Category: Writing

Poem for the Camp

Three flags whip and crack 

over the Ledge like Canada Day celebrations 

or hangfire warning shots

 

It’s Deano’s 52nd 

we go to McDonalds after an hour 

deliberating where he wouldn’t get kicked out, if alone. We talk 

about Willie Nelson. He eats a BigMac, 

I finish his fries.

 

I used to come to the Ledge to rev the engine at rabbits 

padding along the asphalt

at cyclists

at things I didn’t really get

 

Deano and I talk 

about finding bikes in dumpsters. Later, alone, 

I stop at a grocery store alley

find an unopened pizza and wonder 

which of these dumpsters he might’ve been sleeping in 

the moment the trash was picked up

and the compactor closed.

 

One time with a girl

through a crack in the stairs 

I saw someone move in the Legislative basement 

like a dungeon 

keeper of secrets I had yet to learn

bigger than a limestone building

 

I sit in the cold, consider

what it would feel like to have my body valued 

like expired frozen pizza

or my blood used 

to restore the big copper dome. 

 

Toes and head numb, I add more wood to the illegal sacred fire 

and think about Willie Nelson.

 

-Regina SK, March 16, 2018

(Justice for Our Stolen Children Camp, Treaty 4)

This poem was first published in Tour Book #2.

 

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The Payphone

The following excerpt is from the story The Payphone, first published online at Lunch Ticket, and now available as an audiobook and in print at BallsOfRice.Bandcamp.com. Artwork by Alex Murray.

 

A man wearing a navy paisley bandana and wire-frame glasses pedaled his bike to the corner, stepped over his seat, and coasted on one foot to the bike rack at the side of the liquor store. He slotted his front wheel in the rack, strode four steps over to the unsheltered public payphone, lifted the handset, inserted a quarter, dialed the number to his daughter on the east end of town, and waited. He needed to call her Tuesday, today, to see if his cheque had arrived. His watch said 4:42 p.m.

No dial tone started, nothing, until he heard an automated woman’s voice say in her cold, impersonal way, “Credit twenty-five cents. Please deposit twenty-five cents.”

The man forgot that the phone company raised the price by one-hundred percent, to fifty cents. He patted his pants pockets, checked his jacket, checked the sidewalk, even checked the pouch attached to his bicycle, and couldn’t find a quarter. He couldn’t find two dimes and a nickel. He couldn’t find anything. There was no one around for several blocks to ask for change.

“Fuck sakes!” the man cursed. He slammed the phone against the liquor store’s brick wall, breaking the earpiece off. He dropped the receiver and biked away.

Finish the story at Lunch Ticket.

“Lester’s Book” Release Party

 

I haven’t written through the Balls of Rice channel very much in the past two years as I’ve been working on other writing projects. These projects have included some of those listed under the Books and Audiobooks tabs of BallsofRice.com, smaller articles and book reviews, and more. If you’re able or interested, please come out to the “Lester’s Book” Release Party on June 4, or order a book from ballsofrice.bandcamp.com to see what I’ve been up to. I feel confident that this is some of my best work to date.

Thanks for checking in.

Facebook event here.

[Art by Alex Murray (atmmurray[at]gmail.com)]

Fighting For Space

The following book review of Travis Lupick‘s book Fighting For Space first appeared in Briarpatch Magazine‘s Prairie Edition, and online.

In 2002, a group of residents and advocates met at the intersection of Main and Hastings in Vancouver holding a 100-foot-long hypodermic needle made out of a giant cardboard tube, stopping traffic. They were protesting the forced closing of a needle exchange on the corner of Main and Hastings in the Downtown Eastside. Earlier, in 2001, front-line workers had distributed clean needles in a trailer outfitted with washrooms, and ensured those using in bathroom stalls didn’t overdose. Affectionately known as “the Thunder Box,” the trailer became one of North America’s first unsanctioned supervised injection sites.

These stories are among countless actions detailed in Travis Lupick’s Fighting for Space, which tells of the struggle that led to the implementation of Canada’s first official safe-injection site in Vancouver in 2003. The history of the harm reduction movement is one of direct action and protest – an “act first, ask second” attitude that was the only reasonable response to an outbreak of preventable disease and a crisis of premature deaths. Lupick focuses on the Portland Hotel Society (PHS), the groundbreaking housing non-profit that offered low-barrier housing to the city’s most vulnerable, and the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), the advocacy group that pushed for accessible health care and decriminalization of drug use. The two worked in tandem, with VANDU often willingly taking the heat for direct actions to protect the more diplomatic and funding-restricted Portland Hotel Society.

The history of the harm reduction movement is one of direct action and protest – an “act first, ask second” attitude.

The 1990s saw a dramatic spike in overdose deaths and high rates of HIV diagnoses in Vancouver – not unlike the current fentanyl crisis playing out across Canada. But this time the human cost is much higher, with 2017 being the deadliest year on record for overdose deaths in B.C. The strategies used by advocates on the West Coast, honed over decades of persistent work, can provide guidance for similar struggles being newly waged in neighbouring Prairie provinces like Saskatchewan, where fentanyl has killed over 40 people since 2015.

While revealing the staggering numbers of diagnoses and deaths is key to understanding the scope of the problem, it is the stories of the people who’ve lived through the harm reduction movement that makes this history real. By telling the accounts of people struggling for dignity against politicians and a public determined to dehumanize them, Lupick reinforces two basic claims of the harm reduction movement: people who use drugs are human, and all people deserve safety and health.

In one of their first organized meetings, members of the newly formed VANDU agreed that they wanted somewhere safe and healthy to spend time, a space that was free of police harassment. The Portland Hotel Society’s first residence was known as the “Hotel of Last Resort.” Simplifying their message to one of “health and safety” – one that politicians and the public couldn’t reasonably reject – has grounded all of their actions and successes in the harm reduction movement. Lupick concludes the book with an epilogue about a family — Mary, Molly, and Mikel — in a quietly triumphant story of three generations living in the Portland Hotel Society, all experiencing stability in their health and housing.

Lupick reinforces two basic claims of the harm reduction movement: people who use drugs are human, and all people deserve safety and health.

Lupick does not deify Vancouver’s advocates or their process – rather, he shows them to be people offering the simple necessities of safety and support, while working toward inclusive public health policy. He demonstrates a proven way to effectively build low-barrier health care and housing systems: through persistent action coupled with advocacy, and building partnerships with sympathetic policy-makers. Without this infrastructure, the number of overdose deaths in B.C. last year would have been much higher.

The current situation on the Prairies is nearly as dire as the one Vancouver faced in the 1990s. Saskatchewan’s HIVAIDS rates are the highest in the country, and with 79 per cent of the people newly diagnosed as HIV-positive self-identifying as Indigenous, programming must prioritize consultation with Indigenous communities. Meanwhile, harm reduction programs have been heavily stigmatized by a predominantly conservative public and openly scrutinized by political leaders. In 2009, former premier Brad Wall said his government would limit the number of clean needles handed out, despite a Saskatchewan Ministry of Health report proving the success of needle exchange programs. In 2017, The Sask. Party threatened community based organizations with a 10 per cent funding cut that would hit operations deemed not to be “core services,” like needle exchanges. Though the party eventually opted against the funding cut, when harm reduction programs are routinely among the first to be threatened, the work being done by those of the front lines is delegitimized and destabilized.

When harm reduction programs are routinely among the first to be threatened, the work being done by those of the front lines is delegitimized and destabilized.

For years, doctors, front-line workers, and advocates in Saskatchewan have been pushing for the province to declare a state of emergency regarding rising HIV rates. But if we continue to wait for a provincial government to take necessary action – especially as two newly elected party leaders wade in slowly, in a province where the health of First Nations people is systematically neglected — it may never happen. Prairie activists and front-line workers struggling through those bureaucracies must instead act upon their values and conscience to build systems of equitable health care and human services, regardless of whether they have been granted permission by the state.

Nicholas Olson is the author of A Love Hat Relationship, a photobook of collectable prairie hats; and a series of illustrated zines with accompanying audiobook narrations. More can be found at ballsofrice.com. He lives in Treaty 4 Territory.

 

Books of the Year: 2017

If Beale Street Could Talk – James Baldwin

“Perhaps, as we say in America, I wanted to find myself. This is an interesting phrase, not current as far as I know in the language of any other people, which certainly does not mean what it says but betrays a nagging suspicion that something has been misplaced. I think now that if I had any intimation that the self I was going to find would turn out to be only the same self from which I had spent so much time in flight, I would have stayed at home.”

-James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room

Postcards from the End of America – Linh Dinh

Simply put, many Americans have become redundant in an economy rigged to serve the biggest banks and corporations. With no one hiring us and our small businesses bankrupted by the behemoths, many of us are forced to beg, peddle, push or steal, though on a scale that’s minuscule compared to what’s practiced by our ruling thugs. As we shove dented cans of irradiated sardines into our Dollar Store underwear, they rob us of our past, present and future.

-Linh Dinh, Postcards from the End of America, Lower-Class Upper Manhattan, p180

All Quiet On The Western Front – Erich Maria Remarque

The Wind Up Bird Chronicle – Haruki Murakami

Angels – Denis Johnson

This Accident of Being Lost – Leanne Simpson

Requiem for the American Dream – Noam Chomsky

The Lathe of Heaven – Ursula K. Le Guin

Going to Meet the Man – James Baldwin

Other Works of Note
A Love Hat Relationship
Book One
Tour Book

Ten Years

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It is ten years to the day that I started writing Balls of Rice.

If you read from the painfully embarassing first post, to the lost and meandering most recent post, you’d see how I went from proud flag-loving Canadian to dissident anarchist-in-training. You can see a public journal of mental health. Ten years later I still don’t know why I write, still don’t know what I’m doing with my life, still eating peanut butter and banana sandwiches for supper. All I know is that Balls of Rice has both saved my life and ruined it.

Naturally, the only posts worth reading were written in the last four years. The six years before that was trial and error, with more error than anything. These days there is less trial and about the same amount of error. The list below is not a list of the best writings, because reading over every single post could only end in crushing depression. But these ones are alright, I think.

Thanks to whoever has read this in the past decade for the encouragement. If it weren’t for you, I’d probably be a successful engineer by now. Instead I’m a squatter in the back of a pizzeria.

Thanks for still reading, mom and dad. Oh you stopped reading it in 2012?

Yeah. Me too.

 

Notable Posts:

Realistic Ideas – August 30, 2012

Losing Faith – December 2, 2012

Cheap Attempts at Warping History – April 2, 2013

Dear Mouse, – September 17, 2014

I wasn’t shot dead in the CN Railyard – December 29, 2015

Still don’t know – July 26, 2016

Planetarium

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I’m still nauseous from the planetarium.

I went in a bout of depression to remind myself that I am infinitesimal and insignificant and that my depression is illogical. Because logic has so much to do with it. I have a friend who uses the opposite idea, that the fact that there is life on earth means that we are significant, the only discovered life in hundreds of millions of planets. Like all I needed was more pressure of being one of the few pieces of life in the universe. But now they’ve found a seemingly habitable exoplanet, and I am back to not knowing what to think.

In the first planetarium segment, Harrison Ford spoke of life outside our solar system in an already out-of-date presentation. In the second presentation, a man with a bow-tie forgot that his job was entertaining and educating children, and made a dizzy unplanned flight to the edge of the galaxy and back.

I stepped into the sunlight and ate some trailmix on a downtown picnic table. My biggest worry was not the sun exploding (because I learnt that it won’t) or finding out that life is ubiquitous (because it undoubtedly is), but how to write anything ever again when I don’t believe in anything ever at all. It’s easy to be a nihilist as a white hetero male. Because you know everything on earth sucks but you don’t have to worry about being shot in a racist province or having to stand up for your rights in order to survive. So you can get away with thinking that nothing matters.

I printed a star map for when I go camping next month. I started telling people that I was going on a self-planned writing retreat in the remote woods. Until I got scared of writing. Now I tell people I’m going camping. The only reason I’m sitting here writing this horseshit is as an experiment, to see if my chest implodes or if the world loses its orbit with the sun and flies into outerspace and we all freeze to death instantly. To show myself that my writing, no matter how good or bad, isn’t the last remaining key to sweeping social change, but that it’s just writing to make me feel human, that other humans might relate to. It is no more a noble craft than scrubbing toilets.

I’ll use the star map to point me from the Big Dipper to Arcturus to Bootes to Cygnus to pretend I can see Kepler-186f. And Kepler-186f will whisper in my ear that there are plenty of things that matter, such as advocating for social justice, and scrubbing the toilets of the known universe, also known as, writing.

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Still don’t know.

Di Fara Pizza

A man walks down a dark Brooklyn side street with his pants at his ankles, genitals flailing. I am looking for pizza. Legitimate conerns are raised about that man getting shot by police but we push on to get some garlic knots at Ganni’s at midnight.

The Republican convention wraps up and everyone I know, including myself, fears the next four years, but knows full well they’ll survive it. The man walking down the Brooklyn side street, the newly arrived Syrian refugees, the Central American blamed with stealing American jobs, don’t have the privilege of knowing the same thing. In Hedges’ 2010 book Death of the Liberal Class, Chomsky prophesies of a population that seeks out fascism because of a series of politicians beforehand who have sold the rights of the population to corporate power. All they need, he says, is a charismatic leader who tells it like it is. And now he warns this.


“How much is this one?” I ask.

“Which one?” the shopkeep asks.

“The all black one with gold numbers.”

“$10.” He pulls it out, puts it on my wrist, it fits and feels as though I haven’t wore a watch in fifteen years, which I haven’t.

“Great.” I place $10 on the table.

“This one is $15,” he says. I place five more dollar bills on the table and leave, feeling as though I have paid the 50% tourist tax necessary to create a balance in the inequality of wealth that I have benefited from my entire life. The tourist tax necessary to quell my own personal guilt for existing in a marketplace and quitting my community job to travel the world for free. The watch looks great and hasn’t died yet. It fits oddly on my bulging ulna bone.

I finish my $9 juice and sit on a bench, calling my credit union and credit card company to tell them that I am in fact in the US and that no, my cards have not been compromised, and that yes, I’d like to withdraw money from my accounts so I can spend more money on American juice.

I loosen the watch strap one notch to relieve the sweat that accumulates under it in the New York humidity in what will likely be the 15th consecutive hottest month on record. I bought a watch so I could avoid pulling my phone out of my pocket so I could avoid wrecking my pants pockets so I could avoid buying new pants so I could avoid buying pants from a hellish factory in south east asia. And so I could avoid using my phone at all. My vain attempts at personal change are conscience clearing but not effective. I still don’t know how to live a life that affects change or isn’t dripping in privilege. You think by 27.667 years of life you’d know everything there is to know in the world.

 

 

Season of the Badlands

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The following was originally published with photos in Of Land & Living Skies: A Community Journal on Place, Land, and Learning. For more interesting content and events, consider becoming a Sask Outdoors member at SaskOutdoors.orgDigital magazine available here.

Just west of the yard in a field of summer fallow is a rock. Its existence alone isn’t remarkable; there are a multitude of rocks in the dirt around Horse Creek. All over the prairies there are rock piles, decades or centuries of rounded stones the size of softballs or buffalo skulls or lawnmowers, stacked as monuments to the neighbouring broken earth. But the rock west of the yard, picked out of the ground to clear the way for tilling, ended up being the size of a small car. Forty paces from the road it looks substantial but unremarkable; flat and several feet high, grey brown, leaning back with a salute to the sky, the remaining clover hissing at its base. But the illusion disappears when it is approached. It juts out significantly, looking like the missing nose of the Sphinx. A nearly immovable object, even with all the trucks and tractors around, because of its size and the damage it would do to the road and the ditch. It would look good in the garden but the force needed to move it is a force we do not have. So there it sits.

My grandma was born in Horse Creek. I never knew this until a week before I headed there myself. Horse Creek is located on Treaty 4 Territory, seventeen miles south of McCord, 110 miles southwest of Swift Current and just sixteen miles as the crow flies from the American border. If you look for it on a map or even the internet, you may not find it. In a time of unions and co-operatives, grandma’s father was a carpenter in Horse Creek for her first year of life. Last November, I was in Horse Creek holding tape measures and nailing boards and starting my own imaginary union to provoke my anti-union, farming friends.

Much of that summer was spent exploring the badlands of southern Saskatchewan. The first weekend of spring meant camping with three friends at Grasslands National Park, which shares the same hill ranges as Horse Creek. In 4x4s we were guided through pastures and down ravines to Storey Lowell’s, the local folklore touting it as an early hideout for horse rustlers, when it is more modestly two adobe shacks that made the home of an old homesteader. Later we hiked in at McGowan’s Visitor Centre and camped in a coulee just steps from the moon-like landscape of dirt and cliff. Before darkness settled we walked to the highest point in sight, overlooking the crumbling badlands, with heavy clouds and bursting light advancing from the south sky. Walking back in the heavy showers we purposefully searched out the storied quicksand piles by tossing rocks on odd looking pieces of dirt, then toeing them, then stepping on them, then stomping on them, tempting our fate for a movie-like reaction from the earth. We never found any quicksand.

Later in summer we visited Castle Butte, a massive ice-age-created structure of sandstone and clay reaching to the sky of the Big Muddy. A few miles from there we navigated to Buffalo Effigy, the flat outline of rocks which shape a buffalo on the highest hill around——a sacred site now part of a pasture, luckily fenced off and somewhat preserved. A few weeks later we camped at St. Victor Petroglyph Park, timeworn carvings on horizontal rock on the top of another highest hill in the area. These three sites of identity and significance to the First Peoples, all purposefully placed on top of the highest of hills, existed long before my maternal grandparents settled in the area——around Harptree, Brooking, Radville——and began creating their own monuments in picked rock piles and homesteads.

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In the snow-covered shortgrass prairie of Horse Creek, I attempted to experience the ranching and farming life in which my family was once rooted. I picked bales and fixed fence and tried to be useful. When on break, to bolster my writing craft, I urinated poems into the snow in cursive.

When heading south to move lumber or check on cows it looked as though the clouds that rested on the hills that enclose the badlands were the end of the world, which in my own way, is the truth. The badlands are dead land and past them is a barbed wire pasture fence that is patrolled with drones and satellites of the American border guard. Other border-adjacent land is sold off to multinational companies scavenging for oil whose only identity in the land they own is corporate identity. The end of the world and the end of identity exists in deserts and robots and contracts.

I have a vested interest in preserving this land from such ominous ends because I feel connected to it in some vague, flaky kind of way. My friend who has lived here his whole life and whose family has farmed it for a century offers the same. Giving up his land would be the last thing he would do, and because of his connection to the land he acknowledges that he knows to some extent what it might have felt like when the settlers came. I identify with the land that sits atop the badlands because of personal history, but this land does not identify with me any more than it identifies with the farmers or ranchers or indigenous peoples or the Queen who leases it out or that rock west of the yard.

The connection felt from being on the land, from spending time caring for it and working it, is universal and real. I am not entitled to this land, nor is any one person or group of people. Instead the land has an entitlement to be inhabited by people who identify with it, because those who identify with the land are more apt to treat it as it ought to be treated.

To be an asset to the land, to be the type of person that the land is entitled to, I learn as much as I can about how it works and how to live well on it. About all its intricacies of connectedness, which offer lessons of how to exist and how to relate. Like the rock west of the yard, I am not out of place standing alone on the prairie, I only look that way when I am dug up from the city and thrown naked in a field. Like the rock, my ancestral composition lies in the soil, just as everyone else.

Each time I visit the badlands and hills adjacent I seek out the highest geographical point possible——to feel the wind’s unmitigated power or to fully realize the thunderstorm that approaches. Monuments that mark time, the carvings and effigies and buttes of the area, are locations of height for a reason. They are standing points that we revisit to watch the thunderstorm of the future steadily move in. The easiest place to keep your feet grounded for change and resistance is in community and identity. Strengthening our connection with these highest places is the only way to ensure the thunderstorm doesn’t come in and drown us all out and to ensure that when we are walking home, we see the pits of quicksand that would otherwise swallow us up.

I drove out of the yard and left the farm behind with a year of vagrancy and foreign experiences on the horizon. The rock west of the yard sat silent with the ice fog painted low in the background. The rock will quite likely be there when I get back.

To look just on the surface, and think that what you see from horizon to horizon is all that is needed to survive, is to misunderstand your place on the ground which you stand. To scale its heights-to learn its lessons—one must be alive to the underlying structures that support the visible and not-so-visible world around you.

-John Borrows (Kegedonce), Drawing Out Law: A Spirit’s Guide (University of Toronto Press, 2010, p72)

Why people don’t get it.

 

The following was first published in ARCANE CONTEMPORARY ART MAGAZINE. Get a digital copy for less than $3. Support emerging art, writing, creativity, and friends. 

Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art

Four years ago when I was newly twenty and wandering around the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal (Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art) on a Wednesday (the only free) night, I never would have guessed I would be one day writing an editorial for a contemporary art magazine. At that time I would take in any free event I could, even pretending to be a med student to get into wine and cheese events for newly graduated doctors. I walked around the Museum, staring at puppets and massive formations of wool and plaster and paper and metal, and I accepted the production and the process, all the while thinking in my head, “I don’t really get it.” And it’s true, I didn’t get it.

Even then I knew people who made art; my girlfriend at the time painted abstract and I supported her in the selfish way a 21-year-old boyfriend supports something he doesn’t understand. I was used to reading depressing non-fiction books about the state of humanity; I could only really conceptualize straight-forward, simple, concrete ideas. Facts, not interpretation.

Being in Montreal I often met people who willingly but begrudgingly worked as bartenders and grocery attendants while their peers from back home were child-rearing and flipping starter-homes. Societal norms state that people working these jobs aren’t contributing to society because they aren’t contributing to the economy, and thus in many ways, wasting their lives.

“Yeah, one day I’ll get a real job,” is a phrase you’ll often hear from self-deprecating artists when talking with their more financially advanced friends. According to the norms of the world of creation, these people are working shitty jobs to have money to attempt the visualization—the realization—of some vague subconscious dream, of the tip of some idea that they don’t even quite understand, of a new feeling they can’t express any other way.

There exists a new IT-based world of maximizing human efficiency and output. It benevolently wants us to waste absolutely no time on the mundane tasks with which our parents’ lives were filled, therefore improving our lives. New apps that are changing the ways we date, travel, sleep, are the foremost leaders in this push to free humans from the reality of being human, and to bask in all the free time we’ve gained. We praise the brilliance of our new tech-soaked free-market—an evolution of every capitalist generation’s attempt at increasing the productivity of the commodity that is human labour and thus, increasing capital. When productivity and value is based on output and dollar figures, soon art and creation are considered sluggish, lazy, and slow. And that’s the point when people don’t get it.

Simply put, contemporary art is difficult for people to understand because art isn’t trying to sell something. The ‘art’ that people consume daily is limited to drab bus advertisements for cellphone companies, ten-second internet videos hoping to go viral, or kooky TV ads for razors. Ads make you feel hungry, inadequate, anxious and therefore, sell you something. Art forces you to sit down to decide what you feel, which always ends up being more significant than the pedestrian emotions stirred up by an ad. Art may portray ideas, even attempt to sway peoples’ opinions, but it isn’t selling a product besides itself. It is a series of emotions and ideas put together with paint and paper, mud and wire, mouse clicks and colour changes, foot movements and choreography, words and phrases.

What I now realize, what I didn’t realize when I was walking around the Museum in Montreal, is that it’s not supposed to be easy. You’re not being sold something, so you don’t instantly, instinctively know what you’re consuming. Getting it may mean taking thirty seconds to sit and stare at it, to actually think about its colours and composition and lighting and materials, to consider something besides yourself and your walk to your car, something besides the digital billboard flashing in your face. It may mean to reread, re-watch, grab a seat and continue to look at all the corners of a canvas until you feel an emotion, when you feel that emotion, whatever it is, then you may get it.

But then again, maybe not.