Carol Shield’s final book Unless concerned a daughter who sat with a begging bowl at the corner of Bathurst and Bloor. She wore a placard with the word “Goodness”. The daughter appeared to be so overwrought with the state of the world that like an alms-begging monk ,she had retreated from polite society, her own cosy, loving home to the hard pavement, brought down by the numerous calamities of daily life.
I understand that image of the bereft woman so well these passed weeks. The world with Donald Trump and our mini-sized Trump here in Ontario delight in destruction. This past Tuesday morning after Thanksgiving began for us with The Star’s reporting the threat of destroying Bill148 that upholds workers’ rights. For the States, in last few weeks the Kavanaugh debacle that ended in his selection and confirmation to the Supreme Court made me want to weep. His behaviour perhaps uncorroborated in the past by a few select witnesses, still portrayed the man in the present in a toddler’s rage, marked by a level of tantrum, insults, egotistical, self- pitying, beer drinking embarrassment that does not, I believe, align with the coolheaded judgements he will be asked to make as a supreme jurist.
Leaving me aghast was Susan Collins who voted for him, a supposedly independent thinker who occasionally moves against her party.For her to affirm the nomination was treacherous, strange and pitiable as a woman. All who listened to Blasey Ford found her credible, 100% identification of her attacker and her demeanour impossible to criticize, yet now she is cast with all the other survivors of these acts indelibly etched in their souls, their testimonies ignored. And worse yet, society since the Anita Hill investigation, believing themselves more open, more caring, more listening and more supportive of women, have shown that is not the case at all. Perhaps only more two- faced. In fact, we cycle and recycle the same old terrible stories with the same sad terrible results, the victim tossed aside, the perpetrator, like his pussygrabbing boss, boasting false innocence, faces shining in triumph. Small heroes, but heroes in deed were Lisa Murkowski from Alaska and Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota who voted against Kavanaugh, the later who will lose her seat but not her rational ability to see clearly and act appropriately.
And here too, the women one had once believed independent, clearheaded thinkers have sided with our Premier, all ready demonstrating their allegiance to outmoded ideas and the brutish shenanigans that accompany their party head. A colleague of my husband’s suggested Caroline Mulroney is ever too much a daddy’s girl, willing to please her father figure boss,Ford : ironic as her real father disagreed with commandeering the Notwithstanding clause that hangs over our heads for anything or anyone who disagrees with him. And Christine Elliot, another we had believed to be rational, perhaps still in her husband’s shadow, not finding her own legs, more confident to ride the coattails of the head man here. It certainly perplexes in these times when women are supposed to be more empowered, able to knock their heads against glass ceilings. But perhaps still unable or in this political situation unwilling to break through that ceiling. So much for the chatter around Sheryl Sandberg’s “ lean in”, be assertive mantra. Rather, smile sweetly and nod your pretty little heads, girls.
What begins to emerge are two worlds, the division in the States as promoted by Trump, a world where compromise, cooperation, empathy, research and thoughtfulness is tromped upon, and the yahoos prevail. The people who cheer Trump on no matter what he says or does. That the US economy rises must be self-satisfying, yet he takes credit where he deserves none, riding on Obama’s coattails. And one begins to wonder, incredulous that Barack Obama once was even elected and lived in the White House. How did that happen when such a reversal has occurred? I shaking my head at the inconsistencies. And still worse, the blockheads who buoy up the Trump era, agreeing that ‘ fake news’ or the dirty Democrats are responsible for all of society ills and complaints.
I begin to think that some of us do live in a totally different world. Yes, we see the protesters who not only storm the steps in Washington, but hold Jeff Flake’s elevator door, shouting their truth. We read the reports in credible papers such as The New York Times. We watch John Oliver’s weekly and Stephen Colbert’s nightly attacks , laughing at the incredulous, ludicrous behaviours perpetrated on immigrants, dreamers, women, all “the others”, and know these voices that speak out are in deed preaching to the choir because the voters who put these men in office PUT them in office. Even Lady Gaga and Robert Di Niros are mere whisperers among the raucous shouting of the mesmerized.
And what of these blind folk who follow, do not think, the populous who have endorsed with their votes, their shouting rage, their staunch feeling that Trump speaks for them? They recall for me the Peter Brueghel painting of The Blind Leading the Blind, one attached to the other, ready to topple over another, not just blind but unwilling to see. Who are they that they can persist in a notion of the future where climate change, isolationism, and greed will support and improve the lives of their own children? Even some of the supporters must be women or have daughters?
Where do we turn, transfixed , heartbroken by the shape of our society?
When I read Unless so many years ago, I was not particularly impressed, The Stone Diaries and certainly Larry’s Party exerting a stronger impact on my evaluation of Shield’s writing. However in these present times, the symbol, the depiction of the daughter Norah and Norah’s mother, Reta’s helplessness in the scourge of their times persisted and resurrected itself in my head.
Perplexed but understanding of the daughter’s action in Unless, Shields writes,
“Why is Norah acting, or not-acting, as she does? Tom thinks she’s suffering post-traumatic stress, but he… [l]acking answers, and under the influence of Danielle Westerman( therapist), Reta adopts a theory of female exclusion, which she expounds in a series of letters addressed (but not posted) to men guilty of failing to recognise women’s achievements. As Reta sees it, ‘The world is split in two between those who are handed power at birth, at gestation, encoded with a seemingly random chromosome determinate that says yes for ever and ever, and those like Norah, like Danielle Westerman, like my mother, like my mother-in-law, like me, like all of us who fall into the uncoded female otherness in which the power to assert ourselves and claim our lives has been displaced by a compulsion to shut down our bodies and seal our mouths and be as nothing against the fireworks and streaking stars and blinding light of the Big Bang.”
So sad moments. As we treat women, the disenfranchised so we treat ALL people. To be alive in the 21st Century and to be behaving thus is incomprehensible, shameful. So I weep.