Big Birthdays and Closed Borders

By Heather Stewart

Published: 2020-05-04

In many places over the years, I have come across the following mantra: “I am strong because a strong woman raised me.” And when I think of the person I am today, this mantra rings undoubtedly true. I am the woman I am because of the unwavering strength, boundless creativity, bottomless empathy, and unconditional love of the strong women in my life — the strongest being my mother, Alice, and her mother, Juanita Rose — or as my cousins and I call her, “Nanny.” They are part of a legacy of generations of strong women that paved the way for me to have the sort of life that I now do — one where I can generally safely occupy my male-dominated profession (academic philosophy) and hobbies (craft beer, bourbon, and Star Wars), openly love my same-sex partner, and pour my heart into the causes that I care deeply about (health care policy, queer rights, and reproductive justice). I get to be in the world as the fullest, most authentic version of myself because I learned how to be fearless, resilient, and strong through watching my mother and my Nanny bounce back from difficult moments, including losing the loves of their lives. They have always somehow managed to clear any hurdle in front of them with an abundance of grace. I am, because they are, and have been, powerful women — even more than they know or would ever give themselves credit for.

May 4th of this year (2020), is both special and unique for a few reasons. It is special because my grandma is celebrating a full century of life on this Earth. It is unique because she has to celebrate at home (or, rather, my mother’s home, where my Nanny has been living the past few months), without most of her family. In normal conditions, Nanny’s 100th birthday would be met with a festive gathering of her closest loved ones. My mother would have surely planned a party where everyone got together, had too much food and even more desert, and honoured the strong woman that my grandmother is, and has been, for 100 years. But this May, and this major milestone of a birthday, isn’t happening under normal conditions. It is happening in the midst of the global pandemic of COVID-19 and the associated public health measures aimed at curbing the outbreak. These measures, while necessary for our public health, mean that so many of us are missing out on the special, intimate moments of gathering with family, friends, and community to mark significant life events and milestones. We are cancelling birthday parties, postponing weddings, and missing opportunities to grieve together at funerals. We are missing out on being together when we want and need each other most.

This year, a border separates me from my celebrating with my Nanny on her birthday. I am in Canada, completing my doctorate, and Nanny is down South, probably eating some chocolate cake in the comfort of my old Kentucky Home. And while I can generally fairly easily cross the border to visit her, this year is different. The measures taken to minimize transmission of the novel coronavirus mean the borders are closed to non-essential travel. And while being with my Nanny on this big birthday certainly feels essential to me, I would be hard pressed to convince a border agent of that.

I am hurting. My Nanny means the world to me. I have admired her since I was a little girl. She taught me how to play cards, and to be a bit more competitive than the game ever really called for. She taught me how to embrace creativity, as she has always been an impeccable artist, and always finds new ways to create. She has shown me the meaning of true, deep, and enduring love, as I used to have her tell me the story of the night she met (and fell in love at first sight with) my grandfather. I would listen eagerly, awaiting the bit where my grandpa decided to skip out on cards and cigars with his friends, because he wanted to walk home the beautiful woman he had just met, who, he confidently declared he was going to marry. I smiled every time at that bit. I watched her grieve that loss when my grandfather passed away — the loss of true love and companionship — as she struggled to sit at her seat at their table, looking across at his empty chair. I admired her for being so vulnerable, and yet so strong. I admired the sort of mother, and grandmother, she has been for all of us, as she always made herself available to take in a prom dress that didn’t fit quite right, or to open up her couch for a rest after school before cheerleading practice, always with candy or ice-cream at the ready.

When I think of my Nanny, I question how so much strength, power, experience, and wisdom can be contained in such a small body. She is tiny, and might even come off as frail, but looks are certainly deceiving. My Nanny is grounded. Tough. She has witnessed and lived through so much history. She has taught me so much, and I have always desired to listen — to really listen — and to learn from her and where she has been, and what she has seen and heard in the past century of life on this Earth. While I can’t be there with her on this big birthday, I am thankful for all of her stories that I carry with me, filed away into my mind along with the mental pictures of the facial expressions she would make when she told them — a little smile when she talked about my grandpa, sometimes with a little tear in her eye too, that if you weren’t really looking, you might just miss.

If we learn anything while navigating the changes brought about by living through a global pandemic, it ought to be to better appreciate the time we have with our elders. We can have this time taken from us at any moment, separated by border closures, or inevitably, eventually, something much more permanent. We have to make the most of those times we have, playing card games and listening to the stories of times we can otherwise only read about in history books. The women in our lives are our source of power and strength. They paved the way for us, clearing some of the obstacles off the path so that our journey would be just a bit easier. But if we look closely, we can see their footsteps in the dirt, always guiding us.

I am so thankful for the guidance my Nanny has given me, the stories she has told me, and the beauty and love she continues to embody and exude. Most of all, I am thankful to still have her in my life at 100 years old. Not many people get to have that, and for that, I am truly grateful.

Happy Birthday, Nanny, you tiny little force of nature. You are loved, honored, and respected. Here is to 100 years, and if I have my way, many, many more.

1. What does the word “artist” mean to you and is that how you identify? Did it take you time to adopt that identity?
I understand “artist” quite broadly — as someone who creates things to share with the world, and to somehow change the world, whether through words or sounds or visual productions. I think art, and artists, make the world more beautiful, more interesting, and call our attention to things we should be paying attention to. I suppose in those ways, I might think of myself as an artist, or at least a creative. I certainly try to use my words — and their power — for good in the world.

2. What does the word “technology” mean to you?
When I think of “technology,” I think of the many ways our lives, thoughts, social interactions, and daily experiences are mediated by devices, algorithms, and virtual networks. I think about the ways this can be simultaneously beneficial and harmful; the pandemic has made clearer that we sometimes rely on technology for human connection across time and space, but also how limited it is in its ability to make us feel genuinely connected, as I’m sure we all miss being physically together, which technology can’t reproduce in any meaningful sense.

3. What role does technology play in your art?
Technology allows me to share and amplify my words and my voice in different and innovative ways, and give them broader reach. It allows me to share my writing with people all over the world, in different formats, and connect with people about those words that I might otherwise never get the chance to connect with.

4. What role do you see art having on present global culture?
I think art has a massively important role to play in our changing world. Art can force us to slow down and be in the moment. Art can force us to grapple with difficult things, including the suffering of others. Art can connect people across differences. Art can be incredibly informative, and can create and share meaning. I think art has the power to educate and unify, which are both massively important and necessary right now.

5. In your opinion, can you separate art as distinct from artist? From the environment in which it was created? From its societal era? Why or why not?
This is a really difficult question, which I think about often. I think we are all products of the society and culture and time in which we are producing art, and our art will either reflect the ideals and norms of that particular time and place, or it will challenge and resist the status quo. But, whether you are mirroring or resisting, you can’t help but react against the norms, ideals, and expectations (which are culturally and geographically specific) that you find yourself in. So when we examine art, I think it’s important to do it with an eye toward the context of the art’s creation, and try to have some sense of the goals of the artist — whether they were passively reflecting the norms of the day or pushing back on them. But art is always bound up with its creator, and the creator is always bound up with their surroundings and culture. I find art and artist to be pretty inextricably linked. Which of course raises challenges when beautiful art comes from not-so-beautiful people, which too often happens. And we want to reject the person (or their belief systems or behaviors), while holding onto the art. That’s tough for me, and I’ve not been able to do that sort of divorcing of art from artist, in most cases. But it’s complex and there’s a lot of nuance there. Most simply, I think engagement with art requires seeing the art in its context, and trying to evaluate it with respect to the broader picture, which does include facts about the artist, and their state of mind when creating, or what we might know about their history or identity. Sometimes this makes us appreciate the art more, sometimes less. But I don’t think art is created, or continues to exist for our consumption, in a vacuum.


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