Tuesday, 17 May 2022

Blog Post - 17 May 2022: The Orchid Boy of Sudbury

Background: One of the many things I love about The County is the fine work done by the Prince Edward County Arts Council in promoting the arts in our community. One of its signature projects is the annual “Wind & Water Writing Contest”. This year’s theme is ‘Transformation’, and the judge is the acclaimed Canadian writer Kelly S. Thompson. Both Bill and I submitted non-fiction pieces to the contest. Bill’s piece, “The Part Where I Tell a Story That Used to be a Secret”, was selected for the long list of finalists. It is both hauntingly beautiful and deeply moving. The short list will be announced on May 19th and the winner revealed on May 26th. 

My piece, “The Orchid Boy of Sudbury”, is a memoir about Spencer, my late husband, and his spectacularly defiant late-1960s dance routine at a Sudbury High School talent show. It was an exorcism for all the homophobia and bullying Spencer had endured during his troubled years at Sudbury High. He took all his pain and suffering and transformed them into healing and triumph. I believe my version of the story honours his audacity and courage. 

 

The memoir is 1600 words long and takes about 11 minutes to read. 

 

Enjoy.


The Orchid Boy of Sudbury – 

A love letter for my late husband

 

Conjure this: A packed Sudbury High School auditorium, late 1960s. Disco music pumps wildly though the loudspeakers. The music stops abruptly. A glittering young man wearing purple bell bottoms and a pink feather boa wafts his way on stage elegantly, turns to the audience, and bows deeply. He snaps his fingers. The throbbing music begins anew. In swift response, the glittering young man gyrates and twerks up an erotic, hyperactive three-minute cyclone. The audience watches in stunned silence. The music ends. The glittering young man once again faces the audience, bows deeply, and marches off stage in triumph. 

 

Or at least that’s how Spencer, my late husband, described his Sudbury dance debut to me in that same auditorium thirty years later on a hot summer afternoon. What you’re reading is my version of Spencer’s story, based on what he told me that afternoon. It is as faithful to the essential truths about Spencer, his high school experiences, and his disco dance debut as I can make it. Let’s call it the truth/slant, with a high-five to Emily Dickinson. 

 

My late husband was not just gay – he was flamboyantly, ‘obviously’ gay at a time when such things got him bullied and assaulted, especially in the hard-scrabble northern Ontario mining towns where he grew up. Physically, Spencer was 5’ 6” tall, slight, and attractive, with an ethereal, other-worldly air about him. He was also stereotypically effeminate. 


Accompanying him in public meant getting used to hearing young men yell, “Hey! Faggot!” I fell hopelessly in love with him when we met at a 1983 Quaker Gathering. By that time, he was active in Toronto’s lesbian and gay community – and he was a force to reckon with. “A force of nature,” he liked saying. For him, being effeminate was not only how he navigated the world, it was also a political statement and a challenge to the heterosexual norms that closeted the lives of Queer people.

 

Spencer was born in Sudbury in 1950. He spent his early childhood there before his family moved to Elliot Lake, where his father worked in the mines. In the early 1960s, the family returned to Sudbury. The rugged northern beauty of Elliot Lake and Sudbury left an enduring mark on Spencer’s soul. For the rest of his life, he felt restored by returning to that landscape. We often travelled to the area during our 29 years together, the last time being in 2011, when he knew he was dying. Whether it was Sudbury or Elliot Lake, he insisted on re-visiting the houses he lived in, the schools he attended, the libraries that nourished him, and the forest haunts where he went to hide and renew. His childhood was a jumble of joy, sorrow, and dread. He had a mother and sister, whom he adored. He had a father, whom he feared. Elementary school was a blend of loving teachers, who nurtured his sensitive soul, and snickering peers, who mocked him. He spent his teens in Sudbury before escaping to Toronto in the early 1970s. 

 

Spencer was a ravenous reader, a loyal friend, a fierce defender of the underdog, a talented writer, a gifted speaker, and an attentive listener. And he was  brilliant – off the scale brilliant – and one of the most emotionally literate people I have ever met. 

 

Moreover, he was an Orchid Boy, the somewhat joking/ somewhat not-joking moniker he gave himself. It grew out of his lifelong experience of being told that he was “just too sensitive.” That comment always hurt and always hit home. For him, being sensitive meant being self-protective, vigilant, and aware of threats. It was literally a survival skill. Sadly, he was accustomed to being laughed at by those who understood neither his complexities nor his gifts.

 

Beyond all that – and maybe because of all that – Spencer was also just plain fabulous. His shirt collection alone was the envy of countless gay men. He could go into a menswear store and, within minutes, locate the chicest clothes, uncover the buried bargains, and spot the cute clerks. It was awesome to witness, and I got to do it on many occasions, in many cities, on four continents.

 

And he loved Motown Music. Oh my god, did he love Motown Music. Diana Ross and the Supremes! The Temptations! Martha and the Vandellas! The Four Tops! The Marvelettes! He had all the Motown records, knew all the lyrics, and could do all the dance moves. Not only did he love the music, he also related to the underdog status that Motown artists had to deal with. In the lives of these artists – fraught with disadvantage, condescension, and appropriation from main stream white culture – Spencer gleaned hope, courage, and self-determination. In them he glimpsed a template for fierce resilience and powerful resistance. A template that nurtured him and lent him nobility. 

 

He enjoyed nothing more than spending hours with his beloved sister listening to Motown music and trying to stump each other with Motown trivia questions. Happy times for both of them.

 

Which brings us, peculiarly, back to Sudbury High School. Which was not about happy times for him.

 

High school in the 1960s was a special kind of Hell for Queer people. In ways that only marginalized people can fully grasp, the daily, unending torrent of abuse, bullying, and shaming at Sudbury High School wore down Spencer’s soul. And this abuse didn’t only come from peers. Shockingly, it sometimes came from teachers too. Abuse from teachers fell into two corrosive categories: the first was failing to step in and defend Spencer when he was being openly bullied in the school corridors; and the second was actively participating in the homophobia themselves by sneeringly calling him a faggot – to his face. Nice. No wonder he struggled at school and vowed to cut loose as soon as humanly possible. 

 

Not everything at Sudbury High was negative. There were islands of kindness and care. A special English teacher who encouraged his writing. A few friends – mostly girls – who helped protect him. An understanding math teacher who cut him slack when he couldn’t face attending school in person. But mostly, his time at Sudbury High School was bleak and soul destroying. 

 

Except for that late-1960s school talent show...

 

As Spencer related the story to me, there was an annual student talent show at Sudbury High School. It was a highlight of the school year and always sold out. In Spencer’s last year at the school, he decided to enter the show and make a defiant, in-your-face exit statement to SHS – a modern-day exorcism. In his words, “I just wanted to shout, FUCK YOU, SUDBURY HIGH!” 

 

Spencer hinted there was subterfuge involved in the audition process. He didn’t tell me the details, but he knew that if he auditioned the act he had planned, he would never have made the cut. In any case, he was able to secure a place in the show.

 

For him, preparing for this exit performance was a healing process. He took all the elements of his persona that had made him the object of derision at the school – his effeminate demeanour, his swish hand gestures, his flamboyant clothing, his love of dance – and turned them into a spectacular routine.

 

First, he chose the music. Motown – of course! He ran through the options and chose Diana Ross’ “Stop In The Name Of Love!” It was his favourite song, and he had already done countless solo dance routines to the music in his basement. There was more to his choice than that, however. He wanted to have Diana Ross and the Supremes – and all the other Motown greats – on stage with him during his performance. He wanted to draw on their love, courage, and glittering fabulousness.

 

Next came hours of secret rehearsals to get the moves just right and perfectly timed with the music. Swishing and sashaying! Pelvic twisting and booty shaking! Sensuous moves with a feather boa!

 

 And lots and lots and lots of attitude.

 

Then came the clothing and accessories. And, let’s be frank – Spencer did love to accessorize. After hours of fretting and fussing, his ‘ensem’ was prime-time ready: Purple velvet bell bottoms. Pink feather boa. Glossy patent-leather platform shoes. Gucci gold sunglasses. Paisley shirt with billowing sleeves. Leather vest – with tassels. Wide brim leather hat – with tassels. No doubt about it: it was a fabulously flaming jubilation!

 

And then – finally – the big night arrived. Spencer was nervous, to be sure, but he was also aware that this WAS his moment to shine. 

 

And shine he did! 

 

He tells me that his performance was extraordinary – a true launch into the next phase of life. The fact that the performance was greeted with absolute silence mattered not a whit. He finished his routine, took a deep, elegant bow, and left the stage triumphantly, with his head high and his soul intact.

 

And he never looked back. 

 

Until...about thirty years later on that hot summer afternoon when Spencer led me into the hushed silence of the Sudbury High School auditorium. He wanted to revisit the exact location that he had left the pain of high school behind. 

 

What an honour it was to have shared that moment with him.

 

“Stop in the name of love/before you break my heart.” Too late, dear Spencer, too late. By the time you died in 2012, you had already broken my heart. Many times over. Ten years later, I hope you have found the inner peace that so often eluded you while you were alive. 

 

Wednesday, 9 March 2022

"Our Servant Job" - Blog Post March 9, 2022

 Our Servant Job

A Presentation by Larry Tayler

St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church

Picton, Ontario

In Person: Sunday, 6 March 2022

Via Zoom: 13 March 2022

 

“Consider our servant Job: Thoughts on Suffering, Grieving, and Healing.” Now there’s a catchy little title! It might intrigue some people, while prompting others to seek the nearest exit. And, lest you think that “Consider our servant Job” is a quotation from the Old Testament’s Book of Job, in fact I’m quoting the Koran’s version of Job, Surah 38, verse 41. The Old Testament version, in Chapter 1, verse 8, of The Book of Job refers to “my servant Job,” not our servant Job. There’s your Bible fact of the day!

 

This morning, I’m talking about Job and the things I’ve been learning about him and from him lately, in the hope that you’ll find some helpful ideas along the way. 

 

Let me start with a disclaimer. As I have said before in this sacred place, I am not a theologian. The dear poet Wendell Berry writes in his 2013 collection of poems,This Day, “If I’m a theologian, I am one to the extent I have learned to duck when the small, haughty doctrines fly overhead, dropping their loads of whitewash at random on the faces of those who look toward Heaven.” (VII, page 321) I’m not sure I’d put it quite that way, but you get my drift. What I can say, however, is that I am an engaged and daily reader of the Bible. Also, I can’t direct you to specific verses in the Bible to prove what I’m about to say. The views you hear expressed today have not been stress-tested by any mosque, synagogue, church, or council of elders. Let me also tell you what won’t be in my presentation. There will be no discussion of the nature of evil or sinfulness, nor will there be anything about the roots of suffering in misogyny, racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, xenophobia. or any of the other spiritual malignancies of our time. Finally, I will not be considering the role of Jesus in any of the above. 

 

So, let’s start off with a true story – about Margaret. Except her real name is not Margaret. Although she died in 1997, I still respect her privacy when I tell this story. The rest of it is true.

 

I became friends with Margaret at the Toronto Quaker meeting, where we were both members. She was a passionate peace activist who believed in the transformative power of witnessing. She willingly put herself in harm’s way to accompany people who were protesting violence and injustice, especially in Central America. She was a courageous, humble beacon of hope. In the mid-1990s, she was diagnosed with cancer. And, as sometimes happens in Quaker circles, she asked to have a Committee of Care established to support her. And she asked me to serve on that committee. For two years, Margaret’s Committee of Care met regularly, usually in her home. Most of the time, we simply listened and took our direction from her. As her cancer progressed – such an odd phrase for such a devastating process – the committee became more hands-on and actively involved. One of our most important roles was to become gate-keepers to regulate the flow of well-wishers and friends who wanted to spend time with her. We especially tried to filter out those who wanted to bring miracle cures or suggest trips to dodgy foreign clinics. We were mostly successful. But one of her well-intentioned friends breached our protective moat and provided me with a life lesson that still resonates. Margaret‘s friend asked her, “What did you do to bring this cancer into your life?” The question devastated Margaret, who had already begun despairing about what was happening in her body. To suggest that Margaret had somehow brought the disease on herself was one of the most brutally insensitive assaults I have ever witnessed. I had not realized before just how many people believe that we bring disease on ourselves and that our suffering is, in effect, a punishment for our misbehaviour. (I’m steering away from that problematic word ‘sin’ here.) Margaret’s Committee of Care, along with her enormously supportive family, helped her through this crisis. But the wound was deep. She never really did ‘get over it’ – another incredibly odd phrase – but she eventually managed to see beyond the hurt and fully embrace the love that surrounded her. On the day she died, Margaret wrote this: “The things we learn from cancer are related to all life experiences. They are not sent to teach us something. It’s up to us what we learn from them.” “It’s up to us what we learn from them.” Those are profound words, and I hope you will find them echoed and reinforced by my thoughts about Job this morning. 

 

And just one more thing about Margaret: my experience of accompanying her on her final journey helped prepare me for accompanying Spencer, my first husband, on his final journey fourteen years later. 

 

So, with all that in my heart, let’s take a look at The Book of Job, starting with Job 101. And I’ll begin by saying that the cliché about someone having “the patience of Job” is totally misplaced. Mr. Job is possibly the least patient person in the entire Bible!

 

The Book of Job appears in the Tanakh, i.e., the Hebrew Bible, also known as the Old Testament by many Christians. By Biblical standards, it is a short book, only 42 chapters long. My morning practice of reading one chapter of the Bible per day gets me through The Book of Job in six weeks. No one knows who the author was. Given the different literary styles in the book, there may well have been more than one author. Its original language was Aramaic. Bible scholars estimate that it was written between the seventh and fourth centuries, BCE (Before Common Era), thus making it about 2400 to 2700 years old. The story seems to be set in what we would now call the Arabian Peninsula. The book’s introductory notes in my New Revised Standard version the Bible say, “The Book of Job does not explain the mystery of suffering or ‘justify the ways of God’ with human beings, but it does probe the depths of faith in the midst of suffering.” Well, that’s a miracle of understatement. I have been intrigued and repelled by The Book of Job for almost sixty years. It simultaneously appeals to my appreciation of logical structure and elegant flow of ideas, while also horrifying me with the apparent bet that God and Satan make about how far Job can be pushed before he renounces his faith. Because, at least on the surface, that’s what is going on here: a high-stakes debate between God and Satan about the nature of faith. Now, this Satan isn’t the Devil or Lucifer of the New Testament who is the personification of all that’s evil, complete with red cape, horns, and pitch fork. Instead, Satan at this earlier stage of Biblical writing is more of a challenger or an accuser – which is the literal Hebrew translation of the word. Satan gets to ask God hard questions in the heavenly court. Both God and Satan agree that Job is blameless and upright. He is wealthy, generous, kind, and observant of all the religious traditions. He is also faithful. As I quoted in my introduction, in Chapter 1, verse 8, God says to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil.” Satan responds with the most provocative and profound question in the Bible: “Does Job fear God for nothing?” Think about that question for a second. “Does Job fear God for nothing?”, i.e., Do human beings fear or serve God because of blessings they receive from God? Satan says that if you take away Job’s health, wealth, and loved ones, Job will disavow his faith. “...[S]tretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face,” according to Chapter 1, verse 11. In other words, of course Job is faithful while everything is going well for him, but as soon as he starts suffering, he will lose his faith in God very quickly. After this Satanic challenge, God says, “Very well, all that [Job] has is in your power.” (1:12) In effect, God says, ‘All right, Satan. You’re on. Let’s see if you’re correct. Job, his family, and all he owns are now in your power. Make his life miserable, just don’t kill him. Let’s see what happens.’

 

And so the game is on. Soon Job loses everything, starting with his possessions: his oxen, his donkeys, his sheep, his camels, and his servants. Then, devastatingly, come the deaths of his three daughters and seven sons – all at the same time. Finally, “Satan...inflicted loathsome sores on Job from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. Job took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes.” (2: 7 & 8) 

 

Job does not understand why he is suffering. Did he not follow all the rules? Was he not a faithful servant? Was he not a good man? Job, of course, was used to getting his own way. A pretty entitled kind of guy is our Mr. Job. As a result, he wants answers. He wants them now. And he wants those answers directly from God.

 

God does appear, but before he does so, Job is visited by four of his friends – Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, and Elihu – who, while expressing sympathy for Job’s suffering, also ask him what he had done to deserve it. (Remember the story of Margaret?) Job says he did nothing to deserve it. But the friends keep saying, well, you must have done something bad because God does not punish the innocent. As Eliphaz says in Chapter 4, “...those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same. By the breath of God they perish, and by the blast of his anger they are consumed.” (4:8-9) And then Job’s friends smugly rattle on for another 354 verses in a similar vein. To his credit, Job keeps insisting that he has done nothing wrong and demands to hear from God directly. As Job says in Chapter 6, “Teach me, and I will be silent; make me understand how I have gone wrong.” (6:24) Again in Chapter 13, “...I would speak to the Almighty, and I desire to argue my case with God...I will defend my ways to {God’s] face. That will be my salvation.” (13:3; 15-16) And then in exasperation in Chapter 16, he calls out to his friends, “Have windy words no limit?...[W]hat provokes you that you keep on talking?” (16:3) 

 

Finally, in Chapter 38, four chapters before the end of the book, God appears – “out of the whirlwind” – and says, “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?...Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?...Have the gates of death been revealed to you...? Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth? Declare, if you know all this.” (38: 2-4; 17-18)  The theologians John H. Walton and Tremper Longman III observe in their book How To Read Job that their preferred understanding of God’s response is, “I am God, who is supremely wise and powerful, so I want you to trust me even when you don’t understand.” (page 20)  The other version is, of course, “I am God, and you are not. So just shut up.” However you understand God’s response, for the next 129 verses God goes up one side of Job and down the other. “Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place, so that it might take hold of the skirts of the earth, and the wicked be shaken out of it?” (38:12-13) “Surely you know, for you were born then, and the number of your days is great!” (38:21) “Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars, and spreads its wings toward the south?” (39:26) “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty?” (40:2)

 

And what is Job’s reply to God when God has finished? Chapter 40, Verse 4: “I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth.” And then in Chapter 42, verses 3 and 6: “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know...but now my eye sees you; therefore I...repent in dust and ashes.” (42:3-6) 

 

Job then goes silent. We hear no more from him.

 

We do, however, hear from God one more time when he torches Job’s so-called friends: “My wrath is kindled against you...for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” (42:7) He tells the friends to seek Job’s forgiveness by making burnt offerings to him, which they do. 

 

In the last chapter of the book, Job’s fortunes are restored, including three more daughters and seven more sons. As if that makes up for the ten children who had died earlier. Finally, in the last verse of the book, Job dies, “old and full of days.” (42:17) 

 

In the entire book, never once does Job disavow his faith in God. And never once does God actually answer Job’s questions.

 

Which makes The Book of Job frustrating, illusive, confusing...and profound. In other words, it’s a supremely human book. And for centuries, it has challenged Jews and Christians to consider God’s role in our lives, the nature of suffering, and our understanding of faith. It evokes very tough questions. Why do we suffer if we are faithful? Is suffering a punishment from God for sin? Why do the innocent suffer? Why do the guilty sometimes appear not to suffer? If God is love, how can God allow suffering? If God can’t protect us from suffering, how can we believe in God at all? Do we, in fact, fear God for nothing?

 

Now, I’ve phrased these questions in a very conventional manner, reflecting both traditional understandings of God in the creation of the world and our efforts to fathom the workings of God in our daily lives. In researching this presentation, I’ve read perhaps too many books about Old Testament theology. For such a short text, The Book of Job sure has inspired great oceans of commentary, much of it arid, predictable, and longwinded. Alas, not all theologians are skilled writers. Some could stand a good dose of Alice Munro’s editing skills to shorten and sharpen their work. And some, in my estimation, even lack compassion for Job. For instance, John H. Walton and Tremper Longman III, the authors of How To Read Job that I referenced earlier, grumble away on page 57, “The book of Job, despite its title, is not about Job...he represents yet one more wrong way to respond to suffering.” Really? “[O]ne more wrong way to respond to suffering”? Talk about being removed from the real world of human anguish. But their book did help me to start moving away from their conventional understandings of Job. I began to realize that I had been missing the point of The Book of Job for almost six decades. I now believe that all the pyrotechnics of God’s fearsome words from the whirlwind and all the blinkered and achingly self-serving words of his friends are smoke and mirrors, taking our attention away from what is really going on here: This is Job’sjourney – his painful, heart-wrenching, clumsy, and profoundly human journey towards healing. Job’s friends and God play only supporting roles. This is, after all, The Book of Job and not – excuse the seeming blasphemy – The Book of God. The theological complexities of God and Satan’s bizarre test of faith still leave me baffled and bewildered. I can, however, relate to the totally human journey of Job. And, most significantly, to begin seeing Job’s journey as a profoundly healing one.

 

To understand how I got to this new understanding of The Book of Job, I want to talk about two fabulous American women, the therapist Dr. Pauline Boss and the late journalist Joan Didion. Boss for her therapeutic model of working through grief and Didion for her Job-like journey of living through grief.

 

Let’s start with Pauline Boss. Dr. Boss is a pioneering behavioural therapist and theorist. Many of you may be familiar with her work. In the 1970s, she coined the term ‘ambiguous loss’ to help her understand and treat people dealing with grief, loss, and trauma. Her best known books are Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief in 1999, and Loss, Trauma, and Resilience in 2006. Her latest book, which was just published in January, is The Myth of Closure: Ambiguous Loss in a Time of Pandemic and Change, written in the aftermath of both her husband’s death in 2020 and the ongoing COVID pandemic. She is Professor Emeritus at the University of Minnesota. No slouch is 87-year-old Pauline Boss. 

 

Allow me one quibble: I wish Dr. Boss had not entitled her new book The Myth of Closure. For me, myths are powerful stories that help us understand the grand dynamics of our world. They are not factually true, but they do reveal great truths about us. Alas, in the last twenty years, the word myth has taken on the negative connotation of lie or falsehood, which is the way Dr. Boss uses the word in the title of her book. For me, this represents the debasement of a powerful word and a compelling concept. If only Dr. Boss had asked for my opinion!

 

But back to “ambiguous loss”: the term covers a wide range of paradoxes and ambiguities in our lives. It deals with the tough questions we ask ourselves, especially when we experience a major loss. The kind of questions that – no matter how eloquently or emphatically we ask them – elicit ambiguous answers at best or no answers at all. And as Dr. Boss said in a 2016 On Being interview with Krista Tippett, “We’re not comfortable with unanswered questions.” 

 

As for examples of tough questions, here are a few: What did I do to deserve this? What more could I have done to prevent this? How am I ever going to carry on? Why is it taking me so long to get over this? Why do I just feel like crying all of the time? How can I ever be happy again? 

 

In her therapeutic model, Boss honours and venerates such tough questions, but she offers no quick solutions. Because there are none. It’s an approach that doesn’t sit comfortably in a world that is fixated on instant resolutions, precise flow-charts, and moving on. What Boss does do is to help us understand what’s happening and to accept the ambiguities and paradoxes we are experiencing. She also helps us recognize that everyone has different journeys and timelines when dealing with grief and suffering. Grief, after all, is a circular journey, not a linear one, and it can’t be flowcharted or pre-planned. Because dealing with grief is what’s happening here. Job, all of us here, everyone – we are all dealing with grief at a deep, visceral level, especially in the last two years. Remember that Job loses all ten of his children on one day! 

 

Dr. Boss also helps us do something beyond understanding our grieving process – she helps us to disconnect from the self-blame and the self-doubt that so often – and so debilitatingly – accompany our grief and our suffering. In helping grieving people accept that their grief will not be easily resolved, she is helping them to tolerate the ambiguity and paradoxes of their journeys. They are moving beyond the desire for closure, which comes from both internal conditioning and external societal pressure. There is no quick closure for the big ticket losses in our lives. In embracing this courageous and open-ended grief process, we are developing resilience and flexibility. As Dr. Boss says in The Myth of Closure, “Resilient people can adapt.” (page 42).

 

And I am arguing that this is exactly the process upon which Job is embarking by the end of his story. At the beginning of his story, he is filled with rage. He wants answers about why he is suffering so much. He thinks that by arguing his case directly with God, he – Job – will be able to understand and ‘find closure’. When he finally gets what he thinks he wants, he finds that God’s answers are as elusive as the wind. They offer no solace whatsoever, nor does God intend them to. God responds powerfully and passionately, but instead of answering Job’s questions, God puts Job’s suffering into the wider context of all the suffering that surrounds our species and our planet. God makes it clear that it is not up to God to heal us – that’s OUR work as individual human beings. God does not abandon us or leave us alone. But God does expect substantial sweat equity from us. Which is why, in my revised understanding of The Book of Job, that Job goes silent after God speaks. Job realizes where he fits in the grand, infinite scheme of things. He is not the only one who is suffering and grieving on this planet, even though that realization doesn’t reduce his suffering one iota. So Job goes silent. He goes inward. He must start his healing journey from within. And that healing journey is what Job can offer as a gift to God and humanity as a path through grief. Job anticipates the inspired work of Pauline Boss 2700 years later by accepting and integrating the ambiguity and paradoxes of the grieving process into his life. Will he ever have those first ten children back in his life? Only in his soul. Will he ever have closure? No, but he will begin healing. Will he ever resume his life? Yes, he will.

 

So, let’s talk about dear Joan Didion before I conclude. Sadly, she died just before Christmas. As with the work of Pauline Boss, I am sure many of you are familiar with Joan Didion’s writing. Best known for her novels, essays, and journalism, she – along with her husband, the writer and screenwriter John Gregory Dunne – were the darlings of both Hollywood and New York City. They appeared to be the perfect bi-coastal power couple. Until – and, of course, there’s always an ‘until’ – John Gregory Dunne died suddenly in their Upper East Side Manhattan apartment as they sat down for dinner on December 30, 2003. At the time, they were consumed with the serious illness of their daughter, who was near death in a nearby hospital. Joan Didion’s life was blown into utter chaos as she desperately dealt with both crises simultaneously. The next year was a prolonged nightmare. She obsessed endlessly about the minute details surrounding her husband’s death, her daughter’s near-fatal illness, and how she had managed them. What could she have done to prevent them? Where had she failed? What mistakes had she made? What signs had she missed? What was it she wasn’t understanding?  To help her fathom her profound grief and confusion, she wrote The Year of Magical Thinking, which was published in 2005. It is a raw, elegant, and agonizing description of pain and suffering. I was privileged to see the stage adaptation of the book, starring Vanessa Redgrave, in London in 2008. Even though I had already read the book, the play still had the emotional impact of a jackhammer. 

 

Here are some quotations from Didion’s book that will give you a sense of her writing:

 

• “I see [my reactions]...as the equivalent of a cry of helpless rage, another way of saying How could this have happened when everything was normal.” (page 68)

• “Grief has no distance. Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life.” (page 27)

• “The craziness is receding but no clarity is taking its place. I look for resolution and find none.” (page 225)

• “...I was born fearful...[S]ome events in life would remain beyond my ability to control or manage them. Some events would just happen...You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.” (page 98)

 

By the end of the book – at the end of her year of magical thinking – she has reached a point of clarity and what feels like the beginning of healing. 

• “I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us. I also know that if we are to live there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead. Let them become the photograph on the table...You [have] to go with the change.” (pages 225-227)

 

That passage just wipes me right out. I cannot read it without crying.

 

Let’s briefly look at the similarities and differences between Job and Joan Didion before I draw to a close today. I think there are four illuminating similarities:

1)      Both Job and Joan Didion are decidedly entitled human beings. They are accustomed to enormous privilege and to getting their own ways.

2)      When something doesn’t go according to plan in their lives, they both have endless questions – plus an expectation that they will get clear answers and get them quickly.

3)      They are both suffering enormously. Their wealth and their privilege do not insulate them from their pain.

4)      And finally, they both reach a point where they do, in fact, resume their lives. In doing so, they had begun the untidy process of healing.

 

There are, however, two significant differences between them: 

1)      Job directs all of his questions at God. Initially, Joan Didion directs her questions at medical staff. Then, more significantly, she starts directing those questions at herself. God appears to play no acknowledged role in her process. It’s never, “Why, God, why?”. It’s always, “Why, Joan, why?”

2)      There are gendered differences between them about assigning blame and responsibility. Throughout most of The Book of Job, Job externalizes the cause of his grief. Why are you making me suffer, God? On the other hand, Joan Didion internalizes the cause of her grief. What could I have done to prevent this? In my thirty-six years of teaching, I saw this pernicious pattern frequently: girls tended to internalize their failures and externalize their accomplishments. More simply put, girls blamed themselves for their failures and credited others with their successes. Boys tended to do the opposite: externalize their failures and internalize their accomplishments. 

 

As I said when looking at the similarities between them, however, they both did start the untidy process of healing. The fact that they did so after having followed distinct and gendered journeys does not diminish the power of their healing in any way.

 

So, let’s bring this presentation to an end. We have travelled with three remarkable human beings this morning: Job, Pauline Boss, and Joan Didion. Not too shabby a collection of dinner guests. All three teach us about the nature of grief and suffering. And all three model profound, yet diverse healing journeys. 

 

In the 1980s, at the height of the AIDS pandemic, I volunteered with an organization called the AIDS Mastery Workshops in Toronto. These workshops provided intense, emotionally charged three-day retreats for people who had been diagnosed with AIDS or who were HIV positive, plus their significant others and caregivers. These were the days before effective treatments, when an AIDS diagnosis often meant a lingering death, social ostracism, and appalling discrimination. The workshops focused on helping change internal attitudes towards AIDS and HIV. They helped those attending to actively live with AIDS. My small role was sometimes to be the workshop nurse. I co-ordinated the complex medication regimes so that the participants didn’t have to worry about the timing of their next pill. I perfected the art of appearing at precisely the right moment with precisely the right medication. Most of the people who took those workshops are now dead. I know that, because I attended many of their funerals. Those lovely, lovely people taught me enormously valuable lessons about living one’s life to the fullest with dignity and with purpose. They weren’t in those workshops to get cured. They were in them to heal. 

 

I offer them and Job and Pauline Boss and Joan Didion to you as exemplars for living with grief and healing with grace.

 

Thank you.

 

Contact Information:

Larry Tayler

42 Curtis Street

Picton ON K0K 2T0

Email: larrytayler@gmail.com (Please note the spelling of Tayler.)

 

Friday, 11 February 2022

City People: The Joys & Ambiguities of Urban Photography

 February 2022 Blog

 

Urban photography is my favourite form of photography. As I’ve often said, photographic heaven for me is the corner of Yonge and Dundas Streets in downtown Toronto, one of the busiest, most diverse, and most vibrant intersections in Canada. I can spend hours there with my camera and easily record hundreds of photos in a session. Which is what I’ve been doing for seven years now (alas, less frequently in the last two years). 

 

During that time, I have never, I repeat NEVER, been challenged or growled at by anyone. Sometimes, I may get a scowl or a raised eyebrow, but nothing beyond that. Mostly, I am completely ignored. After all, what threat can this elderly photographer pose to the public good? I suppose I could get sanctimonious about being marginalized and stereotyped, but I don’t. Being rendered invisible is a gift for urban photographers. Invisibility lets me get away with so much, and not just in my photography. One of the joys of retirement has been realizing just how much mischief I can get away with. (Shhh! Don’t tell anyone. Keep it a secret just between us.)

 

And because I am invisible, I can record the most remarkable faces without self-conscious posing. And if someone does look directly at me at the instant I release the shutter, I am often rewarded with an image that is especially nuanced and engaging. 

 

Mind you, when I photograph in an urban location, I do keep my urban smarts on high alert. Living in Toronto for thirty years equipped me with a full set of urban survival skills. Also, I am not reckless about my photography. Early on, I learned the value of lowering my camera right after recording a photo, while simultaneously turning away. I avoid eye contact with my subjects. 

 

I also avoid photographing the vulnerable and those who are clearly struggling. And I never single out a child for photography, beautiful though the photograph might have been. 

 

I don’t talk to the people I photograph; I don’t ask their permission; and I don’t have them sign a waiver. They are as anonymous to me as I am to them. 

 

The title of this blog post refers to both the joys and ambiguities of urban photography. The joys for me are self-evident – I am blessed with portraits of hundreds of beautiful, fabulous human beings. When I look at these faces afterwards on my computer monitor, I am often moved to tears. Such gifts they are in my life. 

 

But I know that there are also ambiguities. I am an uninvited guest in the lives of these people. Here I am, inserting myself and my camera into their personal space without their consent. Not all photographers agree with my approach. Canadian law, however, is on my side: as long as I am on public property, I am allowed to photograph what I wish. If it’s a privately owned location where the public is welcomed (a shopping centre, for instance), I can also photograph what I wish unless there are signs (or security guards) telling me not to. (The situation in Québec is more restrictive, where people in public have the right to the privacy of their own image.) 

 

I acknowledge that there is a range of informed opinion about photographing people in public without their consent. Whenever I am doing such photography, I am prepared to respond to those who might object to my photographing them by a) engaging in a respectful conversation; and b) offering to delete the photos in question. And I always carry a supply of my business cards to hand out as needed. So far, I have handed out very few.

 

At the moment, I am assembling a collection of urban portraits from the last seven years. I hope to arrange a future exhibit of the best photos under the title of “City People”. No details, dates, format, or venue are in place. At this point, I just like playing with the idea!

 

I hope you enjoy this selection of twenty-five urban photographs that follows.

 

Some things to bear in mind:

 

•       All the photos were recorded in Toronto, a city I adore.

•       I love every one of the photos and thank the subjects for the joy they bring into my life.

•       I do not know any of these people.

•       If any of them see their photo online and wish to have it deleted, I will do so immediately.

 

Until next month’s blog post, I wish you good health and happiness.