Outside the Circle

Cindy Milstein

What Can’t Be Taken

2015-05-01 19.54.54

Someone nabbed my “backpack-as-home” nearly ten days ago here in Montreal, my current temporary abode. I hope they are poor and can make good use of some of my things, like computer and cute-as-a-button (wireless) mouse, or wet swimsuit and lap-swimming goggles. Alas, it was snatched in the blink of my eye at the start of a panel ostensibly on political art at a free, annoying festival — annoying, in that I was surrounded by clearly well-off entrepreneurial-hip “artists” and was about to leave after the first five minutes. Then, wham. Backpack disappearing act. To fit into the crowd, which I didn’t, likely meant that “my” thief isn’t all that badly off, and turned what valuables they could cull from my stuff into cold, harsh cash.

It’s just things. I care little for things. But piecing back together what’s come to constitute the core of what I need to get by in this world — including my “self,” which I had to spend hours convincing bureaucracies to believe in and validate — has not been pleasurable. Without a cell phone — gone, too — I’ve spent untold hours on pay phones to toll-free numbers in order to replace all the tiny plastic evidence of “me.” Curiously, with each and every call, I get two responses: “There are still pay phones?” and “But Canadians are so friendly! They don’t steal!”

As my now-dead dad would say, “It’s a good lesson,” and certainly there were/are many learning moments in it. Such as that many of my toll-free bureaucrats don’t know how to spell “Montreal” — never mind “Quebec”!

Or maybe “relearning” moments is more appropriate. I relearned that only life, the moments, and memories matter, and what we make of and do with them. When a kind arts-fest bureaucrat spent two to three hours after the theft trying to help me, first by asking me to tell her everything within my backpack, so she could take notes while it was fresh in my memory, I was fine. I clicked off “thing” after “thing.” Then I got to the wallet.

“What type of wallet?” she asked. “Was it valuable?”

“It was my dead dad’s wallet!” I burst out, tears appearing without my consent. That was the one thing I’d forgotten — consciously at least — until she queried me. It was one of two usable, carryable mementos of my dad that I’d kept from him, of him, holding and capturing him.

Without missing a beat, the nice arts bureaucrat smiled compassionately, put her hand on my shoulder, and exclaimed, “This is a Buddhist moment!”

I’m no Buddhist. Yet that was the one “thing” she did or said that made total sense; that made it all right — at least in that moment.

A wallet is just a thing. And I replied to her, “The minute my dad breathed his last breath, my mom, on one side of him, looked up at me and said, ‘This is all that matters. Us. Our relationships.'” Not things.

What got me most about this particular loss of my home-in-a-backpack is, to some degree, the sense of violation; the sense of loss ranging from that wallet to personal notes/photos on my computer/phone. More, though, is the sense of how from one second to the next, life as we think we’d planned it actually has its own plans for us, which seems a “lesson” I’m being asked to take in again and again. That’s what was hardest: having to yet again “start over” in order to remake what feels “home” within a diasporic world., or at least my diasporic life.

Many, many, many people are being made to feel the theft of their homes, lives, neighborhoods, cultures, languages, bodies, ecosystem… This is, as I keep repeating like mantra since someone said it a few weeks ago to me, “the capitalist condition,” which forces a not-human condition on us, from losses large and small.

As I was waiting in a real-life queue to speak to a bureaucrat at a bank here, an older black man in front of me got into a tiff with the young white female bureaucrat “helping” him. I didn’t hear the crux of his losses, but it was clear they were many, including perhaps job and ability to pay bills on time or at all. Bank and utility fees were accruing, and the “it’s one thing after another” logic of corporations is that you must do things in a particular order, especially if it includes paying them money. He was trying to explain to her how he couldn’t do that now, and she was weakly smiling-not-smiling in a dismissive way, repeating mantralike the fees that he owed. “The real thieves are big, out in the open, and legitimated by this society! Like this bank! And the rest of us suffer!” he said to her firmly, and then turned and left.

It’s not things. It’s social relationships, to ourselves and others. It’s what we choose to value, and what we see as having worth in these always-at-risk, ever-uncertain lives of ours.

After my backpack was taken, after the arts bureaucrat did all she could to commiserate, I stood outside that annoying, free arts fest building, in the darkness of an evening turning to autumn, chilled, and it was just me. Plain, simple, human, vulnerable me. Just me. In a world-that-isn’t-ours that keeps stealing everything from us.

It’s a hard lesson indeed that without anything, we are still something.

*   *   *

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(Photo by Cindy Milstein, graffiti writer’s tag, Tiotia:ke [so-called Montreal], 2015.)

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This entry was posted on September 29, 2015 by in Dispatches from Life.
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