Dispatches

Flying the Coop

Sara Cassidy

“I’ll be back in a few hours,” I tell my teen son as I leave the house, “with eggs.” He is 6'1" and lean as a knife. He works out daily, so four eggs is nothing. I had thought I’d pick some up at a supermarket, but when I call in at my friend’s, five hens are scratching exuberantly in the yard after days of being cooped up—literally. My friend hands me four eggs straight from the nest box. The eggs are remarkably different one from the other in size and colour and thickness of the shell. As each year passes, the peculiarities of every tangible thing sing louder.

My friend and I decide to walk to what is called the Chinese cemetery. On the way, we pass Ross Bay Cemetery, named for Isabella Ross, a Métis woman from near Winnipeg who in the 185s became both BC’s first female and first Indigenous “registered landowner” (that’s the unassuming term that city historians use). Isabella Ross’s interesting accomplishment is usually explained away by the fact she was married to a Scottish chief trader for the Hudson’s Bay Company. But he died years before she bought the land, offed by appendicitis while she was pregnant with their tenth child.

Isabella Ross’s hundred-acre parcel faced what we now call the Salish Sea, and was so filled with waterfowl—ducks and geese and grebes, presumably—she named it Fowl Bay Farm. Eventually, after Ross had sold off parcels to stay financially afloat, the city bought the rest to use as a cemetery, where Isabella is now buried alongside James Douglas and Emily Carr and Billy Barker.

The Chinese community was given Ross Bay Cemetery’s “L Block,” to share with Japanese and Indigenous communities. People’s names were not put on their graves, only a cruel noun and a number. L Block lay so close to the shore (this was before a seawall was built) graves would be washed away in storms, so the Chinese Benevolent Association bought the site up the road. The Chinese cemetery is one of my favourite places to visit. No burials are performed here anymore, but everyone is remembered. I like to visit the altar, where people leave oranges and other offerings, sometimes a cigarette. Today the only item is an egg, half lost in the altar’s shadows.

When I boil eggs for my son, I boil them for ages. What is it with kids and soft yolks? Sometimes I’ll forget and remember the eggs when the water’s nearly boiled away. My mother forgot an egg in this way. When she left her desk to get a cup of tea, there it was, “a little sphere of ash.” The other day I similarly forgot something for a long time. The grey in my hair was looking like pigeon feathers, so I’d bought some henna—the fake commercial kind. I was supposed to rinse it after twenty minutes, but by the time I remembered, two hours had passed. My hair is now a dark mass, like a bad wig, that rebuffs light. My friends respond in different ways. Some don’t notice at all. Others notice but don’t say a thing. Others notice and say “Wow, you did your hair.” Some try to say something nice, like “It looks pretty good!” One said, “You can re-colour it, you know.” And I’m sure another one would go even further: “Why don’t you come over and I’ll help you re-colour it?”

It reminds me of a piece of advice I once got about advice. I was sorting out a tricky situation—a relationship that was fifty percent deeply joyful and fifty percent deeply miserable: do I stay or do I go? I started asking friends what I should do. One said to me, “Consider which friends you’re going to for advice. That should tell you something about what you want to hear.” I love advice. My sisters do too—we beg each other for advice. It’s terribly maligned, advice. Because of sexism. Women give advice, men dispense wisdom.

I studied philosophy at university in the 198s and never once studied a woman. I was never taught by a woman either. Or by any BIPOC. All these men were going on about this lofty thing called the human condition, and I remember thinking, Well, whatever that is, it is something I’ll never experience. The human condition had nothing to do with me. Some days if I think about it too long I want to get my tuition back. I can feel the bills being counted into my outstretched hand.

And to think there’d been Hypatia of Alexandria (murdered by a mob of Christians!), Simone de Beauvoir, Joyce Mitchell Cook… That ten years before I was born, Hannah Arendt had written a book called The Human Condition! Arendt was very interested in totalitarianism, and “identified as the root of tyranny the act of making other human beings irrelevant,” as Maria Popova puts it in a Brain Pickings article. In her essay “The Eggs Speak Up,” Arendt warns against fighting the big evils without fighting the little ones; they are all connected. She discusses how Stalin graduated along his expansively repressive path, from revolution, where “you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs”—“eggs” being people—to “you can’t break eggs without making an omelette,” where repression is integral to the political machine.

Arendt believed the “antidote” to totalitarianism is “love of the world,” as Popova puts it, and wrote that love’s goal is the kind of fearlessness that exists in the notion of eternal afterlife, where people are safe from dispossession.

I wish I’d learned about Hannah Arendt in my twenties. If I had, I’m sure I would have been braver all these years. What I’m trying to do now is to be aware when I cross paths with repression and dispossession, omissions and lies, dismissal and diminishment. Sometimes the evidence is quick, in passing, a little blaze of sun between leaves. Sometimes it’s a lot closer, like heat on a burn. Sometimes I find I’m the one maintaining the fire—in my ignorance, my lack of questioning, my lazy comforts. I can worry about my hair, be anointed with my friends’ advice, pedal my bike along the shore with eggs in my pocket—have love for the world—but none of that means I’m not on my guard, ready and willing to hear about people’s pain and strength.

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Sara Cassidy

Sara Cassidy's writing has won the Atlantic Writing Competition for poetry, a National Magazine Award (Gold) for non-fiction, and a BC Book Prize for children's writing. Her 21 children's books have been nominated for many honours, including the City of Victoria Children’s Book Prize and the Governor General's Literary Award. She lives on lək̓ʷəŋən territory and works in communications for the BC Ministry of Health.

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