November 4, 2017: Good Night Sweetheart
That was the song playing in my head as I struggled to get my daughter to settle down. I’m tired and ready for bed. The kids have all finally gone to sleep. The puppy is crated and the house is still enough for me to hear the heat pumping through the vents. But I cannot sleep yet. I need to write my daily performance piece. An action-a-day requires discipline! There is no reprieve. Not even on the weekends: the ‘holidays’ as my kids call Saturday and Sunday.“Mom, when we get up in the morning, is it going to be a school day or a holiday day?” I worry that my school-age children are so desperate for ‘holidays’, and for the clock to stop, or at least slow down.
Today is Saturdays and according to my kids, it is supposed to be a day off: a ‘holiday’. But, the ‘holiday days’ are pretty hard on me and on my little 2013 Mazda 3.
Do you know how many kilometres I drove today?
My 10 year old son and I calculated the distance between home and Hindi class, and soccer for another, and back to Hindi class to pick up the other two, and off to a playdate for one, and over to meet one of my friends for lunch and coffee, and then off to shop for birthday presents, and a stop off at the pet supply store, with a quick detour to my mother’s before rushing to reclaim my youngest son from his friend’s place, and finally off to gas station, before returning home 8 hours after we started out.
135 kilometres. That is how far I’ve driven today.
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Where I live, in the Canadian prairies, the average distance between grain elevators in the early 20th century was somewhere between 10 and 20 kms. Why? That was the distance a farmer could travel in one day, by horse and buggy, to sell his crop and still be back home by nightfall. If you take 15kms as the average, with a day’s round-trip as approximately 30kms/day by horse and buggy, my 135 kms of travel today equates to approximately 9 days of travel before auto-mobility.
We pulled into the garage at 7 pm tonight. It is a later return than we make most weekdays. This is a pattern. One that I keep refusing to admit to. Like the kids, I like to imagine Saturday as a day of leisure, but it is laborious in all sorts of ways not part of the work-a-day routine.
I wonder what it would mean to live differently. To live in a different relationship to what matters most in our lives. What would be lost and what would be gained? They mightn’t get to attend Hindi, 44 kilometers round-trip: more than a day’s travel away without auto-mobility. That would be a shame. Hindi class keeps my kids connected with one of their heritage cultures. It seems worth the drive every Saturday morning.
Soccer? I like to think it gives my daughter confidence and a skill, but then something needs to assuage my contempt for all the va-et-vient. My daughter loves soccer. She’s a fast runner and has a mind for the game even at age four. We wouldn’t want her to miss that opportunity! Who knows? Maybe she’ll play for the women’s national team someday? We all need to dream. Especially parent-turned-chauffeur.
Lunch with my friend is important, isn’t it? The endlessness of academic life seems to make it difficult to make and maintain friendships, so I wouldn’t want to miss out on our visit. At least 30 kilometers; once a full-day’s travel round trip.
The play-date was a nice gesture in the direction of us settling more into our own community and living locally: the kids newly enrolled at a community school making friends with “neighbourhood” children. But the playdate is still a 6-kilometre-drive each way in our sprawling urban reality.
And then there are all the small stops I made throughout the day. The stop to buy a birthday gift: anything that I put into my cart has an enormous carbon footprint and the notion of fast-fashion itself and the wardrobe refresh that these items will give my partner are all part of a cycle of global capitalism powered by fossil fuel that we’ve become convinced is normal or necessary, without understanding The True Cost (2015). The stop at the pet warehouse: The puppy, with all this running around has been crated too long today, so I drive a few kilometres out of the way to buy him some treats at the pet warehouse.
I write all of this with a deep sense of irony about all we imagine we need and then make happen, all the time forgetting to imagine what else might be possible.
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I woke up this morning, way too early for necessity. Living life at this pace, my heart races even in my sleep. I awoke at 5 am, panicked about whether it was a ‘holiday day’ or a ‘school day’. When I realize I didn’t need to jump up, I rolled over to finish a novel I had on-the-go.
“Are you enjoying your book?” my partner asks as he slowly wakes up. “I guess so.” I mumble. Enjoy is a relative term, when you are reading about the slow death by starvation of a whole community, the rape of the women, the traumas of the soldiers, and the death of so many, as a result of a war.
The novel is Half a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie — a woman who, like me, believes deeply in the power of storytelling. And the story she tells in this book is of the devastation of the Biafran War, also known as the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970), as experienced by her largely Igbo characters fighting for the free state of Biafra. Their lives unfold in the story, providing insights into the ethnic tensions that incited the war and the nationalist pride that sustained the Igbo people during the war. But, what is not clearly articulated or emphasized, but which I read into the story, is the way the control of oil resources fuelled that war and lead to the starvation of the people of Biafra as a military strategy by the Nigerian government. In the story, the fat-cats running the war on both sides still live in well appointed homes, with more than enough food to go around, and the ability to still escape when the going got really tough, while the most precarious, as always, are most devastatingly impacted. Within the first year of the war, Biafra lost control of most of its oil resources and the coastal trading city of Port Harcourt.
I know Port Harcourt. It is in the Part Harcourt cemetery where, twenty-five years after the novel ends, the Ogoni Nine, including Ken Saro-Wiwa, were buried after being executed for their years of activism (indirectly of course using trumped up charges) against Royal Dutch Shell and their devastation of Ogoni lands.
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Tonight, I pulled into the gas station, all my children sitting in the car, all exhausted from a day of learning and sporting and playing, across the country, I snap a quick picture and think about what my action-a-day blog should be about. I am acutely sensitive to the ways that wars of all sorts—recognized or not—have and continue to fuel this life. I think of the Tiny House Warriors on the West Coast fighting to resist the Kinder Morgan pipeline that will devastate that way of life in order to support this one. I think of the defenders of the land fighting against the Muskrat Falls hydro project in Labrador on the East Coast. I think of Ken Saro-Wiwa and his countrymen and women. I think of the Indigenous women of Papua New Guinea that I met last week in Ottawa, there to plead with us to stop the murder of their people, the rape of their women, and the devastation of their lands by the Canadian company Barrick Gold. I think about how in Half a Yellow Sun, when the war ends, the main characters return to their homes inside Nigerian controlled territories. I think about the brutality and ethnic persecution that continues. I think about the little six-year old girl that is part of the family through whose eyes we follow the war: about how she doesn’t really grow for the entire duration of the war. How her development will always be marked by the malnutrition she suffered; she’ll carry within her very physicality the impacts of the war for the rest of her life. Her stunted growth is a metaphor for the less visible ways the war has emotionally stunted her father, and everyone who lived through the war. But I also think about the way that the moment the war ended and the starvation of the Biafra people was no longer a strategy, food appeared in the markets. About how Baby’s hair started to grow back jet black, where it had been falling out from malnutrition. And, I think about how, if we do nothing to address climate change, people all around the world will find themselves in similar circumstances, but there will be no floodgate of food and supplies to open up from one day to the next. And I think about how other futures are possible too, if we begin to get real about the demands for change to the way we live, as a response to global warming. And, in varying direct and indirect ways, all of this feeds through the nozzle pumping gasoline into my car. As I stand next to the car breathing in the cold air, with the taste and smell of the gasoline floating around me as frozen particulates, I think of the ways that the inequities of global power—and energy distribution—leave us all exposed.
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What might be gain from a powered-down life in the twenty-first century?
Serenity, perhaps? Living differently. What does that mean? Might it mean that I would have found a moment before this late hour to notice the rush of forced air heating our house before this late hour. Good night sweetheart, good night.
(Image: Photograph of car at gas pump)