The Bridge

I have friends on Facebook (and Twitter and Pinterest and elsewhere in the global social media village) who have dropped their last name or have created a whole new name altogether to maintain (I assume) some kind of anonymity.  Or maybe it’s more about creating a distance between the worlds that comprise our lives.  I get that if you are looking for a job, you don’t want your potential employer to see your bachelor party photos.  Or if you’ve found a new someone special, you might not want them seeing all the photos you’ve kept of your former someone special.  Or maybe you live a secret double life and no one really knows that your name is just a cover.  It could just be that you prefer the image of your life that Facebook allows you to create without binding you too tightly to actual reality.

I might not be one of the alternate-namers but I do alter my story in other ways.  I’m careful about what I say and how I say it.  I think about who might read it and how they might construe what I’m saying.  And recently that’s begun to bother me.  I happen to have been brought up in a very religious, conservative community.  We were one of those families that read the Bible every supper, attended church every Sunday (at least once, often twice), and I attended private Christian schools my entire childhood.  I could recite huge chunks of the Heidelberg Catechism and was rarely stumped in Bible trivia games.  Reaching adulthood, meeting Greg and entering into a new world of academia and urban (real urban!) life shifted my life in such profound ways that I often have trouble reconciling the past with the present.  My life exploded with new ideas and really hard-to-face challenges.  I questioned and held up to the light so much of what I had assumed to be true as a child.  And these shifts showed up in my life with a whole new set of isms – activism, feminism, socialism, environmentalism, and others.  The transition was far from smooth or steady.  It seemed to rush in on me like cave walls in an Indiana Jones movie, making me feel suffocated and terrified at times.  I battled to realize that every single thing I had assumed needed to be unassumed and worked through again.  At first I thought that meant I would always end up in a new place, with new beliefs, and new frames of reference.   But much to my surprise (and sometimes chagrin) that hasn’t always been the case.  Sometimes I end up at exactly where I was when this process began.  The truth is, I suppose, that it didn’t just start when I turned 21 – it’s a process that had as its beginning my birth and will have as its end my death.  I still fight this battle.  I still question.  I still shift.  And, it’s true, there are still places I have yet to dislodge and face.

Under my feet though is appearing a bridge. A bridge that I’m just in one small part responsible for building.  I stand here with others. Women who have had to ask really hard questions and face answers they didn’t want to hear.  Women who have felt something deep inside them that didn’t always jive with what was going down in their head.  Women who have lived through hypocrisy and misogyny and the destruction of persons but have at least once seen these met with truth, justice, and compassion.  Women who have judged and been judged and now wonder how to shrug this mantle once and for all of all that loads them down .

It’s not always a comfortable place to be, this bridge, because it hovers between worlds.  The lack of dialogue, of understanding, and of basic recognition to some extent can make the bridge feel shaky and uncertain.  When I try to explain one world to the other world, it is invariably seen as other-worldly and incomprehensible. Yet I know that these are the two worlds that hold up my bridge.  Many, many of the friends I made as a child within a firm faith community are still those I hold deepest and tightest to my heart.   I think that one of the reasons I’ve maintained close friendships with my childhood friends is that they get it.  They get that world of our childhood that those living outside just cannot understand.  Yet my day-to-day life is largely filled with friends, colleagues, fellow scholars in this second, newer world.  This place where tectonic plates moved and huge shifts transpired. It is in that world where I have been forced to question what it really means to love, what it really means to see fellow humans as equal, what it really means to stand for truth and justice.

But back to Facebook.  I double check.  Every time I post something, I double check.  Because my Facebook world is in fact its own version of a bridge, I find myself double-checking.  How will people react to a feminist rant?  How will people interpret my reference to God?  How will I be judged if I say I’m pro-choice but also that abortion makes me sadder than almost any other issue in the world?  How will people interpret my fight against Prop 8 or the Harper government’s ridiculous dismissal of the long gun registry?  How would people react if I posted a song about blessings coming in the midst of tears?

I know that a huge part of this is just about learning to feel comfortable in my own skin.  But like a wedding or funeral, Facebook is a chance for anyone who has touched your life to witness the same moment at the same time.  I could avoid Facebook.  I could hermit myself away in the world of real books and dusty library corners.  Believe me, that has enormous appeal.  But instead I choose to engage.  I choose to involve myself in social media because it does keep me connected to people, to new ideas, to friendships.   Why then the concern with being judged?  Do I surround myself with judgmental people?  Do I really think those who are my dearest friends don’t already know this about me?  That they don’t already roll their eyes when I start in on Harper?  That they still love me and accept me even though I live life out on a bridge?

Five years ago I couldn’t have written these words because this very idea terrified me.  I thought it had to be one world or the other.  Without me realizing it, a peace has settled where frantic questioning used to terrorize me.  And I know I’m going to be okay here out on the bridge.  Now I’ve made the decision to try to raise my kids on this bridge.  I will take them to church and teach them the stories of my faith, albeit in a very different way than I was taught these things.  I will also read Simone de Beauvoir to them and challenge them to understand the construction of gender, of nation, of race, of “normal”, and of success.  Fortunately, there are others who walk along beside me, both today and in the past.  I have hope that this bridge will one day be a rightful world of its own.

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Evelyn Reid Kirkland

When I was in grade twelve, my grandmother lived in a retirement home just four blocks away from my high school.

Our branch of the family moved four hours away from her when I was born so my time with her revolved around holidays, weekend visits, and far too often it seemed, funerals.  I also happened to be her youngest grandchild and I suspect I probably knew her the least of all eight grandchildren.  Add to it the whole aging process — I was just a wee thing when she was out and about in the yard gardening or up to her ears baking pies or canning vegetables in her kitchen.  Most of my memories of her were registered and stored through a young child’s eyes and were made at a time when her mind was quick but her body had already begun to slow down. I spent weekends at their house – sometimes on my own and sometimes with my brother. I remember being allowed to pull the carrots out of the ground just before dinner.  I remember walking through their roses, not understanding how different colour roses needed different kinds of care.  I remember swimming in their neighbour’s pool and shelling peas on their back screened-in porch.  I remember seeing the pictures of my dad as a kid and trying desperately hard to imagine what he must have been like as a boy.  And I remember that the roast beef she would invariably serve on Sunday night would be accompanied by horseradish.   My time in her house wasn’t always easy.  By the time I could realize what was going on, my grandfather was fairly sick and relatively incapacitated.  She worked hard to keep up with his needs and though I never realized it at the time, I was often lonely there.

Some years after my grandfather died, it was determined that she could no longer take care of herself, the house, and the garden.  My dad drove down to pick her up and she moved to Belleville.  I recall finding it so hard to wrap my head around this transition.  She had lived for so many years in that house.  She had furniture she loved, she had photographs, and blankets and Bumpa’s old radio in the spare bedroom (once upon a time my Dad’s bedroom).  She had to leave her garden (the vegetables were more precious to her than the roses, I always thought!)  And her spoons that hung in the dining room.  She had spent a lifetime collecting those spoons yet I’m quite sure those spoons never made the move with her.  All her possessions were reduced to a few boxes worth.  Her clothes, her favourite photos, and her memories.  I found the whole idea really disturbing.  And I wondered if she did too.  I didn’t know how to ask her.

Teenage angst can sometimes leave you feeling suffocated.  I was no exception.  There were some seriously messed up moments in high school.  When gossip and envy and love and heartbreak would weigh me down, I looked for a place to be quiet, to be undisturbed, to be peaceful.  But though I wanted to run away from the teenagers, I didn’t want to be alone.  And so I confess that my first clandestine visit to my grandmother was for strictly selfish reasons.  I ditched Calculus to go sit with her on a Thursday afternoon.  On my walk over there, eyes full of tears, I thought through the implications of this act.  I didn’t mind missing class but I didn’t want anyone to know where I had gone.  And I knew my dad would be there to visit later on as he did every night after work.  That presented several potential problems.  First, would my grandmother keep my secret?  Second,  would he see my name in the sign-in register?  Third, could I be sure to get out before he arrived?  The second and third were in my control and so I signed in with a slightly modified name and made sure to keep an eye on the clock.  The first dilemma, I realized as I walked into her room, was moot.  She could no longer keep hours, days, nights, weeks, years straight.  If she happened to remember that I had visited and mentioned something to my dad, I had little doubt that he would attribute it to her confusion.

And so the secret visits began.  I’m not sure how many there were to tell the truth.  More than ten, fewer than twenty.  Sometimes I was ditching class.  Other times I went during legitimate breaks like lunch and spares.  We would sit there together, rarely saying any words at all.  Sometimes she slept through the entire hour.  I would sit beside her in one of the big arm chairs she had in her room.  And just be quiet.  Sometimes I even looked at my homework, reading the next chapter in my novel for English class.  And only very rarely would she talk to me.  She would speak very slowly, telling me about her boys, Kent and Doug, and what they were up to.  She talked to each of them every day.  Sometimes I heard the stories more than once in that same hour.  Sometimes I heard only parts of stories before she fell off to sleep again.  Sometimes she seemed much more interested in the weather, asking me how cold it was outside.  But those hours were very precious.  Beyond what I could understand at the time.

To this day, I’ve never told another living soul about these visits.  And I’m not sure why I’m telling them now.