Cannery Row Magazine
A Literary Journal . . . with Benefits
One of Those Days
by John Jantunen
I arrived at the Integrated Care Hub just before two in the afternoon, as I did every Friday since I’d become a harm reduction worker at Kingston’s safe injection site/homeless shelter. As usual, there were a couple of people sitting on the bench next to the southern entrance and a few others on the row of irregularly shaped granite rocks that run perpendicular to the building. All of them were smoking cigarettes and chatting while they drank from the cups of tea that the Hub’s kitchen doled out - as ubiquitous as the needles, glass pipes and other harm reduction supplies we provided 24/7 through the kitchen vestibule's window.
I’d barely dismounted my vintage Gary Fisher Wahoo mountain bike when one of the regulars - a mid-fifties man whose dapper style of dress and silver mane of slicked back hair lends him the appearance of an aging movie star - greeted me with, “Did you hear about J.?”
“I heard he's missing,” I answered. Five days earlier, one of my fellow workers had sounded the alarm by way of this message on our team’s Slack: “Has anyone seen J. lately? No one's laid eyes on him since the day before yesterday so 48 hours with no eyes on him. Becoming concerned.”
Another staff member replied, “Saw him yesterday morning walking on Rideau St. right next to the Hub". Two days later, a third staff shared a post on Facebook from the missing man’s sister in which she’d asked anyone who saw J. to tell him to call her. This morning, his sister’s Facebook post had been deleted and I was pretty sure that could only mean one thing: J. had been found. I hoped, of course, that he’d been found alive and well but, having worked at the Hub for the past six months, I was keenly aware of just how fine the line between life and death was for so many of the people who access our services. That his sister’s post had simply been deleted, rather than edited to announce that her brother had finally checked in with a family member, didn’t exactly bode well in his favour.
“He was found last night in his tent,” the man informed me.
“He okay?” I asked, still hoping for the best.
Shaking my head, I swore, “Fuck” through gritted teeth, more an expression of utter defeat than a curse. And that's what I was feeling right then: an overwhelming sense that if we couldn’t even help such an amicable, intelligent and resourceful young man as J. had proven himself to be, then what the hell good were we doing here anyway?
Matters of confidentiality and a respect for basic human dignity preclude me from saying much about J. beyond that he was universally liked by Hub staff and residents alike. I’d never once heard anyone say a disparaging word about him - a distinct rarity in a world were desperation can so easily sow the seeds of discord between even the closest of kin.
Though he’d grown up in Kingston, he’d always struck me as being a country boy at heart and chatting with him at work came as easily as jawing with a neighbour over the fence in my hometown of Bracebridge. Sometimes, I’d run into him cruising around town on his bike when I went on a late night walk trying to settle my mind after work.
The last time had only been a few weeks previous. It was a Tuesday, meaning the neighbourhood sidewalks were lined with garbage cans and recycling containers for collection the next morning. Moments earlier, I’d found a couple of tires amidst the refuse on Clergy Street which, I was pretty sure, would fit Tanja’s bike, her rear tire having exploded with a Pop! almost as loud as a gun shot during a recent excursion. I was only a few blocks from home when J. pedalled past. During my onboarding at the Hub, I’d been advised that, when running into a 'client' in the community, I was to wait for them to address me first. This, the reasoning went, allowed them to maintain a certain degree of agency while also ensuring that I wasn’t invading their privacy which is a limited commodity, at best, for many of the people who access our services.
Whenever we met outside work, J. always greeted me with a sprightly smile and a congenial, “Hey John”, and I wasn’t surprise that he did so this time as well.
“Hey there, J.,” I answered. “How’s it going?”
“Oh, you know,” he said, turning his bike around and circling back towards me. It’s what he often replied when I greeted him at work - a response I attributed to the fact that he was in constant pain from a medical condition that could have easily been corrected by surgery and, quite frankly, probably would have been already if he wasn’t an unhoused substance user living at the Hub.
“Lots of good stuff out there tonight,” I offered, assuming J. was out scavenging. Holding up the two bike tires, I added “Found these for my partner’s bike. She blew a tire a couple weeks ago and I keep forgetting to get a new one.”
“Saved me forty bucks anyways.”
“Can’t beat that.”
“You’re telling me.” We chatted for the remainder of the block while he looped his bike in a series of figure eights, though I can’t exactly remember about what. Probably we spoke about similar mishaps we’d both had while out riding our bikes, for we’d often engage in such idle chitchat while I was on a smoke break or had a few moments to spare between doling out harm reduction supplies, food, tea or coffee from the small alcove that served as the Hub’s kitchen. I do, however, remember how the conversation finished.
Clergy Street ends at Skeleton Park, a densely treed greenspace replete with the requisite play structure, splash pad and basketball court which, having served as the city’s primary burial ground up until 1850, lends our neighbourhood its nickname. Located only a couple of blocks from the two-story brick house we rent, the shortest way home was straight through the park; though, to be completely honest, I knew that I’d be taking a slightly more circuitous route home that evening as I always did when I ran into one of the Hub’s residents while out and about in the neighbourhood, worried they might follow me and find out where I lived.
It’s not that I didn’t trust J. but, during my onboarding, I’d been warned about disclosing personal details to the people for whom we provided services. Phone numbers and addresses are foremost among those and 'better safe than sorry' is a common refrain when such matters are discussed amongst staff. And, even though I was almost certain that no ill would arise from J. finding out where I lived, the potential risks inherent in that almost meant that, by necessity, 'better safe than sorry' has become a guiding principle; as applicable off shift as on.
It’s possible that he sensed a certain reticence in my demeanour as we approached the park for, when we’d come to the crosswalk at the end of Clergy, he commented, “It must be weird running into people from the Hub outside of work.”
“Sometimes,” I replied, for that much was true, “but it’s never weird running into you.” That was also true notwithstanding, of course, the circuitous route I’d be taking home. That earned me another smile. Then, turning his bike right and setting off down York Street in the opposite direction I’d be taking, he gave me a wave and wished me a good night.
“You have yourself a good night too,” I called after him, already feeling foolish for turning left to take the long way home, telling myself it wasn’t really necessary even as I knew that, in fact, it most certainly was; if only for my own peace of mind.
Moral Injury is the blanket term used among health care professionals to describe instances whereby “morally injurious events threaten one’s deeply held beliefs and trust”. (Moral injury: the effect on mental health and implications for treatment, Victoria Williamson et al., The Lancet, March 17, 2021.) Theft, for example, is rampant among residents at the Hub as well as in the adjacent encampment bordering Belle Park, and it’s understood among staff that leaving, say, one’s phone unattended for even a few seconds might result in someone absconding with it. My decision to take the long way home that night was, admittedly, a rather mild symptom, stemming from the kinds of moral injuries I experience regularly at work - though, I would argue, it’s far from an insignificant one. Similar to the way deeply traumatic events result in PTSD, the negative effects caused by instances of moral injury are cumulative.
Going a few blocks out of my way to ensure that my home's location doesn’t become public knowledge among the people I serve might not seem much but I am, by nature, a trusting person who has also spent more than a decade writing novels with an aim of dispelling the stigmatism surrounding poverty in this country. So it’s hard to overstate just how emotionally taxing it is for me to be forced to mistrust, implicitly, the people I’ve been tasked with supporting, simply because they happen to be the most impoverished members of our community.
That I’ve come to care a great deal for many of the people who live in and around the Hub only adds to the cognitive and ethical dissonance stemming from such moral injuries. After all, having teetered precariously close to homelessness on multiple occasions myself - both alone and with a family - it’s hard not to view many of the people who live at the Hub as a sort of flip-side of myself had my own life taken a slightly different turn. I also see in some a reflection of my younger sister who, during her formative years, shared experiences similar to many of the young women at the Hub, though she was lucky enough to avoid incarceration and its lifelong effects, which have marked so many of their lives. Likewise, quite a few of the young men who come to the Hub tell personal stories that are a mirror reflection of the ones my oldest son has told me about the years spent in foster care and as a habitual cocaine user during his twenties while living on Vancouver's East Side.
So when I say I have come to care about these people, what I really mean is that I have come to feel, if not exactly a familial, then at least a kind of spiritual kinship with them. One can imagine then how vexing it’s become that I’m unable to extend them the same benefit of the doubt as I would to, in the very least, any member of the housed public in general.
Of course, this is merely one of the milder impacts of moral injury. Most damning are the feelings of abject helplessness when confronted with the acts of, all-too-often, horrific violence perpetrated against the unhoused members in our community. It's disingenuous at best, then, that lawyers for the City of Kingston would use this very real violence as their primary argument when seeking the Superior Court’s sanction to clear the encampment, suggesting that this violence poses a danger to the residents in the area surrounding the Hub, when it's really serial predators within the housed community who pose a much greater threat to encampment residents than the unhoused campers do to me or my neighbours. At worst it’s a blatant, and decidedly self-serving, lie and if the above-mentioned court proceedings have accomplished anything, it’s to prove just how far the City is willing to go to propagate that lie.
During his opening statements, the lawyer representing the City of Kingston claimed that members of the Kingston police were afraid to come to the Hub, which is why they supposedly never drop in unless called. The City alleged as well that when the fire department responds to an emergency at the Hub, its crews are equipped with stab-proof vests - the only location in the city where they deem such a precaution necessary. Such 'revelations' were contained in sworn affidavits from higher-ups within our emergency services and, while unquestionably compelling, both are pure fabrications. Police officers routinely come, uninvited, to the Hub to execute warrants or to search for missing persons and if any of them are afraid, they certainly do a damned fine job at hiding it, while not a single staff I’ve spoken with has ever seen a firefighter outfitted with a stab-proof vest.
To anyone with even a cursory understanding of the dynamics at play when it comes to stigmatizing unhoused populations, it’s clear that such misinformation is merely being spread to distract from an inescapable truth: that if the mayor and his cabal of developers do succeed in clearing the encampment, it will most certainly end up costing lives. Unhoused drug users will be distanced from the safe injection site located at the Hub - leading to more drug poisoning deaths - and the most vulnerable of our clients will be dispersed into the greater community, which makes them even easier prey for those committing violent acts against them in the first place.
The problem is further compounded by two factors: anyone speaking openly and honestly of the violence perpetrated against the people who access our services runs the risk of lending credibility to the City’s legal argument of the physical dangers inherent in the camp. Moreover, many of the people experiencing harm at the hands of these predators have also been brutalized or, in the very least, further marginalized by a criminal 'justice' system which, as we all know, has an abysmal record when it comes to investigating instances of sexual assault and/or domestic violence and has actively employed this country’s draconian drug laws to criminalize the most marginalized people in Canada for over a century. With recourse to the law almost non-existence for poor people in this country - an especially dire situation when it comes to unhoused substance users - it’s effectively meant that these violent predators can operate with impunity.
Such complacencies have become so egregious that many of us who work with unhoused substance users can’t help but feel that the members of our police services tacitly condone such predatory behavior. Hardly a surprise, perhaps, since it’s become well documented of late that many of those trusted to 'Serve and Protect' the general citizenry have themselves openly engaged in violent, targeted, predatory behaviors against our homeless and, hence, most vulnerable population in Canada.
Frequently overwhelmed by feelings of abject helplessness in the face of all this despair does, of course, take its toll. For me, it’s manifested more and more of late as a bristling at the very mention of 'hope' itself. In my darker moments, I’ve often wondered whether hope, as it’s become fashionable for so many journalists, authors and activists alike to espouse, isn’t merely a new, and particularly pernicious, form of denial.
In the afterword of Robyn Maynard and Lean Betasamosake’s book Rehearsals For Living, American historian Robin D.G. Kelley frames this denial thusly: “A change is going to come but it could just as easily take the form of more violence, accelerating the inexorable descent into planetary extinction. Yet we are saddled with a 'woke' white liberal belief that this world is worth saving, and the very communities on the frontlines of the catastrophe will save the planet . . . a crisis created by a parasitic class whose power was built on genocide, land theft, slavery, white supremacy . . . and unbridled resource extraction.”
Those on the front lines of the unfolding catastrophe who have to bear daily witness to its human costs - while all-too-aware that any changes our elected officials are inclined to propose will only lead to more violence, more suffering, more despair - are uniquely positioned to recognize the underlying truth of these words better than most: that nurturing genuine hope, by necessity, requires a radical dismantling of the ideological constraints which have brought us to this precipice in the first place.
The foremost of these constraints, as they relate to the eradication of systemic poverty, is the deeply entrenched belief that a person's value is determined solely on the basis of their socio-economic status. Such classism is so deeply entrenched in Canadian society, it’s effectively meant that when it comes to discussing matters concerning poverty in this country, poor people themselves have been almost entirely excluded - one might even say excised - from the conversation.
In point of fact, when the Kingston Writers' Festival hosted a panel discussion 'On Class' this year, the programmers didn’t feel the need to include a single practicing author who could be considered of low income. Having written extensively about poverty throughout all seven of my published novels as well as within the pages of this magazine, while also having been denied participation in all three of the previous festivals, it was a rather conspicuous omission in my mind and I couldn’t help but imagine the public shaming which would have occurred had, let's say, the same festival facilitated a discussion on matters pertaining to Indigenous, Black or LGBTQ2+ culture without inviting a single participant from their respective communities.
But then, poverty continues to be perceived solely as a liability and while the potentates overseeing late-stage capitalism - and the vast majority of our citizenry - would label any who’d suggest otherwise as crazy or worse, it’s also eminently clear that it doesn’t have to be this way.
Cynicism, after all, arose as a school of thought in protest against the excesses practiced by rulers in Ancient Greece through which its adherents rejected conventional desires for wealth, power and glory and, unlike modern philosophers, its practitioners actually chose to live by their principles instead of just talking about them.
It’s hardly surprising then that the term 'cynicism' itself has become imbued with such a negative connotation, even as Cynicism, the philosophy, offers us a clear path forward if we are to have any hope of avoiding the seemingly inexorable. What that path might look like, and where it might lead us, is a matter of pure speculation, but I am certain of at least one thing: Kingston’s Integrated Care Hub offers us a window into a possible future in which we - as a city, province and nation - have chosen compassion as our primary virtue, rather than continuing to elevate greed beyond even its current, exalted position.
That the Hub faces such fierce opposition, and even hostility, from city officials and from so many members of the general public is an all-too-troubling - and telling - sign that, as a society, we are doubling down with the business-as-usual model which has both brought us to this impasse in the first place and is also shepherding us into an even grimmer future.
Being constantly reminded that we, as harm reduction workers, are fighting a Sisyphean struggle in our efforts to merely stand up for the values Canadians pretend to hold so dear, has had almost as dire an effect on my own mental health as has the aforementioned helplessness in the face of the violence being perpetrated against the people who live in and around the Hub. Like many of my fellow staff, I’ve been feeling more and more that the task ahead of us is an impossible one - mainly for a distinct lack of the political will required if Canadians are to truly blaze a new path ahead.
The only foreseeable outcome for any individual who's drawn to engage in such life-affirming work is complete and total burnout, the inevitable endgame being a descent into unemployability which is, so often, a precursor to homelessness itself.
All this is to say that when, on October 12th , I saw one of our managers post a message on Slack offering free tickets to Cost Of Compassion, “An evening looking at the effects of compassion fatigue and empathetic strain”, I was more than a little intrigued. In the very least, I told myself, a light dinner and refreshments would be served and, who knows, maybe I'd even learn something.
The event took place the following day at the Donald Gordon Hotel and Conference Centre, a two- story limestone building situated on the campus of Queen’s University. At the check-in station, I was provided with the ubiquitous name tag sticker. After writing JOHN on it, I added ICH below because I wanted to show a little of - what ICH staff commonly refer to as - 'Hub Love'. Besides, I thought it might serve as an icebreaker during the Meet and Greet taking place in the hotel’s lounge.
That none of the dozen or so health services professionals in the bar took the bait, or really even acknowledged my existence, pretty much set the tone for the entire evening. It also didn't help matters that I was the only one from the Hub in attendance and, when the presentation convened in one of the conference rooms, I found myself sitting alone at a table along the far wall while lively conversations amongst attendees sharing the other tables burbled all around me.
The headliner for the evening was Francoise Mathieu. The promotional material I’d been provided with described her as a former front-line mental healthcare provider and the current Executive Director of TEND, an organization which offers consultations and training to professionals on topics related to secondary trauma, empathetic strain, burnout and organizational health. While a thoroughly engaging speaker, I found her overly jocular approach to the material a trifle wearing at times and when she recounted a story about a couple of police officers who’d stood in the back of a previous presentation, grim-faced and with their arms crossed, I suspected she told the anecdote in reference to how conspicuously alone I was sitting with my own arms crossed and my expression stony and unyielding.
But learn something I did and, the next day, I summarized my findings for my fellow employees in a Slack post: "My main takeaway from last night’s presentation was that 'burnout is primarily a system level problem driven by excess job demands and inadequate resources and support, not an individual problem triggered by personal limitations.' This differs from secondary trauma stress, also known as vicarious trauma, which is 'the possible impact of an individual being continually exposed to other people’s stories or experiences of trauma and violence.' Recognizing this distinction MUST be the first step in addressing the root causes of both problems . . ."
Given how all mental health resources at the disposal of harm reduction workers are geared towards alleviating vicarious trauma - mainly through counselling - I was quite discouraged that so little mention was made on how to correct the far more debilitating culture of burnout due to the systemic shortcomings in one's work environment.
Mind, I was hardly surprised. It was mainly administrators in attendance and nothing’s more of a buzzkill than having a speaker you paid fifty dollars to see 'wasting' an hour of your valuable time explaining how it’s you, and the work culture you have created that are supposedly the real problem. The only allusion to a solution for the burnout endemic within our health services at all were the very last words of the talking points projected on a screen behind the speaker’s podium: “Collective Action”. Disclosed as a mere afterthought, it felt, as if Francoise herself was reluctant to even entertain such a 'radical' concept and, given her audience, I can well understand her concern.
Still, by so diminishing the very notion of 'collective action', it made the whole exercise feel mainly like just another lost opportunity and a further sign that those in leadership positions within our healthcare system aren’t yet anywhere near ready to implement the kinds of wide-ranging changes desperately needed if we are ever going to genuinely transform our health services.
Regardless, I’ll concede that I did walk out of the presentation feeling a certain lightness in my step, largely because of what the presenter who came on before Francoise Mathieu had said. Speaking of her own challenges with addiction and mental health issues, Robin Robertson, an administrative assistant for the Mental Health and Addictions Care Program at the Kingston Health Services Centre, spoke passionately of her experience combating moral injury by performing radical acts of compassion and celebrating the small victories which, right across the harm reduction spectrum, do happen every single day. Her words reminded me precisely of the reasons I had pursued work at the Integrated Care Hub after I’d answered a callout on Facebook for firewood the previous February, renting a U-Haul truck and transporting three loads of skids from Leon’s to the Hub so its residents might have some means to keep warm during last winter’s harshest month. It was my first real contact with the Hub and the work they were doing there impressed me to such a degree that when, some weeks later, I learned they were hiring, I hammered out a cover letter the very same day.
Performing radical of acts of compassion and celebrating the small victories that do happen at the Hub became my daily bread and made those first few months some of the most exciting, and satisfying, in my entire working life. It was inevitable, Robin assured us, that one would feel a deep level of helplessness in the face of all the misery and despair we witnessed during our work there, but simply having Robin validate the lessons I’d gleaned on my own provided my flagging resolve with a much needed boost.
On the day I found out that J. had died alone in his tent from a suspected drug poisoning, I was more in need of a boost than ever. Radical acts of compassion take many forms at the Hub. They can be as small as taking a moment out of a busy day to scrounge up a change of clean clothes for a person in need or just listening to someone who’s having a particularly rough time.
Towards the end of my shift, the opportunity would present itself to do both in the form of a young man, deep in psychosis, who’d taken up residence outside the bathroom door at the drop-in centre. My main job manning the bathroom station is to perform five-minutes checks to guard against the possibility of a fatal drug poisoning while residents are doing their business inside and I usually relish the chance to engage in the lively discussions which often arise while people are waiting to use the facilities.
That night though, J.'s death had created a deeply sombre mood at the drop-in and its usual hustle and bustle had been replaced by the subdued atmosphere of a wake for a man who, beloved by all, had died far too soon. The quiet was broken sometime shortly after eight by the young man in question, yelling just outside the bathroom door. When I investigated, I found he was barefoot and naked to the waist and screaming an endless litany of angry gibberish at any and all passersby. Seeing the look of concern on my face, another resident told me that the man was okay.
“I know him,” the client assured me. “He won’t hurt anyone.”
Another resident asked me if there were any shoes around and maybe a shirt. Earlier that day, a volunteer from The Katarokwi Union Of Tenants, a local social justice organization, had dropped off several pairs of runners. I’d put them in the office and, after retrieving a pair, scrounged up a light sweater from one of the black garbage bags filled with donated clothes that were piled against the staff lockers.
The man in psychosis rejected the clothes with the ferocity of a badger backed into a corner and so I offered him one of the cheap smokes I purchase by the bag at the nearby Tyendinaga Reserve just for clients of the Hub. This he did accept. The man was sweating profusely, a common side effect of methamphetamine use, so I left him outside and hastened to get him a glass of water. When I returned, the man was at least wearing the sweater and he responded with a hug to the proffered water, thanking me profusely. I checked in on him regularly over the next hour, offering him cups of tea and cigarettes and spending a few minutes simply listening to him when I could find the time.
During our conversation he admitted to not using meth all that much but being quite partial to smoking weed. Earlier that shift, another regular had pressed a small bud of marijuana into my hand after I’d given her a couple of smokes. I figured it might help calm the young man down a bit and went to retrieve it from my locker. I then grabbed one of the straight glass tubes used mostly for smoking fentanyl and added to it a screen so he could use it as a pipe. He was, again, profuse in his thanks and, over the next hour or so of my shift, he calmed down considerably.
After our team’s debrief in the office, I checked in on him one last time as I was leaving on my bike. He thanked me again, this time for being so nice, and I replied that I was just glad he was feeling better.
“Are your eyes blue?” he then asked me, somewhat anomalously. I answered they were. “Mine our brown,” he said. “The colour of shit. It’s because I'm filled with shit.”
Leaning close, I looked him straight in the eye and, even though in the dark I couldn’t see anything but two black pits, I offered, “No man. Your eyes are chestnut.”
“Yeah, man. They’re chestnut.”
“Chestnut, yeah,” he said with a sort of subdued reverence before his face broke into a grin as warm and welcoming as the one J. would often greet me with whenever we crossed paths.
“You have a good night,” I said, mounting my bike. As I pedalled off, the man called after me, with genuine aplomb, “You have a good night too, John!”. It was a minor victory in the grand scheme of things for sure, but it was enough to have me smiling the whole way home and, after a day such as this, having any reason to smile at all seemed nothing short of a miracle.
Ode to Nikola
by Craig Matheson
Born within a village, a Croatian mountain range,
Ended out in New York but pennies to his name.
It was 1884 — Man of Peace heads west,
The more souls he sought to help — trickier the test.
He imagined a world where his inventions could aid
to supply enough energy to end war, he prayed.
Not so taken by wealth’s ways . . . rich contracts he destroyed
to help George Westinghouse stay many people employed.
Once landed in the U.S., with bright Edison he met,
Thomas offered the man work, Nikola thus seen a threat;
Calculated as ‘the nemesis’, was kept close for tabs,
on Tesla’s deft discovery, fire burned down his labs.
Two inventors clashed certainly on which current was best:
Tesla's AC . . . or . . . Edison’s DC above the rest.
Thomas demonstrated the AC as a cold killer,
yet his DC won out as the electric chair chiller!
In the end it was Tesla answering social calls,
his AC system pulled power from Niagara Falls.
Thomas was beyond hurt, Nikola died in his eyes,
like Freud hated Jung, Tesla was held in great despise.
Westinghouse trusted Nikola whereas some sensed naught,
Tesla returned favour when George was in a tight spot.
Westinghouse Electric ergo survived to rebound;
Tesla's selfless way was mocked ‘financially unsound’.
It's been said he was born on a stormy summer night,
A current through the air may've charged him with good fight.
His mother too displayed a unique knack for invention,
Her son sought not to make machines for war, but prevention.
His father - a priest - advised some on a loving God,
His giant gizmos told of no carbon, soot or smog.
Yet, in the wrong hands even a hammer can take life,
but does that mean don’t slice bread for sharpness to a knife?
The history of this world, so riddled with destruction,
He said Einstein's fission was unnatural by deduction;
Nikola warned to split atoms tears holes in natural law,
whereas the Sun’s fusion combines ‘em for tempering thaw.
J.P. Morgan - in the flesh - banked big interest in both,
Thomas-n-Tesla were signed by his Money Mastered growth.
Morgan held sick sway to make or break such an image,
Tesla was spun hence ‘Dark Evil from foreign village’.
Alas, with much dejection Nikola adapted to the world,
His hails for higher energy had elites whipped up in a swirl.
Regardless of real heartbreak, Tesla earned patents old in age;
passing by 1943 — 86 years for the seen stage.
Ultimately, the media sparked folks to let him down,
Therein, reporters were paid to write him off as a clown.
So - seeking balance - he embraced 'simpler mind' in a bird,
less grand socially than tween humans . . . which can get absurd.
As for Tesla’s Elon Musk, more fawned over by the news,
To obtain Pentagon deals seems sings opposite to him the blues.
This ‘spacey’ military contractor — a.k.a. Mr. “X”,
the more possessed to profit the more mass struggle there to vex.
While his cars may run clean, their driving force makes a real mess,
Cobalt mines in Africa —fiendish foul if a social test.
Them batteries need minerals which starved kids dig to scour,
Long way from most’s sight . . . the full story’s more sad-n-dour.
Will the real Tesla please stand up and offer us a bow!
(or) is there too much trauma from the carbon-farting cow?
Does known-Earth soon meet an end if not more In Musk We Trust?!
Perhaps Nikola better shunted electrifying lust.
Miss Alice’s Assignment
by Cheryl Romo
At the tender age of eight, I'd already become quite serious about my education. By that time I was reading books, tutoring younger students, had my own library card and began writing stories to entertain my friends with. I entered the fourth grade in the high hopes of, some day, becoming a professional writer.
That year, unbeknownst to me, a nightmare would arrive in the form of Miss Alice, my new English instructor.
Miss Alice was an out-of-the-ordinary contradiction for an elementary school teacher. She had a habit of forgetting what lessons we were learning and, over time, consistently lost our homework assignments. A decidedly curvy woman, she favoured bright-red lipstick that glistened like Vaseline. Her auburn hair, streaked with silver and purple, looked as if it rarely encountered the services of a brush and her green eyes always appeared bloodshot.
In all my young life I’d never seen anything quite like Miss Alice’s voluptuous breasts - at least not unless you count the field trip to a dairy farm with my Brownie Troop where we observed cows being milked. On top of that, she tended to favor low-cut nylon dresses that scandalously hinted at a lack of undergarments and left little to the imagination. With childish curiosity I noticed that she seemed to enjoy bending over in front of my immature male classmates. The boys would giggle and snort rather disrespectfully behind her back as she paced around the classroom - a behaviour I scoffed at as a sign of moral weakness on their part.
One day well into the second term, Miss Alice announced to the class that we were having a penmanship contest. She instructed us to write our names and addresses on white index cards, making sure to execute our task with the utmost care and attention to detail. The following morning I was called into her 'office', a cubbyhole at the back of the classroom. Miss Alice informed me with an indulgent smile that my writing skills far surpassed those of her other students and I had won the contest by a mile.
“Congratulations! I’ve selected you for an important assignment,” she announced, then her voice dropped to a secretive whisper. “You must tell no one about this, it has to stay just between us. And, as a bonus, you won't be asked to do any other schoolwork while you’re busy with this.” Flattered by the compliment, I followed her to a desk next to her office. There, spread out on a large table, were stacks of blue cardboard boxes and lists of names and addresses. This turned out to be my 'secret' assignment.
For the next several weeks as the school year neared its end, I would sit alone at that table feeling like a condemned criminal sentenced to forced labour while addressing hundreds of invitations to my teacher’s upcoming June wedding. My hopes of a future career as a writer started to feel like a pipedream as, day in and day out, I faced a task so mind-numbingly monotonous, it made even less sense than dusting underneath my grandmother’s giant mahogany dining table every Saturday morning.
At the end of each school day, Miss Alice would stand behind me as she examined my handiwork, the cloying scent of her perfume stifling the air and making me sniffle. Then she'd collect her completed blue boxes, on occasion tipping me with a piece of chocolate mint candy when she was particularly pleased with the results of my labour. It was truly a wonder that I survived the fourth grade without completely losing my mind. Drifting along on daydreams of spending the entire summer vacation reading at the public library proved my only mental salvation. I was, after all, an introverted nerd who, as the years passed, would spend much of her time bent over a keyboard.
As my summer vacation neared its end, I fervently hoped that Miss Alice’s lesson had ended for good and I would finally be allowed to resume my intellectual education. Life just had to be different. As I arrived on the first day of school with my notebooks and a new Mickey Mouse lunch pail in hand, I was quite startled, then, to find myself summoned to the principal’s office. It was my first time to ever enter this den of iniquity where - I’d heard it rumoured - badly behaved students were paddled on their behinds by the man-in-charge. I trembled with fear, wondering what I’d done wrong to incur such cruel punishment.
Much to my surprise however, the tall man behind the wooden desk regarded me with grave but kind eyes as he asked me to take a seat. “I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but I thought you might want to know. Sadly, your fourth grade teacher, Miss Alice, has passed away over the summer holidays.”
I had no idea how to respond to this - obviously grievous - turn of events, having had no personal experience with death other than the time my dog was hit by a car and a woman brought him back to our home wrapped in an old blanket. I had loved my dog very much and mourned his passing deeply - much unlike the conflicted feelings I harboured for a teacher who had managed to steal a good chunk of my precious education for her own, selfish purposes.
The principal went on to explain that, after having returned from their honeymoon, Miss Alice’s husband had inexplicably shot her to death before turning the gun on himself.
“You were one of her favourite students and I wanted to be the first to tell you,” he said. “I knew you’d be upset at losing her so suddenly.” My head was spinning and I had to sit down for a moment. The principal asked if I was all right and offered to have one of the teachers take me home or get my parents to pick me up. I politely declined and walked out of his office, aware that what I was thinking right then had to be a grave sin - completely inappropriate in the face of such tragedy.
Although I’d never seen a dead human being before, I mentally envisioned and scripted the following scene in gory detail: Miss Alice limply reclining on a bed in a blue silk kimono with one of her big breasts escaping its folds and blood trickling from the right side of her ruby-red mouth onto the white satin sheets. Her husband, a handsome rake with a black mustache, using his last strength to throw himself dramatically over Miss Alice’s chubby legs, sighing a final farewell on his dying breath. The gun, still smoking, next to an empty champagne bottle straight out of a scene from my grandfather’s 'True Detective' magazines.
All I could conceive of in my young, somewhat naive mind was the potential for great story material. Hence, my faith in my career path had been restored, leaving no doubt that, one day, I would become an accomplished writer.
by CJ Jackson
When in doubt, when the troubles pour down like rain, when you reach the end of your rope, and you no longer know what to say, how to face another day, how to deal with one more change.
Let your feet find a quiet trail, a path away from the noise, a wooded forest, a deserted beach, turn off the cellphone, turn down the world, because you are twirling too fast & everything seems a blur.
In this space, away from the mass of humanity, in the tranquil serenity of nature, breathe deep, in and out, focus on the lungs that feed the trees, as they in turn grant the same, feel the symmetry, the connection to the land.
We are not just meant to go, to do and to see, we are also meant to just BE. It may seem difficult at first, as the mind is a clutter, with one thought or another. That’s ok, we are prone to wander; don’t you know it? Let each one go, with the lightest of touch. Like the stroke of a butterfly’s wings, it doesn’t have to be that tough.
When you seep deep into a space where flowers bloom, snails and ladybugs catch your eyes, suddenly seeing so much more. Tiny universes within a microcosm of living things in this place. Colors seem brighter, smell crisper, the very air is fresher, and the dappled sunlight is as light as a baby's first kiss.
Refresh, let the peace wash over you like a waterfall, trickling over your head, sparkling and clear down through the heart, realigning your body with its pure, sacred art. Let the stress drip off your fingertips, slide off your toes, flowing into Mother Earth. Don’t worry, she knows what to do, just honor her and the Creator for being steady and true.
Let the roots of your soul reach down through the soil and the sand, ground yourself and then reach up to the skies, with praise and wonder, once again ready to restart. You cannot go under, every journey has a beginning, an end, yet it is what’s in the middle where we learn not to break . . . but just to bend.
Far From the Maddening Crowd
Whooo goes there...
Peak of Solitude
Blue Skies (R.I.P. Les)
The Calm Before...
The Cookie Deed
by Rebecca Kramer
Doing my laundry costs me $40.00 a trip in North Bay: $10.00 cab fare there, $20.00 laundry, and $10 cab fare back. Over time, I have managed to collect enough clothing to only pay a visit to the laundromat every three months.
One day, before heading out to take care of my laundry, I noticed on my web map that a new laundromat had opened closer to where I live. I called the place and, coincidentally, they were having their one-year anniversary that day, celebrating the occasion by offering homemade cookies to their customers.
Let me tell you what a truly awesome day I had simply getting my laundry done. I will begin the story by first introducing the five people that played a role in it.
In the furthest back corner of the smallest laundromat imaginable stands a kindly, mentally challenged man who opens and closes the doors of the washers and dryers for the customers. The next character is an older woman in a wheelchair. Then there's another woman of rather startling appearance - 68 years old but looking like she is in her nineties with makeup running all over her face and greasy hair, smelling like urine and pushing a walker.
Then we have a strongly built woman of 53 years with a voice as deep as mine. I'd find out in conversation that she used to be a personal support worker, took anti-smoking meds trying to quit the habit which caused a seizure while she was horseback riding. She fell off her horse and landed on her head. Her brain injury was so severe, she ended up losing everything - her house and her husband - and had to learn how to walk and eat all over again. That's how she ended up working a minimum-wage job at this laundromat.
Lastly, the fifth character is myself: a small woman with a childlike frame and an adolescent face, 56 years old, deep of voice with a calm and gentle reassurance about herself.
All these characters, myself included, would be quickly rejected by society as misfits in any other setting. So, intrigued by this colourful ensemble, I decide to carefully watch the scenario unfold around me and take my cue as to when to jump in and mix things up a little. The memory of this day will always make me smile.
Lily, the laundromat worker is deeply worried about the woman with the walker.
“I had to wash her clothes twice,” she tells me. “I was a PSW working at a home for the elderly; she is one of the worst cases of neglect I have ever seen. I told her to take care of her hygiene, that she needs to take to bathe more often.”
I'm listening to her and know exactly where this could lead. Fear can cause bullying behavior. Fear can be the parent of cruelty. Do I find myself concerned for the old, unkempt woman? No. Not at all. She is taking care of her hygiene. She's at a laundromat after all, minding her own business and washing her clothes! I ask myself quickly, “When was the last time you took a bath, Rebecca? Oh good, last night. I'm safe!”
Once my laundry is loaded into the three washers, I take a walk down to the lake, which is just a two-block stroll away. I sit on a tree stump letting myself think about everything and nothing all at the same time. The lake always inspires my mind to pleasantly drift along in any direction it chooses.
When I return, I see the old woman is now sitting on her walker. I walk over and say, “Hi.” She replies, “Do you want to have a smoke?” Surprised, but ready for some fun as this lovely creature offers me a smoke, I say, “I have some too. If you want, we could trade.” She looks at my menthols and wrinkles her nose, “Na. I don't like those.” She shows me her bag of smokes from the Rez down the highway and I say, “Na. I don't like those either.” So, we go outside and each smoke our own, enjoying another's company
She says, “When I still had money, I could buy my favorite brand, but afterwards I had to pick up butts from the ground. You take what you can get. Beggars can't be choosers.” Our eyes meet on that truth, very firmly in agreement. We continue our conversation which wanders into the direction of all the benefits of living alone. “You can do anything you want to. No one tells you what to do,” she says with conviction.
Back inside, I take out my washed clothes but, before I can put them into the dryer, I have to wait for the woman in the wheelchair to fold her finished load. When she is done, she has to roll her wheelchair backwards out of the cramped space to leave with her clean laundry. “I am so sorry, I am in your way,” she says to me apologetically. I smile and reply, “I can wait. I have the technology.” Everyone chuckles and any tension in the room disappears. I put my clothes in the big dryer where the mentally challenged man offers to hold the door for me. With a big smile I thank him and he says politely, “That's what I am here for.”
As I am about to step outside again, a pivotal moment occurs that changes the entire mood of the scene. The retired PSW starts laying into the woman with the walker. “Is anyone taking care of you? Is someone coming in to check up on you regularly? Do you live with anyone or are you all alone?” If I were that old woman, my comeback would be, “And just what question would you like me to answer first when you're firing a dozen at me all at once, looming over me all the while? Why should I answer even one of your questions? I don't have to answer to you. Who do you think you are, my mother?”
The tattered, old woman responds very well. She says emphatically and sharp, “I’m good. You're good. We're both good.” That's her strong f-you message. I think, 'Good for you', and decide, now is the time for me to leave the premises and let that sting settle in a bit. So, I take a second walk down to the lake and ponder my opportunity to infuse some magic into this scene. What that might be, I do not know yet, but I do know I’ll find a way.
When I return, the woman with the walker is getting ready to leave. The PSW retiree offers us the rest of the cookies to take home. I quickly count them out and there are exactly two dozen left. I put twelve in a baggy for her and twelve in a baggy for me. I walk over to the older woman who's still scowling from being condescended to earlier, and say, “There are a dozen cookies in each of our bags. How about every time you eat a cookie, you think of me; and every time I eat one, I think of you?”
The evil spell breaks. Her face dissolves into the most beautiful smile and I make sure that this tiny gesture is witnessed by our well-meaning but bossy laundromat worker. Lily is now pleasantly taken aback. Once again, all shoulders are set at ease. Then, the cheered old woman sets out with her walker and continues to live her life the way she wants. It feels good to know I've made a positive impact on both their lives.
The kind 'door'-man has left; the friendly woman in the wheelchair has gone home as well; and now it is just Lily and me.
As I fold my laundry, she finishes up for the day and we talk - really talk. We have a smoke together outside and we continue talking. She ends up offering me a ride home. I can hardly believe it. I am glad she is, for it is already well after dark. She graciously saves me a $10.00 cab fare home.
Conveniently, my place is right on her way so we continue talking in the car. When we arrive I tell her, “Three months from now . . . that makes it January. See you in January, Lily.” We both smile broadly at one another and wave goodbye. I made a friend today, a friend for life.
This is what happens when we share power; we achieve equality with our fellow human beings, no matter what condition we find them in. Each of us is spinning down a long list of circumstances that we sometimes have control over, but mostly not. We are where we are. We can't be expected to 'hop-to-it' to satisfy others' expectations of us, to prove those wrong who assume everything about us, and who disregard that we are aware of what is happening to us. We do! We will tell you about our life, if only you'd ask. We all deserve equal rights to love. Equal rights to inclusion. Equal rights to having our intelligence respected, and our purity of heart cherished. If we have dirt on us, maybe we didn't dump it there; maybe someone else did?!
The last thing we do in any situation is what counts the most!
If it begins well, it must end even better. There is no clocked time when we are working towards a happy ending. We are completely dedicating our efforts to living in the moment, which could take seconds, hours, days and sometimes even half a lifetime. We do whatever it takes.
The last thing the woman with the walker experienced at the laundromat that day was an invitation to remember me, knowing I would remember her by the simple act of eating a delicious cookie. Anything negative that happened to her that day would pale in hindsight, redeemed by a tender gesture of compassion and love.
The last thing I did for Lily was to offer her my friendship, and show her absolute grace because she may never have seen someone like me make someone else’s day in such a simple and fun way. The moment she witnessed the 'cookie deed', I saw her whole body, in one huge wave, saying loud and clear, “You, Rebecca, have the touch. I get what you are doing - and why you are doing it - and all the tumbleweed good that this smallest of ideas could generate. I deeply respect you for your kind deed.”
I sense in my heart that she will become a creative advocate at her laundromat, using simple acts of kindness that will bring equality between herself and others, no matter what walks of life they hail from; and, thus, she will enjoy doing her job immeasurably more each day. The value of money means nothing when we discover the gratification of valuing people around us. I demonstrated what an act of love for a fellow human being can accomplish: a simple, caring gesture that potentially causes ripples throughout time in the remembering, maybe for generations to come. The last thing we do is the most important deed of all!
Hand to Heart For Peace
by John Jantunen
ECW Press, Fiction, June 2023
Review by Matthew Del Papa
Open "Mason’s Jar" to sample some damned tasty fiction.
Forget overpriced gourmet cuisine and Michelin-starred meals, it’s time for some more straightforward fare. With his latest novel, Mason's Jar, author John Jantunen has cooked up a feast, as honest and GMO-free as the preserves that once lined grandma’s basement shelves . . . provided your ‘Gammy’ traded her spice rack for hard-to-swallow truths. No need to worry, though, there’s enough humour skillfully mixed throughout to assure a balanced meal.
Things may be bad out there now but, at least, they can’t get any worse, right?
In Mason’s Jar, Jantunen sets out to prove otherwise. He takes our modern world as a starting point and posits a near-future where the entirety of our present-day crises - mental health, opioid, housing, and climate change - have all been left to fester. Readers will need to bite down firmly as this literary bone-saw chews through their preconceptions.
All too often, modern Canadian literature feels confining. The lid is screwed down tightly on this country after all. For many readers, ‘CanLit’ has become a bloated, cliché-ridden monolith - home of the easily digestible narrative and nation-building pablum force-fed to kids at school. Toss literature’s rotten fruit - those well-intentioned but bland books offering little beyond stale conformity; Jantunen’s work presents a much needed purgative.
Violent pasts and uncertain futures abound in this searing mash-up of Western, Sci-fi, and Horror genres. Mason’s Jar asks the hard questions and provides even harder answers. Luckily, the novel blends gut-wrenching loss, stoner humour, and shocking violence into a whole that rises above its, often deeply troubling, ingredients. In short, Jantunen dials the dystopia up to eleven. And in doing so, creates the sort of story that sticks to your ribs.
The drug epidemic is the main course served piping hot in Mason’s Jar.
Tired of stewing in his own misery, retired police chief Mason Lowry is cracking under the pressure of trying to care for his increasingly senile and resentful wife when his biggest arrest - and nemesis - Clarence Booth is released from prison. Certain that the man is hungry for revenge and convinced that Booth and his biker gang are behind the spread of Euphoral, the drug which killed Mason’s teenage granddaughter and is now ravaging the city he once pledged to serve and protect, the ex-cop goes on an all-out offensive - commando-style. Therein lies his path to redemption, if only he can convince himself that he deserves the chance.
Mason’s Jar presents a less-than-appetizing Canada, one deeply troubled and increasingly divided. Generational trauma and decades of band-aid solutions have left our nation in ruins. It is a future as predictable as it is plausible. Jantunen serves up a textured novel full of lingering resentments, tragic consequences, and characters who lie consistently . . . to themselves and each other. Feeling all too familiar, Mason Lowry’s world isn’t far removed from modern reality which, in my opinion, is the novel’s only flaw.
Taking a meat cleaver to Canada’s self-indulgence, Jantunen grinds our comforting delusions down to a nub and plates a novel bursting with outrage. Mason’s Jar serves as stark warning to readers grown fat and complacent on literary comfort foods. There is nothing vanilla about Jantunen’s style nor does he spoon-feed or coddle his audience. No one escapes unscathed, not his ‘heroes’ or his readers, and it is the type of book that will weigh heavy on the mind. You’ll want to hasten through every delicious bite as if gorging on fast food but, much like a perfectly grilled steak, readers would be well advised to linger over Mason’s Jar.
The novel is a powerful indictment of the ever-widening chasm in Canada’s wealth-centric, class-based political system. Jantunen shows his audience what happens when society’s civilizing cloak is stripped away and those poor, downtrodden, and unwelcome amongst us move from being benignly forgotten to being stigmatized and even persecuted.
The novel’s central question is one of redemption. Can Mason Lowry, who once took pride in upholding ‘the System’, cope with the long-delayed realization that he might have had a decided hand in escalating the cataclysmic events unfolding around him? Long past his own best-before-date and resigned to living out his last days in self-condemnation and heartache, Mason Lowry learns - to his surprise and shame - that his fate is not set in stone and his sins may ultimately be forgivable. All he has to do is sacrifice almost everything he ever believed in.
Mason’s Jar is sure to offer red-meat to genre-lovers. It could easily have come across as yet another cheap cut, full of gristle and bone, but, prepared with the utmost skill by a consummate professional, it - like all of Jantunen’s Fictions - proves more than satisfying in the deliverance.