Let’s Talk About Ableism, or, Ableism: What The Fuck Is It?

If your answer is “some woke invention designed to make me feel like a bad person,” this may not be the post for you.

Otherwise, let’s try this out:

The dictionary says that ableism is discrimination against people on the basis of dis/ability (much like sexism is discrimination against women on the basis of sex), but I find this very unhelpful. As you may have noticed recently, it immediately launches a conversation into “is this person disabled?” and “what is a disability?” which are nearly unanswerable.

Is Deafness a disability? Not according to many deaf people, who think of it as a culture. Is discrimination against people on the basis of Deafness ableism? Sure thing. Is T1 Diabetes a disability? I’ve had it for thirty years and my answer still changes every week, but I don’t mention it in job interviews to avoid being discriminated against, which would be ableism.

Let’s try thinking of it as “policing the boundaries of normal physical, mental and emotional functioning.”

There’s “normal”–IQ of 110, 20/20 vision, adult height between 4’10” and 6’2″, keeping your internal monologue inside your head on the bus.

Then there’s two kinds of “not normal”: not normal in a good way, and not normal in a bad way.

In a culture with pretensions to meritocracy, “not normal in a good way” is rewarded and celebrated with career opportunities that earn extra wealth and recognition. Over 6’2″ and maybe you can get a career in the NBA (and you will certainly be paid more in almost any job you do get). Over 110 IQ and maybe you can be a scientist.

Then there’s “not normal in a bad way,” which prevents people from being able to get jobs … and education, housing, friendships, even freedom.

These are unstable categories. I still remember in my own childhood (which despite the grey hair was not that long ago) reading in girls’ and women’s magazines about how ugly boys found eyeglasses, and how to do your makeup to draw attention away from them if you were so unfortunate as to need them. The entire contact lens industry exists because poor eyesight needing eyeglasses was policed as a type of “not normal in a bad way.” Going back a bit further, in the 1950s, “pretty girl who tries to ditch eyeglasses to catch the guy” was an entire genre of comedic storytelling. Now? Eyeglasses are cool. People get fun, eye-catching eyeglasses. Nothing about our eyeballs has changed. It’s just that we now consider eyeglasses normal, or even “not normal in a good way.”

Single motherhood is another example: until well into the 20th century, girls who got pregnant outside of marriage were considered to be mentally ill and could be incarcerated in psychiatric facilities (“not normal in a bad way”). After many decades of activism, this was recategorized as maybe unfortunate, but not a disability (the policing became less strict — you were only stigmatized rather than jailed), and then again recategorized as a type of normal. Now we see single mothers all over the place, and the consequences of this recategorization have been very good for both the moms and their kids.

Until the recent past, babies born with some physical and cognitive differences were incarcerated for life in institutions worse than jails, given a life sentence for the body or mind they were born with (and then the behavioural disturbances caused by this incarceration were used to justify it, a neat trick if you can get away with it). There were “Ugly Laws” on the books all over North America making it illegal for visibly disabled people to go into public where their appearance might distress “normal” people. We had eugenics laws in Canada and thousands of disabled people were forcibly sterilized by the state.

This was not some natural state of pre-enlightened, innate Darwinian mechanics. There are prehistoric graves from all over Eurasia who had what we would now call birth deformities or disabilities that were incompatible with independent living having survived into adulthood (which could only have been done with care and support) and then buried with a great deal of respect, with headdresses and grave goods etc. In fact such graves are more frequent than those for people with bodies we would now consider ‘normal.’ What evidence exists for the position of people we would now consider disabled (“not normal in a bad way”) in pre-Christian societies in Europe is one of respect; in many, it was considered a mark by the gods of an exceptional destiny. Thor had one hand; Odin had one eye; there is no way in societies with such plentiful physical risks every day that physical impairments would have been rare, stigmatized, or a straight route to death.

We CHOSE to police the boundaries of normal, starting around the time of the Christianization of Europe. We built fortress walls around what was considered normal, defended them heavily, and there was only one gate you could exit through and come back in again (“not normal in a good way”).

So here’s the thing:

The entire conversation around “is this really a disability, or a medical condition, or something else?” is itself part of the mechanics of ableism.

We can’t police the boundaries of normal; we can’t even agree on the boundaries of normal. Is autism a disability, or neurodivergence? Does it depend on the ‘level of functioning’? What does that even mean exactly, and who decides? Is being shorter than 4’10” really a disability when the only thing making life hard is that every building, vehicle and piece of furniture is made for someone at least 5’4″? That conditions and diagnoses move back and forth between the categories of ‘disabled’ and ‘not disabled’ should lead us to question what those terms are worth.

That the fastest and most effective route to long-term discrimination against people on the basis of sex, race, ethnicity, sexuality and gender presentation has been to create mental and emotional disabilities to diagnose them with, and then police them for that, should give every person working towards equality and freedom for all people a very strong motivation to understand ableism and dismantle it.

Instead of asking “is this really a disability?” try, “What does it mean that we need to decide if this is a disability or not?”

Instead of “but being trans/gay/a civil rights activist/an unmarried mother isn’t really a disability!” try “it doesn’t matter if it’s a disability or not because no one should be treated this way.”

What happens if we stop caring about whether this or that diagnosis is “really” a disability, and just treat all people as equals, deserving of respect, regardless of the bodies and minds they are born into or develop? What if, instead of making clothes and houses and schools and chairs and doors and toilets for “normal people” and then work to “accommodate” those with documented disabilities, we decide that all bodies are good bodies, and then act like it, making clothes and houses and schools and chairs and doors and toilets for a variety of body sizes and types widely available for those who need them?

What if, instead of fighting each type of discrimination on a case-by-case basis, and needing to fight and fight again over every kind of humour based on hierarchy — rape jokes, blackface, ‘indian’ costumes, men in a dress, ‘gay’ jokes, fat jokes and so on — we decide collectively that making fun of people for being ‘not normal in a bad way’ says a lot about ourselves and nothing about the supposed targets of those jokes?

In the midst of all the endless debates about co-morbidities, pre-existing conditions, disabilities and covid-19, and the endless ways so many lives were dismissed as not really worth saving because they were ‘not normal in a bad way,’ I’ve committed to only doing climate work on that principle: that all bodies are good bodies (and implicitly worth saving), and that a prosperous green future will not be worth building if it doesn’t have (literally and metaphorically) a ramp, a power door, and an elevator with power back-up. I’m not going to spend my adult life working to save the future of human civilization in a form that excludes my kid.

I know, I know, it’s “just a joke.” But humour has always worked in concert with other, harsher forms of policing, and what a celebrity’s fame and fortune will not shield them from you can bet is much, much worse for those without it.

Quoting Commander Adama, because BSG is still one of the best scifi shows of all time:

It’s not enough just to survive, one has to be worthy of survival.

Or, if you’d prefer: You know, when we fought the Cylons, we did it to save ourselves from extinction. But we never answered the question “Why?” Why are we as a people worth saving?

Let’s be.

(This post has been reviewed by Echo; they’d like to add that in the society we currently live in, “disabled” and “disability” are terms very important for their self-identity, which I wholly support. This post is directed towards those on the outside of disability, trying to determine the legitimacy of identities they don’t have or share, rather than those on the inside of disability determining the labels they self-identify with.)

Review: Stitched Sewing Organizers

In Which Andrea Complicates Simple Sewing Projects

Stitched Sewing Organizers is a project book for a good number and variety of sewing-related pouches, organizers and items (like pin cushions and needle books). I bought it last year, and this year (after having started a few embroidery projects and letting the spools of floss and thread pile up on a table, rendering it unusable) made some up.

Although not in a straightforward way. I mean, why make a textile project if you’re not going to add a pound or two in embroidery threads?

Boxy Pocket Pouch

First up. I made the exterior from a large-ish leftover bit of linen/rayon I used to make Echo shorts a few years back. The pocket and lining were made of a fat quarter of Alice in Wonderland tea print, bought for no purpose because I love both Alice in Wonderland and tea, and now visible permanently and holding all of my metallic and metal embroidery threads, and embroidered pendant findings.

The other exterior pocket was also embroidered with a little corner border design from Teeny Tiny Menagerie that I have long wanted to use.

Fold-Up Sewing Folio

The interior I made up just as directed (though somewhat smaller than planned, as I used the batting pattern piece to cut it out, and then had to alter the size of the pockets to accommodate, and I left out the pincushion–I’d rather use a standalone one).

The exterior I crazy quilted.

I cut an exterior piece out of a scrap of plain muslin, interfaced that, and then loosely planned out a patchwork pattern on the piece in pencil. I sewed the fabric scraps (from dress and shirt projects in years past) to the exterior and then embellished with silk and cotton perle threads, and one or two tapestry yarns and a bit of silk ribbon.

This is now holding the flosses from a few different embroidery projects, a pattern, and associated needles and scissors.

I love this one. Sizing goof aside, it is perfect and exactly what I needed. I keep picking it up, petting it, unfolding and refolding it, and putting it down again. It is tricky to turn right-side out with the vinyl, which creases with too much handling, so I’d be careful that you (ideally) only need to turn it once.

Two-in-One Case

I crazy-quilted the exterior of this one as well, but using a different piecing technique to accommodate the curved edges (where the pieces are turned under and pressed using freezer paper, and then edge-stitched in place). The crazy-quilting embroidery is a little simpler to emphasize the landscape, and uses exclusively perle cottons in various weights.

I then pin-basted the exterior, batting and lining together and did some hand-quilting along the seam-lines to 1) make the whole thing act more like a single piece of fabric rather than 3 layers and 2) give it a bit of quilted puffiness, just for fun. A few flowers and birds were added at this stage too for the same reason.

This is one project where I would make some changes in the future:

  1. The tab was too short to accommodate the size of magnetic clasp I had, which is the only size of clasp easily available here. I’d add an inch to the length of this piece and the interfacing and then judge during assembly how much of that length I’d need. Or replace the clasp with a button and buttonhole and adjust the length according to size.
  2. I’d make the binding strip narrower. 3″ was overkill; 2 1/4″ would probably have been enough to create a nice stable barrier with a 1/2″ external seamline and good coverage of stitches.

See-it-all Pouch

This is a simpler project with fewer moving parts. This, of course, was unacceptable, so I made it much more time consuming by using a Stitchrovia pattern (from her book, Cross Stitch for the Soul) for the front piece. (I adore Emma Congdon/Stitchrovia’s patterns. The bright colours and elaborate and modern lettering are delightful. I have five of her patterns from Cross Stitcher magazine stitched up and on display permanently, one completed and in the process of being framed, and a small mountain of her holiday pieces that I bring out for Christmas. I can’t recommend her or her patterns more highly.)

I meant to do some patchwork around it, but the navy is so dark it showed through all of my quilting cottons and made them muddy and sad. So I left it.

I used a piece of leftover linen from a trench coat project to back the finished piece so that the white batting wouldn’t show through the aida holes, did a bit of quilting to make all the pieces act like one and stiffen up a bit, and then assembled the rest of the project as directed–except for replacing the suggested zipper size with the matching zipper I happened to have on hand. The lining is a gift from a friend, who bought it for me as a souvenir from her trip to Hawaii. The coral binding is leftover from a blouse a few years ago.

I’d love to travel back in time 30 years or so and give Grade-9 me, sitting in the cafeteria cross-stitching Christmas presents on her lunch breaks, a big hug of thanks for getting me started on a hobby that has been so helpful over the past few years.

Anyway. These have kept me very busy outside of work for hours for the past — if you can believe it, because I can’t — two weeks. Other projects on the go, and now nicely housed in little practical pouches made up of scraps and leftovers.

It’s definitely possible to just make up the pouches as directed and get something useful and attractive. And I mean, obviously, that’s the actual point of the book. But if you are looking for a way to use up some of your fabric scraps that makes something useful and pretty, I recommend this as providing a good number of base templates for creative embellishing.

Review: 30 Wears App

This is an unpaid and unsolicited review; I just wanted to share my experiences after using it for two years since it’s been so helpful in getting a handle on fabric and pattern purchases and the number of garments I sew.


Thanks to this lovely little gizmo, I now know that I should think about making 2-3 pairs of pants (jeans, leggings, work, whatever), 1-2 skirts, one pair of shorts, a sweater/sweatshirt, and a couple each of short- and long-sleeved tops in any given year. Basically, a garment a month, and the purchase of one piece of fabric a month. Yay for numerical targets and indicators!


The 30 Wears app is based on an idea that, to be sustainable, you should only purchase (or in our case, make) a garment if you believe you will wear it at least 30 times. There’s a lot of things that can interrupt that, of course: you get pregnant, you lose or gain weight, or say a global pandemic sets in and you spend two years working from home in a completely different kind of wardrobe. And then also gain weight, because you spend most of your time sitting down and avoiding people now.

This was my experience: I downloaded it and started to use in January 2020, and three months later, well, you know what happened.

It’s still been hugely helpful.

The app has basically two functions: you  enter your clothing items in the ‘wardrobe’ tab, classify them as to what kind of piece it is (top, bottom, dress, etc.) and attach a photo to it; and then in the ‘wears’ tab enter which pieces you’re wearing on any given day. The wears are tabulated and you can then see how often each piece of clothing has been worn.

The first and least surprising thing I figured out was that I had no need for tailored wool pants while working from my couch with a small dog who sheds everywhere all the time and whose fur form soft fluffy burrs that can only be removed from any textile with the most persistent effort. I didn’t need the app for that, but I did spend the spring and summer of 2020 making clothes more appropriate for my new ‘office’: leggings, elastic-waistband shorts, loose shirts that are nice enough near the neck to Zoom in, you know the drill by now.

I Have How Much Clothing?

The next thing I learned was from simply logging things as I wore them: I have a LOT of clothes. More than I would have guessed. I have currently 33 bottoms, 56 tops and nine sweaters in the app (I’m not going to count dresses since I’ve worn them so seldom that most aren’t logged). Some of those are office wear that made it out of the house a few times in early 2020 and not since, and of course there’s seasonality to consider: ‘bottoms’ includes skirts, work pants, leggings, shorts, and jeans, and ‘tops’ includes t-shirts, long-sleeved, blouses, tunics, and concert tees. Still. It’s not exactly minimalist.

I Am Terrible At Guessing What I’ll Actually Wear

This is my favourite part of the app: you actually have a hard number attached to how often something gets worn, so you can’t fudge to yourself about how useful or practical something is.

I mean, the leaders aren’t surprising: since March 2020, leggings and loose shirts! Look at those numbers. 

But I had no idea how often I was wearing my first mimosa, since I had it in my head that the looser style wasn’t really ‘me’ and I didn’t wear that kind of shirt much. Surprise! I earned it out faster than any other top.

I thought the blue floral blouse was something I wore ‘all the time,’ that the renfew with ruffles was something I ‘hardly ever wore,’ that I would get a ton of wear out of the yellow bow-sleeve tee, that I would probably never wear the pink ruffled blouse after making it as a pattern test, that I never wore looser short-sleeved shirts and there was no sense in making any: wrong on all counts.

I thought the black rayon shorts were ‘just’ a tester version, that I would probably not often wear the scrappy jersey shorts as they were so silly. Also wrong.

It Takes a Really Long Time to Hit 30

Now that I have numbers, I know that when working from home and not seeing humans, I really do wear leggings “all the time,” and thus I earned them out faster than any other make. It still took most of a year for the two pairs I made to hit 30 each. I also managed to get past 30 for the three sweaters/sweatshirts I owned prior to the pandemic, but I only have nine such shirts. For tops, my old mimosa is the only one to have passed 30–in two years!–though some others are close.

It Is So Great to Have These Numbers

Knowing what I’m actually wearing and how often has been so helpful in figuring out sewing plans.

I know I’ll wear leggings All The Time For Real and that they will be earned out in a year, at least until I’m back in an office full time (if that ever happens); I know I will wear sweatshirts and sweaters A Lot. I know that Jalie’s Mimosa is something I really will wear All The Time, and have consequently made three, though with scrap fabrics and to fill that “I never wear loose t-shirts” gap that existed in my wardrobe. Since I had numbers attached to how often I wore leggings, I felt fine about getting nice fabric to make two more (which have since both passed 30 wears each). Aaaaand since I know I already have a surfeit of nice, woven tops with interesting details, I can resist (sadly) the temptation of making more when something interesting shows up in my Burda subscription.

This is much more useful than Me Made May for this purpose. It’s all year, all seasons, all events, purchased and handmade.

Why 30?

So, look, it’s not like the app zaps you with an electric shock if you don’t hit 30, and you can always choose another goal. I like 30, though:

  • Every bit of fabric, used or not, takes time, fertilizer, resources, energy, and human labour to grow, harvest, process, weave, print, dye, ship, store, sell, etc.
  • Every garment I make takes time for me to sew

If you assume you wear a garment for about 12 hours in a day, then 30 wears is 360 hours of wear. Given everything that goes in to any garment, 30 seems reasonable to me. You could pick a different number.

But what I want to avoid is a situation where I put, say, fifteen hours of my own labour, not to mention the human and environmental costs of producing the fabric, into a garment that I wear for only 30 or 40 hours. That seems like a terrible return on investment and not particularly sustainable. The app is giving me actual numbers I can use to plan.

The Plan

To sew, on average, one garment per month, with obvious exceptions for things like “going back to the office full-time” (though I went through my closet and I still have enough work pants that fit that I really don’t need to right away) or “changing size” etc.

To not buy more than one piece of fabric per month, on average, and to favour knits as I wear them more.

To favour the fits and styles of those garments that hit 30 wears fastest.

To take more time with the garments I do make, through things like making creative use of leftovers, adding embellishments and embroidery.

I feel pretty good about this, and it’s something I’ve fallen in to more or less without thinking about it, as I keep using the app and figuring out the numbers and their implications. My stash has never been smaller and it’s required no self-control. I haven’t bought any patterns since before the pandemic.

There was this sense, before, that I was often serving the sewing rather than the sewing serving me: I had lists of patterns I wanted to make, a huge stash of fabric to sew through, and it became a whole other to-do list, and often a source of stress and guilt. All the money I was spending on fabric and how hard it was to manage and store, and the feeling that I couldn’t! keep! up! for something that was meant to be a hobby. It was neither healthy nor fun.

It is nice to feel like sewing is a hobby again, rather than a punitive list of projects I need to make quickly in order to justify the financial outlay for the fabric I’ve bought, regardless of whether or not those projects have a chance of being worn much beyond the initial photo. If that’s not where you are, and the whole ritual of purchase-pretreat-store-dream-destash-repeat brings you joy, and you’ve never felt the twinges of guilt or regret that I’ve had over the money I’ve spent and the environmental costs of fabric production and shipping, then this might not be of much value to you.

But if you have, this has been a very helpful tool for me.

truth & reconciliation

I have been reflecting on my childhood experiences for decades, and if there has one thing I have learned, it’s that everyone wants to skip over the truth and get right to the reconciliation. No acknowledgement. No real apology. No genuine forgiveness. Just jump over everything potentially uncomfortable and land where the perpetrator wants to be: without accountability, all sins forgiven, everything back to ‘normal.’

That isn’t reconciliation. That’s perpetuating the abuse.

Canada is stolen territory. It’s not hyperbole; it’s a fact. Our lifestyle, and the politics of generosity and inclusion our wealth affords, have been bought with indigenous blood.

Truth must come first, and then other steps need to follow: a genuine apology based on real remorse, reparations and amends, understanding that a true apology doesn’t entitle you to a resumption of the relationship and that this choice remains with the victim, and then genuine efforts to change over time that can lead to the slow build of trust which then forms the basis of reconciliation. It means years of embracing the discomfort of carrying the weight of the sins that have, until now, been put on the backs of the victims.

If, say, your partner cheated on you, and you went to a marital counselor together and drew up a list of actions that need to be taken in order to continue your relationship and rebuild trust, you’d need to see a number of things: 1) that agreeing to the list is not itself sufficient; 2) that undertaking a token number of actions is not sufficient; 3) that completing the entire list is not sufficient, if it’s done as a transaction: 50 actions for one forgiveness, no take-backs. The actions themselves are not the point, it’s that the actions reflect a genuine remorse and intention to do and be better, to rebuild safety.

This is a terrible analogy: Canada isn’t so much a betraying spouse of indigenous peoples as a brutally violent and abusive spouse who married their partner by force, then also engaged in constant unprotected sex on the side, while also beating the children. Having gone through a truth and reconciliation process and come up with a report listing actions that need to be completed is not enough. Doing a handful of the actions is not enough. Doing the entire list, if that’s done with the attitude that on completion we are entitled to forgiveness and normalized relations, is not enough, as if truth and reconciliation were a Tim Horton’s loyalty card and we were diligently marking off our double-doubles.

I of course wore my orange shirt and am reading books and taking courses and making donations, because that is the easy part. I’m glad we have a Truth and Reconciliation Day, and pretty embarrassed that, on-brand, it has become an exercise in profiting off of indigenous pain for the benefit of white settlers who are stealing their art.

Truth has to come first, and we’ll know it has because it will come with the genuine bone-crushing remorse of really feeling and knowing what a cartoon villain Canada has been. If this were a movie set in a fictional country on another planet, and there were native inhabitants who were brutally killed and displaced, their resources and territories stolen and destroyed, their adults abused and addicted, their children stolen and killed, their sick kidnapped and buried far from home–and that occupied nation managed to rise up and kick the colonizers back to their home planet–we would cheer. We know we are not the good guys.

What would happen if we acted towards reconciliation from genuine remorse and a sincere willingness to work to become decent and safe? What if we approached this as if we truly were willing to see Canada become fundamentally different–even no longer named Canada–so long as it meant everyone living here was valued? If we weren’t clutching so hard to what we insist are the “good parts”? What if we acted as if we truly knew and understood that forgiveness and reconciliation would be acts of superhuman generosity that we could never possibly earn? What if we stopped using social media to position ourselves as One of the Good Ones who has it All Figured Out, showing our orange shirts and reading lists and favourite indigenous artists, and used it instead to show our failures and foibles and what we still struggle with–to grapple with our discomfort and even our shame? What if we let go of all of the stories we have been telling ourselves about our pure hearts and good intentions? What possibilities would we find to grow and be better, if we no longer cared about the shape of the outcome, so long as we stop destroying the land and each other?

Review: … and along came Alexis

ARC received from the publisher in exchange for this review:

…And Along Came Alexis

I have learned, over the course of Echo’s life, that I can count on one of two reactions when I talk about our family: pity, or indifference. If I talk about how difficult it can be, emotionally and logistically, we get pity: people feel badly about how hard it is but they believe, or seem to, that the problem is Echo’s body, and therefore there is no cause for our audience to be engaged. If I talk about how much fun we have together, we get indifference: obviously there are no problems to be solved. I hate reverse-engineering conversations to achieve certain outcomes in any situation; I believe it’s the job of the speaker to be as clear, concise and truthful as possible, and leave the emotional reactions up to the recipient to manage. But in any case, it most often appears to be impossible to do regardless when talking about disability: we get pity or indifference, and it doesn’t seem to matter what I talk about or how.*

There is, also, a long history of the parents of disabled children speaking for or speaking over the disabled children themselves. The controversy surrounding Autism Speaks is one example. What we want for our children is often not what those children want for themselves, and when the parents are listened to more than the kids, this can lead to powerlessness and even abuse. “Nothing about us without us” is a rallying cry for a reason.

Primarily for these reasons, I try to approach memoirs written by the parents of disabled children with a great deal of caution: It is, for so many reasons, nearly impossible to do it right. You have an interested audience with entrenched ideas about disability that have no interest in being dislodged by your story, and a traumatized audience very sensitive to issues of over-reach and control. If there is a tightrope between these possibilities, it is the strength of dental floss, and you can’t be blamed for not wanting to trust your weight on it.

Emma Pivato has attempted this acrobatic feat with her book …and along came Alexis, a memoir of raising her youngest daughter, born in the late seventies with profound mental and physical impairments. Emma and her husband Joe have at every turn worked very hard to maximize Alexis’s enjoyment of and participation in life, and she describes these efforts in considerable detail.

Overall I enjoyed reading it and appreciated learning quite a bit about the history and development of inclusion for disabled children in our country, and I would recommend it, particularly to fellow travelers. There is a generational difference in tone and language that could make for a bumpy read, so judge accordingly.

Pivato is a published author of mystery novels, but this book is more descriptive than narrative. Recent memoirs tend to read like novels, with detailed description and dialogue, a narrative arc and denouement. This book is not that. There is, I think, simply too much to cover. If one narrative arc were selected for the book, too much would need to be left out. The writing style therefore tends to the straightforward and unadorned. I found it compelling, though, and read it through pretty quickly, especially considering my limited attention span these days and dependence on library audiobooks. It felt to me as if it reflected Emma’s own decades trying to navigate the pity/indifference continuum, as if she were trying hard to convey how impossibly hard this was and the stark and considerable sacrifices while avoiding the emotional language that might evoke pity. I find myself adopting this tone to describe my life with Echo sometimes.

Alexis’ disability and my kid’s are very different. Alexis has not been able to walk, speak, or see; her cognitive impairments are severe. But her height, body shape and size, and face are all within the average range. On the other hand, my kid is very bright, the most emotionally well-regulated person I’ve ever met, and a complete delight to talk to, but they don’t look like other people. The amazing thing, as so often happens with disability, just how much overlap and similarity there is. You might assume Emma’s life and mine would be very different, and the details often are, but the foundation is the same: two exhausted moms working pretty well constantly to expand their kids’ places in the world, not always perfectly, and often with a great deal of frustration.

Alexis is just a few years younger than I am. So much has changed in the decades between Alexis’ birth and Echo’s, and so much of that is due to the efforts of parents (mostly mothers) like Emma. Siblings of some of my friends were institutionalized at birth by their parents for disabilities they were advised were beyond their caregiving abilities; there was really next to nothing to assist or support parents who refused to do so and raised their disabled children in the family. By the time Echo was born, no one was suggesting to me that they should grow up anywhere but at home. In fact it had swung quite a bit to the “indifference” pole: obviously we have disability laws now so the problems are All Fixed and you won’t have any trouble! …Hrm.

I am so grateful to the efforts of that earlier generation of parents, and after reading this book I have a better sense of exactly how much of an advantage that’s been to us. The programs don’t work anywhere near as smoothly as their administrators seem to think they do–sure, you can get an IEP, but you’re going to be out of pocket and you’ll fight your kid’s teachers over implementing it every September, and yes, there are regulations about snow and ice clearing and we are dedicated to enforcing them, except when it’s really hard and then what’s a little ice under a walker, right? But the programs are there. I’ve never had to meet with a principal to argue why my kid should be able to attend that school, as Emma repeatedly did for Alexis. It did take ten years for the school board to get the desk and chair Echo needs to be able to sit in those classes without pain, and that’s with fights every September and oodles of doctor’s notes, but they were in the classroom, and no one tried to prevent it or made it hard to access assistants.

It’s not All Fixed by any means, but being able to start farther down the track means we’ve been able to cover more ground and with less resistance on the core elements in Echo’s life, so that we’re able to have some of the fights over terminology and ideology that Emma clearly has little patience with. I did find those moments jarring. I don’t think of Echo as damaged and I don’t want them to be “fixed.” My hopes and dreams for them are the same for any other parent and their children; I know the barriers will be discriminatory rather than real. I was shaken by Echo’s differences when they were born, and I did spend some time grieving the reality over my expectations, but I don’t think it took me as long as Emma seems to think is typical. By the time Echo was in kindergarten I was well over it. Emma at one point says that Alexis has dignity because she is slim, attractive, and has a pleasing personality; I think living humans deserve dignity because they are living humans, regardless of their body size or attractiveness. Certainly there are living humans who are treated without dignity because other people are put off by their appearance (facial differences, burn scars, etc.) and that’s not acceptable.

I’m being less critical than I would be of a contemporary. But I remember what it was like when Echo was born, and I had medical professionals telling me that their birth was an unfortunate event and we should be working to prevent a repeat, if I were to become pregnant again, and it took me a few years to find my feet and push back against this. Twenty-eight years of socialization in ableism doesn’t just go away when you have a disabled or physically different infant; it is a long process over years to untangle and learn better.

…and along came Alexis is a good history for those of us in various trenches of the accessibility fight, a reminder of where we came from and how we got to be here. I would recommend it as part of disability reading. The voices of disabled people should remain central, and the current status of things is vital to understand to have an impact, but this filled in a lot of gaps in the backstory for me.

* Not All Blog Readers. This is a general statement about these conversations, and we recognize and treasure the exceptions.


Thank God the election is almost over(-ish). I mean, it’s barely begun; it’s been a short election and despite the best efforts of the media, I don’t know too many people who have been paying much attention to it. People’s worry banks are full of other things, like “will schools stay open this year” and “when can my kids get vaccinated” and “oh god, please no more variants,” and there’s not much space for the rantings of politicians and partisans over how evil all the other candidates are.

Don’t get me wrong: doomscrolling still makes up a chunk of my day. I don’t think O’Toole’s conservatives are evil, but I also don’t want them to win. They’re less awful for climate than the Harper Conservatives were, but there would still be profound consequences for their government that would affect lives. So there is room in there for that little mouth of worry and all its sharp teeth to keep gnawing on my gut.

But this isn’t about the election, per se. It isn’t about the left’s obsession with tearing apart every single potential candidate to make sure that only those who are and have since birth been perfect by 2020 standards can express even tentative interest in the job, and then handing the prize to alt-right neo-fascists out of pique. It isn’t about the right and their outright enthusiasm for and shameless support of said alt-right neo-fascists.

It’s about what it means to be Political, in the context of the ever-increasing dumpster fire of the 21st century, after having read Etian Hersh’s Politics is for Power, during an election campaign with plenty of examples that both illustrate and dismantle his arguments. Mind you: it was the American 2020 political campaign I read the book in, but despite what we would like to believe, we are not that different from the Americans.

His book has two closely-related theses:

  1. That politics is a verb, not a noun; that what most people consider “being political”–reading political news and discussing it on social media with like-minded ‘friends’–is like avidly following football news and watching all your team’s big games, and calling yourself “athletic.” The athletes are the ones who get out and play, even in a community no-tackle league. And ‘being political’ means working to amass power to influence change in your community, however defined, not consuming political news in the same way others follow celebrity gossip.
  2. That working to amass power means community service, preferably local, to build relationships and networks that can be called on during elections to direct votes to progressive candidates and causes.

I’m solidly on board with the first and find the second pretty questionable.

Politics is a verb

The curious thing, when I worked in renewable energy, wasn’t that angry NIMBYs showed up to derail all our public meetings.

The curious thing was that in every jurisdiction, the majority of residents–according to polls–supported the projects.

But they never showed up.

They didn’t come to the public meetings, they didn’t go to municipal council meetings or committees, they didn’t write letters to politicians or decision-makers. They rumbled their dissatisfaction about how politicized renewable energy had become to their friends or, sometimes, on social media.

Meanwhile, the NIMBYs organized busloads of people from all over the province to attend the public meetings with megaphones and bullhorns and t-shirts, who threatened and harassed and occasionally assaulted our staff.

Eventually, despite their best efforts, the projects did go up. But despite their smaller numbers based on the polls, they had an enormously detrimental impact on renewable energy policy in the province, and the industry never recovered from it. I know Naomi Klein likes to blame business (because blaming business is all she knows how to do), but in fact it was democracy as currently practiced that broke renewable energy in Ontario, and the apathetic majority that figured their good intentions were a satisfactory stand-in for effort.

And this is not unusual. Political activists in the 1960s and 70s worked hard to make government more democratic by getting consultation and engagement requirements embedded into law with certain time periods for review and advertising requirements. Yet few people take advantage of these, and it is almost always opponents who show up. In my experience, the opponents are nearly universally wealthy white retired people, most often men.

This is exactly the kind of nonsense Hersh takes aim at in his book:

So there it is. What news do political junkies demand? Outrage and gossip. Why? Because it’s alluring. What news do we avoid? Local news. Why? It’s boring. What do we think of our partisan opponents? We hate them. Do we really hate them? No, but politics is more fun if we root for a team and spew anger at the other side. It’s easier to hate and dismiss the other side than to empathize and connect to them. When do we vote? When there’s a spectacle. When do we click? When politics can be a frivolous distraction. When do we donate? When there’s a cocktail party or viral video. What are we doing? We’re taking actions not to empower our political values, but to satisfy our passion for the sport of politics.


Hobbyism is, he writes, the death of real politics. And it’s not everyone at fault, but a particular demographic group. Some clues:

…those in wealthier neighbourhoods were especially likely to sign petitions if the petition were about issues that were frivolous and narrow.

p. 62

Of Americans who consume news every day, most report belonging to zero organizations. Sixty-five percent report that in the last year they have done no work with other people to solve a community problem. Sixty-eight percent say they have attended zero meetings in the last year about a community issue.

p. 136

…one reason why organizations are so weak is that they are operating in a culture of privilege that, in spite of our serious national problems, fails to treat politics as if lives are on the line.

p. 147

Here’s the last clue:

A certain detachment from feelings of fear and insecurity is needed to experience politics as a leisure-time activity… black voters tend to see their own fate, and the fate of their families, as tied to the fate of the racial group as a whole. … If you are reasonably well-off and white, and if you mostly live among other people like you, then you may have trouble seeing how your fate is linked to the fate of the less fortunate. …Blacks and Latinos were twice as likely to report that part of the time they spent on politics was spent volunteering.

pp. 185-186

Yep, that’s right. The most partisan people with the least contribution to actual politics and yet the most heated sentiments about it are wealthy, white men, with the least to either gain or lose from any particular contest. If my own experience is anything to go by, Liberal men are worse, because at least you can count on more Conservative men getting angry enough about things they dislike to actually show up and participate.

My own social circle is predominantly women, and due to my own social position, a bunch are straight, white, middle- or upper-middle class, abled women, and this tracks. Not entirely; my own habits and hobbies have brought me into contact with a lot of volunteers, activists and organizers, but the amazing thing is that the volunteers, activists and organizers are not usually the ones foaming at the mouth over party politics. I have spent about fifteen years working at different levels of government on environmental policies and projects, and a) yes, which party wins matters, it has a huge impact, there’s no avoiding it, but also b) you can still get a lot done with whatever party wins, and if you are actually committed to an ideal or a goal, you will find a way to show up even when it’s hard or discouraging.

I mean, no one I know in the environmental field was happy when DoFo won. No one. But. The morning after the win, women I know in the field were calling each other: “OK. Well, cap and trade is gone, but he’s promised funding for adaptation. What can we do with that? Do we have adaptation projects we can move forward? Can we go to the feds to replace the cap and trade money we’re about to lose? Let’s organize a workshop and a protest about this Greenbelt nonsense. Who’s the new Environment minister? Can we get a meeting?”

What they did not do was throw up their hands and say, “well, that’s it! I’m going on vacation for four years! Those awful people voted for the Wrong Party and now we’re all doomed!”

Thesis 1 point is: Hersh is right. Politics is not a spectator sport. It is how change is created in our communities. Memes don’t count. If you’re unable to participate in person, you have options like emails and phonecalls, phone banking and donations, op-eds and written project submissions.

I do not believe that you have no time and there’s nothing you can do. I believe that you are more comfortable criticizing the actions of others than subjecting yourself to possible criticism by taking any kind of action.

On to his second thesis, which is that political power is amassed by local community service and then deployed to direct voters towards political candidates … enh.

Only Voting Counts

Hersh overlooks all historical suffrage movements in his focus on voting as the only kind of political action that matters. Women got themselves rights, including the right to vote, as did black people and indigenous people; by definition they accomplished this without actually having that right. Voting is important, don’t get me wrong, but even directing the votes of a bunch of other people is only one means to political power. Look at the youth climate strikes (which he takes an unnecessary potshot at): most of those kids aren’t voting age and many won’t be for years, yet they still managed to influence the platforms of all four of Canada’s main parties in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections. And beyond protests: there’s delegating, analysis, policy-making, committees, letters and meetings and phonecalls, etc. You can participate in any or all of these regardless of who you vote for or if you vote at all.

I personally don’t care who you vote for, with an enormous asterisk beside the PPC. I have more respect for Conservative voters who work to change their party’s stance on climate change and equity than I do for NDP voters who do nothing but vote and judge; the former will achieve more good.

It is better to vote Conservative and stay actively involved in climate between elections than it is to vote NDP (or Green, or Liberal) and sit on your hands for four years. The majority Liberals under McGuinty slowed down their renewables program in the face of rural conservative opposition, and the majority Provincial conservatives under Ford rolled back proposals in the face of liberal urban opposition. All governing parties move towards the centre while in government. Best, of course, to vote for the party with the platform you want and then yell at the winner, whoever they are, to implement it.

I took a look at the climate platforms of our four major parties before deciding who to vote for–I always do. I vote climate. You don’t, and that’s fine; I’m not looking to get an all-Green or all-NDP or even all-Climate parliament. I want all voices represented, so long as basic human rights are respected; I want people there advocating for pragmatism, for science, for human rights and equity, for environmental protection, for climate justice, even for responsible costing. I use my vote to say, backed up with words, that climate matters to me.

This used to be easy. Climate voters were few, and it was rare to even see “climate change” in a platform. Usually, I could read them all quickly, find the one–maybe two–who managed to say anything at all, if there were two figure out which was closer to IPCC reports and recommendations, which would be whatever one managed to say something about reduction targets and actions to achieve them, and presto, there was my vote! I’d then send a short note to them letting them know that I voted for them because of their climate proposals.

2018’s IPCC report and the youth climate strikes changed that. Now, all four parties have climate platforms. They’re not equal, but it’s notable that the 2021 Conservative climate plan would have been radical for an NDP or Liberal proposal in 2011. In fact, I just looked up the 2011 Liberal platform and it pretty much is the 2021 Conservative platform, except less detailed: a home renovation tax credit, an insufficient emissions reduction target, no interim targets, no accountability, no detailed policy proposals, a promise to implement cap-and-trade federally, and promises to work with the US on creating joint regulations. Largely same with the NDP, with some nods to energy poverty, equity issues and reduction of O&G subsidies. The Green 2011 platform didn’t even mention climate change. Adaptation is MIA, no one was talking about divestment or shutting down the tar sands or cancelling pipeline contracts, no specific dollar amounts were proposed for carbon pricing. All of this has happened in the last four years.

This is all great news, but it makes it much harder to compare and evaluate climate platforms. Woe is me! I made a chart:

There’s not much point in reading it now since you almost certainly have already voted. My point is this: This change in emphasis and party values has happened in four years largely due to the pressure of people too young to vote.

So in this, I fundamentally disagree with Hersh. Yes, vote, please; vote based on the platforms, not the marketing; then between elections, hold elected officials accountable by whatever means necessary and push progress through ongoing engagement.

That is politics.


Here’s a thought experiment, or a mental exercise, I often try when out hiking. It doesn’t have to be strictly for hikes, of course, or even outside. If there is a living thing nearby, it will apply—even a spider in the corner of the ceiling, or a moth that got in and is circling the light.

Every living thing is the centre of its own story. Isn’t that a wild thought? Obvious, of course, but as humans we’re so conditioned to see ourselves as central, as the pinnacle of evolution or God’s special masterpiece, that we forget that the living things we look at are looking back at us through their own eyes, and form conclusions that might not even be intelligible to us.

But what might their perception be? We regularly measure the utility of other lives through the lens of human satisfactions: every living thing, every species and landscape, had better make us better off somehow or it’s likely to get a literal axe. If it can’t profit us, heal us, feed us, or entertain us, then it had better inspire us, or there’s no point in letting it be. But when I look at myself through the eyes of a living thing that I am looking at, and I ask myself whether, according to those metrics, it would see any reason why I should exist, the world looks very different.

Of course a frog, a grasshopper, a robin, a minnow, a blade of grass, a sumac, a pond, would see no benefit whatsoever to my continued existence, and why should they? And why should it be my perspective, or the perspective of my kind, that sorts out who and what lives and dies in our shared world? We are, most of the time, bit players with walk-on parts in a play written in a language we can’t hear, let alone speak, on a stage we didn’t build, still convinced we own the theatre.

Then I wonder what, say, the milky way galaxy or even the solar system, if it had a perceptual organ with which to observe this little cousin and myself, would think of us. Would it even be able to tell us apart? The differences in size and scale that are so obvious and important to us would be minute; our genetic differences next to zero; as living things that move, eat, excrete, mate, reproduce, raise young, build and destroy, then die, we must be nearly indistinguishable. We are separated only by a breath.

review: Crow Planet

(Being a review of an entire book in which the author spends the whole thing watching, taking care of, interacting with, and loving a young disabled crow, also clearly loved by its parents and loving its life in turn, and in which the author ends the book with exactly the same amount and degree of ableist beliefs from which she began it.)

As an urban/suburban environmentalist, I picked up Crow Planet (metaphorically; this is a review of the audiobook) with great enthusiasm. I love works that help people explore the nature they live among and with, rather than placing Nature as somewhere Out There that enlightened urbanites visit for a few weeks per year. Sadly I was often disappointed. I initially rated it 2.5 rounded up, but as I write this I’m revising to 2.5 rounded down.

On the good: I found the writing lovely and clear and often side-splittingly funny. The scene with the baby crows carefully and with great attention dismantling her vegetable garden as if “they were working on their knitting,” and then reacting to a hose turned on them with glee, made me literally laugh out loud. Her careful observations of the wildlife around her house and in her neighbourhood was delightful. However, it was utterly ruined by her biases on many levels.

Here I’ll focus on my personal nemesis–ableism–and how this book exemplifies my main concerns with the conflation in the environmental movement of “natural” with “abled”, and therefore casting disability and disabled persons aside as “unnatural,” their lives a modern western decadence rather than a right.

In the very first chapter she introduces us to Charlotte, a disabled crow, cared for past the typical timeframe by her parents due to her inability to use one of her legs. This was a perfect opportunity for Haupt to reconsider her bigotry, to think that maybe, just maybe, parents caring for disabled children of all species because they love them and want them to thrive undercuts her preconceptions. But no. Instead she wonders why the parents would do this when it was must be so unrewarding (I believe her assumption is that Charlotte will never be able to pass on her genes, so why not just let her die?).

There is, towards the middle of the book, an extended and entirely unreflective section on how walking is the only way humans can come to love their environment. Not “direct experience” or “close contact” or “relationships over time” with non-human nature. No. Just “walking.” On your feet, in the woods or as close as you can get to them. This, too, casts disabled people outside of the human family. I guess, since those who use mobility devices often need pavement to get around, which is in short supply in the woods, and in any case aren’t walking there, can’t form close relationships with non-human nature and therefore can’t become naturalists nor love nature the way she does. Never mind that almost everything Haupt actually does in the book could be done in a wheelchair, without feet, given that she’s observing crows in her garden or near her daughter’s school.

If you want an extended albeit indirect rebuttal to Haupt’s rhetoric, I recommend Eli Clare, a disability justice activist and environmental advocate who writes brilliantly and clearly on the overlapping terrain of these two issues. Clare isn’t alone; there are many other writers doing the same, and plenty of disabled people with an ecological consciousness and naturalist bent; but why on earth should Haupt bother to check her biases with a shred of research?

In the last chapter, there’s another extended rant, this time about the worthlessness and hopelessness of life with a disability. Since this was the audiobook, and therefore a transcription of what the narrator says, the punctuation and paragraph breaks may be different than that in the print edition; still, I think it is worth quoting at length, along with my outraged commentary:

“I recognize Charlotte right away by the way she roosts, resting her belly on the wire instead of standing up straight as Crows normally do. Her leg never healed properly, and it splays to the side when she feeds on the ground.

“I’ve been keeping an eye on her for months now, watching as she struggled along as a fledgling on the neighbourhood sidewalks, then as a fully grown if not a bit scrawny first-year bird. Miraculously dodging cats, raccoons, and migrating coopers hawks. [ed: “miraculously” is a value statement, not a fact or observation.] Injured crows very often survive where birds of other species would perish. [ed: no evidence provided for either assertion.] Their terrific intelligence and omnivorous diet allow behavioural range unavailable to most birds. Where an injured warbler would huddle and starve, [ed: no evidence provided] an injured crow can mix and scratch. In a park setting, where crows are accustomed to people, I have noticed that injured crows will more closely approach a person tossing bits of food than a healthy crow typically does.

“With a permanent injury, crumpled foot or one blind eye for example, the already difficult crow life is even harder. These birds make do. [ed: imagine if she had taken the evidence of her own senses here and revised her opinions on disability.] Whenever a person tells me he or she has been feeding a crow on the back porch, it almost always turns out that the bird is injured. Even crows with broken hanging wings, whose open wounds have healed but whose broken bones were never set, so they cannot fly, sometimes survive for a time. [ed: no evidence provided. No indication of what ‘for a time’ means.] They stake out a territory on the ground and scavenge and beg. They may not have a long life, but most avian species couldn’t pull off any semblance of such an existence. [ed: no evidence provided for either assertion.]

“Several people have called me over the years to ask me what to do about an injured bird. I’m always struck when they say something like, ‘it’s actually in pretty good shape. Very alert. It just has a broken wing.’ [ed: again, ignoring the evidence in front of her because it does not fit with her preconceptions on disability. Imagine if she had taken the opportunity to learn that yes, of course, the injury is hard, but it is not surprising or rare that living things will go on surviving and even flourishing anyway.] Most people don’t realize that a wing … is not like an arm. it is more like a heart. Birds were made for flight. Even birds that cannot fly now, ostriches … evolved from birds that could. [ed: all birds are made for flight, even birds that can’t fly and haven’t flown for millennia. Therefore: the life of a bird that can’t fly is not worth living. Ok then.]

“But how to live without a forelimb? No arm, no hand, no front paw? No other terrestrial vertebrate has managed such a life. … [ed: except every other terrestrial vertebrate that has, including an awful lot of animals that have escaped from human traps, pets that have lost limbs in accidents or due to illness or that were born without, or the very substantial number of humans that were born without limbs or lost them due to any number of reasons, and who have all gone on living–happily, even.]

“Charlotte might be thin and slumped, but she managed to learn to fly on one leg, no mean accomplishment. I wonder, what does it mean to have no hope? When there is a radiant earth-loving child singing in the bathroom, and a one-legged bird that has learned to fly in your tree?”

Inspo-porn, bird-style.

I would like to draw your attention here to the sheer overwhelming quantity of evidence Haupt has available to her that birds regularly live through and with disabling injuries, and the persistence of her belief that this is astonishingly rare and utterly debilitating. This of course does not apply just to birds, and nor is it only Haupt: you yourself, Dear Reader, have probably absorbed the idea that disability is rare and that the survival and inclusion of disabled people in modern society is a major human rights gain and triumph over historical societies where disabled people just died or were killed.

But think about this: in a prehistoric society where hunters regularly approached herbivorous mammals weighing several tonnes for their food armed only with sharp stones or sticks, or where humans were regularly hunted themselves by predators with teeth as long as their hands, does it actually make sense to think that most humans would have reached adulthood without being injured, without healing possibly imperfectly, living with the loss of fingers or limbs or breaks that didn’t heal right or whatever? How rare could this really have been? There would have been a lot of people like Charlotte: took a bad jump once and broke a leg that wasn’t splinted properly and never healed quite straight.

Not only must these kinds of disabilities have been very common, but there’s plenty of archaeological evidence of persons in adolescence or adulthood who died with genetic or medical problems, evident in their bones or teeth, that would have required assistance and care from other members of the tribe for them to have lived so long. Disability is not rare, and neither is communal care.

In the search for this section so I could transcribe it, I came across again the chapter on how sight is also essential for naturalists. A few minutes’ search on google showed me many example of naturalists and ecologists who are disabled–with vision loss, or using wheelchairs or walkers, or any number of other things. They are entirely invisible to Haupt. This is not accidental. Even when evidence is directly in front of her, she cannot perceive it . She loves Charlotte, she claims, but will not believe her when Charlotte is clearly showing that she loves her life.

I’m going to ignore all the sexist earth-mother nonsense; I imagine other reviews have taken on her contention that obviously, “primate mothers” want to care for their own young, so she became a stay at home mother. Guess I’m not a “primate mother”? News to me. (For an extended, scientific, well researched and footnoted take on these reductive stereotypes of the maternal instinct, see Sarah Blaffer Hrdy). You could take this in the direction of a classism analysis as well, but as I think I’ll have enough to criticize just focusing on disability, I’ll refrain.

So here’s the thing:

Her wailing and gnashing of teeth about the horrors of disability sounds exactly the same as her wailing and gnashing of teeth about environmental destruction. Because they are the same.

We are not killing the planet.

We are disabling it.

It is going to live through us, whatever we do (barring the possible exception of all-out nuclear war); its form and function will radically change. It will work differently and look differently. Kind of like a disabled person. And kind of like a disabled person, we’ve been enculturated to find these changes or differences in form of function very distressing, often too distressing to cope with. With disabled people, you find society often assumes that they would be better off dead (disabled people rarely agree; levels of suicidality are about the same between disabled and abled people. Yet here in Canada, for instance, where Medical Assistance In Dying legislation has recently been expanded to include disabled Canadians who are not at risk of dying otherwise, this has been embraced as a step forward for human rights by abled people while reacted to with horror by just about every disability rights organization).

With disabled planets, you find people like Musk assuming a literally dead planet (Mars) is better than a living one that works differently than it used to.

While Haupt isn’t advocating the terraforming of Mars, she does act and write as if the changes we’re making to the environment are so terrible and distressing that there is no point to living through them. I think this is nonsense. Unless you, whoever you are, reacted to your own birth with “but where were the forests that grew here x00 years ago, and what has befallen the mammoth? I can’t live here!” then it is most likely that future generations will embrace the conditions they were born into, consider them normal, and construct the best lives they can for themselves.

Ableism muddles people’s reactions to this argument, so: in case you are now wondering “but if there’s nothing wrong with disability, why try to save the planet/prevent disabling illnesses or conditions?” So analogize disability to being the victim of a crime. We’ll say sexual assault, or child abuse: it will likely change who you are and how you function in the world. In that way, it’s disabling. We wouldn’t say that the lives of the victims of these crimes are worthless or that they are better off dead, and we also wouldn’t argue that since their lives are still worth living that means it’s not worth trying to prevent rape or child abuse.

My disabled child loves nature; even though they have had periods where they can’t walk and can currently not walk much, and certainly not for long on uneven terrain. We have wildlife around our home, after all. There is a family of robins raising a brood of hatchlings on our front door lamp as I write this, and I can see mama and papa robin doing what parents of many species do: working tirelessly to feed and protect their children. You do not need to walk to love the world.

And when I go into the woods, where the terrain is too steep and uneven for them, I’m well aware that the landscapes I interact with are different in form and function than they were before colonization; they are disabled, in that sense. Yet they are green and full of living things. When I sit by my favourite pond, I do wonder what it would say, if it could speak, about the change in its circumstances. The introduced and invasive species, the loss of shade, the traffic and air pollution. What I can tell just from the evidence of my senses is that nothing there believes it would be better off dead, or that it has no value. It doesn’t bewail and moan. It embraces the life that it has.

we speak to become

I have three sewing projects cut out and ready to sew, but I haven’t touched them in months. Partly because sewjo is in short supply during lockdown, but mostly because I’ve been having so much fun with handwork projects: cross stitch, embroidery, stumpwork, crochet.

But when I saw Melanie post that this spring’s Literary Sewing Circle book is Amatka, I knew I had to participate. I first read it years ago, and found it a wonderfully weird story. Based on a colony planet–we are not told when or where, or how the colonists discovered or settled it–almost devoid of plant life and completely devoid of animal life larger than an insect, the colonists are in a state of daily warfare with the planet itself, which is in some way alive, yet can be compelled through thoughts and words, spoken or written, to become something else, something useful to the humans. So the humans, through relentless labelling of the objects they need, maintain those objects, and any lapse in those efforts has the objects relapsing into goop.

Rereading this book after a year of lockdowns and pandemic living, when a lot of us have been grappling with the ways that our thoughts and words have shaped this world we live in, for good and for ill, was a very different experience. We have defined, for example, whole groups of human beings as more disposable than others and have labelled them in Orwellian fashion as “essential workers”; in one sense, those thoughts and labels have shaped reality in disturbing ways, in increased hospitalization and death rates. In another sense, our thoughts and labels have never and could never reshape reality, because our essential equality as human beings is still there underneath all the labels, and the unequal consequences of our labelling strike us with fresh horror.

Coming up with a sewing project that reflects these observations, Dear Readers, was a trick.

The only clothing inspiration I could come up with was “something utilitarian that’s suitable for a cold climate.” But after a year of sewing utilitarian clothing in this cold climate, I couldn’t face more. So this is not a clothing project.

In January, struggling to come up with a New Year’s Resolution that also makes sense in a year that will be more or less defined by pandemic restrictions, I came up with: making one project from each of my unused embroidery project books and, if there are books that I haven’t made a project out of by next January, to give those books away.

Kazuko Aoki’s The Embroidered Garden is on that list. The projects are beautiful and I’ve had a few on my list for years, including the frog cushion and the seasonal floral wreaths. The only reason I hadn’t yet made them was because they are, I assume, based on Japanese flower gardens and frogs, and I want to stitch Ontario flowers and frogs. Which means the patterns had to be altered.

Original spring wreath design

I’ve altered one of the frogs to be a native Green Frog (that is the actual species name, and if you’re in Ontario and you’ve seen a frog at a pond, it is probably not just a green frog, but a Green Frog) for a quilt, and I’ve finally altered the spring floral wreath to remove garden flowers not native to Ontario (pansies, violas) with native spring ephemeral wildflowers (trilliums, trout lilies, bloodroot).

I also wanted to add some embroidered text to the centre of the spring floral wreath, and this is where it clicked with the Literary Sewing Circle project:

If our words have shaped but not overwritten our reality, and if we’ve seen too clearly the destructive impact that this reshaping has had on so many people over the pandemic: how do we want to use our thoughts and words to shape reality when it’s all over?

stumpwork red trillium on pink linen

If you could say anything, and saying it made it true-ish, what would you say?

That sounds like I had a handy phrase all ready to go, but alas, not so. I traced out the pattern, modified it to include my beloved spring ephemerals, transferred it to the pink linen scrap, and embroidered almost all of it while trying to think of a phrase that would best encapsulate what I want to bring forward with me from this time.

The phrase I kept coming back to was from Berol’s Anna’s poem fragment: We speak to become.

Which led me to Hafiz’s poem:


We speak

Becomes the house we live in.

Who will want to sleep in your bed

If the roof leaks

Right above


Look what happens when the tongue

Cannot say to kindness,

“I will be your slave.”

The moon

Covers her face with both hands

And can’t bear

To look.

There’s something about that final image, of the moon unable to witness this, that struck me, but there’s really very little space available in the centre of this embroidery.

Aside: Hafiz is often translated as writing “The words you speak become the house you live in,” which, thanks to the unspecificity of the English ‘you,’ lends itself to a handy and pretty ugly individualism; if you say “mansion mansion mansion” a lot, you’ll end up rich! And indeed that’s the direction it’s been taken in by countless online life coaches and inspirational types of all stripes. Speak your reality! Get what you want!

But in its entirety it’s clear that the house we’re building with our words, collective-we and collective-you rather than singular-you, is the house we all live in, and it leaks over some beds, and the moon is sick at the sight of it.

And in Amatka, the words they spoke built the literal houses that they actually lived in, as well as every other object they interacted with, except for the ‘good paper’ brought with them initially from Earth. I know Karen Tidbeck wrote the novel based on dreams she had, but honestly, if she claimed to have been inspired by Hafiz’s poem, it would have been perfectly apt. At the same time, it resists an easy positive-thinking interpretation; it’s not a story where people speak “neverending abundance!” and end up with gold coins raining into their laps, or speak and think “I am all love!” and banish negative thoughts and feelings for all time. It’s prosaic. They speak or write spoon, key, suitcase, toothbrush, soap. And there is an ambiguous sense throughout the book that the reality of this colony planet, pulsing away beneath their labels and words, is both hostile to the overt control and shaping of the colony and its Committee but that it also can be joyous and expansive if the colonists would only stop fighting it.

(We could also spend a lot of time unpacking and discussing what it means that it’s the two agricultural towns that collapse first; the basis of the colony’s entire survival and, one senses from the text, the most difficult colonies to live in, with the harshest conditions and the fewest opportunities. What happens next, do you think? Does the industrial town collapse? Do they found a new agricultural centre and try to carry on? Or is this the tipping point that sends the whole thing crashing down?)

And isn’t that the reality of our world, too? That if only we would stop labeling our planet and fellow humans with the prosaic and controlling words that turn them into the commodities we need, we could have a more expansive and joyous reality? If we stopped looking at the forests and saying, “Ikea bookcases and toilet paper,” what would we see instead, and what could we create? If all the toxic and destructive labels we apply to people and populations ended, what would our communities become? What could we speak instead?

This also is a very difficult thing to encapsulate in the approximately 4″ x 3″ centre of a small embroidered floral wreath.

In a sense, of course, the words are unnecessary; the entire craft of embroidery exemplifies the themes of the book. I can point at this embroidered wreath and say “wild strawberry” until my lips turn blue and fall off, and it may have the appearance of a wild strawberry, but ultimately what it is and will always be is a bit of processed cotton plant treated with chemicals to look white.

But the words are central and I want the words, so here they are.

A few last words about the embroidery techniques:

The original pattern was fully flat surface work; a combination of stem stitches, couching, satin stitches, french knots, chain stitches and straight stitches. But in the process of changing the flowers to replace garden or non-native plants with native wildflowers, I also decided to add some three-dimensional stitching to highlight the flowers I love best. The wild strawberry blossoms are thread crochet. The trout lily is ribbon embroidery. The bloodroot has a foundation of four padded satin stitch petals, and four needleweaving petals on top. And the red trillium and the mourning cloak butterfly are stumpwork. The wild strawberry, trout lily and red trillium I designed referring to photographs I’ve taken; the mourning cloak butterfly came from one of Jane Nicholas’s stumpwork embroidery books (mourning cloak butterflies are one of the earliest butterflies to appear in spring in Ontario, since they hibernate over winter). The butterfly pattern had to be altered since it relied on a chenille embroidery thread I was not able to find anywhere; so instead I constructed the body with many straight stitches.

Review: Japanese Wonder Crochet

In amidst a year+ of working from home and having umpteen gazillion video conferences a week, I’ve discovered a) it reduces my wardrobe needs to about zero, and b) it makes focusing on small stitches for both clothes sewing and embroidery much more difficult. I’m not sewing clothes at all right now, and I now rest my eyes, regularly and frequently, including staring into the middle distance and also including slowing waaaay down on the kind of handwork I love. Sigh.

Happily, crochet (at least, if done with yarn and not thread) is large enough that I can work away without eye strain or pain, so I’ve been steadily borrowing crochet books from the local library in bunches of three, and trying out projects and stitches. Japanese Wonder Crochet was a recent borrow, and I made up two projects from it: the Granny Bag and the Diamond Waffle Stitch Handbag (also shown on the cover).

Granny Bag
diamond waffle stitch Handbag

Japanese Wonder Crochet does not contain basic crochet information such as picking a yarn or hook or how to do basic stitches; it assumes you already know this and gets right to the projects. It also does not contain written pattern information except for the rare, tricky stitch; all projects are given in pattern diagrams. Personally I prefer this as I find it easier to read and navigate and I don’t get mixed up between British and American stitch names, but if you can’t read pattern diagrams, this is probably not the book for you.

But the projects are simple and elegant, very useable, and not challenging or time consuming to complete, assuming you are not a complete beginner. I was able to make up both, including ordering yarn and waiting for delivery, within the initial three-week book loan period. Both bags are useful and made up as described and pictured. I’ve been using the granny bag for a week already, and while I wouldn’t trust the weave with, say, small change or subway tokens, it holds my daily essentials well and is also extremely cute. Recommend for crochet enthusiasts who are comfortable with reading diagrams and looking for interesting and useable accessory projects.