Getting there

Getting there

Friday, April 8, 2011

The End of Innocence

Shortly after I finished high school and started university I became involved with Canada's anti-nuclear movement. Many people are surprised when I tell them this. They are not surprised that I was an activist, but rather that Canada even had an anti-nuclear movement. We did, though, in the early 80's when the USA was planning to test cruise missiles on Canadian soil. Many Canadians, myself included, objected to what we saw as our complicity in promoting nuclear weaponry, and thus the Canadian anti-nuclear movement was ignited.

I was eighteen at the time, and, without a doubt, hopelessly and relentlessly idealistic. I revelled in the meetings and strategy sessions. I delighted in the company I kept, a diverse group of young students and older people from all different walks of life. I felt a common goal and purpose. I was, at that time, a member of many such advocacy groups, like Greenpeace. I was involved in politics and I was always questioning and challenging.

I was also going through profound personal changes. I had recently taken on a dramatic personal transformation, having cut my long auburn hair into a crazy style and having it dyed a kaleidoscope of colours - pink, black, yellow. I was dressing in the way known as "new wave" back then, although it was more an amalgam of punk and what we now call goth - tight black skirts, black bondage boots, and black lipstick. I was showing on the outside how different I felt on the inside, I suppose - I did not want to be "like everyone else" in any sense.

In the fall of that year it was announced that Helen Caldicott, the Australian physican and ardent anti-nuclear campaigner, was coming to my city to speak. I was beyond excited, and quickly signed up to be an usher at her talk. She was one of my heroes, someone I found inspirational beyond words, and someone I wished to emulate. As the day of her talk grew nearer I became more and more excited, and when the night finally arrived I arrived at the old church where she would speak extra early to do my job. I dressed carefully, teasing my hair up extra high (people who saw me that night said I looked like a  colourful exotic bird), and wearing some of my most unusual clothing pieces, items with chains and metal rivets.

I performed my job as usher well, I think,  and I was pleased that so many people in my city had come out to hear her speak. As one of the rewards for volunteering I was granted a seat in the front row, and, finally, when the last person was seated and she was about to begin, I crept into my seat to await the words of one of the people I respected the most.

When she began I was enthralled. She spoke of cruise missiles, and of the movement. She began to speak of people in the movement, and of how we needed to protest and strategize. She then said this : "We need to come to these protests in our business suits and our Sunday best - not looking like aliens" - and at that moment, dear friends, she looked straight at me, sitting in the front row. I couldn't have shrunk back quicker if I'd been shot with an arrow. I was thunderstruck. I was devastated. I was heartbroken. There I was, crazy colourful hair, black lipstick and black clothing. She meant me. She meant that I was the opposite of what the movement needed.

Now, so many years later, I understand her point. She was trying to say that the movement needed to appeal to a wide audience and not appear to be entirely devised of counter-culture "freaks". At the time, though, her words killed something in me that was never to be regained. I slunk out of the church that night, not bothering to meet her after her talk or get her autograph. I still respected her ideals, but she was no longer my personal hero. I was stung to the core, and hurt beyond words.

I went home and cried that night. I attended a couple more anti-nuclear meetings but saw things with new eyes and a new cynicism. I saw young idealistic people being encouraged by older people to attempt things that could end up in criminal charges (the older people in the movement being quite willing to see the younger ones take the fall for these actions). I saw older men using the group to prey upon young idealistic women. I had always seen the good in the movement but now I saw the bad, and I eventually stopped going to the meetings altogether. Any of the innocence I'd had about it, and all the idealism, had been drained away the night I sat in the front row of that church.

Over time, as I mention above,  I came to understand her words and why she said them. I also came to realize that eventually I would have become cynical about the people in the movement and their personal agendas and motivations, but that it likely would have taken longer. In a way I suppose she did me a favour and introduced me to my own cynicism which had previously always taken a back seat to my idealism. Back then, though, I felt I had suffered a profound loss. I felt something had been stripped away, and it had. My idealism had died, and not at the hands of some politician or bureaucrat or police officer. It died in a church, listening to my hero. I can't help but think that that is the saddest way of all for innocence to die.

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