Eulogy for LC and the USA

cohenmonkThe morning the results of the 2016 United States election were confirmed, I cried. I am not an American but, like all of us, I am affected by its foreign and domestic policies. And I do ache with empathy for people whose vilification by trumpism has now been wrongly—evilly—legitimated. I reject that legitimization. It is sickening and terrifying.

Later the same week, when Canadian poet Leonard Cohen’s death was confirmed, I cried again. I didn’t know him personally but, like many of us, I am affected by his work. I posted an American magazine’s eulogy of Cohen on my Facebook feed along with half of a stanza of a poem, a song, I’ve known from memory since I was sixteen when my dad would play it in the car on our way home from late night shifts at the doomed sandwich shop we owned at the time.

The rain falls down on last year’s man,

an hour has gone by and he has not moved his hand.

But everything will happen if he only gives the word.

The lovers will rise up and the mountains touch the ground…

Cohen’s “Last Year’s Man” is one of his prophetic works. I’ve always felt it was, even when I was a young girl. I’d listen to verses like

I met a lady, she was playing

With her soldiers in the dark.

One by one she had to tell them

that her name was Joan of Arc…

and I’d feel like they were important. I didn’t foresee an election where no amount of reasons to prefer a flawed but qualified woman over a car wreck of a man could convince people to follow her. Cohen wouldn’t have foreseen it either, but he could still write poetry about it way back in 1971.

In the same song he could write about a declining world power, the end of its moral authority, with poignancy and pathos, with just

And the corners of the blueprint are ruined since they rolled

far past the stems of thumbtacks

that still throw shadows on the wood.

I took Cohen’s death hard not because as a white person from outside the country I was exercising my luxury of being able to flip the channel on my grief machine as the mood hits me. I do have that unfair luxury but it wasn’t operating for me in this instance—not in the way it may seem. I publicly mourn Leonard Cohen because enfolded within my feelings for his death are my feelings about the 2016 US election. Cohen’s work—especially the stanza I posted in public—speaks to my grief and frustration as someone caught powerless in this moment of history.

Cohen was a spiritual person. He called out hypocrisy in people who claimed to be the same—who mouthed piety while indulging in hate, prejudice, greed, and violence. He pointed out the true character of religion is not about cupcakes and work ethics but about loving the world in spite of suffering and sacrifice—about reading “from pleasant Bibles that are bound in blood and skin.” Paradoxes are inevitable and vital. Hypocrisy is not. Consider this verse from “Suzanne.”

And Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water

And he spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden tower

And when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him

He said, “All men will be sailors then, until the sea shall free them.”

This is the theme I saw in the verse I posted from “Last Year’s Man.” No one compares to god. Even when he appears to be still, or impotent, just watching–none of us compares. And this world is to be transcended and overcome. We were made to rise out of it, to be free of it even though to do so is a miracle. We have two faculties for transcendence: suffering and love. Combined together, these faculties become hope. In revisiting Cohen’s work the week he died, I have connected with my grief for American society, and also with the beginnings of my hope for it–for all of us.

And so, we sail on.

 

Carols, Angels, Babel, and Noona

babel

M.C. Escher’s “Tower of Babel”

It’s Christmas, a fine time of year to tell a story that begins in church. Recently, I was in a congregation singing “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” In the lyrics of the little-known later verses, the ones I had to peek at the hymnal to remember, the song describes the world we live in. It says, “And ever o’er [the world’s] Babel sounds, the blessed angels sing.”

Of course, “Babel” refers to a story early in the Bible about the social catastrophe of the Tower of Babel. Humanity was glitching out and needed its reset button hit–again. But instead of suffering another flood, our language was scrambled. It was the end of the world. Everyone was dry and safe but the world that existed before language was “confounded” was over.

Whether we read the Bible literally or not, the tower story reveals something about ourselves. The fact that a story like this could endure for so long and be so widely spread betrays the profundity of our sadness—maybe even our terror—at the barriers that divide us from each other. The Tower of Babel pricks at our collective longing for a world where “the whole earth [is] of one language, and of one speech.”

With great difficulty, language barriers can be overcome.  They are overcome, all the time. In many ways, this overcoming proves that our higher nature—the one allied with the Christmas carol’s “blessed angels” who see “all the weary world” at once—can rise above the “Babel sounds” of our lower, confused and tribal nature that would rather we huddle in exclusive groups, throwing rocks, registering and monitoring people whose families don’t sound like ours. But separation does not make us happy. On some level, when we’re calm and honest with ourselves, we all know this. It’s one of the oldest lessons there is.

In everyday terms, told without angels or towers, here’s what I mean.

For the past two semesters, my Chinese class partner and school bff has been a 27-year-old, world-travelling, polyglot, sweetie-pie, veteran of the South Korean navy. One morning, I jokingly referred to myself as his noona (Korean for a boy’s older sister) and the rest is history. Noona, noona, noona~~~

A few weeks ago, my husband and I were having lunch with him. English is the third of the five languages he knows and sometimes, understandably, his talk gets tangled. He stopped himself mid-sentence with a bitter, “Oh, my English!” Actually, it wasn’t so bad. I rephrased the complicated statement I assumed he’d been trying to make and repeated it to him. He didn’t reply with his voice. Instead, he smiled, put one hand over his heart, and extended his other hand across the table, toward me. I recognized it as the universal sign for, “This person knows my heart.” It was beautiful. I will remember what he looked like, sitting there with us, for as long as I have a mind that remembers anything.

Ask anyone: overcoming a language barrier takes more than flashcards and worksheets. Memorization and practice can train us to function but they won’t boost us all the way over the wall to where people really live. True understanding of anyone from outside (or, heck, from inside) our language group requires bringing that hand to the heart, sharing and connecting in sublime ways beyond vocabulary. Any barrier is best overcome by acts of love and brotherhood—noona-hood.

All of this is what I want to say when I’m asked why I am slaying myself to learn a new language. The more people we can talk to, the more people we can love. And when we put ourselves in a setting where our native language is not the dominant one, we learn to pay more attention to what people mean rather than just what they say. When we can only translate part of a communication through language alone, we learn to tune in to other cues—obvious ones we can observe with our senses like gestures, facial expressions, and non-verbal vocalizations, as well as cues we sense with our empathy, our feelings, with our spirits.

Why learn another language? Do it to for the resume, sure. But also, do it for love. How corny is that? Corny enough to be a Christmas song, one that looks forward to the day when “the whole world send back the song, which now the angels sing.”

 

 

Korean Boy-Bands and Their Feminist Sub-text

I have never actually touched an issue of Tiger Beat magazine – or anything like it.  Even though I was a teenage girl in the days of New Kids on the Block and the Corey phenomenon, I was never into the boy-idol scene.  At the time, it all just seemed totally embarrassing – totally.

But that was before I started raising boys of my own.

Years before I had any kids, I already knew I would try my best to raise them as feminists.  Since it was a decision about my own behavior, it was a promise I could keep and control.  What I couldn’t control was my kids’ genders.  All of my children turned out to be boys.  The utter lack of peer females in our family makes teaching feminism more challenging than I expected.  At the same time, living with my boys has come with some surprising lessons for me about my own feminism.  I’ve found I learn how to be a better girl by raising my boys.

But it doesn’t always happen easily.  I need help.  And sometimes it comes from unlikely places – like East Asian pop-culture.

One night, when the boys were away learning manly things, camping at a mountain lake with their father, I was left alone, wandering through the Internet when I stumbled across this.  This was Super Junior – a staple of the recent East Asian boy-band movement.  It was spectacular and surreal and staggering — thirteen young South Korean men dressed up, made up, dancing, singing and posing while I sat transfixed, half a world away.  At the time, I couldn’t understand a word of anything they said – not even their English.  But that just made the group more charming.  Where the Coreys had failed, Super Junior succeeded.  I was an instant fan – an Anglo-Ahjumma.

When my menfolk got back from the wilderness, I didn’t show them what I’d discovered right away.  I guess I was a bit embarrassed.  Eventually, I showed them anyway.  And their reactions surprised me.

Based on the boy-band trash-talk of the male peers of my youth, I expected my family to hate Super Junior.  I expected to hear echoes of the hostile jealousy of male journalists who still write scathing critiques of boy-bands – rants about not playing their own musical instruments or writing their own songs, gravely benevolent warnings about how their charm is actually a corporate tool meant to exploit the hopes of real girls.  But that wasn’t how my boys reacted at all.  Instead, they seemed just as delighted with Super Junior as I was.

After watching the “Mr. Simple” music video a few times, my husband pleased the heck out of me by announcing it was time for each of us to pick our favourite group member.  Most of our boys chose Eunhyuk.  He’s the one with his hair dyed blonde, like theirs.  He’s the lead dancer who stands at the front of the formation doing tricks.  My husband chose Siwon, the one who comes across as masculine and powerful.  And my favourite was Heechul, the one heckling the rest of the group, being careful not to be caught trying too hard.  I found out later he’s also the one most likely to perform dressed as a woman – a very pretty woman.

Even when not in drag, there is an androgynous quality to all the group members – Siwon’s formidable eyebrows notwithstanding.  Their features are clean and delicate and enhanced with plenty of guy-liner.  Their hair is long and perfect and does not grow out of anywhere but their brows and scalps.  Their outfits are tailored and generously embellished with fancy accessories.

And we all loved it.  There was no shame in our enjoyment of it – no sense of competition, no stupid homophobic self-loathing.  There was just earnest admiration for the amazing show the young men and their stylists and producers put on for us.

The conventional wisdom of social theories about boy-bands usually talks about the pretty-boys as risk-free love objects we girls can cast in fantasy rehearsals of our earliest romantic relationship scripts.  I’ve always found this interpretation kind of sad and patronizing.  There might be some truth to it but I think it misses an important point – a point my heterosexual husband and teenaged sons demonstrated for me.  I could sense it in my own completely non-sexual fascination with the flower-boys too.  We didn’t choose our favourite Super Junior members based on characteristics we’d like to find in a romantic partner.  That wasn’t it at all.  We chose our favourites based on which members had characteristics we’d most like to see in ourselves.  My sons saw themselves in the hot-shot at the front.  My husband saw himself in the self-assured masterful one.  I saw myself in the bossy sophisticate.

Maybe our rationale can be extended to other boy-band fans – even the typical fan-girl who thinks she ought to be in love with them.  Maybe, on some level, she doesn’t admire the member she’d most want to date.  Instead, she might admire the one she’d most like to become.  Apart from being some pathetic attempt to prepare themselves for romance, maybe following a boy-band lets girls try on a male role – a fabulous one.  They’re reaching past the limits of their roles as girls – roles that are usually more constrictive when they’re young than at any other time.  They’re experimenting with being someone else, someone who is a boy.

Is that what male critics of boy-bands truly fear?  Are they afraid the gorgeous androgyny of boy-bands, the generous offering of their fabulousness, opens a breach in the brotherhood?  Maybe the biggest problem some men have with boy-bands has nothing to do with creative integrity or even with jealousy.  Maybe it’s that boy-bands are too dangerously easy for girls to relate to.  They make being a boy – looking like boys look, acting like boys act, controlling what boys control — seem like a role any of us could fill.

And who would want that?

Update: After reading this, a good friend of mine, the biggest Donnie Osmond fan I know, sent me a birthday present.  I am now the owner of a copy of Tiger Beat magazine dated September 1974.  The Tampax ads are spectacular.

If My Novel Had a Soundtrack…

I had just barely signed my publishing contract this fall when my favourite radio station (it’s CBC Radio One — got a problem with that?) played this song for me. Even though the announcer didn’t introduce it by saying, “This is song is going out to Jennifer Quist. It’s the perfect accompaniment for her novel Love Letters of the Angels of Death,” I knew that was what he meant anyways.

The song is called “Angels” — and it made my skin prick when I finally found out its title was also one of the words from my title. It’s the work of the UK band, the XX.  So thanks, The XX, for blurting out in less than three minutes with one vocal track, sparse guitars, and some eclectic percussion what took me an entire novel to say.