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Monday, October 8, 2012

Despair and Thanksgiving


Saturday mornings, Bill and I have a comforting, settled routine.  We begin our day as soon as Tangerine opens and take in the spirit of the wonderful jazz they play along with our coffee and scones or hot chocolate and muffins.  Then, because we're only three blocks from the Farmer's Market and because finding parking any closer is difficult and because we've had a miraculous fall, we get our shopping bag out of the trunk and walk up Lorne to market on Twelfth Avenue.  We may not even need very much, but we go anyway  Partly, we simply like the atmosphere:  the friendly, funky, chaotic atmosphere you create when you turn a street into a market space without restrictive aisles.  You have to negotiate other people's paths, which leads to eye contact and smiles.  If I do need anything, I like to buy it as close to home and as low on the capitalist food chain as possible for environmental and political reasons.  I'd rather pay a local farmer I can smile at than an anonymous Mr. Safeway.  Also, we're likely to run into someone we know for a little weekend pinch of sociability.  Gail Bowen and her daughter Wendy are regulars.  Sometimes we see Katherine Arbuthnott leaving as we arrive.  Last weekend we ran into Jennifer Arends and Justin Messner with their new baby, Malcolm.

As we stand in the middle of Twelfth Avenue, letting the market flow on around us like water around a quartet of boulders, it's like being at the still centre of a carnival.  Or of impromptu theatre.  Somehow when you're forced to look someone in the eyes and figure out what path they're on, you're struck by the sense that just that moment you've had a walk-on part in someone else's drama.  Quite often they are quiet dramas:  an older woman trying to figure out how to load her granny cart, a family trying to give a six-year-old some freedom without losing him; an anxious but very hip young couple trying to figure out how they want to live, negotiating what they value as she heads for the organic gardener while he eyes the jam in the stall next door.

Last Saturday morning at Tangerine, I'd been reading Chris Hedges' Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt.  I'm a child of the sixties and anti-war and civil-rights marches, so I gave a miss to the chapters that talked about how we got here.  His last chapter, largely on the significance of the Occupy Movement, was what I was curious about, since that movement has winkled its way into Soul Weather.  Hedges argues that we have arrived at an age of ultra-capitalism, when CEOs shape our lives with a defining vision of the developed world:  we will all be making and buying widgets.  We should be educated to provide capitalism with self-sustaining skills and we should buy into the idea that the fulfilment of our lives is to have more stuff than the person next door.  Hedges either sees this vision as a given that no one questions or as a world-wide conspiracy that even President Barack Obama is implicated in.

I know enough people from different walks of life--and I know Althusser's theory of interpellation--that I can easily believe that a distressing number of people (some of them the parents of my students) have accepted this view of the world.  We have all heard too many times that an unfettered, unregulated market will solve all manner of ills.  But the psychological research suggests we seldom derive a sustained sense of well-being (notice I'm avoiding the word 'happiness,' which I think it problematic) from the pursuit of extrinsic goals. If beauty is our ticket to happiness, we will have to face the fact that we age.  If wealth is the lottery ticket we've got in our hands, we're doubtless going to find out that someone else is wealthier.  Fame subsides very quickly in a Twitterverse  always hungry for the next big story; ditto power.  But if what we seek is our own very personal satisfaction in something crafted, some injustice righted, some kindness given, some good food offered, intense and challenging friendships fostered, then a sense of well-being is with our reach.  The caveat, of course, is that you need a modicum of comfort and security before you can turn to these goods.  It is hard for someone on the streets to get inspired by the thought of making a fantastic Thanksgiving dinner for friends, which is one of the Occupy Movement's concerns,. 

But Hedges' sense that in North America at least--and perhaps in much of Europe--capitalism is the order of the day disturbed me as I went about my business.  I looked up from one paragraph to see an older man across the street from Tangerine, just in front of Lorne Drugs, standing next to a car for a full five minutes, looking up and down the street, his chest visibly heaving even from my perspective.  I wondered if he was waiting for the ideal moment to break into the vehicle--and older car that didn't look all that promising--when he opened the passenger's side door, lifted up his respirator and put it in the passenger's seat.  He walked around the car, got into the driver's seat, attached himself to the respirator again and then sat there for another five minutes before driving off.   Was there no one who could have run his errand for him?  Was this his declaration of independence, a deep need to get outdoors in the sunshine on his own to enjoy the last crisp but sunny September Saturday morning?

I have already told you about our visit to the Farmer's Market.  On the way back, in one of the graveled parking lots on Lorne between Fourteenth Avenue and Thirteenth, a lot where I have seen half a dozen rabbits out to nibble weeds in the dusky light, about fifteen people ranging in age from their mid-twenties to their mid-seventies were doing Tai Chi.  It is an unprepossing place for people to join for this meditative practice, but their smooth musical movements didn't suggest that the gravel underfoot and the weeds at the edges of the stalls concerned them at all.

Hedges' powerfully critical generalizations don't take into account the number of us who do our best to live "off the grid," as I have come to put it:  to live outside or on the edges of the capitalist system he derides.  Hedges is not the only writer who depends on over-generalization to make his case.  In his critique of the oil industry and our dependence on oil for the texture of our daily lives, Andrew Nikiforuk has written The Energy of Slaves:  Oil and the New Servitude; as its title would suggest, he argues that we are all enslaved to oil.  Alanna Mitchell, in her review of Nikiforuk's book (I'll admit the review is all I've read),calls Nikiforuk "an impeccable, wide-ranging researcher and prolific writer" and points out the number of significant awards he's won.  All the same, she writes that his basic analysis isn't incorrect, but that the situation "is not as one-sided, as paranoic or as clearly demarcated as he makes it seem.  I fear that just as our society is disfigured by dependence on cheap oil, his analysis is disfigured by rage.  Can you really believe that modern cities are simple human feedlots [for keeping oil's slaves alive]?  It seems to me that there is more here than that.  I look around and see art, joy, neighbourhoods, bookstores, communities, families, gardens, thriving local businesses and parks.  Plus, for the record, people who live in modern industrialized cities use less carbon per person than people who live on farms.  Just saying" (Literary Review of Books October 2012 page 13).

I can see that Nikiforuk's and Hedges' views might be coloured by rage.  I also suspect they are trying to get our attention.  And perhaps even more, their books are tinged with despair which I sometimes share with them, particularly in a time when governments are cutting funds to arts and to universities--the very places and people charged with creating thoughtful solutions.  At the same time, this morning I opened up my Facebook page to find Deborah Morrison's wonderful litany of the people she's grateful for:  from the young man who fixed her furnace to the workers in her mother's care facility who dialed Deb's number so they could have a Thanksgiving conversation, to friends who listen and support and feed.  This, along with my farmers and the group practicing Tai Chi and the man whose mortality is with him daily, create networks of care and creativity and perspective that speak to a very different world than that of oil barons and powerful CEOs.  Perhaps besides being grateful this year, we could all put our own creativity to work and figure out how to make the thankful vision we have a more creative force in our societies.

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