In the morning before school, Ruby gets out of bed and comes looking for me. She climbs up into my lap and curls up into a ball and I wrap myself around her, stroke her hair back from her face, and cuddle her like a dad who knows that kids grow old and that they do not always fit in the laps of their parents and that this, too, will pass.
Just last week, I was trying to sneak in a few more pages of a book in the early hours of the morning when Ruby came tottering out of her bedroom with sleep in her eyes, searching for me. I put down the book, pulled her into my lap, and rocked her like a baby. “I love you, Ruby,” I said. She turned her face, looked me in the eyes and, in a perfectly matter of fact manner, said:
“Everybody is going to die.”
Before I left for Iceland, I deactivated my facebook account. I had done this already, some months before, but I reactivated my account to drum up some press for my new business and then I just fell into old habits. Going to Iceland seemed like an opportune moment to deactivate it again. But, after I returned and the bullshit of day-to-day life began to settle over me and colonize me again, I found myself missing people. I started feeling left out of the lives of loved ones. And I started feeling left out in terms of what was going on in the world (I had also stopped following the news – I got most of my news through various facebook connections, not through the mainstream media). So I started up my account again.
As I scrolled through my feed, I read about Jocelyn George, an eighteen year old mother of two and a member of the Ahousaht and Hesquiah Nations, and I read about how she died in RCMP custody (the Mounties have always been on the forefront of Canada’s colonial war). I thought about Sherene Razack’s book about Inquests and Inquiries into Indigenous deaths in custody in Canada and I got angry and I got sad and I started to write a blog post about Razack’s work in connetion to Jocelyn’s death and to how that death was portrayed in the main Canadian news outlet, the CBC.
And I read about Philando Castile and Alton Sterling and how they also died at the hands of police officers who killed them simply because they were black men. And I read about Black Lives Matter protests and about how a lone, black gunman shot and killed five police officers in Dallas and shot and injured another seven police officers. And I read about how the cops used a robot with a bomb attached to it it to blow up this gunman. And I thought about how the cops bought lunch for Dylann Roof, the young white man who shot and killed nine black people at a prayer meeting in a church in Charleston, and I thought about how the cops bombed the MOVE house in Philadelphia in 1985 because they wanted to kill the (most likely unarmed) black people who lived there but had used up all their ammunition shooting at the house and hadn’t managed to kill anyone. And I thought about how the cops used to ride with the Klan and how, just a few years ago, the FBI released a report stating that white supremacist movements in the USofA were working to infiltrate law enforcement agencies. And I thought about Huey Newton and wondered who shot first, and I thought about the Black Liberation Army that shot police officers in the ‘70s as a form of revenge for police killing black people, and I thought about LA in ’65 and ’92 and Detroit in ’43 and ’67 and Ferguson in 2014, and I added all of this to the blog post I was writing and I wrote and I was sad and I was angry and I saw a drawing of a riot cop getting shot with a caption that said, “speak to cops in a language they understand” and I thought I understood, and I thought about the history of black armed self-defence in the USofA, and I thought that if you shoot at a people for long enough they will start shooting back and while death is tragic for the loved ones of those who die – and perhaps for others as well – these deaths were not senseless or crazy or beyond comprehension, and I think I wrote a pretty good piece.
But then I deleted it. Because it’s not like I haven’t said all of this before. And it’s not like we all haven’t heard all of this before. And it’s not like we don’t know. It’s just that it doesn’t seem to make any difference. My reading, my writing, my knowing, my feeling. It doesn’t make any difference. And the life I live – the average life of a cishet middleclass white male settler colonizing stolen land and consuming goods stained with the blood of others – is the first and only proof of that needed here.
And then I deactivated my facebook account again. And I looked at some pictures from Iceland. And I searched for cheap flights to far, far away.
Charlie has learned that he can sleep in my bed when he has bad dreams. Now he doesn’t even wait to fall asleep before coming into my room and telling me he had a bad dream. I shuffle over and he crawls in beside me. “Does this feel better?” I ask. “I feel really good,” he says, and then he falls asleep as I type or read or lay down beside him and give him a cuddle. It won’t be long before he never wants to fall asleep curled up beside me again. I’m happy to change my plans around for another night with him breathing softly next to me.
Plus, I was so afraid of everything as a child that if he’s even a little bit scared at night, even if he doesn’t have any bad dreams, I’m happy to be there and take his fears away.
It’s hard to believe he’s already done Grade One. He brought his workbooks home at the end of the year and for one project he had to draw different designated spaces. One of those spaces was called “a space where I feel safe.” He had drawn a picture of a building and beside it, he wrote, “daddy’s house.”
I have tried to put into words how that made me feel, but I’m not sure that I can.
I’ve been thinking a bit more often of Jesus these days. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the man whose name was Legion because he was possessed by so many demons (possessed by an occupying force – possessed by a Legion – possessed by a foreign military force that had colonized not only his land but his body, which is like reading Fanon before Fanon). If this story were taking place on Turtle Island today the man would be an Indigenous man and his name would be Mountie.
But what is striking about this story is that Jesus sends the man away. This is how their encounter ends:
As [Jesus] was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed was imploring him that he might accompany Jesus. And Jesus did not let him, but he said to him, “Go home to your people and report to them what great things the Lord has done for you, and how He had mercy on you.”
And what about the Legion itself? Where does it go? Into a herd of pigs (which, for a people who observed Kosher food laws, where themselves a sign of an occupying force). The pigs then stampede into the lake and drown. Thus Jesus engages in an act of large scale property destruction, which would have been costly to the man who owned the pigs. No wonder the locals beg him to leave. If he lingers on, who knows how much more damage he will do and they will be the ones who are there to suffer the wrath of the rich man when he learns about his lost investment. (Again, if this story were being told today, the demons possessing the man who was called Mountie would have been banished into a horde of rats who would have fled into a condo development in Vancouver’s downtown eastside and the rats would have eaten away the walls and wires and supports until the whole thing collapsed or burned down.)
And as for me? Well, at first I thought I might be like the demon possessed fellow whom Jesus liberated and sent back to be with his people (just as Malcolm X and Taiaiake Alfred both urge well-intentioned white folks to go back to the white settler communities that they are a part of and address the white supremacy and settler colonialism they find there). But that fellow is not me. I am not possessed by a Legion. I am one of that Legion.
In Jesus’ context, sinners, or those whom the dominant power structures treat as sinners, are easily forgiven for they are not so much wrongdoers as they are those who are wronged. The demon possessed are unable to remain mentally healthy while in the dis/possession of a colonized subjectivity. But the demons themselves? What hope is there for them? Because I am not a man colonized by a Legion. I am the Legion that is colonizing the land (which includes the Am ha’aretz—the people of the land – because the people belong to the land and not vice versa). The demons are not saved. And I no longer find any hope for myself in the Jesus stories. How can I follow Jesus when Jesus has cast me out?
Ruby told me that “everybody is going to die,” because, for the last few months, she has been trying to make sense of Death. She circles around the subject and it pops up randomly and disappears again just as randomly. Charlie went through a similar process about a year ago. For some reason he has been able to allay some of his death anxiety by telling himself that, apart from wars and accidents (which he still can’t really seem to fit into his paradigm), people don’t really die until they are one hundred years old. So he wishes for no more wars but also for no more birthdays and no more dying and to him those are the same thing because if you stop having birthdays you stop getting older and if you stop getting older, you can live forever.
What does Ruby wish for? That she could live in the land of the unicorns where everything is made of candy.
But a few months ago, Ruby came to realize that Death is a thing here in the land of the living. We were driving home from a photoshoot with my sister-in-law and we drove by a graveyard and Charlie said that when we die we are buried in the ground. He wanted to know if the dying came before or after the burying and he wanted to know what it was like to be dead and buried in the ground.
Ruby was following along with the conversation and then began to ask questions: “Am I going to die? Is mommy going to die? Is Daddy going to die? Is Nan going to die?” And the answer to every question was, “yes,” and then, eventually, “eventually, at some point, everyone will die.”
And Ruby burst into tears. Hard, uncontrollable and inconsolable sobs: “I don’t want to die! I don’t want mommy to die! I don’t want daddy to die! I don’t want to die! I don’t want to die!”
There wasn’t much I could say to comfort here at that time, as we drove along a road called “Wonderland” in a city that barely feels alive to me.
As I’ve been thinking about the Jesus stories, I thought maybe I could find hope for myself in the tax collectors. Tax collectors, after all, were those who valued money and comfort and the advancement of their own children over the lives and well-being of everyone else. Matthew, for example, was a tax collector and he followed Jesus. But he gave everything up in order to do so and if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last seven years it’s how little I am willing to give up. So Matthew is not a good place for me to go looking for myself. Perhaps another tax collector, Zacchaeus, offers me hope? What does he say after meeting with Jesus?
“Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”
Zacchaeus doesn’t give everything up. He doesn’t even walk away from his life to go and follow Jesus. He just shifts his priorities and allegiances around. He goes from being exclusively focused upon himself and his loved ones to being focused upon the broader community. How does Jesus respond?
“Today salvation has come to this house, because [Zacchaeus], too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
And then I realized, no, there is no hope for me here. After all, even the tax collectors were members of a colonized and oppressed people. To use a contemporary example, tax Collectors or more like Indian Act Chiefs who are intent on making money by cutting deals with pipeline companies regardless of what the land or the people desire. But Indian Act Chiefs are still members of a colonized people (sons of Abraham in the language of Jesus’ context — and elsewhere Jesus makes it clear he is only interested in saving the lost who are from this background). Jesus is keen to see that all members of the colonized have the opportunity to embrace an alternative way of sharing life together – a way of life that is liberated from colonialism and the racist and patriarchal hoarding of wealth and power that goes along with it.
So, no, I am not to be found amongst the tax collectors. I am much worse than them. I am Legion. And, nota bene, not a single Roman soldier is offered or attains salvation or anything close to it in the Jesus stories. Granted, at the end of Mark’s story (Mark also tells us the story of Legion), a Centurion who witnesses Jesus die on the cross is reported to have said, “Truly this man was a Son of God.” Do not be fooled into thinking this means that the Centurion was saved. All throughout Mark’s stories, demons recognize Jesus as a Son of God. Hence, at the moment when the demonic power of colonization is revealed most fully – when Jesus, the figurehead of a movement of decolonization, is being tortured to death because this kind of dedication in unacceptable to the colonizers – we have a demonic voice, yet again, recognizing Jesus as unique (and, most likely, uniquely troubling… uniquely unsettling). But this is not a confession in the traditional Christian sense or a metanoia in the more technical sense. It is simply an observation made by a higher ranking member of the Legion.
Funny that my people go around talking about Jesus so much. If there is one group of people who are utterly damned and utterly hopeless, according to Jesus, it’s my people. And that includes me, too.
When I was in Iceland, I didn’t think very much. I saw, I listened, and I touched. Senses I hardly use awoke. The water I drank from streams and waterfalls tasted amazing. And everything smelled good (well, not so much the sulphur fields close to some volcanic activity, but everything else smelled good!). Everything seemed to be alive and I came to life, too. Not in my head or in my thoughts but in my senses that don’t know words or ideas. I was overflowing with delight and often found myself laughing. Laughing because there was so much happiness and goodness and wonder around and inside and outside (and inside and outside seemed all mixed up together) that laughter seemed to be a part of the very bones of the world. This is me, the guy with the DOOM sign (it’s a long story), the reader drawn to Cormac McCarthy, in part, because of how violence appears to be not a moral category but an ontological category in his writings, and now, looking back on Iceland I consider what laughter as an ontological category might be like or might mean for us lesser beings.
One day, I stretched out my arms, as if somehow I could touch the mountaintops, and the glacier in the valley, and the ocean on the horizon, and the clouds in the sky, and I said, “I belong in the earth.”
I didn’t think that was what I was going to say but after I said it, I think it was exactly what I wanted to say.
And Ruby said, “everybody is going to die.”
I belong in the earth.
And Charlie said, “I had a bad dream,” and “I wish for no wars and no more birthdays and no more dying.”
I belong in the earth.
And the blood of Jocelyn and Philando and Alton cries out from the earth.
And Pilate washed his hands.
And I bought a ticket for Iceland.
And Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven.
I belong in the earth.