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Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The generosity of book launches

I am back in the thick of teaching and of all the marking that comes with writing classes, so I only went to two of this fall's panoply of book launches.  Is it even reasonable to draw some conclusions from two launches?  Well, I shall do it nevertheless, since I've seen the change coming for quite some time.  Book launches now are not simply an occasion for the writer to preen herself or himself over the delights of the printed book and keep people listening to a reading for longer than is otherwise conscionable.  The new launch is likely to include an interview (as did Britt Holmstrom for her book of elegant stories, Leaving Berlin); there might be music or other readers.  The new book launch includes conversations and is more generous and less single-minded.

In September, Brenda Schmidt launched her book of essays, Flight Calls:  An Apprentice on the Art of Listening, a book she worked on when she was writer in residence at Mackie Lake House, and published by Kalamalka Press.  The launch took an unusual format.  Brenda read, briefly, from her introduction, which described her first meeting with Gerry Hill, who was to become her SWG  mentor.  Then Gerry had some observations and favourite moments from the book that he used to try to get a conversation going between Brenda and himself.  Sometimes they cooked.  Sometimes Gerry's questions seemed a little hermetic for an author nervously launching a book.  I should also say that his voice twines through Flight Calls itself, since each essay has an epigraph sent by him, and a long letter from Brenda to Gerry winds in and around the creative process and among Brenda's careful observations of the natural world.

Flight Calls is certainly about listening, beginning and ending as it does with Brenda's concerns about her own hearing.  It is infused with birdsong, the sound wind makes in different kinds of trees, the hum of her computer, the song "Trees," sung by 256 women in which they name 81 different kinds of trees.  Brenda writes "The other day I listened to it while looking out the window.  I pictured 256 women singing among the trees, 256 clouds of breath rising.  The daydream fell away in seconds.  The trees came forward.  The naked crowns of poplar and birch, lilac and maple, the tangle of spirea and caragana, the leaning spruce, the beheaded spruce" (105).  But Flight Calls is as much about vision and vision's uncertainties and celebrations.  Brenda and her husband Harvey are avid birders who play host to ptarmigan, who participate in citizen science by keeping bird counts.  One winter day they find a Rustic Bunting in the trees near the feeder.  This is a bird that summers in Scandinavia or Siberia and winters in China--definitely off course in northern Creighton SK in February.  Brenda and Harvey post their siting, photographs, and video on the internet and play host to 27 birders, watching the bunting look sadder and sadder.  They last see him on the day they leave to attend the funeral for Harvey's dad.

There's nothing trickier, it seems to me, than identifying birds, particularly those on the wing.  Birding, then, is a test of the limits of the visual; you're sometimes given little more than a split second to take in the details and compare those with drawings and photographs in books.  Back and forth you go between book and bird, bird and book.  In so many ways, then, Brenda's book speaks of the rich web of connections between vision and the natural world that seems, in Kant's terms, to be especially designed for our very abilities to see.  Cognitive psychologists are telling us that we are more generous when we're in a natural setting; Brenda's book, then, speaks of the generosity of seeing and meditating on the natural world, the remarkable visual richness that world gives back to us.  I certainly recommend you read it.

My second launch this year was of Coby Stephenson's book of linked stories Violet Quesnel.  This too was an unconventional launch.  Coby said she wanted to give something back to the communities that had supported her, so invited a number of people to read.  Hosted by the very funny Devin Pacholik (who opened with what I suspect was a kind of found poem of the reality TV programs we were missing because we were there), it included readings by young poets Cassidy McFadzean and Courtney Bates.  I must confess a kind of maternalistic pride here:  all three of these young people took classes with me, and though I certainly never think of myself as having contributed something "significant"(those are ironic quotes, not scare quotes) to their work, I like to think I at least created a congenial space for experimenting, wondering, thinking about creativity and its seeming inexhaustability.  For this was what I felt, particularly when Cassidy and Courtney and Coby read:  that these young voices are adventurers at the outer edges of language and thought, writing highly unconventional sonnets or updating fairy tales in really intriguing ways.  Allison Kydd also read from her intriguing New Leaf book, Emily via the Greyhound Bus.

Coby, I think, spent more time thanking people than reading the first story about her central character, Violet Quesnel, who "just happens to have bi-polar disorder."  Herein lies another kind of generosity:  the refusal of the creative artist to judge, label, pigeonhole.  Coby has clearly tried through the collection to present bi-polar disorder as simply one of the many interesting facets of Violet's adolescence and early adulthood. Two things stand out about "The First Time."  One is Coby's interesting use of second person narration, implicating the reader in the story, as if we understand Violet's frame of mind:  "You didn't sleep again because the 1984 edition of Funk & Wagnall's encyclopedias, which your mother earned by shopping at Safeway, distracted you.  You have read up to Volume C.  You leave off at court cupboard and you are already dressed for the day because you didn't undress" (9).  The second is her willingness to look Violet's mental illness in the eye and be undaunted by it as a writer:  "These days it hurts for her to try.  To try what?  Just to try.  It feels like she has swallowed a stone.  Perhaps that heavy feeling will make it easier to sink to the bottom of Lake Superior.  Even the fine hairs on her chin feel heavy.  She worries that one day she'll slow down so much that even blinking will cease" (16). Read Coby Stephenson's Violet Quesnel too.

So. The generosity of mentors, of birders who allow other birders into their lives to see a "rarity."  The generous use of language that takes us into the writer's world and allows us to huddle or strut or quietly observe for a while.  The generosity of a newly-published author to give her fellow classmates a chance to share the limelight.  The generosity of acceptance and curiosity.  I don't think this generosity is simply part of the creative attitude or process:  we all know stories of writers who are envious shits. But oh, it is welcome!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Optimism of Teaching


Canadian designer Bruce Mau begins his essay "Imagining the Future" by observing "I am a designer, which means I cannot afford the luxury of cynicism."  The language is loaded, I know; I'm not sure I would ever suggest that cynicism is a luxury, as if it were some kind of warm, deep bath that we'd all like to immerse our aching bodies in from time to time.  If I could imagine cynicism as something available to our senses, it would be sour lemonade or lukewarm coffee.  All the same, I take his point:  there are some occupations that don't mix well with cynicism.  First, Mau's historical horizon is something he calls the "Long Now."  If we don't make our judgments of the current moment simply based on our impressions of that very moment and the few months leading up to it,  but appreciate the way our own time is simply the crescendo that's been building for quite a number of years, we can see how much life has improved.  As he points out, fewer people in the world are either hungry or sick from preventable diseases; child mortality rates have dropped while life expectancy has grown.  Second, as a designer he solves problems, perhaps with air traffic control systems or with machines that make kidney dialysis possible at home, and there is something inherently optimistic about solving problems and building new things.

I am a teacher, which means I'm not inclined to cynicism:  that's how I'd revise his sentence to fit me.  There must be some cynical people who teach; or people who teach may have parts of their lives that they're cynical about.  I can easily get cynical about politicians and about the whole political process.  I can certainly be cynical about how capitalism is shaking out in the early twenty-first century, particularly when "free (and hopefully unregulated) markets" are touted as the cure for everything.  I'm with Mark Kingwell on this one:  we're happier with more time to reflect, to spend with friends, to form supportive communities than we are with the latest gadget or fashion.  I'm not so much of PollyAnna that I don't realize that some students will try to play me, which is okay because there are natural consequences for missing classes or missing deadlines:  those students won't do well in my class, though the next time I see them in the hallway I'm still a friendly face.  I've just let the universe unfold as it will.

In some ways, it's particular groups of students who inspire my optimism.  Students in writing classes, whether it's "Introduction to Creative Writing" or the seemingly more drab "Expository and Persuasive Writing" always make me feel hopeful.  I've got fourteen remarkable young people in my Expository and Persuasive Writing class, which I I began by telling them that I want them to develop their own "credible voice." This means creating a voice that sounds like them, with its own individual cadence and vocabulary and world view--but that's just the "voice" part.  Being credible also entails paying attention to details like learning to use semi-colons rather than simply and blithely committing comma splices.  Being credible means using precise language and getting your Works Cited page right. They're more than willing to work to achieve this kind of credibility.   In this class, I have students who make films and students who are involved in dance.  I have students who do volunteer work with people with disabilities, but who can see beyond those disabilities to the spirits and wisdom of their clients.  I have students who work at Dojack because it makes them feel good to help others.  I have half a dozen people, at least, who should be in creative writing classes:  so vivid are their ideas about anxiety or happiness or depression.  I have students who are intensely curious about how society works, students involved in the political process.  I also have young people who are simply cheerful and curious.  Every day is an adventure with them, and rather than dreading my marking, I look forward to it:  spending time with their minds and words is an adventure.  How could I not be optimistic about a world where young people care about ideas--about exploring and expressing ideas?

The other class I'm teaching is Jane Austen.  There, my 24 fellow travelers will read 1,663 pages of some of the clearest, most exquisite yet workmanlike prose in English.  They will all write better after they finish the class.  They are curious about the historical period that gave rise to Austen's novels, yet they see that some elements of those novels echo their own circumstances.  Elizabeth Bennet and Catherine Morland and Eleanor and Marianne Dashwood are caught between two ideas of marriage:  the older generation believed that marriage ought to be a contract that improves the position of the family as a whole either economically or socially, while the younger generation hoped to marry for love and companionship.  Similarly, my students are aware of the way in which a particular historical moment limits or shapes the possibilities of their lives.  History isn't something "out there," visible in battles and elections.  The individual is often strangely and inextricably touched by it.

We have just begun Pride and Prejudice, rightly everybody's favourite.  I've taught Austen enough to know that once they've waded through Sense and Sensibility (we begin with Northanger Abbey, which is simply a fun spoof but gets us used to Austen's language and syntax), they seem to simply understand the rules of Austen's plots and worlds.  We proceed mostly with questions and answers, and create a lively conversation in the classroom.  Today, as a prelude to a discussion of the relationship between Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy, we talked about the world views and moral assumptions of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet and dear generous Jane. My students are insightful about the way such worldviews blind or betray some of the characters both morally and practically.  Were Austen to suddenly appear in my classroom, ready to chat with them about her novels, she would be delighted with their observations.

The first batch of essays is due in the Austen class tomorrow, so the romance may wane a bit.  I may grit my teeth over paragraphs that aren't coherent or my 23rd comma splice over the last hour.  But I've often thought that it's just as rational to think the glass is half full as to conclude that it's half empty.  That seems about right to me:  there just about as much stupidity and greed and cruelty in the world as their is generosity, curiosity, and happiness.  I'm lucky, though.  My students make it much more difficult to just give in to despair and hopelessness.  Yes, much is wrong with the world, but I see the growth of a generation that is insightful, thoughtful, and compassionate.  I want to spend as much time with them as I can.  Fortunately, they put up with me.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The "Power of We" Blog


I usually climb on my soapbox in what I hope is a sort of sly, sidling movement that the readers of my blog are just learning to detect--and perhaps avoid.  Frankly, I try to soften you up with either beauty or craftsmanship--the pleasant cadence of a well-turned sentence or an evocative image--before I circle back round to the things that matter to me:  beauty, craftsmanship and its satisfactions, all art, all play, the importance of conversation, reflection on our goals--all leavened by my reading and thinking.  But I've found myself doing something rather surprising.  I've joined in "Blog Action Day" in which committed bloggers are writing posts on the theme "The Power of We."  Are all artists independent folks who just want the time and solitude in which to create?  But of course, for me that desire for solitude is mingled with a desire for the kinds of conversations I have with my students, for the kinds of learning both my students and I do during a term's exploration of Jane Austen or creative nonfiction.


Yet my Facebook page and the friends who check in there have certainly changed my behaviour--as has my own sense (seconded by the vision of thinkers and observers like Chris Hedges) that we are possibly facing a twenty-first-century dark age, a time when economies are in tatters, when we try to re-think whether we value wealth or art/conversation/friendship, a time when climate change is threatening the world in which we live and questioning what it is we value:  the profits from oil sent to China or the pristine environment of The Great Bear Rainforest.  Daily I find myself signing petitions or following links to organizations like Leadnow or Ecojustice or to Occupy Regina. 

Using the language of Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind, somehow the "hive switch" has been thrown for me.  At this particular historical moment, I do not think I can say, with W.B. Yeats "The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity" ("The Second Coming").  I am more hopeful.

Right now, the worst that Yeats speaks of are the cynics, those who, in Oscar Wilde's words, "know the price of everything and the value of nothing."  They have the most power; they now dominate the non-conversation about what we value, wherein free, unregulated markets are the answer to every problem.  Do you have common land in Saskatchewan that the Federal Government has given back to you to do with what you please?  Biodiversity and protected habitats are much less important than simply selling this land off to the highest bidder.  Do we know that adequate housing not only saves misery, but saves governments money?  But who will profit?  Are we putting our intelligence into figuring how to get oil to China, which is happy to fuel its own economy?  Why aren't we exploring solar and wind power?  But how can we charge for sunlight and wind?

Most of what we value is what we share in common.  Educational institutions.  Green spaces.  Justice.  Clean air and water. 

In The Righteous Mind, Haidt acknowledges that chimps never cooperate, partly because they can't conceive of or communicate goals they might share, and that we resemble chimps in this respect more than we'd like.  But he also talks about how "the hive switch" can be turned on.  Interestingly, both Haidt and Netta Weinstein, Andrew K. Przybylski and Richard M. Ryan have done interesting work on the way immersion in the natural world leads us to be more generous. Haidt writes "Awe acts like a kind of reset button:  it makes people forget themselves and their petty concerns.  Awe opens people to new possibilities, values, and directions in life.  Awe is one of the emotions most closely linked to the hive switch, along with collective love and collective joy...precisely because nature can...shut down the self, making you feel that you are simply a part of a whole (Haidt 228; italics in original).

On Friday I was talking with one of the students of my Expository and Persuasive Writing class about mob mentalities.  Obviously Haidt's description of the elephant came into my attempt to explain why and how people

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.