I heard on a TV documentary about children that our sense of self was basically formed by the time we are ten years old. By then we have absorbed the ‘teachings’ of TV behaviours that inform our subconscious. So, back in the day, I was aware of what the culture of the time expected of my gender. I was also aware that it wasn’t the right fit but I hadn’t developed the language for that beyond feeling it was the wrong fit. Today thanks to instant communication children have a greater knowledge of gender variations. I doubt that at the age of five I would have understood what a faggot was, children today do know what it means.
Where was I when I was nine? We had just settled in Sydney, Cape Breton after moving across Canada for a couple years. My mother & I had spent some time with her family in Wales during this time as well. I remember ‘living’ in Moncton, Stellerton or was it Truro for short periods of time & going to schools there, briefly. Finally in Sydney, were we lived in three different neighbourhoods before my dad bought a house in Ashby.
One result was that I spent those formative years as a displaced person – someone who was different. My Dad prodded me into things that could show me how to ‘fit in’: cub scouts, YMCA. I did the best I could but felt like an outsider &, as I recall, was fine with that. I did get these weird mixed messages ‘why can’t you be like other kids’ then when I wanted some fad item ‘why can’t you think for yourself.’
I survived partially by hiding in booze & partially by writing & painting as I gradually found language for what I was. Though then that language was loaded – an abomination unto the Lord – sort of stuff. Today I know the tragic flaw wasn’t my sexuality but the way culture regarded not only lgbtq but sexuality itself.
Over time I’ve come to see this as one of the ‘better’ pieces in the chapbook. It reveals more about growing up Cape Breton than any of the others. Even with the abstract moments it is a good snap shot of my sense of displacement as I search for a sense of safe haven.
It opens with any array of African clichés – a distant place I knew very little about & much of that thanks to Tarzan & similar safari movies populated with fully dressed white dudes & a panoply of half-naked black men. It is a dream retreat in this first section.
It is not so dreamy in the second part with my list of realistic drawbacks. I’m also caught by the distance of that Paris escape, another place far from me, from my artistic longings. Like birds caged so long the freedom of Africa would kill me? The closest I ever got to that wild was already in cages.
The third section drops us into Cape Breton with another list of cliches with a decent dash of Gaelic. The economy there was becoming unstable with long-time major industries struggling in the world market. Tourism was always strong there & was to become even more important so the twisting Cabot Trail was no longer for the locals 🙂 There was an exodus of generations who had family ties & nostalgic roots that kept pulling them back.
Four takes me back to Africa where like Cape Breton tourist dollars, exploiters needs were controlling the continent. The ancient history seemed to be confined to Egypt as seeing though colonist exploiter’s eyes. Even today I see documentaries where talking heads are astonished that such primitive tribe could produce such fine artifacts -ahem – maybe they weren’t so primitive.
I had seen on TV around that time, early 70’s, that I Love Lucy reruns were the most popular TV show in the world, that she was watched in every country. They showed glimpses of her being watch by natives in huts in Africa. I was watching Lucy in Cape Breton – she represented an American culture that was not mine or theirs. So where does our cultural sense of self come from, when what is under our feet gets co-opted by a materialistic monolith without us even being aware of it.
In the end I am left with a wistful nostalgia for Cape Breton – which isn’t where I was born, but Manitoba where I was born has no resonance. I was a man searching for more than a sense of heritage, more than the concept of home but for a sense of safe haven.