Authors: James Loney
“I’m fine,” I say. “I’ll come home as soon as I’m done here.” I wave goodbye and walk back into the shop.
Luigi motions to me when it’s my turn. I sit in his chair and he covers me with the bib. “How-do-you-a-want-a-the-hair-a-cut-a-today-a?” he says. “Something-a-short-a-or-not-a-short-a?” I only know what he’s saying because he always says the same thing.
“Short over the ears,” I say, “but not too short on top.”
“You-a-have-a-the-long-a-hair-a-this-a-time-a,” he says.
“Yes,” I say.
He says something about the weather, what a beautiful day it is.
“Yes, it is a beautiful day,” I say.
We leave for Sault Ste. Marie the next day. It is one of those glorious March days when sugar maple veins are flowing open. As the Tim Hortons in Parry Sound comes into view, I ask Dan to stop. I have a craving for a sugar-coated sour cream doughnut. When we enter the store, I immediately feel it’s a mistake. I feel exposed, on display. Is it my imagination or is every head in the place turning in our direction? I tell Dan I’ll wait for him outside.
“Do you mind if I drive?” I say when he returns to the car. “I don’t know if I can do it, but I want to try.”
“No problem. Here,” he says, handing me the keys. I take the wheel. My brain feels spongy, my eyes sluggish. I shift into first and drive us through the parking lot. “Jim! Stop!” Dan shouts. I slam on the brake.
There’s a car barrelling out of the drive-thru to my right. I didn’t see the stop sign. My whole body is shaking. I put the car in park and immediately get out.
“Sorry, Dan,” I say as we pass each other in front of the car. “I can’t even get out of the parking lot,” I say, laughing contritely.
“The only way you find out is by trying,” Dan says.
I talk the whole way, pour the story out from beginning to end, every detail, without interruption. We’re passing through Bruce Mines when I finish. We fall silent for a moment. Night has fallen. I watch the highway passing under us through a fleeting tunnel of light. I feel my body relaxing. I have a witness now, someone to hold the story with me, and I am happy. In forty-five minutes we’ll be home, the circle will be complete.
Behind my parents’ house there’s a small three-unit apartment building on a busy street. When we were kids, that property was a vital shortcut in our various comings and goings. When we learned that my father was going to build a fence along the back of our property, we complained loudly. What about our shortcut? Don’t worry, he told us, I’ve got it all figured out. He put a door in the fence.
We park in front of the Anglican church across the street from the apartment building. My sister suggested we come in the back way to avoid the media. Trudging through snow, we enter the backyard through the door in the fence. I stop for a moment. “There they are,” I say to Dan. We can see them through the window. Everyone’s there—my parents, Claudette and Patrick; my sister Kathleen and her husband Rob; their three children, Adrianna, Olivia and Andrew; Ed and Donna and Matt. My heart races. I open the back door.
My dad sees me first. “James!” he says, throwing his arms around me, engulfing me in his tears. I can’t speak. And then it’s my mom who is holding me tight. “I love you, James,” she says. I feel it in every cell of my body, the love of my parents, the people who gave me life. I give her a kiss. She doesn’t say anything about the beard.
“James, do you want some champagne? Ed and Donna got champagne!” Andrew says when all the hugs are done.
“Sure!” I say.
When everyone has a glass in their hand, my dad proposes a toast. “Thank God, and thank Allah, it’s over, James is home. To freedom,” he says.
“To freedom,” we say.
My mom brings me a big bowl of chocolate ice cream. “I think we’re going to have to fatten you up a bit,” she says.
I laugh. “Thanks, Mom! This is perfect. I haven’t had any ice cream yet since I’ve been home.” It is one of the first things I do whenever I visit my parents—help myself to a bowl of ice cream.
The next morning, my father asks me if I’m going to shave. Yes, I tell him, I’m very much looking forward to it.
“What’re you going to use?” he asks me.
“I’ll just use what’s downstairs,” I say. My mom keeps disposable razors in the basement bathroom for guests.
“I’ll be right back,” he says. When he returns, he hands me the razor I remember he used to use when I was a kid—the old-fashioned kind where you have to twist open the head to replace the blade. “You might want to use this. There’s a new razor in it.”
“I remember this!” I say. Like it was yesterday. Standing next to my father in the bathroom, his face full of lather, his chin lifted and leaning into the mirror, the sound of steel scraping against his beard and the clicking of the razor in the sink as he rinsed it, the pleasing, soap-smelling smoothness of his skin when he was done. The little plastic shaving kit he got me and how grown-up I felt when I would shave next to him in the mornings, my face covered with the lather remaining on his shaving brush. Then the inconsolable tears when the razor fell behind the sink and I thought I’d never be able to shave with my father again. And the sense of being completely restored when he put the razor back in my hands again.
“I thought you might like to have it,” he says.
“Thank you, Dad,” I say, marvelling at it. “You know, I always kind of hoped that … one day I’d be able to use this.”
“Well, it’s yours now.”
I use a pair of scissors first to cut off as much of the beard as I can. Then I use the razor. It feels good. To shave it all away, every last haggard hair, rinse it all down the drain. When I am done, I look in the mirror. Finally, I think. I am beginning to look like myself again.
Later, my brother-in-law asks me what I did with all the hair from my beard. “What do you mean?” I say. “I washed it all down the sink.”
“That’s too bad,” he says. “You should’ve saved it. We could’ve auctioned it off on eBay and made a fortune!”
We laugh hysterically. Finally, thank God,
, it’s over. It’s really really over. And we spend the next days feasting. On laughter, card games, storytelling, afternoon walks in snow-melting sunshine, the full-measure pressed-down shaken-together overflowing goodness of life. The kind of feasting that you can never get enough of. That I so much wish for every human being on our beautiful blue planet.
I discovered it somewhere in that vast ocean of time: a day without hope, a day so empty and dull and morbid with waiting it is impossible to distinguish. A curtain pulled back, the walls around us dissolved, and I could see with perfect blue-sky clarity the Whole Truth of the Universe. I remember laughing with astonishment. Everything I needed to know about the world and how it worked was right in front of me, literally at my fingertips, hanging on the back of a chair.
On that day, it happened that one of us had occasion to use the hamam bottle. This was the 1.5-litre Pepsi bottle the captors brought with the Christmas cake and let us keep after it was empty. We only ever used it as a last resort. As you can imagine, peeing into the narrow opening of a plastic pop bottle when your left and right hands are handcuffed to somebody else is not the easiest thing to do.
On that day, things didn’t go so well and the services of our
rag became needed. This was Tom’s undershirt, part of the change of clothes given to us on Christmas Day and made available by Tom when the captors either didn’t understand or didn’t agree with our need for a rag. We wiped up the spill and draped the rag over the back of a chair until it could be rinsed out later.
Sometime afterwards, Uncle brought us lunch, a
filled with eggplant fried in oil. I remember it seemed to happen in slow motion. Uncle glanced at his fingers, saw they were greasy, spotted the rag and started to reach for it.
No! Stop! Wait!
I wanted to warn him, but before I could get the words out, Uncle had wiped his fingers on our
rag. He looked about the room, checked to see that everything was in order, said goodbye and went downstairs.
I was too shocked to say anything.
Uncle just wiped his hands in our piss!
He wanted to clean them, but he ended up doing the opposite thing, soiling himself in our captivity. Our degradation had become his degradation. Uncle couldn’t see it, but we could. The oppressed can see what the oppressor cannot. Whatever you do to another, you do also to yourself. Every act of harm, every act of violence, regardless of the reason, soils and corrupts your humanity. And then you pass it on, spreading it like a contagion in everything you touch, in the course of opening a door, shaking someone’s hand, making a cup of tea. It happens of its own accord, because it has to, a universal principle of cause and effect. Everything we do, no matter how insignificant, affects everything and everyone else, whether we realize it or not. It cannot be helped or stopped.
It was Lord Acton who famously said that power corrupts. The word “power” comes from the Old French
, “to be able.” Every human being needs to be able. To move, think, do, act, decide. Secure the necessaries of life. Establish boundaries, protection, safety. Secure a future for his or her children.
We are born without power. We are born naked, helpless, unable even to lift our heads. From here we embark on a lifelong journey of becoming and growing into autonomous, self-realizing body-selves with wondrous capacities for movement, perception and relation. We move from powerlessness into power in a continuous process of testing, expanding and negotiating the limits of what we are capable of. Anyone who has spent time with a 2-year-old will know this very well. We reach a zenith, and the arc of our lives turns again towards the powerlessness into which we were born, and we become once more dependent, needy, physically indigent. At every point along the way we need power, whether it is for ourselves or someone we are responsible for.
The exercise of power is central to us as human beings. We cannot avoid it. We have to have it. The question is not whether we need power, but what kind. Do we choose the power of
, or the power of
Do we choose the power of threat, ultimatum and consequence, gun and bomb, or the power of love, solidarity and compassion,
patience and reconciliation? Is it the power of domination and subjugation, or the power of nurturing and collaboration? Is it the power to destroy or the power to heal, to take life or give life? The power of violence or non-violence?
Our captors needed power. They needed the murderous occupation of their country to stop. They needed accountability, justice, compensation. They needed power, and they reached for the power of violence—the power that corrupts, as Lord Acton so astutely observed. They used this power to take away our freedom, and then they lost their own in turn.
I thought about it almost every day, the great biblical story of Exodus. The Hebrew people had fallen into the slavery of Pharaoh, building store cities to hold the surplus production of his realm. The Hebrews cried out to God in their toil and God heard them. He called forth a leader, a man named Moses, and sent him to Pharaoh with a simple message: “Let my people go.”
How I know this cry.
Let me go let me go let me go!
A cry capable of blasting down walls and breaking chains. It burned within me like a fire. Every oppressed and enslaved person knows it. It pulses in every heartbeat and whispers in every breath, a living mantra of indignation, anger, hope. It arises militantly, continuously, irresistibly. It will never stop, not for a millisecond, until the day of freedom finally comes.
Ten times God sent Moses to Pharaoh. “Let my people go,” he said. And ten times Pharaoh said no. Each time he refused, God sent a plague. First the Nile turned to blood. Then all the livestock died. Then locusts came and ate everything in sight. Each plague seemed more terrible than the next, culminating horribly in the death of every first-born son in Egypt. No one was to be spared. “There will be loud wailing throughout Egypt—worse than there has ever been or ever will be again,” Moses told Pharaoh. When the plague came as promised, Pharaoh finally relented and allowed the Hebrews to leave. They made their escape by crossing through the Red Sea. Pharaoh followed after them until his chariots were swallowed by the sea.
I always used to be troubled by the plague on the first-born. What kind of a God was this? How could an apparently loving and forgiving God reap such a grim harvest of innocents, the wholesale massacre of blameless children in exchange for the freedom of an enslaved people? It seemed like an impossible and abhorrent contradiction. Until Uncle wiped his hands on our
rag. And then I suddenly understood: the story is about Pharaoh, not God. The plagues are not the vindictive punishment of a malicious deity. They are a consequence, what happens to you when you refuse to let go, a manifestation of the Hamam Effect. You’re going to be soiled. You’re going to end up with the opposite of what you want. You’re going to lose your first-born son, your most precious possession, the thing in which you have invested the totality of your name, your wealth, your existential legacy. You are held by the thing that you hold.
“Is there any news?” we used to ask them. It was our way of saying, “When are you going to let us go?” They each did it, at different times, independently of each other, pointed to their wrists as if they themselves were in handcuffs. “Inshallah,” they said, Nephew, Junior and Uncle, “when you are free, we will be free.” They had the guns and the keys, but they were not free. They lost their freedom—the very thing they were fighting for—as soon as they took away ours. You are held by the thing that you hold.
In the Hebrew scripture, Egypt is the symbol of bondage. It is the place of oppression and debasement that God acts in history to deliver us from. And the symbol of Egypt is the pyramid, a house of domination. Everyone who is in a pyramid is ranked and organized according to a geometry of subservience. The one above rules and the one below obeys. Wealth and ease flow up, while misery and servile labour flow down. This arrangement, called a hierarchy, is rarely questioned, least of all by those who appear to benefit most.