Tuesday, October 25, 2005

1,001 Friday Nights of Storytelling Marches On

Well, it's Halloween weekend, followed by All Saints Day and Dia de Los Muertos - a storied time, if ever there was one. Consider coming out to the weekly 1,001 Friday Nights of Storytelling this week. Also, if you'd like to help spread the word, I've re-done the flyer for the 1,001 Friday Nights which you download here (MSWord version or PDF version). Feel free to print a few for friends, family and colleagues. Or simply e-mail this link to folks.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Rabble Podcasting Network LAUNCHES! YAY!

Check out the Rabble Podcasting Network - a wonderful collection of Canadian shows.

And there's my podcast of stories: Comeuppance

And Matt's and my podcast: Occasionally Disturbs Others

Happy listening...

Monday, October 17, 2005

Podcasting Plato

The launch of the Rabble Podcasting Network is imminent. Stay tuned. In the episode of Occasionally Disturbs Others that Matt and i did this weekend i include a version of this remarkable little piece from Plato. A story about the dawn of literacy. I love the irony of this piece:
There once dwelt, in the region of Naucratis in Egypt, one of the old gods, an inventor, named Theuth. One day he came before Thamus, the king, and presented his newest inventions of calculation, astronomy, geometry and more. But when he came to the invention of writing and said: "Here, O king, is a branch of learning that will make the people of Egypt wiser and improve their memories: my discovery provides a recipe for memory and wisdom," the king answered: "No, Theuth, you have declared the very opposite of its true effect. If people learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls: they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks; what you have discovered is not a recipe for memory, but for reminder." Plato, Phaedrus, R. Hackforth,tr.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Gramsci in Toronto - Wish i had the time

There's an interesting conference in Toronto today, tomorrow and Saturday on the work of Antonio Gramsci and a friend of mine Peter Mayo will be presenting.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Against School: How Public Education Cripples Our Kids, and Why

Not sure about the legality of this Harper's article being published on the net but as long as it's here, it's worth a read. I remember reading it when it was published a couple of years ago and i was sadly reminded of my own time in high school in Quebec: an unrelentingly horrible four years. How i managed to survive even now remains something of a mystery to me. One year there were 4555 students (grades 7 through 11). Gatto's article is a near perfect description of my experience of primary and secondary school. I used to think that all high school was as bad as what i had known. I've since met many people who had better experiences that i did and my neices and nephews are in pretty good situations now. But Gatto's analysis and advice is worth heeding:
Now for the good news. Once you understand the logic behind modern schooling, its tricks and traps are fairly easy to avoid. School trains children to be employees and consumers; teach your own to be leaders and adventurers. School trains children to obey reflexively; teach your own to think critically and independently. Well-schooled kids have a low threshold for boredom; help your own to develop an inner life so that they'll never be bored. Urge them to take on the serious material, the grown-up material, in history, literature, philosophy, music, art, economics, theology - all the stuff schoolteachers know well enough to avoid. Challenge your kids with plenty of solitude so that they can learn to enjoy their own company, to conduct inner dialogues. Well-schooled people are conditioned to dread being alone, and they seek constant companionship through the TV, the computer, the cell phone, and through shallow friendships quickly acquired and quickly abandoned. Your children should have a more meaningful life, and they can.

First, though, we must wake up to what our schools really are: laboratories of experimentation on young minds, drill centers for the habits and attitudes that corporate society demands. Mandatory education serves children only incidentally; its real purpose is to turn them into servants. Don't let your own have their childhoods extended, not even for a day. If David Farragut could take command of a captured British warship as a pre-teen, if Thomas Edison could publish a broadsheet at the age of twelve, if Ben Franklin could apprentice himself to a printer at the same age (then put himself through a course of study that would choke a Yale senior today), there's no telling what your own kids could do. After a long life, and thirty years in the public school trenches, I've concluded that genius is as common as dirt. We suppress our genius only because we haven't yet figured out how to manage a population of educated men and women. The solution, I think, is simple and glorious. Let them manage themselves. (Harper's, September 2003)
Thanks for the link, Erin.

Joss Whedon Rules

Just saw Serenity last night and it was worth the wait. That's right, i'm a huge Joss Whedon fan (Buffy rocks!). If you wanna see well-written, well-crafted sci fi adventure then treat yourself. I never get tired of Whedon's witty dialogue. And there's lots of quotable Whedon lines to pass along. Speaking about it with my friends afterwards, someone brought up the list: The Top 100 Things I'd Do If I Ever Became An Evil Overlord. if your a sci fi and fantasy fan you should treat yourself and have a read.

Meetings, meetings, meetings...

I've just started reading Freedom Is an Endless Meeting by Francesca Polletta. And, having just spent 4 out of the past 5 days facilitating meetings for a variety of organizations, i've got meeings on the brain. Then a friend sends me links about meetings: The Real Agenda in Boring Meetings and Get The Best Out of Meetings. It's certainly worth thinking about the pervasiveness of meetings in social and political life. And these articles do touch on some important facets of meetings. But, typically myopic ( in a Taylorized kinda way), they focus on the minutiae of meeting dynamics or, alternatively, the micro-acts of rebellion which, of course, play into the very dynamics that these articles implicitly challenge. It would be nice if the Guardian, of all papers (and The Observor, as well), saw fit to address the problem at its roots - or at least, in these somewhat amusing articles, tip their hat to them, i.e. the relations power in a corporate capitalist hegemony.

The conclusion from these articles should either be that meetings are often being used for the wrong purpose or that they are examining the wrong piece of the puzzle. Instead they myopically share tactics of manouevre which keeps the focus off the real problem.

These articles give me a strong feeling that there's a need to analyse (in a dialectical, popular education kind of way) so-called "meeting culture" from the point of view of a thorough analysis of power (a la Foucault, Gramsci, et al). Not to come up with better technocratic (perhaps even rebellious) "skills" and "techniques" but rather to structure and exercise real strategies of resistance. Not sure what that would look like.

This resonates for me with what i've long-believed is a major weakness in the way that popular education was brought to Canada (with the important exception of Quebec). Lots of well-intentioned mostly middle class white activists went to Latin America (me being one of them) and witnessed and participated in the revolutionary pedagogy and politics that make up popular education. We were understandably enthused by it and thought, with good conviction and solidarity, that we should bring this practice home. We did so. But i think something important was left behind. What came home was mostly the better "process" of learning and meeting and so on. What was left behind was mostly the revolutionary engagement with power relations or, more simply put, the resisting oppression stuff. Those who returned to Canada with popular education in their starry eyes, did not, needless to say, have the experience of oppression (nor the risks of choosing to confront and resist oppression) that gave rise to popular education in the first place (albeit popular education has roots as far back as the French Revolution as well as overlaps with many other forms of radical learning). And, i've long suspected that related to this lack of experience was a relatively naive understanding of power relations. We've gotten better. But slowly. And thus the popular education movement in Canada is unfortunately weighted towards it being a practice that is simply better process. And that counts for something. It is more just. But unfortunately it's weak when it comes to promoting the radical, even revolutionary, politics of social change which also includes the necessary reinvention of the person (or "subject" in the Foucauldian sense). Yeesh, i can wax on, can't i....

(Thanks for the links, Corvin.)

Friday, September 30, 2005

Meant To Read That

I teach a popular education graduate class at the Faculty of Environmental Studies of York University in Toronto. This summer as i was considering which texts to base the course on i was, as usual, uncertain which of Paulo Freire i should use. Last year i assigned Pedagogy of Hope - a 20-years-on reflection on Pedagogy of the Oppressed. But this year i remembered my own encounter with Pedagogy of the Oppressed over 25 years ago. I use the word "encounter" because "reading" just doesn't come close to doing justice to that period of time when i wrestled with word and world. A world that was swimming into the ever clearer focus of my young adult eyes. Pedagogy of the Oppressed hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks. As did a few other books.

So, i've been thinking about that book and a number of others that i would argue are part of a 20th Century canon of anti-colonial literature. Or perhaps "post-colonial" or "emancipatory" literature would be a better naming. I've read many of these books and have yet to read as many more. And i know that there are many of you out there who have thought, like me, "wouldn't it be nice to read some of those classics?"

So, i've got this idea about a community-based popular education course in which participants would read some of this dissident canon. Matt, with whom i work at Catalyst, as usual had a great name for this course right away: "Meant To Read That." I gotta think about what the criteria would be. I think they should be "classics" which is to say they must have continued to be relevant to subsequent generations. Or, perhaps, have survived the death of their author. I'm thinking that they should be mostly so-called non-fiction works, but i do want to include at least some fiction such as Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart. At any rate, i would like to create a good criteria that has a bit of flexibility.

Here's an initial brainstorm list. Feel free to send a suggestion or two.
  • Wretched of the Earth - Franz Fanon
  • Borderlands/La Frontera - Gloria Anzaldua
  • Pedagogy of the Oppressed - Paulo Freire
  • Talking Back - bell hooks
  • The Educated Imagination - Northrop Frye
  • Orientalism - Edward Said
  • Open Veins of Latin America - Eduardo Galeano
  • Things Fall Apart - Chinua Achebe
  • What Is to Be Done - Lenin
  • The Second Sex - Simone de Beauvoir
  • The Dialogic Imagination - Four Essays - Mikhail Bakhtin
  • A Fate Worse Than Debt – Susan George
  • A Peoples History of the United States – Howard Zinn
  • Rules for Radicals – Saul Alinsky
  • In the Spirit of Crazy Horse – Peter Mathiesson
  • The Communist Manifesto – Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
  • God is Red – Vine Deloria
  • The Port Huron Statement - SDS
  • On the Poverty of Student Life – The Situationists

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

On Broken Hearts, Courage and a Life of Activism

Here's a piece i wrote last year about my take on popular education:

On Broken Hearts - MSWord version

On Broken hearts - PDF version

Ethics for Activists - 9

I learned the following story from fellow storyteller Alec Gelcer with whom i shared a love of Jewish (as well as many other traditions) wisdom tales. I'm particularly fond of the legends of the Lamed Vov Tzadikkim - the 36 Just Men or 36 Just Sages, kindly souls who commit acts of anonymous kindness throughout their lives. I've heard two versions of these stories: one has it that these kindly souls are anonymous their entire lives but they know that they are of this unique three dozen; the other version says that these souls are unaware that they are of this group - which means that any one of us could be one of these kindly souls. I also like to think that in the 21st Century this 36 includes women.
The Thirty-Six Just Men

There was once a young boy who lived alone with his grandfather. Every day the boy would wake and take care of their two goats, Rachel and Leah. One day the boy noticed that the goats no longer bounced around as much as when they were smaller. He mentioned this to his grandfather who nodded slowly and said, “Yes, they are growing older and someday they will die.”

“What does it mean to die, grandfather?” asked the boy.

The grandfather explained about life and death, birth and growth and how all things had their time on earth. We each had a lifetime, long or short, deep or wide – we each had a time that would one day come to an end at which time we would journey into the mysterious realms beyond life. Such was the fate of the boy’s parents, his grandfather explained.

The boy thought he understood and went back to tending the goats. As he sat in the sun watching the goats and shooing away flies he pondered what his grandfather had said. Suddenly a thought occurred to him and, in a panic, he ran into the house. “Grandfather, Grandfather, are you going to die?” the boy shouted as he ran.

The boy found his grandfather in the kitchen laughing. “Of course I will die,” he said gently. “We will all someday die. But I will not die just yet.” This calmed the boy and once again he returned to tending the goats.

That night the boy woke to strange sounds in the house. He followed the noise to its source where he was shocked to see his grandfather sitting at the table in the middle of the kitchen which was a chaos of swirling pots, pans, dishes. Every object in the kitchen save the table and chairs was flying crazily about the room. The boy was afraid and managed to dodge his way to his grandfather’s side. There, in the centre, all was calm. “What is happening, grandfather,” the boy asked.

“One of the Thirty-Six Just Men has died,” the grandfather said.

“Who are they?” the boy asked.

“Once, long ago,” the grandfather explained, “after God had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, He made a promise not to do it again as long as there were thirty-six just men alive on earth. You see, at any one time there live amongst us thirty-six just men and these people carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. They live anonymously and commit acts of kindness and compassion. Some say that even they do not know who they are. And now one of them has died and, until a new one comes forth, the world is out of balance. Now, off to bed with you. All will be well soon enough.”

“Are you one of the Just Men, grandfather,” asked the boy.

“No, I am not. Now, to bed with you.”

The next day the boy was sitting on the doorstep watching over the goats when a fly came buzzing near. And, as little boys often do, he caught the fly in his hand. He held it tightly and could hear its buzzing. He shook it beside his ear. But suddenly the buzzing changed. The boy could hear the panic and fear of the fly. He let it go. But it was too late. In that moment, the fear of the fly cracked open the boy’s heart. And into that heart poured all the suffering and sorrow and loss of the world. And in that moment that boy became the new thirty-sixth Just Man.

How Popular Education Works -4


Word came to the Jews of a small Russian town that a much beloved and very wise Rabbi was to pay them a visit. The whole town prepared. The wise men and the talmudic students polished their questions. Foods were prepared for a feast.

The Rabbi arrived in the town which was fairly vibrating with anticipation. All the townspeople gathered in the village square. Some of the talmudic students were so eager and worried that their questions might go unasked and unnoticed that they simply blurted them out. Very quickly there was a clamour of voices directed at the Rabbi.

The Rabbi raised a hand and quickly all were silent. He held his hand steady and all listened. The breeze stirred the leaves of trees. Birds chirped in the warm sunlight. The Rabbi began to hum a tune. He closed his eyes and swayed back and forth. First the children followed suit, humming the gentle melody and swaying on their feet. Soon all the villagers were humming and swaying. The Rabbi began to dance, first in slow, measured steps and then quicker and quicker until he was spinning around the square. The villagers all joined in until the square was a mass of dancing and spinning and singing people. The joy of the dance and the song reached out and touched the trees and the birds, the sunlight and the clouds in the sky. The entire earth seemed to be vibrating in time with the dancers.

Hours passed before the dance was done. All sat in the square, tired and still. They looked to the Rabbi who said, “I trust that I have answered your questions.”

How Popular Education Works -3

I learned the following story many years ago in Montreal from a palm reader.
Stop Eating Sugar

There was once a father who was told by doctors that his son had diabetes. The father was told to tell his son to stop eating sugar or else he would die. The father, obedient of the doctor’s instructions told his son to stop eating sugar. But the boy refused saying, “can’t and won’t!”

The father thought about forcing his son to stop eating sugar but knew, as he thought this, that enforcing this would be an impossibility. His son could eat sugar the first time he was out of sight of his father and thus endanger his life.

The father loved his son very much and was at his wit’s end when the boy suggested: “You know, father, there’s that wise woman who loves a few valleys over. If she were tell me to stop eating sugar, I would.”

The father thought this an odd situation, but, if that’s what it would take to save his son’s life, he would do it. They packed their few belongings and made the long journey to the home of the wise woman.

Once inside, the father told the wise woman the reason for their visit. The wise woman nodded, then said, “Come back in fourteen days and I will tell you what I must.”

The father was irritated. After all, their request was simple enough. But, he had little choice and left.

After fourteen days they returned to the home of the wise woman. Once inside, the wise woman looked at the boy and said, “you must stop eating sugar or else you will die.”

“Okay,” said the boy and he turned and left the room.

The father looked at the wise woman and said, “I mean no disrespect, but you can see we are poor and that the journey was long and costly. I must ask you why you could not have said those words fourteen days ago?”

The wise woman was smiling and she nodded and said, “Ah! you see, I felt that for me to tell your son to stop eating sugar, I had to stop eating sugar first.”

Storytelling Events and Courses in Toronto

The Legless Stocking - Saturday, October 1, 2005 - 7:30 p.m.

1,001 Friday Nights of Storytelling - every Friday at 8:00 p.m.

Storytelling Courses from the Storytellers School of Toronto

Shadowlands performs The Lost Supper

Check it out folks. Some wonderful puppet theatre by local Toronto group Shadowlands.

The Lost Supper

a feast of stories around the communal meal

Tarragon Theatre Extra Space, 30 Bridgman Ave.
Preview Thurs. Sept. 22, Opens Fri. Sept. 23, runs to October 9, 2005
Performances: Tues.-Sat. 8:00pm & Sun. 2:30pm

"beautiful, provocative, everything a puppet show should be" Jamie Ashby, audience member

Directed by Mark Cassidy/ Music by David Buchbinder/ Lighting Design by Rebecca Picherack

Created by Performed by Anne Barber, Brad Harley, Mark Keetch, Noah Kenneally and Clea Minaker

Preview/Sundays PWYC
Tuesday/ Wednesday $15

Friday $20
Saturday $25

Tarragon Theatre Box Office: 416 531 1827

A group of strangers has been invited to attend a dinner. The table is the one civilized place in an uncivilized world. Taste memories, childhood habits, etiquette and desire abound as the assembled guests tell their stories, but true glory is found in a simple meal shared.

In a culture obsessed with food issues and eating habits, Shadowland uses its unique, visual theatre style to shine a light on the fundamentals of dining and the communal meal.

For more information visit www.shadowlandtheatre.ca or call 416 203 0946

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Puppets Against Fear

I saw Halloween things in the store this week. Yeesh. One of the great things about halloween here in Toronto is that it means it's time for another Night of Dread as organised by Clay and Paper Theatre. If you around Saturday, October 29th come on down to Duffering Grove Park and be part of a unique parade!

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Back in the Swing

Ahh, it's been many weeks since i've had the time and peace of mind to post. But the Fall season is upon us (though it's a week to the autumnal equinox and it's gonna be over 30 degrees C today in Toronto - what's that about!). Tomorrow i start teaching the Popular Education for Social Change class at the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University once again. Here's this year's syllabus.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

On the Shores of the Northumberland Strait

I'm sitting in the common room of the Tatamagouche Centre as a week-long writers retreat is about to begin. How i've longed for a moment to think about writing. I've been swept up in the changing situation of the Catalyst Centre as we prepare to close the office later this year, store the collection for a few months and finally relocate it elsewhere in Toronto. It's a big moment of change for us as we re-invent ourselves and figure out what kind of popular education organization we can be that will best serve the needs of the comunities we serve.

But for now, i am elsewhere. On the Northumberland Strait that separates PEI from Nova Scotia. The most wonderful memories of my childhood are of the summer weeks i spent at Casey Cape with my Acadian cousins. Casey Cape is north of Moncton and remains the most magical beach i've ever known.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Project South new Website! & Upcoming Popular Ed. Training

Project South is an excellent group doing anti-racist popular education work in the American South. The rest of their name is: "Institute for the Elimination of Poverty and Genocide." They rock! I've met the folks from Project South over the years and have always been impressed by their take on popular education practice and theory. They have an annual event called "Educators BAM" that you should check out if you're looking for a place to learn more about popular education. Here's their description from their website:
We have designed our Building A Movement Popular Education Skills Retreat to address the critical questions facing Educators, Teachers, and Professors. Learn how to use popular education models, engage with other educators about the issues that matter most, & create your own tools for movement building in the classroom.

A friend's (very, very good) poems

My friend Elise just published some poems on nthposition, an online magazine/e-zine that looks pretty interesting (i'd not heard of it before). You can read Elise's poems here (i'm quite fond of the phrase "ambush home").
I've been rearranging my rather massive book collection - a time to purge and pack away into deep storage many texts to make room for some new ones. I'm pleasantly surprised to rediscover books that i haven't cracked open for some time and as i lay hands on each beloved text - especially those from my collections of tales (folk and fairy and literary) old memories are sparked of the lessons i've learned and am still learning from the tales and ideas that i have read. Lind Sussman in The Speech of the Grail (Lindisfarne Books, 1995) writes:

Times come in every life when one’s world view is not solid, when traditional mores and rules seem not to pertain. One feels awash, with no structure to guide one’s actions. As young children, all of us are subject to the turbulent chaos of an adult world beyond our understanding. What children have traditionally been given to structure their relationship to life are fairy tales. A child’s way of experiencing, as Gawan learned from Obilot, can augment an adult’s, and the fairy tale best expresses this way of experiencing. Incredible as it might seem to the initiate-speaker, a child’s book of fairy tales harbors a treasure. It is no coincidence that interest in fairy tales, and other traditional stories, burgeons now when so many adults feel divided of a secure world view, when so many aspects of life merit questioning.

Thursday, June 30, 2005

July Ahoy - Poetry Hides in Plain Sight

I love the meanings of words – they are like riddles or, perhaps, flowers that, being very familiar with, we take for granted. The ways in which we tell time is laden with a rich history and a surprising use of metaphor. How surprising that we still use the ancient Babylonian base 60 number system to tell time – 60 seconds in 1 minute, 60 minutes in one hour and so on. And how many of us know the origin of our names for the days of the week? Sunday meaning Day of the Sun; Monday meaning Day of the Moon; Tuesday named for the Germanic war god Tiu; Wednesday named for the Norse god Odin or Wodin, the All-father; Thursday named for the Norse god Thor, god of thunder; Friday named for the Norse goddess Frigg, goddess of the hearth; and Saturday meaning Saturn’s Day which was perhaps originally Etruscan.

Our months, similarly, hold stories. January named for the Janus the Roman god of doors for we enter each new year through a new door; February from the Sabine word februo meaning to boil or purify as this was the month that rituals of purification were practiced; March named for the war god Mars (the time when wars could recommence after winter); April from the Roman Aprilis which came from the Etruscan name (Apru) for Greek Aphrodite for this was the month trees opened their leaves; May from the Roman Maia goddess of growth; June from the Roman goddess Juno; July from Julius Caesar who created the Julian calendar; August from Augustus Caesar; and September, October, November and December meaning, respectively, seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth months since the old Roman calendar had ten months beginning with March.The ancient Babylonian calendar included month-names that meant flight, healing, Tree of Life and nothingness. The Hebrew calendar includes month names that mean first fruits, rosette blossom. The Mayan calendar included 20 different names for days including ones that meant waterlily, corn, snake, death head, venus, dog, jaguar and storm cloud; and months that meant new sun and owl. And native north American nations’ lunar calendars include such descriptions as Moon when the geese come home, Wolf moon, Moon when the leaves break forth and Moon of the Popping trees.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Being the Change

I gave a talk at the International Human Rights Training Program in Montreal yesterday. I have loaded both an HTML version and an MSWord version of my talk on my website. I was presenting along with Chrysogone Zougmore, the Secretary General of the Mouvement Burkinabe des Droits de l'Homme et des Peuples (MBDHP) from Burkina Faso.

Chrysogone and i were talking about the relationship between human rights education and advocacy. My three principle points were:
  • There is no such thing as neutral education and no such thing as a neutral educator
  • All education is advocacy – though not all advocacy is education
  • Education is the act of engaging common sense persuasively in order together to create good sense and change bad sense.
The IHRTP is a unique human rights training program run by the Canadian Human Rights Foundation. You educators out there might be interested in their training manual - check it out.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

The New Dog

A hunter went out with a new dog that he had raised. He shot a duck that came down in the water and the hunter sent the dog after it. The dog ran across the water, retrieved the duck and ran back, across the water. The hunter was amazed and shot another duck. Again the dog ran across the water, retrieved the duck and ran back across the water. The hunter did this one more time and the same thing happened. The next day the hunter invited a friend. Again the hunter shot a duck that came down in the water and, like the day before, the dog ran across the water to retrieve the duck. His friend watched without saying a word. The hunter shot a second duck and the dog, once again, ran across the water to retrieve the duck. The friend still stood silent. Finally the hunter asked his friend, “Do you notice anything strange about this new dog?” “Yeah,” replied the friend. “Now that you mention it. That dog can’t swim.”

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

A Hole in the Bucket

Just found a link to the Comic Relief piece about world debt - song sung by Michael Franti. It's 2.4 megs so if you don't have high speed, you might wanna try this 1 meg version.

The Why Cheap Art? Manifesto

Bread and Puppet has been a part of my life for over 25 years. Check out this manifesto. And go make some art. Cheap, even.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Ethics for Activists - 8

Eknath Easwaran:

The Sufis advise us to speak only after our words have managed to pass through three gates. At the first gate, we ask ourselves, "Are these words true?" If so, we let them pass on; if not, back they go. At the second gate we ask, "Are they necessary?" At the last gate, we ask, "Are they kind?"

Friday, June 17, 2005

We Are All Jewels in the Net of Indra

I have a love of theory. And rarely the time to indulge this love. Which makes me a pretty sloppy theorist. I’m reminded of a Saturday Night Live Christmas sketch in which John Belushi leads a dishevelled group of carollers in a comically pathetic attempt to sing the familiar and ubiquitous (every December) songs. Each carol is launched with gusto but none gets beyond a few lines of their first verse before devolving into embarrassed muttered “la-la-la’s”. So it is, often, with me and theory. I admire the elegant contours and crave the time to examine them more closely. For there are riches to be had that often leave me in awe. For instance, I find in post-structural and post-modern theory a wonderful wrestling with the complexity of human identity—how we understand ourselves, what we think that we are. And I’ve always found there to be a peculiar resonance between post-structuralism and Buddhism (and Buddhism has a couple of thousand year head start, to boot).

I am currently reading Robert Thurman’s new book The Jewel Tree of Tibet: The Enlightenment Engine of Tibetan Buddhism. It’s a practical course in enlightenment, though I think I’m failing. I’m feeling kinda dim this week. Alas. Good reading though. I always feel, when reading books about Buddhism, that I can almost see (perhaps hear) that world of spiritual enlightenment of which they write. Thurman instructs that you are supposed to visualize this remarkable Jewel Tree, wonderfully crowded with mentor spirits all there to help you become enlightened. That’s an awful lot of help. It’s a lovely book that I recommend – written in lucid and plain language.

In my wanderings through Buddhist literature I came across another jewel image: a 2000-year-old description that strikes me as quintessentially modern when I think about each jewel representing a living being.

From the Avatamsaka Sutra

Far away in the heavenly abode of the great god Indra, there is a wonderful net that has been hung by some cunning artificer in such a manner that it stretches out infinitely in all directions. In accordance with the extravagant tastes of deities, the artificer has hung a single glittering jewel in each "eye" of the net, and since the net itself is infinite in all dimensions, the jewels are infinite in number. There hang the jewels, glittering like stars of the first magnitude, a wonderful sight to behold. If we now arbitrarily select one of these jewels for inspection and look closely at it, we will discover that in its polished surface there are reflected all the other jewels in the net, infinite in number. Not only that, but each of the jewels reflected in this one jewel is also reflecting all the other jewels, so that there is an infinite reflecting process occurring.

(Francis H. Cook, Hua-yen Buddhism: The Jewel Net of Indra, University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1977, p. 2.)

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

The Cure

Around the turn of the century in Vienna, Austria there was a man who had made a name for himself as a doctor of the mind. People came to see him from around Europe and the world. One day, a strange looking man entered the doctor’s office and stood silently before the receptionist’s desk. The receptionist looked up and saw before her perhaps the saddest looking person she’d ever seen. “May I help you?” she asked. “I want to see the doctor who I have heard so much about. He is my last hope,” said the stranger. “You will have to make an appointment and return in a week,” said the receptionist. The sad looking man reached into his deep coat pocket, pulled his hand out and dropped a handful of gold coins on the desk. The receptionist was startled, coughed and said, “let me see what I can do.” She returned in a moment and said, “The doctor can see you for a few minutes.”

The stranger walked slowly into the inner office and sat in a chair opposite the doctor. “What seems to be the problem, my friend with the pocket of gold coins,” asked the doctor kindly. The stranger lifted his head and struggled to speak. “Lately I have been beset by an unceasing melancholy. Nothing gives me joy. All seems pointless. I don’t know what to do. They say that you are a doctor of the mind and you are my last hope.” The doctor smiled widely. “You have nothing to worry about friend. For you have come at exactly the right moment. For, you see, the circus has just arrived in Vienna and they perform this very night. I myself plan to attend. As must you. You see, in this circus is the funniest man in the world. He has the saddest face of any clown that has ever lived – he never smiles. But it is said that when you see him perform you forget all your worries and know only laughter. His name is Grimaldi and he is your cure.” The stranger looked even more sad, if that was possible and he said, “Then there I no cure for me kind sir. For I am Grimaldi.”

The doctor nodded slowly. “I see. I see. Then there is only one thing you can do.” The stranger looked up hopefully. “Tonight,” said the doctor, “you must kill yourself.” “Then it is true,” said Grimaldi. “There is no cure and I must end my life. I will not hesitate. I will do it this very night.” “No, no,” said the doctor smiling. “You must kill yourself this evening, at the circus, for all to see.” Grimaldi looked at the doctor and slowly a slight smile crept onto his face. “Thank-you,” he said to the doctor and left a handful of gold coins on the desk as he left.

That night Grimaldi set about to kill himself before the sold-out audience. He first tried to cut his throat with an overlarge knife. But the blade, made of rubber, cut and cut and made no mark. Then he tried to shoot himself but the gun shot out nothing but smoke and paper. He tried to hang himself but the rope broke and he tumbled to the circus floor with the crowd roaring all the while. Finally he climbed a tall ladder to throw himself to his death. He leapt from the ladder and everyone screamed. But Grimaldi’s suspenders were caught and he was pulled back to the ladder. No circus crowd had ever laughed so loud.

And they say that that was the only night in his career that Grimaldi himself could not help but laugh. He laughed and laughed until the tears flowed.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

On Meaning, Listening & Writing

Robert Bringhurst – The Solid Form of Language:

Drop a word in the ocean of meaning and concentric ripples form. To define a single word means to try to catch those ripples. No one’s hands are fast enough. Now drop two or three words in at once. Interference patterns form, reinforcing one another here and cancelling each other there. To catch the meaning of the words is not to catch the ripples that they cause; it is to catch the interaction of those ripples. This is what it means to listen; this is what it means to read. It is incredibly complex, yet humans do it every day, and very often laugh and weep at the same time. Writing, by comparison, seems altogether simple, at least until you try.

Monday, June 13, 2005

On Solitude, Resistance & Rebellion

There is no insurmountable solitude. All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are. And we must pass through solitude and difficulty, isolation and silence, in order to reach forth to the enchanted place where we can dance our clumsy dance and sing our sorrowful song - but in this dance or in this song there are fulfilled the most ancient rites of our conscience in the awareness of being human and of believing in a common destiny.

Rebellion is our very life asserting itself, willing to settle for nothing less than freedom. But if our rebellion is have any hope of achieving that freedom, it must transform itself into resistance.

Resistance challenges the framework of reality defined by systems of punishment. Rebellion can be the first step towards resistance, but we must avoid the sidetracks of self-destruction along the way.

Resistance differs from rebellion because it embodies a reality incongruent with that of domination. We do more than defy reality: we present its alternatives, communicating our beliefs and values.

Syllabus for Popular Education Course

Once again, i'm going to be teaching Popular Education for Social Change at the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University this coming fall and winter. I'm re-designing a curriculum that i developed with the Catalyst Centre and thought to share the curriculum from the past season. You can find brief course descriptions here (scroll down to 6150 & 6151).

Blogs not as original as we might think

I've always planned to use my blog somewhat like the 19th Century Victorians (and some 20th Century holdovers like Alec Guiness)used "commonplace books". So, i will be posting more stuff regularly in this spirit. Here's a bit more explanation from the introduction to my annual solstice book (which many of you will have already read):

Gathered from my journals, my database of quotes, my archive of stories, my palmpilot notepad, my internet bookmarks and the countless handwritten notes that I am perpetually jotting down in the books that I read I have composed this selection for you. I might have called it a scrapbook of sorts until recently. But I have only just learned that something that i have been doing quite unselfconsciously for over 25 years is, actually, an ancient practice with a long and venerable history. Once again I am reminded that there is little new under the sun and we do well to remember in our 21st Century so so post-modern pride that humans have been solving the same problems for millennia. It is not because we do things first that we should be pleased with our accomplishments – this is merely one of the lies of the modern myth of progress. But I digress…

I've never considered my habit of collecting quotes and poems and aphorisms and so on as more than a curiosity of my nature - i've always suspected that this collecting habit is a thinly-disguised and carefully managed neurosis. It may well be so. But i have now learned that this type of collecting has been practiced since at least the days of the Greek and Roman civilizations. People - well, men, it would seem - kept a type of a journal - called hupomnemata, meaning “record of remembrances” – in which they recorded things that they deemed worth remembering. A curious practice perhaps, but what really fascinates me about this is why they did this. The French philosopher Michel Foucault explains it as a practice that people engaged in in order to develop better selves. (This Graeco-Roman practice gave rise to a later Christian monastic practice of writing to expose one’s inner self to scrutiny and both these practices are linked to letter-writing all of which are part of the history that our modern practices of writing emerge from.)

So all this writing was a way of ‘living in the open’ - exposing your process of self-reflection in order to test your ‘self’ against the perceptions of others. And I can’t help but compare this ancient practice to the more modern practices of ‘zines and blogs, both of which are used by people to share with others their thoughts and doubts and opinions and interests (and obsessions) and more. ‘Zines and blogs are only the latest means by which some people have chosen to practice ‘living in the open’. Ahhh… but in-between the ancient practice of hupomnemata and the modern ‘zine and blog was a brief flourishing of a nineteenth century Victorian practice of keeping a book of remembered items – the commonplace book. And so I come circuitously to my inspiration for this sort-of commonplace book that you hold now - my modest attempt at living in the open. More than a journal, more than a collection of quotes, this is a collection meant simultaneously to amuse, delight, reveal (though more often in the way riddles reveal) and, hopefully, provoke interest. But there is one more important inspiration to note.

Before learning of the male-dominated practice of hupomnemata I had already learned of an 11th Century literary wonder written by a Japanese woman. A lady-in-waiting in the court of Empress Sadako, Sei Shonagan, kept a personal journal that she filled with a wide range of observations and lists and poems known as The Pillow Book. I learned of this ancient wonder from my friend Nicole who was inspired by it to write a series of poems for which i designed and published a chapbook called Some of the Love. Amongst the 326 entries are included such things as: These Are the Months, Different Ways of Speaking, Things That Give a Pleasant Feeling, Things Not Worth Doing, Things That Make One Sorry.

So here's an odd collection of things: lists and riddles and stories and poems and more. Some will amuse, some will puzzle, i hope some will delight. I don’t know what to call this strange thing – an homage to The Pillow Book, the Commonplace Book, hupomnemata, scrapbooks and so on.

News of the Wall Ball

Read Judy's report on the Wall Ball

Thursday, June 02, 2005

WALL BALL: Carol Wall for CLC President - June 9

This is definitely the best thing happening in Toronto next Thursday evening (June 9). Spread the word.

Celebration and fundraiser with live music, DJ, door prizes, and of course Carol Wall!
Thursday, June 9th - 7:00pm at the NOW Lounge
189 Church Street (1 block north of Queen)
Sliding Scale $5-20


  • Lazo (winner Juno award best Reggae song and winner Top Reggae Performer Canadian Reggae Music Awards)
  • La Libertad
  • Mad Love
  • DJ No Capitalista
  • MC's Judy Rebick and Chris Ramsaroop

Fully wheelchair accessible

Learn how Carol Wall will promote community, democracy and equity as CLC president: http://www.carolwall.ca/

Stories On This Blog So Far

Here's a list of stories (with links) that i have published on this blog since launching this thing in February. My hope with this blog is that you all who are reading it can make use of the things i share - stories, quotes and such. Many of the stories i tell and have shared here thus far are ones that i have found filled with wisdom and usefulness for many areas of our life. Some of you know that in my facilitation i characteristically use stories to focus a group, reconvene a group from a break, or simply amuse a group when appropriate. There is much tricky learning to be pursused with these tales. They're good for all ages. These are all versions that i have written and i invite you to feel free to learn them, share them, link to them. Or just read 'em and enjoy.


A Parable about the Possibilities of Dissent



The Master Archer

Parable for Organizers

What keeps us apart

The Strawberry

And A Horse Came Back

One Wish

Heaven and Hell

Fill It

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Storytelling in the City - as usual

Well, i'm just finishing my tour of duty as one of the hosts of the 1,001 Friday nights of Storytelling. I've been part of a team Shawna pulled together many maths back now. And we're about to hand on the torch (well, tea candles, actually) to a new team. This Friday evening (at Innis College Café) we'll be having a potluck dinner at 6:00 - all are welcome - to convene a new team of hosts for the next three or four months. If you're in Toronto consider attending the 1,001 Friday Nights. You'll hear stories like the following (which i told when i introduced Jeff Smith last Sunday):

There once lived a farmer who worked hard to till his land and feed his three children. His wife had died some years before and he realized that he was getting on in years and should think about how he would one day pass on the land to his children. Should he die suddenly he didn’t want there to be any fighting over who would get what. So he called his two sons and his daughter together and told them that he had designed a contest. Each would have a turn at filling the shed beside the barn as full as it could be. The one to fill it the most would be the winner and would get to have the first choice of land to inherit. The children agreed and the father turned to his oldest child – his son – and nodded.

The boy went all over the land and gathered every stone and boulder and pebble and brought them back to the shed where he piled them all in. He pushed and shoved and carried until he closed the shed door with difficulty. The shed’s walls and door bulged with the weight of the stones inside. The boy, knees and elbows scraped and bloodied, turned to his father.

The father nodded and smiled and said, “That is a very good effort. I am most impressed.” Then he bent down and picked up a handful of dirt which he threw into the shed through a small window. The sand disappeared inside and the son breathed a sigh a disappointment for he had failed to fill the shed completely. But his father kindly said, “A very good effort. Well done! Now let us see how your brother can do.”

The shed was cleaned out and the second child, taking a wheelbarrow, gathered as much sand and dirt as he could from all over the farm. Load after load, he piled the sand and dirt into the shed. He pushed it in and stamped it down and packed it tight. With the door shut and bulging he still pushed sand and dirt in under the crack. He packed it into the window. Again the walls of the shed bulged from the weight of the sand inside. The boy turned to his father.

“Very impressive. A mighty feat. I congratulate you.” The father went over to a bucket of water and dipped a ladle in. He brought this back to the shed and poured the water in through a crack in the roof. The water disappeared inside. The boy looked crestfallen. But the father said, “A good and noble effort, my son. Now let us see what your sister can do."

The young girl disappeared into the house. The shed was cleaned out and prepared. After a while the girl emerged from the house with her hands cupped around something small. She walked into the shed and placed something down. She stepped back and her brothers and father saw that it was a candle. And the light from that candle filled that shed to its furthest corner. The girl turned and faced her father and brothers and they smiled at her. 

Sunday, May 29, 2005

New Blog about narrative and disease

My friend Clara Valverde (poet, writer, health educator, nurse, activist and more) has just started her own blog Complexity and Narrative in Chronic Disease. It's only in Spanish at the moment but Clara plans to add stuff in English soon. Clara is particularly interested in the making of meaning from the suffering of chronic disease. Check it out!

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Jeff Smith at Toronto Comics Arts Festival

I just had the pleasure of introducing Jeff Smith creator-author-artist of the award-winning comic Bone. The Toronto Comics Arts Festival is currently underway(see schedule). Jeff gave a great presentation about his inspirations, a bit of comic book history and some of the rich symbolism of Bone. Jeff gives a reading Sunday morning at 11:00. Scholastic Books is publishing Bone as 9 books over the cocming years. Bone has been compared to the Lord of the Rings and it's a worthy comparison. I also learned about a blog by one of the Scholastic staff, Scott: All Ages a blog about comics for kids - check it out.

Monday, May 16, 2005

News from the Carol Wall campaign for President of the CLC

Just received this letter about Carol Wall's campaign:

Greetings my friends, As many of you know by now my mom, CAROL WALL, is running for the presidency of the Canadian Labour Congress. Her victory would not only be a huge step forward for workers of colour and community members whom have been largely under-represented in the labour movement, but for all workers in general. The progress of the labour movement in the past has not only been slow, but deteriating and the time for change is now. I'm asking all of you as a friend, family member and co-community person for your help in supporting my mom win this election, which will take place in Montreal June 16th 2005. What I need you to do is help with contacting all those that you might know who could possibly be going to convention or know someone that is and either you can talk about my mom and what she stands for, which can be found on her website www.carolwall.ca or you can give me their contact information and i would be more than happy to call them. For those of you that can do more or want to help and do not know anyone going to convention if you have some time to spare and could help with doing a phone around, in the next little while a bunch of Carol Wall supporters will be gathering in the Toronto area to celebrate the possibly of this upcoming election over food, while phoning more potential supporters. Please if you can help with any of these tasks or have suggestions for other strategies we should be using to gain more support please email me at nwal51@hotmail.com or call me at 416-660-2540 or Chris Ramsaroop at 416-832-4932. Thank you again for whatever you can do! Nicole

Imagine a different kind a trade union movement

Well, change is in the wind. Carol Wall, a popular educator and trade unionist, is running for President of the Canadian Labour Congress. This is an exciting and important moment for organized labour in Canada. Many community-based activists and social justice minded trade unionists have been waiting for the kind of leadership Carol has to offer. It's gonna be a tough run against entrenched leadership. While there is some progressive leadership in the CLC at the moment, it doesn't seem that we've seen much action on the many issues confronting labour and social movements (including neoliberal assault on the Canadian economy, anti-racist change within trade unions and social movements, organizing youth in the always-growing service sector). Check out Carol's website and consider supporting her campaign. If you know anyone in the trade union movement call 'em up, e-mail 'em, send them a link to Carol's website or this blog post.

Carol is one of the co-authors of an excellent book on popular education and trade unions: Educating for Changing Unions. Check it out!

The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men, / Gang aft agley

Yes, as the Scots poet Robbie Burns wrote it so long ago, our plans "gang aft agley." And my have been a wee topsy turvy for a few weeks - exigencies of life and all that. So, here i am, back at blogging once again.

My sister just bought Zachary Richard's CD of Acadian songs: Cap Enragé. And surprise surprise, Zachary Richard has a blog called Monthly Report that here chronicles his recent trip through Acadia. How it makes me yearn to do something simliar. About ten years ago i spent a couple of days at the Acadian archives at the University of Moncton and, looking for a particular book of family records, i was disappointed to find it missing. The room being full of people doing research, i thought i'd ask around and appeal to whomever had the book to let me have a peak at it since i was only passing through town and had only that afternoon left to do research. I found the person with the book who looked at me and listened to my plea. He asked me curtly, "Who's your grandfather?" I told him. He looked at me again, with an air of appraising whether i was worth the effort and then he spoke curtly once again, "Then I'm your cousin." I thought he was having me on. But, as it turned out, he was telling the truth. And, of course, he'd been messing with me a little devilishly. He proved very helpful and turned out still to be living where my great granfather had built a house in the 19th Century - a house that still stood and that i would later visit on that trip with my aunt and uncle. The house is still there in Haute Aboujagane.

Friday, April 29, 2005

Still learning to blog

It's been a busy couple of weeks and i've had a hard time finding time to write. Many evenings out and many other evenings and days binding books. Bookbinding is a very different space than writing-space - it is calm, rote work - very meditative - and it requires long stretches of concentration. So my writing has backed up. But here's what i've been working on - many thanks to Kim for taking this picture. This books was auctioned off at the Rabble birthday party for $225. Wow! And while i'm at it, here's a few other books i've made over the years:

Well, not quite a book, this advent calendar is fashioned from cigar boxes and covered in handmade papers. I made this for my neices and it's stoof the test of time well. Here's two more views: one; two.

Here's two views of a daybook i make for a dear friend every year: one; two. As with the rabble book, this book is bound using a coptic binding - an ancient technique first developed in Ethiopia - it allows a book to lie open flat and to be bound with a hard cover.

Here's a small accordian book of poems by Nicole Bauberger.

And one of my annual solstice books - also an accordion book (with 26 little accordion books inside: the Vanished Library.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

How Popular Education Works -2

Heaven and Hell

There was once a samurai who wanted to learn the difference between heaven and hell. He sought until he found a master from whom he thought he could learn. He stood before the Master and asked him what was the difference between heaven and hell. The Master took the samurai’s sword and, turning it to the flat of the blade, struck the samurai on the head. The samurai was surprised at this but chose to ignore it. He thought that the Master had failed to understand his question. He once again asked the Master about the difference between heaven and hell. Again the Master struck the samurai on the head. The samurai staggered back and puzzled over this. He approached with his question for a third time and, before he could utter a word, the Master struck him a third time. The samurai was now so enraged at this behaviour that he grabbed his sword from the Master, raised it over his head and was prepared to bring it down on the Master’s head when the Master raised one finger and the samurai paused.

“That is hell,” said the Master.

The samurai was instantly so overcome by the courage of this frail old man - to have risked his life for the sake of a stranger’s question - that he fell to his knees and bowed before the Master.

“That is heaven,” said the Master.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

A week in the life of a storyteller

And what a busy week it was. Beginning with the stories told last Sunday at the Annual Toronto Festival of Storytelling (check out the “One Wish” post for a taste) and ending last night with a perfectly wonderful evening of 1,001 Friday Nights of Storytelling. I’m sitting at home listening to CBC’s Go – hosted by Brent Banbury (worth it – check it out) and thinking about my crazy week. Monday I facilitated the last of three sessions reflecting on needed structural changes at Sketch (a “working arts studio for street involved and homeless youth”) – ya gotta see this place to believe it – a few thousand square feet of studio space (for painting, sculpture, woodshop, photography and more) with a wonderful staff of community artists doing what I think is the most challenging and innovative use of art in urban life that I know of – an arts drop-in centre – every city should have at least one of these (hint-hint for any of youse folk looking for something to put your hearts into – call Sketch – talk to Phyllis – think about one for your city).

One Tuesday we met at Catalyst to talk about our future – we’re a stubborn lot and it’s been tough times and we’re talking about closing the office soon and finding both a new basis of unity and a new way to work together (e.g. a network of home offices). We’re in our 7th year and we’ve failed to find a way to make our work economically viable – we’re all burning out as we continue to impoverish ourselves to make the dream of a popular education collective work. But popular education remains a wonderful idea poorly understood by funders. They love the democratic practice – but continue to insist on risk-free guaranteed outcomes that they fail to realize are contradictory to democratic practice. Alas. We’re determined to continue to exist. But it’s a big year of change for us.

Wednesday and Thursday I jetted off to Ottawa to do a two-day Naming the Moment workshop for the political team of the Council of Canadians. (Well, it was a prop plane, actually, that left from Toronto Island airport – about a 15 minute bike-ride from my home – ya gotta love that – down to the Island, across a small strait on a ferry and onto the very lovely Dash 8 aircraft). The Council of Canadians is one of the largest groups in Canada taking on the issue of “deep integration” (i.e. with the US economy – the strategy that aims to eliminate Canadian sovereignty over our water, food production, energy, foreign policy and more). The Council is 20 years old and has grown a great deal in the past few years – and I hope they continue to grow and reach new communities across the country including Quebec.

A quick flight back to Toronto Island in time to dash over to see the play I wrote about in my last post. And last night it was over to the 1,001 Friday Nights of Storytelling. As some of you know, we’ve relocated from our home of 15 years to Innis College Café. And last night was well as the next three, we are itinerant due to Innis having had prior commitments for the Café. We were across the street in a small lecture auditorium in the Faculty of Information Science building – an odd space that I had thought would work when Dan and Celia and I had looked at it a couple of months ago but of which I was pretty sceptical last night. It was looking pretty thin as 8:00 pm rolled around but, sure enough, a dozen folks showed up for what proved to be a wonderful evening. No less than 5 people told stories at the 1,001 for the very first time. It’s always nice to hear at least one new voice – but to have 5 is a most rare event. And 5 wonderful tellings they were. Inspired by Martin’s whimsical tale of his seeking out of Merlin’s cave (as described by Nikolai Tolstoy in The Quest for Merlin) one fellow told a tale of seeking out Amethyst Cove near Cape Split on the Bay of Fundy; another fellow told a tale of seeking out a megalithic tomb with his younger brother in the mountains of Portugal (including one very uncomfortable night of non-sleep beside the tomb, accosted by an unidentifiable creature screeching and circling the insomniac brothers); a young woman told of the mysterious and magical appearance of a doll at Christmas; and one fellow from Newfoundland told a tale of his boyhood – a winter walk over to his aunts’ home to get a fine-toothed comb. He had been led to believe these two widows were witches; and I wish you could have heard the tale, for I mark it as one of the most memorable tellings I’ve listened to in 15 years of attending the 1,001 Friday Nights. Thank you, John, for that. I was asked to tell “Chivalry” by Neil Gaiman (to go with the grail theme begun by Martin); Shawna told a harrowing tale of her time in Spain – misadventure avoided by the power of a dream; David told the “Porcelain Man” by Richard Kennedy – and a fine telling it was (parents, if your looking for modern fairy tales to tell your kids, look for Richard Kennedy’s work – you’ll thank me, I’m sure). And Karen rounded out the evening with a delightful Jack tale she learned from Duncan Williamson – one that I am particularly fond of and may get around to sharing in this here blog one day. And there you have a taste of what the 1,001 Friday Nights of Storytelling is like. Spread the word. Come down and listen. Who know, you might even feel like telling yourself. (As I mentioned above, we’re not in the Café again for a few weeks – we’ll be in Innis College room 204 for the next three weeks.)

Friday, April 15, 2005

Kafka and Son

Saw Kafka and Son last night. It stars Alon Nashman and is part of the World Stage international theatre festival taking place in Toronto. I was enchanted and amazed – by Alon’s evocation of one of the 20th Centuries most tortured and brilliant souls. How was it Kafka wrote, so accurately, the script for the 20th Century? Some of the answer is definitely revealed, sadly, in his relationship with his father. There’s much more to that creative genius, of course. And, while based on the text of the Kafka’s 1919-written letter to his father, this play is a most wonderful onion – layers and layers for the peeling – revealing rich correspondences and avenues of meaning. The set is composed with a puppeteer’s sensibility (at least to my Bread & Puppet-trained eyes) with a metal bed frame, three metal cages (one a collapsible accordion contraption), and a backdrop that acts as a screen for occasional shadow-puppetry. Add to this the loud silence of tumbling black feathers and, of course, Alon’s Kafka and you have the picture. The play begins with Kafka at a black feather-covered desk/cage composing the letter. As he “writes”/recites the feathers flutter silently through the cage – casting a shadow of dark rain against the backdrop. I loved letting my mind play with the associations - the same way I love riddles: here we are, listening to these brilliant words, startlingly insightful about himself and his relationship with his father, composed for someone who would never read them. And so they fell, quietly, the way black feathers fall. And, yet, ironically, Kafka performed the alchemy of all art, the transformation of the base material of human experience (in this case, suffering) into the always-gold of art. The black feathers tumble, evoking a black bird (the jackdaw that the name “kavka” means?) that we see briefly in a few scenes of the shadow play, and I think of the magician/alchemist’s magical familiar or Poe’s prophetic raven. And like with Poe’s grim raven, I felt the weight of Kafka’s anguish hovering over his remarkable words, that I am sure he had little inkling would become part of the foundational literature of the 20th Century. Those of you in Toronto have a few more chances to see the play which is on tonight and tomorrow afternoon and evening – find out more at the World Stage site.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

One Wish

Ahh, it was a magical day. I biked down to Harbourfront with a friend to take in the spring warmth and catch some of the annual Toronto Festival of Storytelling. We arrived in time to hear some perfectly marvelous children tell tales. I was amazed at the confidence and poise of these young 'uns telling tales (some long ones to boot) as well as i've ever heard them told by people of many years more experience. The storytelling session was called The Remarkable Story Jam which is part of a program that you can learn more about here. One young girl told a version of one of my favourite tales of tricky wishing. I've often told this one as a riddle i ask listeners to guess at. Here's my version:

In a small cottage beside a stormy sea there once lived an aging couple who lived a hard life. The man’s blind mother lived with them. They were poor and they were kind. No matter how little they had they were always willing to share with those who were in need. They asked little enough for themselves. Though there was one sorrow in their life they wished dearly to end, and that was their lack of a child. One day the man went down to the seaside where he cast a line absent-mindedly into the surf. He wasn’t trying very hard to catch anything so he was quite surprised to feel a tug on the line. He pulled it in and saw that he had hooked the largest and most colourful fish he had ever seen. He walked into the surf to grab the fish and remove the hook and the fish spoke, “Kind sir, please release me and I will give thee a wish.” The man had heard of many strange things in his life, but a talking fish was surely a stranger sight than he ever imagined seeing. “Surely, I will release thee, magical creature. But I cannot make a wish without asking my family. Might I ask that I return here tomorrow to tell you my wish?” “I will be here tomorrow,” said the fish. And the man freed the fish, made his way home and told his wife and mother of his strange encounter. They spoke about what they would wish for. The man suggested riches, saying that they could live better, have more to share, that life need not be as hard as it had been. The woman reminded the man that his mother was blind and that he could use his wish to make her see once more. But the mother said that she knew what sorrow it was to be childless and that she would dearly love to have a grandchild. The wife said to the husband, “go to sleep, trust in the divine, the morning is wiser than the evening.” The next morning the woman woke her husband, leaned over him saying, “This is what you will wish for.” And she leaned closer and whispered. The man nodded and smiled and said, “You are the wisest woman in the world.” He made his way down to the sea and sure enough, the magical, colourful fish awaited him. They greeted each other cheerfully and the man told the fish how hard it had been to decide on one wish. “And what would be your wish, kind sir?” asked the fish. The man looked calmly at the fish and said, “I wish that my mother lives long enough to see her grandchildren eat from golden plates.” And it was so.

Our abundant verdant world

As crocuses bloom and as all manner of shoots and buds grow visibly day by spring day, many of you are thinking about your gardens. have you heard about heritage seed programs? In Canada, you can check out Seeds of Diversity and in the US there's Seed Savers Exchange. both are organizations that are working to preserve our rapidly shrinking diversity of plants. There are many dozens, perhaps hundreds of varieties of tomatos and yet we see only two or three in our stores. Tomatos have been hybridized to withstand the rigours of transport, to look pretty and taste like cardboard. Yet many delicious and nutritious varieties exist that are forgotten and almost lost. As with many flowers, fruits and vegetables. Heritage seed programs are one way to help protect and preserve the collective heritage of the the earth's bounty. Check 'em out. Join. Grow something. It could save our lives.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Thoughts on the Pedagogy of Guilt

I got to thinking about guilt yesterday - something being raised catholic taught me a lot about. It was during a seminar on social sustainability and diversity at York University’s Institute for Research and Innovation in Sustainability (IRIS). (Here’s a pdf document that describes the seminar.) Barbara Rahder and Patricia Wood made an excellent case that sustainability (a popular buzz word for almost 20 years – going back to the Brundtland Commission Report of 1987 and perhaps about to get new life from the Millenium Report), which usually gets talked about only in ecological and economic terms, is completely linked with the social. But I can’t report on the seminar without risking misrepresenting it badly. I take very wacky notes.

Barbara or Patricia (I can’t recall who) criticized the One Tonne Challenge as using “guilt” to do public education. I wanted to cheer. And, as I said above, it got me to thinking about guilt (and its close cousin “shame”). I don’t want to diss the One Tonne Challenge (who knows, it might make a difference). But insofar as it relies upon (even promotes) guilt to get people to change their behaviour I think it is flawed. I’ve certainly had my moments of heralding the horrors around us and those to come in the hopes that it might change peoples’ minds and actions – but I also learned early in my career as an activist that guilt (and shame) achieve the exact opposite of education. I think I first learned this from John Berger in his famous essay Photographs of Agony. He reflects on the publishing of violent images from the Vietnam War (images of people in agony).

Many people would argue that such photographs remind us shockingly of the reality, the lived reality, behind the abstractions of political theory, casualty statistics or news bulletins. Such photographs, they might go on to say, are printed on the black curtain which is drawn across what we choose to forget or refuse to know. (in About Looking, 1980, p.38)

Berger makes an eloquent and persuasive case that the reaction to these photos is not what we might think according to that always tricky beast – common sense.

The possible contradictions of the war photograph now become apparent. It is generally assumed that its purpose is to awaken concern. The most extreme examples - as in most of McCullin's work - show moments of agony in order to extort the maximum concern. Such moments, whether photographed or not, are discontinuous with all other moments. They exist by themselves. But the reader who has been arrested by the photograph may tend to feel this discontinuity as his own personal moral inadequacy. And as soon as this happens even his sense of shock is dispersed: his own moral inadequacy may now shock him as much as the crimes being committed in the war. Either he shrugs off this sense of inadequacy as being only too familiar, or else he thinks of performing a kind of penance - of which the purest example would be to make a contribution to OXFAM or to UNICEF.

In both cases, the issue of the war which has caused that moment is effectively depoliticised. The picture becomes evidence of the general human condition. It accuses nobody and everybody.

Confrontation with a photographed moment of agony can mask a far more extensive and urgent confrontation. Usual­ly the wars which we are shown are being fought directly or indirectly in "our" name. What we are shown horrifies us. The next step should be for us to confront our own lack of political freedom. In the political systems as they exist, we have no legal opportunity of effectively influencing the con­duct of wars waged in our name. To realise this and to act accordingly is the only effective way of responding to what the photograph shows. Yet the double violence of the photographed moment actually works against this realisa­tion. That is why they can be published with impunity. (in About Looking, 1980, p.40)

Curiously, in looking back at this article for the first time in many years I see that Berger doesn’t use the word “guilt” though my memory has long associated the word with this piece. Feelings of “guilt” are certainly one of the things Berger is referring to. Starting with having read this piece by Berger 25 years ago, I have come to believe deeply that guilt is a terribly negative emotion (or disposition). When we provoke feelings of guilt in people whom we fancy we are educating, it is the guilt that becomes the object of attention, not the issue you are trying to bring attention to. Guilt has two relatively simple solutions: penance and denial – neither of which necessarily has anything to do with changing things that are wrong with society. Using guilt gives people the terribly easy out of displacing their discomfort (or “shock” or horror or grief) from the cause of that discomfort to the more private domain of ones feelings (of guilt). And so, not only does guilt displace attention, it can further obscure that which needs changed.

Remember Cassandra? Cursed by Apollo to speak the truth and yet be ignored? This ancient myth could be an early warning about the efficacy of making people feel bad as a means of getting them to change. Cassandra’s truth was met with denial. (Oddly, people today use the term “Cassandra” as a synonym for doomsayer. And, ironically, should you call someone a Cassandra, you’re simultaneously recognizing that they are speaking truth and planning to disbelieve that truth. Calling someone a Cassandra is about as useful as poking yourself in the eye. So is guilt.