On Distress

WHAT DO I DO WITH MY DISTRESS?

In my own life and thoughts, I am sometimes prone to catastrophizing or doom spiraling. Something difficult, painful, or simply uncomfortably unexpected occurs in an area of my life that I care about deeply, and suddenly my mind is racing through the next twenty awful things that are going to result from this until I arrive at the worst possible outcome. I become distressed, I ruminate, I catastrophize and suddenly the absolute worst thing imaginable has gone from being considered a highly improbable outlier to being treated as an inevitability that looms over everything.

This is a very uncomfortable experience. It results in an increased feeling of agitation and distress. And yet, when I sense myself initiating the spiral—i.e., when I am aware enough to observe that I am making a choice to initiate this process of catastrophizing—I learn that part of me really wants to throw me whole-heartedly into this distressing experience. I sense that I am beginning to spiral, I move to stop myself from doing so—and then something very strong within me says, “No! We are going into this and nothing can stop us and we are going to obsessively ruminate about everything awful and catastrophize until we feel absolutely annihilated and overwhelmed by it all!”

That’s kind of weird, right? Well, not really, because so many of us do that with behaviours that we experience as undesirable or painful and which we tell ourselves we want to avoid at all costs. It’s actually pretty normal to compulsively, obsessively, and sometimes rather forcefully do things that, on average, we say we really don’t enjoy doing at all. So instead of calling this weird, let’s call that a very curious thing. This part of me that refuses to allow this other part of me to stop me from doom spiraling, this part of me that wants to doom spiral and catastrophize, isn’t that a curious thing? What’s up with that?

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February Reviews

Because I am so far behind on these reviews, I will not be reviewing everything in my usual (and still not really adequate to be called a review) way. Instead, some titles will be mentioned and not reviewed. Then maybe I can catch up to where I’m at in the year. In February, I read or watched: 18 books (The Evocative Object World; Mourning and Melancholia; Mourning Diary; Hope Without Optimism; Slime; Wanderlust; Life in the City of Dirty Water; There There; Alphabetical Diaries; Either/Or; Diary; Trailer Park Shakes; Be Holding; Love’s Last Number; Best Canadian Poetry 2024; O; I Am Only a Foreigner Because You Do Not Understand; and We Are On Our Own); 3 movies (The Zone of Interest; The Dark and the Wicked; and Night Swim); and 6 documentaries (Fine Lines; Lover Stalker Killer; The Other Side of the Wind; Life Overtakes Me; The Soul in Peril; and Fungi).

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And Did You Get What You Needed From This Life, Even So?

AND DID YOU GET WHAT YOU NEEDED FROM THIS LIFE, EVEN SO?[1]

1. Maslow’s Doctrine

Over time, the need to translate complex needs into depoliticized programs that posture as caring while actually further entrenching the core trajectories of the status quo of racial capitalism—the need, in other words, to orient and justify care-work within the language, ideology, and commonsense perspective of a governance model that increasingly revolves around austerity, efficiency, value for money, and return on investment, wherein so-called service providers are compelled to bid on contracts designed by municipal bureaucrats who work largely on behalf of real estate developers and business associations and whose metrics of success are designed accordingly—has led to the formulation of certain core beliefs or models that now function as something like Scriptures within social services.

One such doctrine is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. After staying with the Siksiká (Blackfoot) Nation in 1938 (more on that in a moment), Maslow developed a five-stage model of human need. At the base are physiological needs, then safety needs, love and belonging, esteem, and at the peak, the need for self-actualization.

Critically, according to Maslow’s doctrine, lower-tier needs have to be met before higher-tier needs can be adequately addressed. If a person is starving and exposed to the elements, it doesn’t make sense to focus on helping that person “become the most that one can be.” Instead, one should provide them with food, water, shelter, and clothing. A person can’t be their best self if they’re dead, right? Furthermore, and very importantly within Maslow’s doctrine, the individual who is experiencing unmet physiological needs is called to act responsibly by prioritizing basic needs over all others so as, to the best of their abilities, not be a burden on the community.

Interestingly, Maslow observes that of the Siksiká he met in 1938, approximately 80-90% were living at a stage of self-actualization that only 5-10% of Europeans attained (by “self-actualization” Maslow means, “the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming”). Maslow observes this about the Siksiká despite the fact that John A. MacDonald and the Canadian occupation had already cleared the plains (i.e. deliberately decimated buffalo populations and used mass starvation to drive Indigenous nations away from their own territories and ways of living onto reserves that basically operated as open-air prisons for people who were forcibly impoverished).[2] Furthermore, the Canadian state was already actively removing Siksiká children from many homes and communities (the first “Indian Residential School” for the Siksiká was opened in 1886).[3] White supremacy and racism was rampant in the nearby White communities. Maslow himself observes that the local Whites “were the worst bunch of creeps and bastards I’d ever run across in my life.” In other words, the Siksiká were already going through significant genocide-related traumas, were being targeted by well-armed colonizers intent on their destruction, were being deprived of basic needs, had their safety jeopardized, and were still living (according to Maslow) with 80-90% of their people self-actualizing in ways that 90-95% of Europeans (including Canadians of European descent) were not.

What is going on here? Well, as Cindy Blackstock and other Indigenous scholars and knowledge-keepers have emphasized, Maslow’s doctrine is a mis/appropriation of (part of) the Siksiká worldview. Blackstock provides the following illustration (which she acknowledges is a major simplification of both sides):

What Maslow places at the top of his pyramid is actually the foundation of the Siksiká teepee. This is the case, in part, because unlike the European perspective regarding the individual who must be responsible for himself [sic], the Siksiká believed that the community, as a collective, was responsible for covering everyone’s basic needs.[4] The individual who chose to enter into this life was thus, from birth (or before birth in some Indigenous ontologies), entering into a process of self-actualization. This was then carried forward from birth through the collective sense of kinship that was exhibited in practices of mutual care (community actualization), and the perpetuation of a culture that prioritized the meaningful and active interconnectedness of kin, clans, and nations (from other Indigenous nations to plant and animal nations), to a sense of home that was rooted in a sense of being of the land (rather than being owners of the land—belonging not belongings being what is at stake here). Thus, a person is born into self-actualization and then, rather than maturing into “rugged individualism” or “developing oneself as a competitive unit of human capital in a limited goods economy populated by winners and losers,” one matures into caring for oneself along with others. This is done in the present, with attention to the past (via one’s elders and ancestors) and extends into the future (for the next seven generations).

Significantly, drawing on the work of Terry Cross (Seneca), Blackstock argues for a non-hierarchical interconnectedness of human needs based upon a medicine wheel, rather than a hierarchical structure (be that a pyramid or a teepee).[5]

This is a profoundly different understanding of human need, the inter- and intra-connectedness of being, and how we go about caring well for ourselves and others than that offered by Maslow’s doctrine. Critically, depending on what is happening at any given moment, a different quadrant of the wheel may take priority. Some things are worth starving for. Some things are worth dying for. And some things are not. It all depends on how a people understand their situation, what values they hold, and what they believe is the best way forward. Maslow’s doctrine forecloses this complexity, denies these possibilities and, ultimately, enforces a very Eurocentric conception of personhood, wellbeing, care, responsibility, and individuality, while making that conception appear to be a universal truth or fact.

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Of Swans and Bogs and Me

PART 1

In 1955, wealthy White settlers drained the final remnants of the Thedford Bog. The bog’s rich black soil was considered some of the best agricultural land in southwestern Ontario. Three marshy lakes—Lake Smith, Lake George, and Lake Burwell, separated from Lake Huron by large sand dunes (dunes that are also on the verge of being completely gone)—were simply disappeared. They went missing. They were murdered. Lake Smith alone spanned 200-400 acres of open water with 600-800 acres of floating bog surrounding it. In 1937, The Canada Company sold most of that lake to Dr. Gordon Hagmeier. Initially used for duck and game hunting, he spitefully decided to drain the whole area when the Department of Lands and Forests fined him for hunting out of season (so it goes when land is converted into “private property” and made into a “resource” than can be hoarded by the rich). Thus, by 1955, the wetlands were gone and, much like the vast expanses of Carolinian forests that were logged across the region, the settlers exploited the richness of the soil—soil that had once been an integral part of thriving ecosystems—in order to expand Canada’s production of tobacco, winter wheat, and corn feed.

For thousands of years, the Thedford Bog served as a stopping point for millions of Tundra Swans. Tens of thousands of swans would stop at the bog on their spring migration from Chesapeake Bay in Delaware to the artic coast (an annual round-trip of 12,000kms). In the bog, the swans found safety, sustenance, rest, and, I reckon, the joy that accompanies finding such things while engaging in a long and arduous journey. A home away from home or, perhaps, one of many homes the swans inhabited during lives that were tuned to the cycles of the seasons, the span of time given to them, and the gift of flight.

Today, Tundra Swans still stop on the farmers’ fields in Thedford (70kms west-northwest of my home in London, Ontario). No longer traveling in the tens of thousands, when locals go to “see the swans” they are fortunate to see a few hundred birds picking at whatever remnants of genetically-modified farm feed were left on the scarred and frozen furrows of earth where the birds have landed.

Generations have come and gone since the bog was drained (the average lifespan of a Tundra Swan is ten years), but the swans continue to stop here. After thousands of years of nature and nurture—epigenetics and teaching younglings where to go—the swans do what they have always done even though the safety, sustenance and perhaps even the joy and feeling of being-at-home, are gone. So much has been taken and so many have come and gone since the taking, that I imagine that even the awareness of what was taken is gone. I can’t imagine that the swans remember why they used to stop here. I imagine they know that they are tired from their long flight. I imagine that they want to rest their weary wings awhile. I imagine that they stop where they have always stopped before. I imagine they imagine that this devastated land—land that barely supports the few hundred who land there now—was always this way. It’s not much, but, hey, one has to stop somewhere so it might as well be here. It’s not like there’s much of much left anywhere else.

This spring when the Tundra Swans passed through, locals like me pulled over at the side of the road and said, “wow, look at all the swans.” And we gave thanks for the beauty we witnessed in the hundreds and we were grateful to be alive and here to share in all of this annihilated everything with all of those we have annihilated.

PART 2

I was born in London, Ontario. I was abused as a child in London, Ontario. I was abandoned as a teenager in London, Ontario. I was homeless as a teenager in London, Ontario. I left London, Ontario, and swore I would never return. Over the years, when I occasionally returned to visit loved ones and my parents, I was struck by the ways in which London was such an obvious stronghold of White supremacy, heteronormativity, homo- and trans-antagonism, Evangelical Christianity, hopelessness, and creeping devastation. After every visit I reaffirmed to myself, “fuck, I’m so glad I got out of there,” and also, “I’m never going back again.”

I moved back to London, Ontario, in 2013. Since my return, I find myself being pulled back to the places I used to inhabit as a child. Places where I used to find sustenance, rest and, yes, some joy, but also places where I fled for safety, where I sought respite, and where I tried to find shelter. The swings I sat on all night when I had no place to go. The 24-hours Tim Horton’s where I would try to sleep before they kicked me out for sleeping. The high-school I attended. The mall where we skipped class to play hackey sack. The field behind the church I attended where I tried to sleep on Saturday nights. Most of these places are still there. Some are modified. The climbers in the suburban park where I slept most are gone and have been replaced with safer climbers at a slightly different location in the park. The swings are still in the same location but have been replaced with a different swing set and woodchips have been added. The three very sappy spruce trees are still next to the swings and, when I hugged them again all these years later, were still very sappy.

But no place calls me more than the house where I spent the first seventeen years of my life. I have only driven by it a handful of times since 2013, but I feel it calling me in a way that I imagine is comparable to the ways in which the former Thedford Bog still calls to the Tundra Swans. A few weeks ago, when I was doing some thinking about parenting, belonging, home, and connection, I decided to take an evening stroll through that old neighbourhood. Down the streets I walked and biked as a child. Back behind the variety store where I would go for penny candies. Into the park where I slept as a teen. Some memories came back to me—memories of a field that used to be where a massive suburb now exists, memories of hopping a friend’s back fence to go catch tadpoles, memories of who lived in every single house on the street, memories of riding bikes with neighbours down walking paths between houses. Some memories came in an instant, some took shape and I could hold onto them, others flashed by and were gone again before I could put them into words. The contours of the earth under my feet felt familiar to my body, even though I knew the ground must have changed in the last twenty-six years. Still, I recognized the way the earth dipped and rolled in the wooded area behind a church, I remembered vanishing into worlds of my imagination exactly there, between those trees, where the earth permitted hiding.

In the midst of all this remembering, the house where I grew up gave me… nothing. I walked by it, and it was like a great blankness at the centre of everywhere else where memories were proliferating. I felt nothing, saw nothing, and heard nothing. What I remembered was still what I remembered. What I didn’t remember was still everything else.

I am like the Tundra Swans. I go back to the house where I grew up seeking parts of myself that were taken from me but they are not there. No vestige of them remains. And the memories of those parts have been eviscerated along with them. Like the swans, I pass by and through not knowing why, not finding what was there at one time long ago. I am not even aware of what used to be there or why I might still go there now. What was lost will not be found. What was taken will not be returned. What was devastated will not be restored. All I can do, on my migration home, is stop and rest my weary feet awhile.

January Reviews

Briefly discussed in this post: 9 books (Probable Impossibilities; Sex Object; Shut Up You’re Pretty; Liberation Day; My Documents; The Cure is a Forest; Sooner; Best Canadian Poetry 2023; and Vox Humana); 3 movies (Brighton 4th; Sisu; and Totally Killer); and 1 documentary (The Last Autumn).

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2023 Reviews in Review

In 2023, I read 162 books, watched 53 movies, and watched an additional 36 documentaries (so 89 films altogether). Here, I will reflect on this year’s patterns as well as share what I experience as “the best of the best” and “the worst of the worst” in each category.

Or, at least, that was my intention when I started writing this post back in December. Another annual round-up… just like other years. But this year I feel differently. I don’t know if it’s long-COVID impacting my mental capacities, or the fact that I’ve known almost 300 people who have died premature and preventable deaths in the war the rich are waging on the poor here as elsewhere in the world is giving my trauma brain, or the fact that we’re watching a genocide unfold on social media is also giving me trauma brain, or if I’m too overworked and underpaid to be able to think creatively, or if the labour it takes to eke out an existence for myself and my children under the austere gaze of neoliberal governance is crushing my soul, or if I’m suffering early onset Alzheimer’s, or what, but I just don’t have it in me to sit down and write the reviews I usually write. Thus, this post will be even more brief and unsatisfying than my usual reviews. The best of the best really are great. And the worst of the worst really were, for me, the worst. Be that as it may be, here’s the list.

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December Reviews

Briefly discussed in this post: 11 books (Mohawk Interruptus; Two Cheers for Anarchism; Life on the Edge; Hood Feminism; S.C.U.M. Manifesto; Motherhood; The Rabbit Hutch; Animalia; Frantumaglia; A Heart That Works; and One Hundred Poems from the Chinese); 5 movies (Anatomy of a Fall; Red Rocket; Killers of the Flower Moon; May December; and Costa Brava, Lebanon); and 2 documentaries (Mister Organ; and Hell Camp).

Stay tuned for my “Reviews in Review” where I share the best and worst of what I read and viewed in 2023!

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November Reviews

Briefly discussed in this post: 14 books (Here Lies Bitterness; The Intersections of Whiteness; Colonial Desire; Learning From the Germans; Drug War Capitalism; The Unwritten Book; Young Mungo; The Wallcreeper; The Haunting of Hajji Hotak; Poppies of Iraq; Aurora Borealice; The Vagabond Valise; Stones Beneath the Surface; and Original Love); 2 movies (Moon Garden; and The Worst Person in the World); and 2 documentaries (Silver Dollar Road; and Camorra).

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The Pursuit of Madness

Community memorial tree, naming loved ones who died in 2023 so that they can feast with us.

My brain is fogged. My body weary. I look around the room—400 impoverished people warm and feasting—and I feel nothing. Absolutely nothing.

I am growing old. Is it grief (another 68 loved ones died this year)? Is it compound trauma? Long COVID? Is it worker exploitation, bureaucratic gaslighting, systems-wide moral injury? Is it being overworked and underpaid in an era of austerity and greedflation? Is it the intimate and vicarious traumas of living under the hegemonic global regimes of racial capitalism, settler colonialism, and neoliberalism? Is it the genocides? All my energy goes to persisting. I no longer have it in me to engage in the creative activities that give me life. I resist my own collapse until exhaustion overtakes me and I sleep—which, let me be clear, is not the same as resting. The exhausted who are compelled to persist in a state of exhaustion sometimes sleep so as not to die. But they are denied rest.

“Self-sheltering” with traffic cone (to minimize the likelihood of accidental head injuries).

If circumstantial, material, economic, and political lines of flight are non-existent, blocked, actively destroyed, or rerouted back to the status quo, then the only way out that isn’t death is madness.

In 2024, I intend to go utterly, fully, delightedly, irrevocably, unapologetically, tearfully, nakedly, and joyously insane.

The Way to the Way is Hard

How does one believe in God in a world of austerity gourmet donuts internet porn fascism wage stagnation genocide in Palestine microbreweries the border wall Coachella sales days at the mall 31 reality shows about real housewives mass slaughter in Congo and Sudan slam poetry brand equity dating apps the gig economy crossfit inflation the housing crisis the opioid crisis the climate crisis the economic crisis 45 seasons of survivor smart watches that count steps the COVID pandemic Wikipedia electronic dance music botox critical theory gluten-free bread rentier capitalism AI ultimate fighting social media podcasts derivatives pivoting algorithms and fucking Kyle who lives just down the street?

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