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Lyrics and Life

By Caitlin Ward


What Kind of Times Are These
by Adrienne Rich

An excerpt:

“I won’t tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods
meeting the unmarked strip of light—
ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:
I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.”

So James Dean has moved into my building. Well, not actual James Dean, obviously. Some guy, really. Some guy has moved into my building. But he reminds me of James Dean. He doesn’t actually look like James Dean, but he reminds me of James Dean. James-Dean-in-a-Pea-Coat I call him, because I don’t know his name. My office mate asked if he’s actually that cool, or just thinks he’s that cool. I’m pretty sure he’s really that cool.

I run into him at the back door periodically. He’s usually outside smoking — either a tiny cigarillo or a strangely coloured cigarette. I can’t tell which. It’s a pretty friendly building, so I always say hello to whomever is outside smoking when I go in. And when I say “hi” to James Dean, he always flicks his chin up and says, “hey” in this gravelly voice that is far too low to match his face. And I think to myself, “who are you?”

Some of you are thinking, “well why don’t you just ask him?” And to you, I say, don’t take things so literally. Because literally, I don’t want to know who he is. This is far more entertaining. He’s this entity on the periphery of my existence, and I probably don’t register at all on his periphery. If I knew who he was, if he had a real name that I knew — well, then he’d have to be a real person and I couldn’t begin a story with, “So James Dean has moved into my building.”

Why do I tell you this. No good reason. Or perhaps, more accurately, no real reason. The point is not in the story itself but in the telling of it. Because it’s kind of weird, and it’s kind of funny, and it’s got nothing to do with all the terrible things.

I didn’t think I would ever lose my stomach for the terrible things. If you’ve read this column with any sort of regularity, you probably know how much of my life is immersed in things that are difficult and sometimes painful. I did graduate work in what is called “the poetry of disfigurement” — how poets write about trauma. Twisted bodies, broken people. I teach the Shoah, the Rwandan Genocide, the history of Ireland, the death and destruction around the signing of the treaties in Saskatchewan. I assign readings about severed ears in grocery bags and ancient human sacrifices pulled from bogs in Jutland. I stay in communities where the threat of violence is a constant companion and basic needs are not met. I have friends who live in the sorts of places that, if I don’t hear from them for a while, I am genuinely (and realistically) afraid that something has happened to them.

I don’t know quite how I got into this place in my life. I do know I got myself into it. These are things I’ve chosen to study, and chosen to teach. These are communities with whom I have chosen to cultivate relationships. And I feel a little strange laying this out so bluntly — especially the parts in which I talk about the communities I work with and the people I know. I don’t mean to use them as a way to define myself, rather than acknowledge they are independent people and communities who have also chosen to cultivate relationships with me.

I mean to try to tell you that these difficult things are not abstract things from which I emotionally disengage. I talk about these things because I care about them, not because I don’t. And when it gets difficult, which at times it does, I talk to a friend who works in a similar field. We chat about how this work of holding space to know and try to understand these painful things takes a toll. Working for justice, even with all the goodwill in the world and good people there beside you, still feels like throwing yourself against a brick wall in the hopes the wall will give before you do.

Perhaps, though, it’s less that I have lost my stomach for terrible things, and more that I am not sure if I have anything particularly useful to say about them at the moment. At a certain point, there stops being much to write about except the fact that these difficult things are still happening. I did not want to write another article about that wretched man, or that wretched man’s wretched advisers, or the slow train wreck that is the country to our south. I didn’t want to write one of probably ten thousand op-eds about the apparent new malleability of facts, and try to find a way to say something about it that isn’t referencing Orwell or Nazis. I didn’t want to write something demanding, WHY IS THIS HAPPENING? Because there is no single answer — at least, not an adequate one.

And in this, I realize two things: 1) this is how these terrible things are normalized. It becomes too exhausting to talk about, to tiring to care about, and as a result can become easy to accept. But then 2) this is what it means to be in it for the long haul. This will get tiring. This will be exhausting. This will go on. And it’s important to remember that though this has only been going for a few months, the world has been very broken in many ways for a very long time.

So perhaps sometimes, it is necessary to joke about the guy in your building who reminds you of James Dean. Or talk about trees. Because we — or, more accurately, I — need to remember that the terrible things are not everything.

Ward is a Saskatoon-based freelance writer who spends her days (and most nights) working at a small Catholic college. Her less eloquent thoughts can be found at