needs little students and maybe
a little guard to help them across
    but not
that God’s hand wields knives and machine guns.

Remind us how to find Innocence
    somehow
because that is where God’s Light lives.

We are in the darkest time of year, in our corner of the world. Hannukah has just ended, Christmas is almost here, and we are filling our homes with light, warding off that darkness.

As Hawksley Workman wrote, “the darkness defines where the light is.” When I lost my son, I suddenly understood these words. At the awfulest moments, humanity’s love can be a very powerful thing. It plunges into the hole with you, and gradually, it can help you climb out and stand up again.

Humanity’s love being sent to Newtown right now is immense and beautiful. Let us find ways to be part of it.

newtown-memorial

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