Friday, December 31, 2010

One Last Hurrah

I am always surprised to look at the calendar (or, lets be honest here, the right-hand corner of my computer screen and my cell phone) and realize it’s December 31st. It always feels like I should be more prepared for the end of the year, like there should be an announcement across the city three days before to remind everyone to prepare to write “2011” in their notebooks shortly.

The end of December practically begs for year wrap-ups, conclusions about what the previous 364 days has taught us, and observations-turned-promises of how we can improve in the next calendar year. While I often reflect on how things made me feel and, thus, changed me, I’m not really one to see the end of December/beginning of January as the opportune moment to do so. I feel like our culture views New Years as the time to make changes, end bad habits and take up new challenges. I think we should be doing this all the time; change should not be reserved for one day of the year.

All of that said, I am going to be remarkably ironic and produce a New Years Eve blog. I can't resist getting one last post in before 2011 hits. So behold!: a kind of summary of how my life has changed over the past 12 months, what I’ve learned, and how I want to improve in the future.

The Past: What Happened in 2010
Lots of really big, life-changing things happened this year. With a whopping 30 extra credit-hours, I finished my BA (Hons) in April, and convoked in May. I also finished my job at the Writing Centre, where I worked for 2.5 years - my longest continuous period of employment with the same job. I was accepted to the UBC to begin my MA in Children’s Literature, unexpectedly was granted a SSHRC scholarship, and packed up my life to move 7000km across this massive country to start something new. But not before my twin sister got hitched in a beautiful summer ceremony where I watched from the sidelines as the Maid of Honour. I also experienced, for the first time, what heartbreak feels like, and lost some good friends through a combination of misunderstandings, miscommunication, and a realization that people do not always care about you as much as you care about them. My grandfather passed away in February, and my grandmother underwent surgery and radiation for cancer. It was a hefty year.

The Present: What I’ve Learned
This is a bigg’un, because I feel like I’ve learned an abundance of life-lessons this year, as cheesy and predictable as it may sound. I’ve learned that there is no right or wrong way to deal with loss. Every relationship is different because it exists between two unique individuals. The end of that bond, whether it is between friends, lovers, co-workers, students and teachers - whoever - will affect each party differently. No outsider can say how long one should grieve, what the appropriate level of mourning is, how long it should take to “get over it” because nobody knows. Every ending is something new and previously unexperienced, therefore it is impossible to know what to expect. We have to just let ourselves live through our emotions, no matter if anyone else understands them.

I’ve also learned the importance of family. Maybe it’s because I’ve realized the fragility of friendships or because I’ve moved so far away, but I feel now more than ever that I truly appreciate my family - parents, sister, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparent. Despite their idiosyncrasies and their questionable taste in music, I have come to really like my family. My cousins make me laugh, my aunts and uncles support and love me, and my parents are, aside from being good parents, really good people. I am blessed to have such an odd and wonderful blood-line.

The Future: What I’d Like to Change
There’s always so much I’d like to change about myself, but I feel like this year there’s more than usual. If I reflect on how I felt on December 31st 2009 and compare it to how I feel today, there’s a drastic difference. 365 days ago, I felt strong, confident, and invincible (this might have been because I had a fantastic pair of boots that made me feel like a superhero). This year, I feel ... directionless, I suppose. I don’t really feel like I belong anywhere, or that there’s any sort of plan for my future. In 2011, I want to tackle this sense of lostness head-on and get involved in my community in BC. I need to find new interests, volunteer work, and a church family.

Here’s to 2010, and all of your wisdom. And here’s to 2011, and all of the new experiences you will bring.
And here’s to you, friends and family, and your own 2010 revelations and 2011 hopes and dreams.

Happy New Year!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Silently, How Silently the Wondrous Gift is Given

Christmas fast approacheth! And thus, in typical TV sitcom fashion, I thought I’d do a sort of Christmas blog special. I’ve changed my background to give the sensation of staring at Christmas lights through my eyes with my glasses off.

Christmas is the reason I am a Christian. The birth of Christ is without a doubt the most beautiful story ever told:

The Almighty God, filled with compassion and love for his people, his creation, decided that the world needed something concrete to believe in, a tangible example of his power, kindness, wrath, love, and forgiveness. So he chooses a young girl, a child burgeoning on womanhood and without any titles or fame or wealth, to bear his son. God sent himself to begin life as all humans do - as a humble baby. A tiny, powerless, completely dependent human being. And at his birth there were both poor, dirty shepherds who brought nothing but themselves to worship the King, and rich, educated, and wise Magi who lavished the Baby Jesus with expensive gifts. Regardless of social standing, skin colour, financial status, sexual orientation, past crimes committed, all were welcomed at the birth of Jesus. It is the most humbling, equalizing, and beautiful beginning for the Saviour of the world.

For me, as I’m sure for many people, Christmas is largely about music. Even my mother, who doesn’t like music playing at all times (granted, this is largely because Dad is blasting some brass recording and conducting while singing in her ear, and I have played the Glee Cast’s rendition of “Safety Dance” up on bust more than is perhaps tolerable by any other human being), wants the holiday tunes piped throughout the house during all waking hours.

Every few years I develop a new affection for a particular Christmas carol. In true English student fashion, I am usually attracted to a particular line or verse of a song. Occasionally I’ll be listening to a familiar Christmas tune when lyrics I’ve heard hundreds and thousands of times will hit me as being particularly profound or beautiful or completely raw and true.

A prime example is “O Holy Night.” I’ve heard, played, and sung this Christmas tune more times than is ever necessary, and the charm and awe has largely worn off. However, two or three years ago as I was driving in the old Honda Civic (RIP, Great Civ), I found myself listening to a CD Dad had left in the player. Even though it was only October, I listened to David Phelps sing “O Holy Night,” which is an experience in itself, and he got to the line:

Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother!
And in his name all oppression shall cease!

I had chills. The powerful affirmation of that promise hit me with full force. It was as if I suddenly had awoken to vast truth that we are all equal beings, that we are all unworthy sinners, yet the birth of a baby could allow us to eliminate the boundaries of sin and oppression and experience the freedom of redemption.

I’ve also been drawn to the song “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” since last Christmas. It’s not one that I heard very often as a child. It’s based on the poem “Christmas Bells,” written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow during the American Civil War. What I love about this song is that it tells the story of someone who has lost hope in Christmas, humanity, and God. The narrator proclaims in despair:

There is no peace on earth... 
For hate is strong and marks the song 
Of peace on earth, good will to men

But what is so striking and moving about this song is that it reminds us that the whole point of Christmas is Easter, when Jesus fulfills his purpose on earth. The next line of the song, which is powerful and hard to sing without conviction: 

Then peeled the bells more loud and deep:
 “God is not dead, nor does he sleep! 
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, 
With peace on earth, good will to men! 

It’s such an unusual Christmas song, and it strikes me as beautiful and true.

One carol that I’ve never really warmed to is “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” largely because I find the tune hard to sing, especially in a congregation. No one really knows the appropriate time to change notes and the ups and downs are sort of all over the place. However, this past Sunday in church my pastor pointed the final line of the first verse: 

The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in Thee tonight 

I took a moment to really let that sink in. Jesus’ coming wasn’t just for the years he was alive on earth - it was for those before him and those after him. His power and love transcends the concept of time and space, yet it all stems from the moment of the birth of a baby. Incredible.

I like poetry, and I like music; together they become something magical. 

Merry, merry Christmas.

PS - If I could recommend a Christmas album, I would suggest MercyMe's The Christmas Sessions. It has some traditional carols revisited, some fun songs, and original songs as well. If I had to choose, I would say it's a probably my favourite holiday CD.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Final Test


I've been meaning to post for quite some time, but I've been far too occupied to be able to sit down at my computer and dedicate an hour to writing a new blog post. I arrived back in Newfoundland on 11 December and have since been visiting with friends, watching Mom decorate, snuggling with my kittens, and generally enjoying being at home. The best part about leaving home is coming back to it.

I wanted to post this particular thought about 10 days ago, so it's a bit less timely now, but it'll have to do. It's still applicable, anyway, as exams are still happening at UBC. Onwards!

On 9 December I wrote what was, by all accounts, the final exam of my career in the Arts.

I have always hated writing English exams. I feel that are totally non-pedagogical in that I have never understood what I’m supposed to learn from walking into an exam where I don’t know what question I’m going to have to answer, and must formulate two strong essays complete with thesis statement, full body paragraphs, and a conclusion in 2.5 hours about something I may have never even thought about before. It’s impossible to prepare for, unless you read every single poem/novel/essay assigned for the course multiple times, and read every piece of criticism ever written on them. Exams do not allow good writers time to showcase their skills to their full potential, and make poor writers seem even worse than they probably are because of the pressure to write so quickly.

I once had a prof tell me that he was testing the creativity of students, but I don’t think the point of an exam at the end of a 12 week course about the themes of violence and de-centering in Russian literature should be to see how quickly and cleverly students can write about the function of lamps in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

As much as I dislike writing exams, as I watched the students gather outside of the exam room, holding dog-eared pages of notes, pencils falling out of every available pocket, nails being bitten in a circle around my head, part of me missed my undergraduate exams.

While writing exams is stressful and makes everyone eat more, sleep less, and procrastinate in ways they didn’t know was possible, there’s something about the communal stress that brings people together. In my earlier years at MUN when I was still fooling myself by thinking I would pursue a career in science, I remember gathering on 5.5 at the library with my fellow chem students. We’d sit three or four to a table, each with a pile of notes, pencil case, text book, water bottle, iPod (or, in those days, a generic mp3 player), cell phone, granola bars, and extra large triple triples from Tim Hortons. While we had the best intentions to ace our exams, we basically only succeeded in filling our text message inboxes with the insight that we were sitting a foot away and still texting, and then giggled hysterically because we were in the silent area and weren’t allowed to be laughing, so naturally it was funnier.

Exam period is a time of bonding with your classmates and fellow students. You’re all on campus for obscene amounts of time, so you go for lunch; meet up in the library to go over some confusing part of the prof’s notes; make coffee runs to Tim’s mostly just to get away from the library and complain about how tired and stressed you are; start talking to someone in your class who you hadn’t previously and connect over the absurdity of the final paper you have to write, discuss deadlines and whether or not the prof has responded to your latest email; sit in the book stacks with a friend and take pictures on their computer; plan to meet up at 8:30 with the same three people you’ve shared a table with on 2.5 for the past four days in order to get the prime table, and because you’ve developed a rhythm in your study patterns; sitting next to a friend on a computer and, even though you’re not speaking, still feeling connected because you know you’re both suffering through to just meet the word count and finish the paper.

So as much as I’m glad that the heyday of exams has passed, I do recall the weeks of my life spent at the QEII Library with a certain level of fondness and affection. Even though I’ve only retained a small percentage of what I’ve crammed into my brain during MUN exam time, I’ve maintained a large number of the friendships that blossomed over a mutual exasperation with the life of academia.

I think I’m ok with that.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Excuse Me, You're Stepping on My Canadianness

"What does it mean to be ‘Canadian’?”

As much as the academic world has become a part of my very being, there are some things that happen to you when you fully commit to the thinking and philosophizing lifestyle that you don’t necessarily like. Namely: questioning everything you ever believed in or understood to be true.

When I was a child and into my mid-teens, I was very patriotic. I painted a Canadian flag on my headboard; I relished playing the anthem when it was B Band’s turn to play at Starrigan’s flag break; I watched the olympics and cheered for Canadian athletes with a passionate fervour normally reserved for wedding nights; I wore my Roots hoodie almost exclusively throughout grade 9 until there were no sleeves left; I counted down the days until I could legally vote for our Prime Minister. Mom even had to stop me from painting the entire Molson Canadian poem “I Am Canadian” on my bedroom wall. You can still be patriotic, it seems, without etching a beer commercial into gyprock.

As I entered university, however, things took a tragic twist, for which I was unprepared. The summer of my second year I took two courses, one about world history since 1945 and the other about Canadian autobiography. In both courses, the question of national identity was a key discussion point.

Within the first week, my history professor boldly stated that nationalism is a fabrication. It does not exist. Rather, it is merely a tool of rhetoric to inspire confidence and a spirit of unity among a country when things like politics and currency and a flag aren’t enough.

I was unsettled to say the least. He was very attractive, though, so I didn’t want to dismiss his thoughts entirely. I figured he’d let it go eventually and we could all go back to pretending that Canada indeed does have a national identity, at the centre of which was hockey, toques, and poutines.

But the issue kept cropping up. In my English class, my professor wouldn’t stop asking us to try and define “Canadianness.” We looked at Canadian immigrants’ biographies to see how they defined their nationality. We were asked to examine how we defined our own nationality, and if we couldn’t, why not? It was infuriating, exhausting, and completely deflated my patriotism. It was with a heavy heart that I one day pulled my Canadian flag from my shelf and looked at it, tears in my eyes, mourning the loss of an old, faithful friend. The Maple Leaf as symbol of unity and stability was dead to me.

When I went to England in 2008, I noticed that when people asked me where I was from, I unconsciously said “Newfoundland.” When friends would quickly clarify that Newfoundland was in Canada, I felt oddly betrayed. I held no emotional ties to “Canada” as a whole because I didn’t know what that meant. What did a country that spread from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans and up into the Arctic circle, of which I had seen a laughably small amount, have anything to do with me? Why did I have to claim “Canada” as my home?

Over the past year, I have started to miss my old friend Patriotism. I don’t necessarily think it’s healthy to be so patriotic that you view flag burning as a capital offence, but I’ve come to realize that it is important to care about your country and the government that we trust to make the big choices for us. I’ve thus been on a sort of personal quest to figure out how I define my national identity, how I can call myself as Canadian and live with it. Here are some of the things I’ve been thinking about:

  1. Hockey: Obviously. Clearly this is not the most important thing about Canada, but I’d argue that it’s darn close. Sports are ways that strangers connect. It gives people a common goal, a common interest and topic of conversation. In any country, the main sport it supports cannot be ignored as an important element in defining identity. Plus there is lots of snow and ice here. Skating = duh. Anyway, I’ve made an effort, albeit a relatively weak one, to become better acquainted with the lingo, players, and stats of the game. And while I don’t think Don Cherry should be the next Prime Minister of Canada, as I read in someone’s Facebook status the other day, his outrageous attire must be noted and condoned. Rock on, Don. Love your Ultimate Wings, PS.
  2. Parliament: AH POLITICS. I know, or knew, next to nothing about Canadian politics, except that people hate Harper, and they hated Martin before him, and Chretien talked funny but was OK and someone tried to assassinate him with like a plastic fork from KFC once and he just kind of twisted his arm and all was well, and Trudeau liked English Canada. But I’ve been feeling for quite some time that I need to learn more about the system, about the parties, and about what’s happening in that big building in Ottawa. I feel strongly about this because I keep hearing people yabber on about what an idiot Harper is and how he’s messin’ with the government, but I don’t really understand why. And I feel like, as a Canadian citizen, I should care about my government. I should care about where my tax money is going and whether or not this is, in the end, for the best; or, at least, that I am pleased with where it’s going. Since being here in BC, too, I’ve become completely heartbroken over the Indigenous situation. I feel like there has to be something better that the government can do, and until I am educated and participate in my government, nothing will change. Call me an idealist, but I believe people as a collective have the power to change things. So get involved! Know your politics!
  3. CBC Television and Radio: I know, what? I used to think that there was nothing but shit programming on the CBC. And I was wrong. Aside from the news, stuff like This Hour Has 22 Minutes and The Rick Mercer Report are funny, provide glimpses of life across Canada, and also insight into the politics of Canada. Then there’s George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight, which I think is great. Say what you will, but George is a fantastic interviewer and he asks really interesting questions. He also has unique guests on his show. Of course there’s Q with Jian Ghomeshi, a radio show that you can also watch on YouTube. And the countless other comedy sound bites, call-in shows, and general interest shows on CBC Radio One. I’ve really come to appreciate the CBC, and feel like I should support Canadian content and Canadian journalism. This stuff is a form of art, and it should be celebrated.
I can’t say that I know what it means to be Canadian yet, nor that I ever will. But I do know that Canada is a beautiful country filled with good schools, interesting people, beautiful art, and a quirky history (you really have to dig for the good stuff, though, I’ll admit).

I am glad that I live in Canada. I can’t wait to sit down with a cup of Tim Horton’s coffee while Toronto plays the Habs on the TV, counting my coloured money and catching up with my old friend.