Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Hearing Voices: Chantal Hebert and the Vertigo Reading Series

I failed high school physics.  Admittedly, this was largely because I had been seconded out of my physics class and into the orchestra as a much-needed pianist.  So I read the textbook, other people's notes, and took the first exam.  My physics teacher--a dear man--had a kindly chat with me the day afterwards and told me I couldn't really expect to grasp physics under these circumstances.  I was quickly and quietly un-registered:  no stain on my record.

Still, I know enough physics to tell you that the old conundrum--"If a tree falls in a forest and there's no one there to hear it was there any sound?"--has no meaning as a physics problem. It's a metaphor, clearly.  If we have stories but have no one to tell them to, do we exist?

Last night, you could say that Chantal Hebert talked to us about this problem in the 32nd annual Minifie Lecture at U of R.  In the twitter-verse, you would think, there would be lots of voices telling their stories.  But she had two observations about how our wired world now works.  First, she described Rene Levesque's discussions with Quebeckers about nationalizing hydroelectric companies, travelling across the province, explaining to a wide range of Quebec communities that it was important for people to control their own resources.  His careful explanations of why this was being done and what the benefits would be is in direct contrast to the response you get to a querying email from just about  any federal civil servant:  "The government of Canada is committed to the well-being of Canadians."  Is that under 142 characters?

Her second observation is that twitter is used by a particular minority. While politicians and journalists might tweet, the person who cuts Hebert's hair or who takes her blood at the clinic doesn't tweet between clients.  As a result, the twitter bubble is a mirror, not a window, something that's simply reflecting "the chattering classes"--politicians, journalists, and academics--back to themselves.  Consequently, election results have been catching us off guard.  Politicians and journalists (I'm not going to speak for academics!) simply don't know what the issues are for the woman who packs your groceries or the mechanic who fixes your car. 

Maybe we need to revise that metaphor, then:  if there's too much noise on the line, when the trees fall we can't hear them.

The Vertigo Reading Series is one of our ways of addressing this problem of the same stories being told over and over to the same cast of people.  I gave a reading of Blue Duets at Crave on Tuesday night, sharing the stage with Rolli, Nicole Pivovar, and Jack Walton.  Jack warmed the audience with songs he'd written on the trek between Willow Bunch and Gravelbourg; he sang of love (of course) but also of prairie skies and east coast weather.  Nicole, who had never shared her work before, showed us photographs and read poems that described good friends and a little girl with cystic fibrosis who cheered her at the end of difficult days.  Rolli's stories are off-beat parables; one of his used the voice of a blind old woman who managed to kill a cougar terrorizing her community.  Jack introduced the second half with more music (he plays a mean guitar!) and read an essay about meeting Irving Layton and Leonard Cohen in his favourite Toronto pub.  You couldn't have found four writers with a wider range of experience or styles; that's Vertigo's value to the community.  It reminds us that all stories are valuable and that the sharing of varied stories is one of the ways we create a meaningful community.

Tara Solheim, who runs the series on her own and is a host who makes everyone feel comfortable and ensures that the audience is encouraged to respond, has given me information on the next two readings.  On February 13, Caitlin Ward, Fionncara MacEoin, Bernadette Wagner, and Ken Fox will be reading at Crave.  On March 12th, Vertigo will celebrate Irving Layton's 100th birthday with readings by Allison Kydd, Gillian Harding-Russell, Christian Drake, and Shayna Stock. Events start at 7:30.

Tara also shared with the crowd that Vertigo has lost its Saskatchewan Arts Board funding and may, as a result, have to depend on other sources, on what people put in the hat at the end of the night or even on a small attendance fee.  Brown Communications gives them free posters and Crave gives them the space for free, but there are other expenses that Vertigo needs to cover.

So we need some creative thinking here.  Hearing voices is a good thing:  we need to preserve venues like Vertigo.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

New Year's Resolutions 2: Anger and Frustration

My brother-in-law, Bill, has a saying I love:  "Sure is stupid out."

And indeed, at this very moment, it is fairly stupid.  Politics is broken in the United States.  So focused are the parties in their own power that they have lost sight of what's good for people and the planet.  Stephen Harper doesn't like evidence, so we're getting prisons (which evidence proves are expensive and ineffective) and we're not getting any leadership on the environment.  I find people are less aware of those around them because they're walking or driving in a virtual world.  Because I'm short, I get an awful lot of backpacks in my face from someone who's walking backwards, texting away.

In a review of two books on the environment, U of T philosopher Joseph Heath talked about the real reasons we're not doing enough that's effective.  It's not that we don't understand the causes and effects of climate change.  Dear David Suzuki thinks if we just knew more, we'd make the decision to be responsible.  William Marsden thinks we need to sort out our political structures.  But Heath makes a convincing case that there are two challenges to our addressing the problem of climate change that belong to each of us.  First, humans aren't very good in long term thinking, and I suspect this is particularly true now, when we're impatient about the amount of time it takes our computers to boot up or find a WiFi signal.  Second, we're even worse at putting the interests of someone else ahead of our own, so we don't think about how the environment will be liveable for future generations; we think about wanting the truck that will let us look manly.  We can hang a large set of blue balls from the trailer hitch and be really cool.  Heath argues that saying "I don't believe in climate change" is merely a socially-respectable way of saying "I don't care about anybody but me." 

Don't even get me going on masculinity.  The other day, looking at said pair of blue balls on the truck in front of me, I thought nostalgically about how idealistic and hopeful the sixties was.  (Nostalgia is always a bad sign.)  We thought we could change ideas of gender, and in many areas we have.  But it's still not "normal" for a father to stay home with a newborn.  And guys in the RCMP can still be sexist bastards.

But I've made a new year's resolution about this anger and frustration:  if I can't or won't do anything to change what's bugging me, I'm going to let it go.  I can't, for example, talk to Stephen Harper about evidence-based decision making.  (Better yet, I'd like to hogtie him while Julia McKenna talks to him about evidence-based decision making.)   And I'm not going to walk up to the man in the large pick-up and tell him that if he's cold he ought to go inside and not sit there creating CO2 emissions.  Nor am I going to tell the woman who's idling her car on a beautiful day to turn her friggin' car off and open her window!

As my mother cruised through her eighties and well into her nineties, I could see that she couldn't do reality checks any longer:  the pre-frontal cortex is simply shrinking too fast with age.  So the attitudes she took into those years were the attitudes she lived most of her days inside:  anger, frustration, fear.  Wonder, occasionally.  I could see that you don't only have to plan for retirement.  You also have to plan for brain's retirement.  Whatever your defaults are, you're stuck with them.  So I resolved quite some time ago to become the most cheerful, optimistic old lady you can imagine.  I will not become the old fart who's always angry.  Who listens to them?

But I need to take one more step:  be optimistic and be cool with it.  I find that my days can be poisoned by my attempts to think up the right speech to convince someone not to drink bottled water or to shout at someone for the clueless, unobservant way they're driving.  But that poison doesn't accomplish anything.  Instead, I'm going to go Buddhist and be in the moment.  Instead of lecturing Stephen Harper while I drive to work, I'm going to notice how the trees look today.  Is there enough humidity in the air so that they look like ink on wet paper?  Or is it dry and cold so that they look like taut black lace?  Because all that energy that's wasted on things I can't do or can't change is taken away from things I might be able to influence.  I'll teach a class on literature and the environment.  I'll write about the way art's autonomy creates a space for it to be truly critical.  I'll write a novel about the younger generation and the way we're not welcoming them into their adult lives.  I'll find a way to be heard, a context in which I can address the challenges of this particular historical moment.

Because it sure is stupid out.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Diary of Virginia Woolf and the blogosphere

Tuesday 3 January 1922
 It is a good resolution that sends me to this page so early--only came back from Rodmell [the Woolf's country home] last night--but it is parsimony--a gloomy forecast that makes me use the odd leaves at the end of poor dear Jacob [the notebook in which she wrote her first experimental novel, Jacob's Room].  Blank leaves grow at the end of my diaries.

Home, as I say, last night, after 10 or 11 days at Monks House--days when the wind blew from every quarter at the top of its voice, & great spurts of rain came with it, & hail spat in our fire, & the lawn was strewn with little branches, & there were fiery sunsets over the downs, & one evening of the curled feathers that are so intense that one's eyes see nothing for 10 seconds afterwards.  Mr Shanks had the double pneumonia & was prayed for in Church, as indeed I thought advisable when I saw Dr. Vallance's face at the window.  We drank tea at the Rectory, & I was knocked over by the blast of crude emotions which that festival always releases.  In the morning I wrote with steady stoicism my posthumous article upon Hardy....Leonard planted, pruned, sprayed, though the cold & the wet & the wildness made his behaviour a heroicism to be admired, not comprehended.

So begins Virginia Woolf's diary for 1922, the year she would publish her first experimental novel--the kind of work we all think of when someone mentions her name.  I am reading Woolf's early diaries (perversely, I've just finished re-reading the last volume for my work on Between the Acts) because I'm back to writing and thinking about her early work.  The tone is quite different:  in the last volume, she and Leonard can see Europe in crisis; they follow the Spanish Civil War in which one of Virginia's nephews dies; they make a suicide pact and hoard petrol so they can gas themselves in their garage should Hitler cross the channel; Leonard, you see, is a Jew.  The sense of the oncoming tragedy of history is palpable in every page; the way that tragedy affects artists is startlingly clear and insightful.  But in these early diaries Virginia attempts much more to record the natural and social worlds she  greeted with such joyful enthusiasm when she was well.   These diaries are more like those any of us would keep, except that they're written by one of English literature's most extraordinary stylists.

Reading them makes me want to back to keeping a diary.  I've kept one for years, first during my own struggles with depression in an attempt to record and understand what I was experiencing.  Later during my divorce, where the possibility that my daughter might someday read them meant that I couldn't indulge in vitriol or blame, but needed to record as accurately and dispassionately as I could what the experience was like.  "Diaries" and "censorship" don't usually mix; feminist scholars have long claimed the diary as the one place where you could hear women's real voices when publishers otherwise rejected their work as eccentric or self-indulgent or simply bad.  But occasionally self-censorship's lens helps you to move beyond histrionics; in turn, you perhaps get a better purchase on what is really happening in your life.  When I moved to Regina, my diaries simply became a way of celebrating or wondering about the world.  Carol Shields and I used to talk about our diaries; for her, it was the chance to write the one beautiful, perfect sentence of the day, and indeed diaries have all kinds of aesthetic uses.  Woolf used hers to record the progress of her work, or to put down early thoughts about a novel's form.  But sometimes they're simply gossip.

Friday 17 February

Molly Hamilton sits for her portrait today....She is a crude piece of work, one of the strugglers; & thus a good deal of time must be wasted upon facts--how she is to get a job--what she can live on &c.  Besides,  the strugglers are all worn & muscular with struggling.  She is bitter against people--seems to me to snap, as a dog does with a thorn in his foot.  And something of her pleasure in seeing me is the charwoman's pleasure in talking of her bad leg: by a grate which she need not polish, & with things which she need not wash up.  However, to give her her due, she is a warm, courageous, bustling woman; & I like her spirit, & the trophies she brings me of buffeting & rejection--'real' life; if one chooses to think so.  Never was anyone more on their own; & I think she means it when she wishes the motor omnibus would swerve in her direction, but can't be bothered to step to meet it.

Woolf called the diary a "capacious hold-all," and herself made use of its lack of generic rules.  We get weather; we get arguments with the cook; we get conversations with her illustrious friends; we get descriptions of her health and her mental states.  Really, is there anything you can't put in a diary?

Except that I've found the time I would otherwise have given to my diary is now given over to thinking about writing another blog post.  Surprisingly, I've loved blogging--something I was more or less required to do by my publisher.  You can't launch a book in the twenty-first century without having an online presence, the publicist assured me.  So I visited a number of blogs (not nearly enough I now confess) and more or less stumbled into my on M.O. (I know, using that word makes it sound like I kill people), which is more or less a loosely conceived essay or meditation that might wander quite far, but must always come back to a central point or observation or question.  But much of life's accidental whimsy, which might have otherwise gone into a diary and made one of Shields's beautiful, perfect sentences, gets filed away until a blog post begins to cohere around it.  And I can't decide whether or not I like this change.

In the meantime, my husband Bill has taken to FB with a vengeance, often writing rather long status updates, or status updates in a sequence (like his twelve meditations on the word "wanting").  I've come to see Facebook as his diary, as a casual, accidental record of what he's thinking about or seeing in the world around him.   Facebook, like the diary, is a capacious hold-all:  he can comment on a meal I've made, tell you about YouTube videos he's seen, offer his opinion on current events, link you to the Heart and Stroke Foundation page, confess that on December 10, 2011 he officially became a cat person.

Tuesday 14 February
Fergusson...pronounced that my eccentric pulse had passed the limits of reason & was in fact insane.  So I was laid in bed again, & set up my state in the drawing room, where I now write sitting up in bed, alongside the fire, with a temperature a shade below normal & a heart become naturally abnormal, so that perhaps I shall be up and creeping this time next week.  I am reading Moby Dick; Princesse de Cleves; Lord Salisbury; Old Mortality; Small Talk at Wreyland; with an occasional bit at the Life of Lord Tennyson, of Johnson; & anything else I find handy.  But this is all dissipated & invalidish.  I can only hope that like dead leaves they may fertilise my brain.

When I began writing a blog, I began formalizing and organizing the kinds of meditations that I might have put in my diary, dressing them up, plumping them out for public consumption they way you plump fruit in liquor before making fruitcake.  In contrast, when I read people's status updates on Facebook, I have the sense of intruding on snippets of their diaries.  Sometimes I'm delighted to know my friend Deb is having a wonderful time in Newfoundland and that FB has given her an easy way to share her adventures with all her friends.  Sometimes I'm dismayed to learn that X has just eaten a yummy burger at Y.  I can't quite decide what the blogosphere has done to the diary.  Is it keeping a record for people who otherwise wouldn't bother?  Or is it stealing time away from other people's diaries?  Is it convincing us that the banal is significant?  Is it prompting me to formalize my thoughts before they're quite ready because I've committed myself to a post a week, more or less?  Or is it giving me an opportunity for talking with you, or giving you a chance to listen to me as I think my way through the ideas and experiences that matter to me?  The jury is still out for me.  Do tell me what you think.

P.S.:  I know I've got some students out there for whom this is a question.  Weigh in, please!