Corporate Identity

I am working in an office for the summer. I don’t always work in an office, but I have and I will again, and every time, the strangeness of it creeps up on me and occurs to me one day as if I’m seeing it for the first time.

There are people I pass at the coffee station here whose names I don’t know, but whose faces I do. We make short little bits of small talk, mostly about perceived levels of caffeine intake, our own and each others’. The people who become most familiar are the ones who drink a lot of coffee. I wonder if this makes them more like me. I wonder if they also start feeling like themselves around 9 p.m., and then can’t bear to go to bed at 11. I wonder if they feel a little stuck in themselves, too.

I sit in an area with three other people. There are no rules of when to talk and when not to: mostly, we act as if we were alone (but not quite alone). When someone thinks of something interesting enough to say, there are a few minutes of conversation. I learn things about my co-workers.

Mostly, this is the stuff of small talk, TV shows and weekend plans and upcoming vacations. People almost universally like to talk about their children, and to hear about other people’s. I ponder the merit of inventing a kid.

Some of the things I learn are mundane, but secret and endearing because of proximity to relative strangers: when and what someone likes to eat, how they answer the phone, what they wear when they’re in a good mood.

Then there are closer details. One has a conservative family and worries about arranged marriages. One is a devout Christian but, when she goes travelling, collects photos of handsome men. One has a nephew who was in an ATV accident and is in a coma.

One day in my third week in the office, I have such bad anxiety that I have to tell someone, so I admit it to my co-workers. I steel myself to break the silence and say, “I’m having such bad anxiety that I can’t concentrate on anything.” My co-workers make sounds of sympathy. They talk about people they know who have anxiety, too.

I also tell them about my friend Jordan, who died last year. I got a tattoo on my wrist to remember him, and it should have been obvious to me (but wasn’t) that I would talk about him at least once a week because of it. Had I thought it through in advance, I might have gotten it some place more private, but as it is I am glad of the excuse: I’m happy that I get to tell people that we used to drink a lot of coffee together at work, that we planted a cherry tree for him in Christie Pits park, grateful that I have this twee little mug full of flowers on my skin so that I get to say his name.

There are people you try to unearth, who could be friends or lovers. You dig because you think you can create a portrait of them, an approximation that will become truer over time, until you know them as much as you can. Here in the office, I gather little pieces of people without trying to put them together. I will move on, soon, I will forget what an office is like, but tomorrow, when IT won’t answer, when the industrial size coffee maker gives up, when the other summer student addresses all of the outgoing mail just in time to miss the postman, I will be able to remind someone else that I know they are human.

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to the men who want to help or at least to know

I am so fucking tired of my friends and I being collateral damage in the adventures of men who see us as nothing more than bundles of body parts.

When a man does something that negates consent – gets a woman drunk, or better yet, puts something extra in her drink, ignores the fact that she’s already too drunk, ignores her hesitation, ignores her I don’t think so, makes her feel like she can’t leave when she says she wants to, this is by no means a comprehensive list – it can literally become a fun party story for him, an acceptable thing to tell his friends about and forget by next weekend. She will try to get over it, try to forget it, try to work through it, but it will be something that has happened to her – an event in her life, one of the marbles in her pocket.

It happens every day. It has happened to almost every woman in one form or another. If she is one of the rare women to whom it hasn’t happened, she is reminded almost every day that it is a possibility by the men who feel authorized to comment on her body, her outfit, her smile, her desirability when she is in public, when she is at work or school or on the street. If she is a woman and she leaves the house, somebody will find some way to remind her that her body is not her own, a vessel in which to spend her earthly existence, but rather a communal good, an object that can be openly critiqued and taken and used at other people’s leisure.

This is one of the things that everyone goes through in life but that no one prepares you for. High schools have gotten better at teaching their students about budgeting and resumes and current events. Modern parenting has evolved so that dialogue about drinking and relationships is encouraged. But there are things that almost everyone will experience in life that – unless you are very fortunate or very unfortunate – are completely omitted from the preparation provided for life, formal or informal. The first time someone you know dies too young and you have to incorporate the reality of mortality into your worldview. When you love someone who becomes addicted to something – or meet an addict with whom you fall in love – and you watch them hurt themselves, or try to stay by them as they hurt you, or have to walk away from them. Did your parents tell you that this was going to be as inevitable as learning to pay your credit card bill on time or plunging a toilet or finally understanding the importance of ironing? Mine didn’t, and they were above average parents in a lot of ways.

Luckily, I had books. I had good books and good movies, and when the bad shit in my life started coming, fast and hard – things like addiction and loss – I had been warned that it would do so by my own independent education, and in some fashion been told how to handle or how not to handle it. (Although I had perhaps thought that the tragic things that happened in books happened only to artists and that I was therefore exempt from them – yes, I see the logical fallacy.)

It’s also a fallacy to say that my literary education was independent. While I took it upon myself to read good books and watch good movies, I was given an idea of what constituted a good work by my parents, my teachers, and society at large. I was provided with a canon. And this canon was, for the most part, populated by white men, many of whom had expired by the time of my reading. Where my high school life skills class trailed off, teaching me to make a budget in Excel but failing to mention the true feeling of absolute poverty, Knut Hamsun took over. When the police officer who came to visit our class told us about the plethora of ways in which drugs and drinking could kill you and ruin your life, I had Hunter S. Thompson and Big Sur to both counter and confirm. When they separated the boys and the girls and told us about condoms and STDs and pregnancy and (how progressive!) in the same breath taught us simple self-defence, I had no one to turn to. I had no one to tell me what rape felt like. I had no one to tell me that it was not a stranger in the bushes, not a bolt from the blue, not something you read about in the news, but something that could and was going to happen – subtly, insidiously, and silently – to anybody with a pussy whom I chose to love.

If you are a man and you find it hard to believe that rape is this prevalent, it is because the women in your life choose to speak about it with each other rather than involving you. They tell each other their stories. They cry with each other. They take each other to the hospital and help each other change the sheets they haven’t been able to touch yet. They do all this without you ever knowing about it – maybe because they have no interest in bringing you into it, but maybe also because they think that you wouldn’t be interested in being part of it. Maybe because they think that you wouldn’t believe them. Definitely because those assumptions are completely fair given the statistics, given the Ghomeshi trial, given the objectification of women’s bodies in popular media, given the absence of a single book about a woman’s experience of rape in the cultural canon.
You cannot necessarily ask the women in your life about their experiences outright. There is such a good chance, though, that you know a woman who would like to confide in you, given the opportunity. Here is what you can do: you can use actions that demonstrate that you are a person who will not offer rejection or disbelief when a woman tells you she has experienced rape. The physical strength that allows some men to rape or intimidate women is the same biological advantage that allows other men to stand up to these men in a way that women cannot without endangering themselves. If you see a woman being harassed – and by the way, unwanted attention is harassment – you can help her. You can do this not by stepping in, cutting her off, and taking her voice from her, but by politely asking her if she is being bothered, then if she would like to stop being bothered, and, finally, if she would like you to stand next to her while she tells the man in question to stop bothering her, or if she would feel more comfortable if you told him yourself. If things seem to be getting dangerous or violent, communicate that you are going to involve the authorities who have the power to deal with that and then do so. When the situation has been taken care of, you can then leave that woman alone. You haven’t helped end the harassment in order to take it up yourself. You aren’t owed anything for having done this. You are simply working in one tiny way to create balance in a world that is so hazardously skewed that women are raped every day, with absolutely no consequence to their rapists. Where women’s bodies are a social good and their minds and hearts are collateral damage.

The body remembers what the mind forgets

It holds it in its crevices

It leaks it into saliva and sweat

To be licked up by lovers’ lips

Who turn away from the sour, sweet smell of it

The Disappearing Day: A User’s Guide

I know days like this.

I live in days like this one, loosely strung together like glimmering beads. Lost days. Days that don’t mean anything to anyone, and consequently are completely my own. Days where I don’t pick up the phone. I don’t know that all people, or even many people, offer themselves the luxury of a day like this unless something very bad has happened to them, in which case it’s not a pleasure, but a necessity.

What those inexperienced with a disappearing day won’t realize at first – and may have to learn the hard way – is that a day like this must be filled with something. The easiest thing is television and junk food, or to stay in bed all day reading. If you were having a good dream when you woke up, you can close your eyes and return to it. You can play with it, try to shape and change it. You can do this until it’s dark outside your windows, and you will have made the day disappear.

The key is to forget that you have a past or a future. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to do, but it’s not easy. Wandering aimlessly or going to an art gallery may seem like good disappearing day activities, but they actually represent incredibly advanced levels of disappearing difficulty. There is too much room in an art gallery for the contents of last night, for every mistake you’ve ever made and never been able to forget, or for the knowledge that Monday exists. There’s also the chance that you might run into an acquaintance at the art gallery, in which case you’d be forced to undertake the painful effort of becoming invisible. Acquaintances are anathema to disappearing days.

If you’ve ignored my advice and have skipped straight ahead to something complex, like going to a cafe that plays soft music, rather than starting with the much simpler task of staying at home and seeing how much popcorn you can fit into your mouth at once, if your disappearing day threatens to be derailed by memory or thought, it can be useful to focus on a thought adjacent to the one that has actually surfaced, or a memory that isn’t properly your own.

Last night, I saw an ex-girlfriend of a friend. She had become the antagonist of many stories, so it was startling when she was warm and sweet, when she remembered my name and offered me a cigarette. It’s funny that people keep existing after your memories of them have ossified.

Disappearing days can be shared with another person, but only if you carefully, silently, but completely mutually agree to disappear. You can order pizza together, and you can laugh at the same parts of a movie, but nothing more weighty than this. Certainly there is no falling in love to be done on a disappearing day – nothing that would contribute to the continuity of events. You can lie in bed next to someone for hours, but if you look into their eyes for too long even once, you have created an entirely different kind of day.

I once had a friend who couldn’t believe that I spent entire days without leaving the house. I couldn’t believe that she didn’t. There are a lot of days in a life, and while the approach of many people is to fill each one with as much activity as possible, I would argue that each day becomes a chapter that you carry with you; I would much rather be left standing with a set of treasured volumes than with an encyclopedia dragging behind me. So I disappear today. I’m sorry I didn’t answer your call.

Poems Oct. 23

NO ONE SHOULD WRITE POETRY: A collection by Charlotte Kidd

***

I didn’t know, yet, that good men are hard to find.

I hadn’t learned, yet, how big the city is, and how full of empty eyes.

I didn’t know about other souls, yet,

Couldn’t feel them where they sat, in quivering cages, waiting to be touched.

I was bored by talk of records and novels and television,

And wanted to be swept up at every moment.

I thought that I was strange

And that there was nobility in pushing someone away.

I’m sorry I hurt you.

I’m sorry I didn’t know, yet, the weight of doing it.

***

The city is empty tonight,

Full of empty eyes and empty talk,

Empty storefronts and empty bars.

But look! There are hands that hold each other; they are full.

There are ears that cup each other’s voices,

Surely they run over.

There are heads tucked close together, hunching over mingling breath

And they must be filled with a million thoughts

Or better, a rush of feeling, obscuring all thought.

Where can I find such an island of plenty,

I in my empty city?

***

Do I want to see you again?

I have nightmares where we make small talk.

In my waking fears, we meet each other at a party

And, denied privacy, speak of small things,

Our jobs, our weight, once-mutual friends,

Always feeling the words that aren’t said.

In my dreams, we sit in a room

With nothing but empty air between us,

Daring only say meaningless words,

Or worse, having nothing of meaning to dare.

And what if he comes with you, and stands beside you?

A person as natural to you now

As you once were to me?

You passed his secrets on to me

Smuggled gifts that you were unsure of giving

But trusted me with, in spite of yourself.

I wish I didn’t know them now,

As he protects you from me with his eyes

As he makes sure that I see him place his hand

On the small of your back.

Where did you go?

I felt you like no one before.

And if I never see you again

You’ll never be a stranger.

2015 is kicking my ass

There’s a poster on the building across from mine that says “Choose Happy”. It’s written in one of those inadvisable funky fonts, so that it looks like “Choose Hoody”. Some stupid phone company reminds me every day that if I opt for a collared sweater, it might rain.

It sounds really simple. It sounds so blissfully, deliciously simple. Some eager marketing person has, out of either idiocy or brilliance, reduced advertising to this, its essential message: you can be happy. You just have to choose the right thing.

All around me, everyone seems to have their lives, their missions, their relationships, their jobs, their cars, pets, hair, teeth, Starbucks orders, 5-year plan, summer wedding, conception of the afterlife figured out. They have a business card inside their suit that leads to their website, where it will all be explained. They still need funding, but they have some good leads and a lot of hope.

It makes me want to stay in bed. It makes me want to bury my head under the covers like a blanket ostrich and wait for the day to end, because this all, this everything that everyone else seems to have figured out, feels at once impossible and totally un-worthwhile to me. I’m an expert at cynically dismissing what everyone else wants but have no idea what else to want. I don’t know how to choose happy because I can’t even figure out what my version of happiness looks like.

I get stuck on this idea that tomorrow is the day I wake up and get my life together. I missed waking up at 8, so I’ve missed the day. I might as well not do anything today and tomorrow I will start again.

I’ve tried things, in 2015. I tried working for a bank for 6 months, where I learned that a job that makes you miserable is never worth staying at. I moved into an apartment in downtown Toronto, with a view of the water and the city, and I learned what cardinal direction it points in and started trying to observe some things, like the progress of the new condos they’re building across the street. These seem like basic things, but for a person who exists mostly inside her own head, they’re accomplishments.

There’s a lot of 2015 left. There’s still time for me to get up, a little bruised, and start kicking back.

It seems to me

You never let go of hatred

But, hear me out:

You always clung to love.

We grew up in a place where plates flew

Where a kiss was followed by a yell

And a yell by a kiss

Where hate and love happened like one tree with two roots.

And so of course,

We tore each other’s hair out by the handful as we held hands on the street

Our kisses were followed by yells and our yells by kisses

We screamed and cried and bullied between the pet names

We made each other small and big

And to us, it was all the same.

And now we’re here, grown up,

And you, I think, still hate.

I have lost the how.

When I left home, I severed hatred like a black limb and cast it off

I spent years learning to wince away from anything that looked like anger

I never wanted to yell again.

You, the littler, wiser one

I think knew

That to cut down the trunk was to kill both roots.