Stan Lee’s Poetic Super Powers

Perhaps one of the biggest reasons humanity is so flawed (and one of the reasons even the most effective education fails to increase one’s awareness) is because we all believe ourselves to be the …star of our very own narrative in some measure; if only others saw the world just as I do then they would suffer uncertainty no longer and all would be well. There is no such narrative and my story, albeit meaningful to me, is not the only tale to be told; we live as a collection of stories…

Stan Lee wasn’t just a storyteller or comic book artist. He was also a teacher: his lessons came in the form of characters who were super but also flawed; his work echoed G. K. Chesterton’s aphorism that faery tales aren’t important because they tell us dragons exist; rather, faery tales (or comic books) are important because they tell us dragons can be defeated.

Even the greatest obstacle can be defeated.

Lee’s character Spiderman, more than any other character, had the single most important thing to say: with great power comes great responsibility. This particular lesson, how the great have responsibility, applies equally to the small, to real people, people like you and me. Lee’s recent passing reminded me of this simple lesson: we all have responsibility—a responsibility to stick up for people who might not be in a position to stand up for themselves.

I mentioned G. K. Chesterton previously. He was a renowned poet. Poetry, surprisingly enough, can teach us a lot about standing up for the little guy. Poetry is likewise uniquely suited to provide readers with insights in to the emotional, psychological, spiritual and intellectual experiences of the poet. This is important because by getting to know others better we grow in our own self-awareness. Poetry thoughtfully considered leads us to ask such questions as:

  • What makes us who we are?
  • How do we define ourselves?

Questions like these are important to ask because they nudge us closer to self-knowledge. For instance, consider the following lines from the Metis writer Gregory Scofield’s poem Women Who Forgot the Taste of Limes [2]:

ni-châpan, if I take ki-cihcânikan,
press it to their lips,
will they remember the taste of limes,
sea-salt bled into their grandfathers’ skin?

If I pull from this bag of rattling bones
the fiddle, the bow bone,
if I go down to the lazy Red,
lay singing in the grass

The first line of the first stanza is written mostly in Cree (translated into English as “my ancestor, your fingerbone”). Clearly Scofield is referencing his ancestors in Cree to demonstrate how powerfully and meaningfully he connects to his past. This idea is further developed when in the fourth line of the same stanza he refers to his grandfathers in the plural, possessive. He is not talking about only the father of either his mom or dad; rather, he is talking about all of his forefathers (a synonym for nation). Again, Scofield wants us to view the past not as some fleeting memory but as a real, living testament of the past’s importance to our understanding of the present; and finally, in the second last line of the second stanza, Scofield alludes to the “lazy Red” (or the Red River) which was the life blood of the Red River settlement (a place he considers is his ancestral homeland).

Why should Scofield’s thoughts or feelings about his ancestors matter to us? And why should we care what he remembers while lying down in the grasses by the “lazy Red”? Reading his thoughts helps us appreciate the fact human experience is a shared experience.

On the outside we might all look quite different from one another; however, on the inside we are cut from the same cloth, we are made of the same fundamental substance. Certainly, our unique experiences and perspectives make us actually quite different from one another. Yet, at the most fundamental level one thing makes us all the same: at root we are all meaning-making creatures sharing the same human nature; therefore, when Scofield feels sadness you and I can appreciate why; when he expresses joy we can experience it, too. Consider what Scofield himself says about the personal significance of his poem Women Who Forgot the Taste of Limes (Scofield (102-103)):

My claim to Manitoba as ancestral homeland dates back at least four generations, to the establishment of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Country Wives—Cree women whose Indian names have long since been forgotten.  In 1863 ni-châpan, my maternal great-great-grandmother Mary Mathilde Henderson, was born in the Red River Settlement, just as her parents and grandparents were.  Many years later, my grandfather George Scofield (Cusitar) left Manitoba to escape poverty and discrimination.  My mother knew little about her father’s childhood, or of the half-breed women who lived in the marrow of memory.

 

I recently went on a reading tour in Manitoba with seven other First Nations writers to promote awareness and appreciation of aboriginal literature to both Native and non-Native communities.  I viewed the tour as an opportunity to bring y poetry “home,” to give something back to the people, land and sky of my ancestors, to honour the bones that I’ve been given to sing.  When the tour ended in Winnipeg, I visited the Exchange District’s antique stores.  I have a love of antiques, believing in the sharp memories of trees, iron, clay, cloth, and stones; the craftsperson’s hands; stories created from flesh and bone.

 

I spoke to one store’s owners at length about my collection and my desire to find a small candle table.  The women were so gracious and helpful that I felt I’d found kindred spirits.  They did a phone search for the table, and after finding a store that sounded promising, I asked them to call me a taxi.  They grew silent, looking at me like I’d said something terribly wrong.  One of the women busied herself behind the counter while the other one cleared her throat: “You may want to reconsider that.  The Indians around here use taxis like public transit.  They’re really dirty.”

 

I felt as if I’d been slapped.  I often take taxis; so had my late mother.  I could see her sitting in the passenger seat wearing her beat-up cowboy hat with faux turquoise hatband, arriving home with bags of groceries and her six-pack of Old Style.  I was tongue-tied and tearful.  All I could do was present a black and white photo of my mother, cowboy hat and all, from my wallet.  I left the store in a daze, hating myself for appearing weak, for not speaking up.  I wandered the streets back to my hotel, counting the cracks in the sidewalk and considering the generations of my family who had helped to create this province and country.  On the corner of Portage and Main, I saw an old half-breed woman holding a bag of bones.  From her bag she withdrew her finger and said, “ni-châpanis, take this and make good medicine.”

Scofield’s experience in the antique store regrettably is not unique. For whatever reason, many Canadians continue looking down and mistreating Metis and First Nations people. Although I have not personally experienced persecution or bigotry, I have seen it. I recall one afternoon many years ago riding my bike along Broadway Avenue in Saskatoon:

I stopped at a traffic light waiting for my turn to cross at an intersection. On the opposite side of the street, a First Nations man stood there quietly minding his own business. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary until a white man, safely ensconced within the cab of his pick-up truck, started yelling, “Hey Indian?!  Hey Indian?!” The First Nations man kept looking forward, appearing unaffected. Undeterred, the truck driver rolled his window all the way down jutting his head out and yelling even louder, “Hey Indian?!!  Hey Indian?!!”

Strangely, I did not feel anger but a sense of shame. I felt ashamed because the truck driver looked like me; and if he was capable of doing such a stupid thing then maybe I was, too.

One of the reasons we read poetry, and why reading writers like Scofield or Chesterton or Lee is important, is not only are we potentially that man driving a truck barking insults but, potentially at least, we are also a First Nations man standing on a corner minding our own business.[3]

We have a responsibility, you and I, to not be silent. Like Edmund Burke observed back in the 18th century, all it takes for evil to win is for men and women of good conscience to stand back and do nothing. Refuse to do nothing.

___________________________________

[1] The Red River Settlement was established in 1811.  This small colony was located in Rupert’s Land (Manitoba).  The Red River area was continuously settled by First Nations and Mêtis before the settlement was officially established.  In 1870 Rupert’s Land was purchased from the Hudson’s Bay Company by the Canadian Government.  Mêtis and First Nations people suddenly found themselves becoming citizens of Canada; immigration of English and Scottish Canadians to Red River followed shortly thereafter.  Consequently, many Mêtis and First Nations were displaced or pushed out (and moved west in to what is now known as Saskatchewan to “start over”).

[2] Scofield, Gregory. “Singing Home the Bones.”  Canada: Houghton Boston, 2005.

[3] Many political theorists measure the health of a democracy based on how minorities are treated.  The reality is the rights of the majority and minority(s) are inextricably tied, i.e. if the majority is able to arbitrarily take away or limit the rights or legal protections of a minority, what would stop a minority (if it were capable of seizing power) from doing the exact same thing?  A society built on the principle of the rule of law does not give groups power but rather gives individuals protection from interference from those groups and from government.

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The Problem With Refugees

We are a nation of immigrants; it’s a fact: go back far enough every single one of us—European, African, Asian, even First Nations and Inuit—can trace their origins to somewhere other than Canada. Humanity explores, it puts down roots and calls wherever it happens to end up home. People attach a lot of importance to their home; this is where they raise their families, form their worldview, worship, work, play and build a life for themselves. Thus, it isn’t terribly surprising when we encounter strangers living among us one of our first instincts is to become defensive as opposed to open.

Canadians might be awfully polite but they certainly aren’t immune to xenophobia or fear. There were three major waves of Irish immigration to British North America: the first came around the time of the American Revolution in the 1780s; the second took place during the 1840s when a potato famine drove approximately 1.5 million Irish Catholics to Canada. My ancestors on my father’s side arrived in the United States during the third wave in the 1890s; they established a farm somewhere in the American Midwest eventually moving north to Canada to take advantage of free land on offer in the Canadian West. In all three cases, the Irish were not generally well-received: in the context of both Canada and the United States, English Protestants felt threatened by the sudden influx of non-English Catholics to their countries.

The Irish were thankful for the opportunities afforded to them by their adoptive countries; nevertheless, inevitably their presence elicited negative reactions among Americans and Canadians alike. Newcomers always force us into uncomfortable spaces by challenging us to re-evaluate ourselves and our priorities; they compel us to ask questions around what it means to be a people and a nation. In the present day, some of us are responding as well as can be expected to Syrian refugees (and, more recently, to others groups escaping to Canada because of an uncertain future in the United States). Most of our problems when it comes to dealing constructively with one another is the result of a certain inability to empathize with one another. The people best responding to the recent influx of refugees are those capable of seeing something of themselves in these new immigrants—people displaced by famine, war, and repression in their home countries; yet, there are others of us who aren’t responding so well: ironically, some Canadians on social media are using the self-same arguments against Syrians that previous generations used against their own Irish, Norwegian, Swedish, German and Ukrainian ancestors, e.g. these people aren’t like us; they didn’t work for what we have; we owe them nothing; they’re wrecking the country; everything was so much better before they came; they’re stealing our jobs; they’re lazy, smell, speak funny, and don’t look like us real Canadians.

The idea of a real Canadian versus a fake one is a strange concept to me; it’s not like we can freeze time and say there, back in the 1820s (November to be exact) during the colonial period, that is what Canadians should strive to be, we should all be white, English Protestant United Empire Loyalists; or wait it’s 1867 and Canadians can be French Catholic now, just not too French, but it’s tolerated; or it’s 1945 and the end of World War II, England is less important to us and out of compassion we’re welcoming Hungarians and other dispossessed persons to Canada because they need our help, we didn’t like them so much in 1905 but times have changed; or it’s 1965 and we have a new flag and First Nations peoples are no longer willing to be second-class citizens and the majority of Canada’s immigrants are from Africa and Asia and, without us even realizing it, we’ve moved from biculturalism to multiculturalism. We didn’t even notice the change (and certainly didn’t plan it). But we are, and will continue to be, a multicultural society whether critics like it or not.

Friedrich Nietzsche observed humanity is in essentially a continuous state of revolution (or paradigm change); we don’t recognize these changes because what once appeared as revolutionary eventually becomes the basis of a new normal. Thus, a Canadian born in 1840 naturally answers the question “What is a Canadian?” differently than say one born in 1867, 1919, 1945, 1965, 1995, or 2017. If there’s a standard definition of what constitutes a true Canadian, it’s a floating one and it definitely isn’t as simple as saying it is someone who is white, English-speaking, and Christian. With that said, the recent wave of Syrian immigration to Canada is taking place during a time of significant stress: the recovery of the global economy from the shock it received during the Great Recession (2009) is still in doubt and we continue living with its legacy, e.g. wealth continues to become increasingly concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, Canadians and Americans are becoming more and more desperate because of a sense of financial insecurity, and where the economy goes so too goes our seeming capacity to practice tolerance and pluralism; also, we are also confronted by the specter of climate change and an inability to deal with it effectively or its secondary effects, e.g. 21.5 million people are currently displaced worldwide and considered climate change refugees (some of whom are seeking refuge in North America and Europe); this number is bound to grow as climate change’s effects become increasingly severe and ubiquitous; and right wing political movements—secular and religious—are growing in popularity as though we’re taking part in some sort of macabre replay or dress rehearsal for World War III; given all that’s going on it’s little wonder so many people have such mixed feelings about helping strange Syrian refugees when existing Canadians themselves don’t feel secure enough about their own or their children’s futures.[1]

So where does this leave us? I suppose at one of those revolutionary periods Nietzsche mentioned. The great irony is we possess all the knowledge and understanding to solve every single one of our problems; yet, it seems we’re doomed to repeat past mistakes instead of learning from them because of a fundamental lack of collective character or imagination to conceive of new ways of living with and treating one another. There’s not much historical precedent when it comes to nations or societies becoming selfless or other-centered in times of significant economic downturn, political upheaval or when confronted by an existential crisis as significant as climate change. However, I would argue we can use how we eventually decide to treat refugees and immigrants as a litmus test for our future prospects. Some political theorists argue history is on the side of democracy. I like the sentiment but I would add the following caveat: history is on the side of those who want to survive. The great irony is most people think survival means circling our wagons, siding with the tribe and pushing strangers out. The truth is the world is a much smaller place in 2017 than it was in 1917. For this reason, I believe, if we’re going to survive we’re going to have to find ways to do it together; it’ll be cooperation not competition that’ll determine humankind’s direction and whether there’ll be a Canada or a United States for future generations to immigrate to.

 

Notes
[1]
http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/syrian-refugees-poll-trump-1.3988716