Monday, April 30, 2007

The Phonemes - May 5th

Alas, but i am gonna miss this show as i will be out of town (way out of town; i wonder if they have blintzes in T'blisi). So, if you're in Toronto and wanna catch one of my fave indie bands, check 'em out and let me know how the show goes. Here's what Liz has e-mailed about the show:

there's something we've been meaning to do and we're doing it next saturday may 5th at the whippersnapper art gallery with bob wiseman and jason trachtenburg and also, we are doing this specifically with many friends like justin stayshyn, mez, katie crown, john tielli, paige gratland and cab williamson from hank, gentleman reg, james anderson and shayna stevenson from the singing saws and others. we will also be showing 2 videos. one is for the song "porcupines" (jeff woodrow made it) and one is for the song "oh sleep" (rose bianchini and richard made it). this thing we are doing is a celebration of our new cd so it's sort of important to us. you know? that's why the flyer is pink and grey.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Ethics for Activists - 14

Once there was a Sufi who was captured by the police and accused of theft. Despite his protests of innocence he was convicted and sentenced to three years in jail. He had a loving wife who visited him every day. One day she was allowed to bring him a carpet on which he could pray. Three times a day he would unroll the carpet and, kneeling and bowing down, would pray. Weeks and months passed in this manner. One day he the intricate pattern of the carpet’s weaving caught his notice. There was something unusual about it. Still, day after day, he prayed and gradually the intricate detail of the carpet began to make sense to him. As the days passed and he continued to pray the pattern resolved until one day it was clear to him. The pattern in the weaving was the design of the lock on his prison door. Using his knew knowledge he picked the lock and escaped.

Bill Moyers Journal

Okay, i'm a fan. The first two episode of this new PBS series are excellent. The Buying the War episode brings together quite nicely much of the criticism of the American mainstream mass media's complicity with the Bush administration's war on Iraq/terror. Not that the Canadian mass media should be lauded - i wonder what an analysis of the Canadian media would demonstrate in terms of US aggression, (especially given Linda McQuaig's new book Holding the Bully's Coat: Canada and the US Empire)? As much as i've been critical of mass media for the past 27 years, having started out at the McGill Daily in Montreal where we knew with that certainty (both a privilege and flaw of youth) that we could change things, still i was and am amazed at the american mainstream mass media's numerous failures in covering the elections of Bush, the bombing of the World Trade Centre, the "war on terror", the invasion of Iraq and more. Moyers show goes some way to exposing these failures, even if understanding them remains a more complex (and necessary) task than a one-hour TV show can be expected to do. One of the implicit themes of the Buying the War episode is the media's resistance (or inability?) to admit that they were wrong. The show is a good indictment. But, of course, this is only one aspect of addressing the problem. And, ironically, Moyers show itself acts as a kind of (hegemonic) mea culpa showing that however rare it might be, the media yet includes the capacity to be critical of itself, of not apologize.

The second episode includes a very good interview with John Stewart - one that increases, once again, my respect for Stewart. And there's also a good piece about the blog Talking Points Memo.

Their wesbite is impressive as well, with video of the full episodes available as well as transcripts, a blog of their own and a podcast. They're on the ball when it comes to taking advantage of internet capacity.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

How Popular Education Works - 5

Or at least, the zen of it....

I've loved this zen story for a long time:
A student asked Soen Nakagawa during a meditation retreat, "I am very discouraged. What should I do?"

Soen replied, "Encourage others."

from Essential Zen edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi & Tensho Devis Schneider (Castle Books, NJ, 1996)

Monday, April 23, 2007

Ethics for Activists - 13

It is said that Tetsugen, a Zen monk in 17th Century Japan, wanted to publish the sutras which, at that time, existed only in Chinese. His plan was to publish 7000 copies from carved woodblocks. This would be very expensive and he set about collecting money from anyone who would donate to his project. Occasionally he would meet a rich patron who would give him a hundred gold coins, but mostly he would be given only a few small coins. In this way, after ten years, he had enough to set about publishing the sutras. But as it happened, at that time, the Uji River burst its banks, causing much havoc. There followed famine and much suffering. Tetsugen used the money he had collected to relieve people's suffering, to save people from starvation.

Again, Tetsugen set about collecting the money he needed. And after many more years he was once again able to begin his publishing project. But there was an epidemic that struck the land and once again, Tetsugen used the money he had collected to aid the people.

Once more Tetsugen began to collect funds and finally after twenty years he was able to realize his dream and to publish the sutras. The woodblocks can still be seen in Obaku monastery in Kyoto.

The Japanese tell their children that Tetsugen produced three sets of sutras and that the first two are invisible and surpass the third.

(based on a version found in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones compiled by Paul Reps)

Sunday, April 22, 2007

I'm podcasting again

It's been a while, but i've finally untangled my technology enough to begin podcasting once again. I've just loaded up episode 7 of my Comeuppance podcast which is part of RPN, the Rabble Podcasting Network (which is worth checking out for a variety of other shows). Episode 7 is inspired by Earth Day which is ending even as i blog this.

This one always cracks me up

I just picked up a new copy of Essential Zen by Kazuaki Tanahashi and Tensho David Schneider (i know, i know... how shocking that i would buy a book - and this is my third copy of this one, having given away the other two). Well, it's full of real gems (and the "Essential" series is quite good, thought the notion of essential is questionable). Anyway, as i say, full of gems. And here's one that was an instant favourite:
One day Maurine Stuart was having tea with friends at her home in Cambridge when the telephone range.
"Do Buddhas wear toe-nail polish?" a seven-year-old caller wanted to know.
"Are you wearing toe-nail polish?" Roshi responded.
"YES!? shouted the little girl and hung up.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Glass Magic and Thanks

This remarkable glass lamp is the work of Brad Sherwood, a glass artist, who came to my attention, in part, through another remarkable thing he makes with glass: marionettes. You've got to see them to believe them. This lamp is a gift with which some very clever people surprised me and for which i am deeply grateful. You can see another view of the lamp here. Brad teaches at glassblowing at Sheridan (scroll down this Sheridan page and you'll catch a glimpse of one of his glass puppets).

The lamp images are photos that Brad took and sent me.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Popular Education Workshops and more - in Toronto

There's a number of popular education and related events coming up in the next few months. I've already mentioned the Freire conference on May 2nd in a previous post.

You can find a selection of events being offered at the Transformative Learning Centre 2007 Summer Institute. These include popular education events with Christine McKenzie (a past member of the Catalyst Centre): Introduction to Popular Education on June 23rd as well as a course called Popular Education: Power, Dialogue and Social Change that runs from June 16th to June 26th.

Margo Charlton and Tristan Whiston are offering a workshop on Arts and Social Change
on June 16th and June 17th: The workshop will examine the intersection of art-making and social change. Art-making can create waves that ripple out, changing individuals and communities. Participants will share their ideas about arts and social change and creatively examine the tensions that swirl around community arts: questions of process and product; insider and outsider dynamics; aesthetics and ethics; personal and social transformation. On the second day the group will visit community arts sites in Toronto or create an arts intervention in a community setting. (This workshop is organized by the Knowing through the Arts Program of
.) Fee: $80. To register: Please email or

Other TLC events include Lang Maria Liu's Capoeira, Circle of Life: Philosophy and Practice of Brazilian Art Form; Chris Fraser's Bowl Full of Stories: Women, Words, and the Transformative Power of Storytelling; and Annahid Dashtgard's Finding Freedom: Breaking Free of Body-Judgment.

On May 3rd the Ontario Council for International Cooperation (OCIC) and facilitator Zahra Murad are presenting the workshop Anti-Oppression for Organizations Working for Change. It's $25 for OCIC members and $40 for non-members - a deal at either price. There's no website with the event info on it, so here's what i was e-mailed:

Thursday, May 3, 2007 - 10:00 am – 5:00 pm
Friends House (60 Lowther Avenue, Toronto)

Join facilitator Zahra Murad in a one-day anti-oppression workshop for individuals and members of organizations working for change. Using popular education and Theatre of the Oppressed methodologies, this workshop will help participants reflect upon and better understand the functions of power and oppression from personal and organizational perspectives. Drawing from personal experience, ideas and research, participants will have opportunities to develop concrete ideas, suggestions and goals to take back to their organizations.

Central themes include:

  • Debunking myths of racism and oppression
  • Understanding ways in which the structures of power in which we live can govern the relationships we form and the methods with which we struggle against oppression

Participants will come away with a better understanding of:

  • Accessible and co-operative event planning
  • Programming for and about groups
  • Who is being held accountable to whom
  • The balance of power in partnership relationships

Who should attend? Individuals and members of organizations working for change
To register: Please return your completed registration form to Stephanie Lemelin at or by fax to 416-972-6996 by Monday, April 30th
Participation fees:
OCIC Members $25 / Non-members $40 (includes breaks and lunch)

Please make your cheque payable to OCIC and mail to:

Ontario Council for International Cooperation
344 Bloor Street West, Suite 405
Toronto ON M5S 3A7
or indicate on your form that you will bring payment with you on May 3, 2007

Earth Day Rally in Toronto

Info here or here.

The Metaphor-off between Stephen Colbert and Sean Penn

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Paper Spiders & Lucky Frogs

I'd like to tell you (and brag a little, on behalf of the 17 co-authors) about a new popular education manual. Paper Spiders and Lucky Frogs aka Re:Frame is a collection of 46 annotated descriptions (plus two 'zine inserts) of popular education methods. This was the assignment for the participants of the Popular Education for Social Change i teach at York University's Faculty of Environmental Studies. This was an experimental assignment that has worked better than i had hoped.

Having taught (and, at times, co-taught) this class since 2001 i have perpetually wondered about the contradictions inherent in "teaching" popular education in a university classroom. Not to suggest something simplistic such as one cannot (nor should not) teach popular education in the university classroom. Rather, i'm interested in how a university classroom engagement of popular education participates in the history of relationships - a history which has, for the most part, taken place outside of the university and, often, in resistance to the very power relations of knowledge-production that universities have been a large part of promoting. There are, of course, many dissident spaces within universities and FES is onesuch. And the Popular Education for Social Change class is yet another. There's much that could be said about this dissidence and i don't expect you to take my brief (and probably cryptic) statements at face value. I'm currently working on a manuscript for a book provisionally called Trickster Pedagogy in which i discuss some of the complexities of dissidence in our hegemonic, post-structural and rapidly warming world.

One objective of this manual assignment was to make a contribution to the popular education community. Of course, the individuals in the course may well go on to become popular educators or otherwise advocates and supporters of popular education. But the individualistic nature of university experience means that there's little if anything that can hold people to account for how they apply (or not) their learning. So, what people do with their learning has more to do with individual ethics than with collective ethics. And, while many individual ethics are just fine, they are also disorganized from the point of view of building community. So, it occurred to me that if we could collaborate on a material project such as a manual, it would enhance the community-building aspect of popular education for both the participants of the course and for the popular education community(ies) around the world.

Having been inspired by June Jordan's Poetry for the People class that she taught at Berkeley i got the idea of producing a book together as part of our experience of the popular education class. Each year that June did her class she would have the students produce a book of the poems that they had written and they would do a public performance/launch as well. I've loved June's writing for over 20 years and when i learned about Poetry for the People i immediately wanted to see something like it in Toronto. That dream persists though i've done little about it (and there are a number of writing projects in Toronto that are excellent - projects with immigrant women, with literacy and/or ESL learners, and more). Meanwhile, using June's work as a model i thought that it might work to have participants of the pop ed class research the methods of the work, try some of them out, write them up so that others could replicate and adapt them and annotate these descriptions with their own practitioner reflections as well as some critical discussion of how these methods fit in the theories of popular education. The result is remarkable. And good enough to brag about. As well as sell. I've proposed that we sell this manual for $20 (to be confirmed) and that the proceeds be donated to the dian marino fund. I'll keep y'all posted about this. And we'll probably do some kind of launch at the beginning of the Fall semestre at FES.

The beautiful cover artwork, which i've included with this post, is by Shuxia Tai, a student in the MES program who is, as you can see from her work, very talented. It was also Shuxia who proposed the title for the book which refers to some origami that was shared during the course and stories about frogs.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Ravens, Ravens, Ravens and Landscapes and more

Nicole Bauberger has a website now. Nicole is a painter, poet, singer, friend and more. And i'm a huge fan of all her work. One of her raven paintings graces my bookshelf now. Check it out.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Origami Enchantment

A friend just sent me a link to some of Robert Lang's origami wonder (thanks, Rebecca). Lang is one of the most gifted origami artists in the world and i've been challenging myself with his designs for years. The New York Times has a video of Lang's origami US flag. Check it out. And the New Yorker published an excellent piece on Lang's work as well a couple of months ago. The image above is a polar bear i made from one of Lang's designs.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Ishmael Beah in Toronto Next Week

Some of you may have heard about Ishmael Beah who, as a boy of 10, was recruited as a child soldier. He's written about his journey in A Long Way Home: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. I've yet to read it though i've followed the media coverage of it for some time. And there's no question that it is a moving and important account that should be read widely. The horrors of war and our inhumanity to each other are numerous. Stories of survival and the winning back of stolen humanity are, sadly, more rare. Beah was interviewed on the Daily Show a few months ago - worth watching. Here's the info about next week's event:
ISHMAEL BEAH, Author of A Long Way Gone
Wednesday, April 18th, 2007 at 7:30 PM
St. Barnabas Anglican Church
361 Danforth Avenue (see map of location)
Closest TTC station: Chester Station (Bloor-Danforth line)
Tickets are $5, available at the U of T Bookstore
214 College St (
Further information: 416-640-5836

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. 1922-2007

Such a great writer! I know he's a huge favourite of a number of friends. He was on the Daily Show earlier this year and it's worth watching this brief appearance. Slaughterhouse Five was the first novel i read by him i was 16 and believed the bombing of Dresden was merely part of the science fiction of it all until years later i met soldiers who, like Vonnegut, had survived that horrific event and were part of the aftermath. The Sirens of Titan is a long-time favourite of mine. And i've many still to go. He will be missed.

I have also loved, for a long time, Vonnegut's advice to writers. In Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons 1999), 9-10, Vonnegut writes:

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

The greatest American short story writer of my generation was Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964). She broke practically every one of my rules but the first. Great writers tend to do that.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

My Favourite Curmudgeon Environmentalist

I feel both lucky and privileged to have been able to study with and learn from John Livingston. He was in his last years of teaching when i was a student in the Faculty of Environmental Studies. And we hit it off quickly. I'm not sure why. He had a somewhat fierce demeanor - of the "not suffer fools gladly" type. But i know that i instantly appreciated and loved his passion and clarity of feeling about the problematic relationship between the human built world and the natural world. His work challenged the common sense about environmentalism in ways that i feel we (both society at large and the environmental movement specifically) have yet to embrace.

An article in this week's Toronto Star by a graduate of FES is aptly titles The Greatest Environmentalist You've Never Heard Of. Louise Fabiani writes:

While Livingston was no Luddite – he benefited from hi-tech medicine and central heating as much as the next person – he hated the human sense of entitlement that enables us to perform the most unspeakable acts of cruelty and waste. Sport hunting, vivisection and habitat destruction filled him with a despair that dogged him for most of his life.

But despair is not nearly as sustainable (or, sad to say, acceptable) as rage – not for the average male, anyway. Initially, I joined many fellow students in tiptoeing around John's temper. His oratory style alternated between measured and combative. He snapped at unsupportable statements. He interrupted himself in mid-lecture to sputter indignation at some memory that assaulted him out of nowhere. He did not suffer fools gladly – though, to listen to him, fools got whatever they deserved.

I recommend John's writing as essential reading for all those of us who would fancy calling ourselves environmentalists. Check out The John Livingston Reader. Worth it.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Storytexts on the Internet

The internet amazes me more and more. There are now numerous texts available from various on-line libraries. For those of you who grew up with the "coloured" fairy books, almost ALL the texts are on-line. You can find them here.

And Joseph Jacobs collections are on-line as well. These are excellent sources for beginning and seasoned storytellers. Two of my favourites are: English Fairy Tales and More English Fairy Tales.

The very first story i told at the 1,001 Friday Nights of Storytelling was Tamlane from Jacobs' collection and it remains a favourite of mine still. I recall the night i dared to get up on that wonderful "stage" way back in 1990. Alice Kane was there that evening and i sat beside her. Joan Bodger was there as well. Bright lights of storytelling both of 'em (both gone now though they live on in their stories, may they both rest well). I was a wee bit nervous and was following someone whom i thought to be both a very good teller and much much better than i. So when i sat down again after telling my modest version of Tamlane i was overwhelmed when Alice leaned over to me to say that she didn't much like the telling that had preceded mine, but that she very much liked my telling. It's a moment i will never forget.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Comics have come a long way

Coincidental with refreshing my love of Corita Kent's abundant creativity, is my reading of Bryan Talbot's newest comic book Alice in Sunderland. And what a comic book it is. Hard to classify, for sure. While it is an exploration of the roots of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland; it is also a discussion about art, imagination and creativity; it is a meditation about context and meaning; it is a wild collage of images sketched, painted, colored, photoshopped; a playful linking of relationships in a six-degrees-of-separation kinda way.

It is both a truism and good advice to writers to say that we write what we know. And Talbot is making a most excellent case for the truth of this in Carroll's case. I've read both Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass a number of times, but i've never bothered to look very deeply into Carroll's inspirations for the figures and ideas that permeate our modern world (our euro-american one, at least) so thoroughly. I am startled to note how influential are these two fantasy adventure books. (This happens to me all the time with Shakespeare as well.) Talbot does a remarkable job of drawing links - some speculative if persuasive - between the geography of Sunderland and that of Wonderland. And he creates a very ricj and thick description of a world long gone of which Lewis Carroll was a product, participant and, ultimately, a legacy.

The best works of art, i think, are those that fill you with the urge to create your own. Kundera's Unbearable Lightness of Being is like that. As are Corita's serigraphs, dian marino's earthblankets, Ursula LeGuin novels, Raymond Carver's short stories, Mary Oliver's poems, Nick Bantock's collages, and more. And now i add Alice in Sunderland to that list.

The Beguiling (my local favourite comic book shop) is co-sponsoring a talk with Bryan Talbot on April 16th at 7:00 pm at the Merrill Collection of the Toronto Public Library. Can't wait.

Ethics for Activists - 12

Once there was an old man who meditated every morning under a large tree on the bank of the Ganges. One morning the old man opened his eyes after his meditation to see a scorpion floating helplessly in the water. As the scorpion passed the man under the tree it grabbed hold of a thin strand of root that floated in the water. The scorpion struggled to pull itself along the root but the river current was too strong and the old man could see that the scorpion would soon be pulled back into the water. The old man reached for the scorpion. But as soon as his hand was within reach, the scorpion’s tale whipped over its body and stung him. The man jerked back his hand, balanced himself, and again reached out for the scorpion. But every time he came within reach, the scorpion stung him. His hands swelled up and his face distorted with pain. Just then, a woman walking by saw the old man trying to rescue the scorpion and she shouted, "Hey, old man, only a fool risks his life for the sake of such a useless and thankless creature. And it looks like it’s doing it’s best to kill you?" The old man looked calmly at the woman and said, "Friend, because it is the nature of the scorpion to sting, should I give up my own nature to save?"

Cheap Art Manifesto

I remember the small of straw the most. There was also a summer mix of dust, sun-heated asphalt, car exhaust, pine, freshly cut (and trampled) grass. And the press of hundreds, if not thousands of bodies, as we milled about the Vermont countryside to watch the many puppet shows that made up Bread & Puppets Annual Domestic Resurrection Circus - something i had been attending religiously since 1982. It was probably 1986 or 1987 when i discovered the cheap art bus for the first time. I don't know if i'd simply missed it previously amidst the over-stimulation of this annual puppet carnival. But i'll always remember squeezing into that old school bus for the first time and seeing the "cheap" art. I'm sure i bought an armload. There were posters painted on cardboard and 'zines and more. But more than the items i took away, i walked out of that bus a different person, for i had seen the truth of the manifesto that you can read here (click on the image to see it bigger). That i am a huge fan of Bread & Puppet is not news to those that know me. But as i think back on my journeys of the 1980s it seems more and more to me like my own odyssey across a mythic landscape. From the dimly remembered land of my childhood in Acadia and Montreal (which seems more mythical than real) to the voyage to the edge of the world to see a land held by the tyrant Baby Doc, to the catacombs of the McGill Daily newspaper where i toiled not unlike Theseus trying to find his way out of Daedalus' treacherous labyrinth, to the magical land of Peter Schumann who, like Circe, transformed humans into all manner of beasts (i was a unicorn once), to the presence of all manner of goddesses who gave me many gifts. Hmmm. Rich years that live in me still. Odysseus took ten years to travel home - i wonder where i'm headed. Regardless, it is a great trip and this manifesto has been one of the steady guides to my imagination for over 20 years now. I like manifestos. They are a special kind fo poetry. And this one is as fresh now as when it was written and i share it with the growing world of art activism.

Rules? for Art

Yep, art needs rules. Play needs rules. Or, put another way, art and play needs structure. Producing meaning is, ultimately, a crafty alchemy of wildness, play, inclusion and exclusion, limits and, hopefully, passion. And there are ways to go about this that we call rules. Some of which are best respected, some stretched and negotiated and, of course, some broken. I learned of Corita Kent's rules from dian marino and found them listed in Learning By Heart (p176). And i think they're pretty cool. They're actually titled "Immaculate Heart College Art Department Rules." And, since learning them, i have always combined them in my mind and heart with Bread & Puppet's Cheap Art manifesto (see next post).

Rule I: Find a place you trust and then try trusting it for a while.

Rule 2: General duties of a student: pull everything out of your teacher. Pull everything out of your fellow students.

Rule 3: General duties of a teacher: pull everything out of your students.

Rule 4: Consider everything an experiment.

Rule 5: Be self disciplined. This means finding someone wise or smart and choosing to follow them. To be disciplined is to follow in a good way. To be disciplined is to follow in a better way.

Rule 6: Nothing is a mistake. There’s no win and no fail. There’s only make.

Rule 7: The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It’s the people who do all of the work all the time who eventually catch on to things.

Rule 8: Don’t try to create and analyze at the same time. They’re different processes.

Rule 9: Be happy whenever you can manage it. Enjoy yourself. It’s lighter than you think.

Rule 10: “We’re breaking all of the rules. Even our own rules. And how do we do that? By leaving plenty of room for x quantities.” John cage

Helpful hints: always be around. Come or go to every- thing. Always go to classes. Read anything you can get your hands on. Look at movies carefully, often. Save everything it might come in handy later. There should be new rules next week.

From David Mekelburg. Corita Kent’s Rules & Hints for Students and Teachers.

Friday, April 06, 2007

A New Book about Corita Kent

I had a wonderful art teacher who had a wonderful art teacher. I never met Corita Kent, though, through my friendship with dian marino, one of Corita's students, i feel as though i know her. So, when i found out a few weeks ago that a new book about Corita's life and art was published i called the Corita Art Center in California and ordered a copy immediately. What a thrill to find it stuffed in my mailbox this week.

The book includes an essay by Julie Ault and a fine selection of Corita's many serigraphs (silkscreens) large enough to appreciate (24.5 cm 28.5 cm). Corita's work is an iconic part of the 60s with her bright, hopeful, word-filled posters. Combining word and image is something i learned from dian. And seeing where dian obviously got some of her inspiration gives me a comforting feeling of having deep roots in creative traditions of which i will never know the full extent. Something that i loved about making art with dian was the playful spirit with which dian would create. I took little urging to embrace this disposition. When i met dian i was, in part, looking for someone who could simply give me permission to play, break rules, be wild. And i owe a debt to dian, and Corita, for showing me the way to connect with that wild fire of creativity that i think is available to all of us.

Come Alive! also includes a very moving essay by poet and peace activist Daniel Berrigan.

I urge you to check out Corita's work. Especially if you're interested in community art. One of my favourite art books of all time is Learning By Heart: Teachings to Free the Creative Spirit by Jan Steward and Corita Kent (sadly, out of print). If you can find a copy it's something you should grab and hang on to. Filled with wise words and exercises and techniques for making art, it is a treasure trove. It was in this book that i came across Corita's "rules" for making art.

And, finally, i must recommend dian's book Wild Garden: Art, Education and the Culture of Resistance which also includes some exercises and techniques as well as some wonderful essays that dian wrote about art and popular and environmental education.

Ethics for Activists - 11

The Star

There was an old man who lived in a village beneath a tall mountain. The man was an ascetic whose daily devotion was to go without food and water from dawn until sunset. This he did for many years and, for as long as any of the villagers could remember, he had always been amongst them. He was loved and respected for his wisdom and kindness. One morning a villager arose early and was amazed to see that there was a star from the heavens that had come down to sit atop their mountain. That villager knew immediately, as did everyone else who saw it, that it must be a gift from the heavens to the old man who everyone loved so well. When the old man awoke and opened his door he was startled to see the entire village population standing before him. They pointed to the star and insisted that he go up the mountain to receive this gift. He said that it was enough that it was there and he had no need to climb the mountain. But the villagers insisted and, perhaps only to please them, he agreed. He fetched a small bottle of water from which he intended to drink when the sun had set, for it would be a full-day’s journey to go up and down that mountain. As he set off up the slope a young girl joined him saying she wanted to go, too. Together they traveled. After some time the girl said she was thirsty. The old man passed her his bottle of water. She said, “I’ll drink only if you drink.” Now the old man had a problem. How could he let the girl suffer? But if he drank and broke his devotion, the gift of the star would surely be gone and the villagers disappointed. He drank. And he gave the girl the bottle. She drank. Slowly the old man raised his head, for he was sure that the gift of the star would be gone. But when he looked up, there on the top of the mountain, were two stars.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

The Wonder of Memory

I just came across this lovely wee rhyme below that my dad shared with me last year. Just before he went in for heart surgery which proved to be quite the ordeal, and from which he was recovering at this time last year. It was a hard passage with many scary moments. And he had recovered well enough to spend a few weeks in England and Scotland last summer. Amazing. More amazing still is the way memory works and that he should recall this charming ditty from his childhood.

Three little ponies
Didn’t like their hay.
Said to one another,
”Let’s run away.”

The first one said, “I’ll cantor.”
The second one said, “I’ll trot.”
The third one said, “I’ll run,
If it’s not too hot.”

So they all ran away
With their tails in the air.
But they couldn’t jump the fence,
So they’re all still there.

Popular Education Around the World

For some time now, i've been wanting to survey popular education around the world. No small task. Especially if you consider that there are many groups out there that are practicing various forms of emancipatory, anti-authoritarian, participatory, democratic educations (and pedagogies) that are popular education in all but name. While jargon helps us make connections and delimits a field in helpful ways, it can also exclude and cause us to overlook things. So... today i'm starting a new section on my blog called "The World of Popular Education" (see the right hand column of this blog) listing groups that are committed to popular education praxis. I'm gonna start with those groups that use the term "popular education" and consider how to include others in time. I also include Theatre of the Oppressed in the popular education world. I plan to profile these groups, given what i already know and what i learn. And my dream is that sometime in the next couple of years we might find the financial and material resources to bring us all together to meet, compare notes, celebrate.

Here's a beginning:

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

And now, a story

For the show i wrote about the Stop the Spadina Expressway struggle i wove in a number of relevant wisdom tales. Here's one:

I love the story of the dining hall at Oxford. The ceiling of the hall had been made from great oak beams that after 400 years were falling apart. Oxford wanted to preserve the architecture and so sought for oak beams that would replace the aging ones. But they were told that there were no oak trees large enough – due to logging – from which to make the needed beams. It was then that one of the carpenters noticed the stand of ancient oaks right beside the dining hall. They were huge and could provide the beams that were needed. And then they realized that the builders of the dining hall 400 years earlier knew that one day the hall would need repaired. And thus had planted the oaks that they knew would one day be used to maintain their work.

The Pedagogy of the Short Tale

I'm often asked where i get all the short tales i tell and i'm always happy to refer people to my favourite sources (see below). But i always experience a bit of a twinge when asked. Looking at this twinge i can see that it is made up of a combination of curiosity and concern. I'm always curious about what people got/get from the stories i tell. I'm also curious to understand their desire behind asking for sources. I know that part of people's response is one of pleasure and delight and they want more of that, thinking that it can be found in the sources from which i draw inspiration. And that's cool. I also know that part of the response when it comes from educators, fellow storytellers and other professionals who present publicly is that they need some short pieces that they can use in the many situations that arise (segueing from item to item, opening comments, closing comments, etc.). And it is this latter circumstance that i want both to examine and to understand more.

I use the term "wisdom stories" to name the many short stories i tell. It's a common enough term that i see used more and more to categorize the many parables, fables and teaching stories used by the many faith traditions (buddhist, hindu, sufi, christian, jewish, etc.) around the world. "Wisdom stories" has both a secular and an ecumenical feel to it. And it's general enough to affirm the genealogical roots (and routes) that stories share. These wisdom tales have been swapped back and forth amongst earth's peoples for millennia. So does that make them all common property? In a sense it does. Apart from copyright (which legally protects the specific property of a creator - in this case a particular text and/or unique spin on an otherwise traditional story), there's no storytelling regulatory authority that can either assign permission to tell something or hold to account someone who is deemed inappropriate. We are left with the messy world of politics, culture and the very, very complicated relations of inequality, oppression, struggle and so on.

What is most true to me about telling stories is that there is always a context from which the stories came, in which they were learned and in which they are being told. And it's really that context that concerns me most. Nor is that context something i control. Though i do think we have influence over the contexts in which we act - even if it is merely the act of abstaining from certain contexts. I guess as much as i respect the very human need simply to laugh at a joke, i'm reluctant to facilitate people using wisdom stories as cosmetics. In these wisdom stories is condensed incredible lessons learned over the ages. And the story is a storage device, a medium to preserve and transport that learning across time, space and culture. But who am i to judge? We need our wisdom tales as much as we need our jokes and, while i'm pretty good at telling wisdom stories, i'm not such a great joke-teller (for that you should listen to my brother - he knows how to tell a joke).

My advice for people who ask me about the sources of the short stories that they see me tell is two-fold. First, from Eduardo Galeano i learned something i have not forgotten in since he told it to me over 15 years ago. My friends Clara and Ruby and i were having drinks with Galeano after a reading he'd done at Harbourfront in Toronto. And between his roguish flirting with my friends (which seemed harmless enough) i trotted out the most prosaic of questions (a tiny bit dressed up, at least) authors get asked: "How is that you find such magical things to write about?" Galeano looked me straight in the eye and with a well-practiced grin he said, "You don't understand. You see, two or three magical things happen to me every day." And i knew immediately the truth he was sharing. It was a moment of startling clarity and i knew all i had to do from then on was to keep my eyes open. Galeano's simple response is one of the great gifts in my life. I have honored every day since.

My second piece of advice regarding wisdom stories is this: once you've found a story that strikes you (whether with pleasure or with pain or, more likely, something between) sit with it, reflect on it, repeat it to yourself many times, meditate. Wisdom stories are like songs without apparent music. And as you come to know the story and some of its onion layers of meanings, you may begin to hear the secret music of that story. Some stories i have told dozens if not hundreds of times and every now and again i worry that the story will get stale if i carry on repeating it so. But if repeating is what i was doing then it probably would get stale. The challenge of telling is to tell it new every time. And the stories that i tell over and over again are always new to me, they always hold something new for me to learn, their music refreshes my soul. And i love to share that refreshment with others.

So, after all that preamble, here's a few of my favourite sources:

De Mello, Anthony
1988 Taking Flight: A Book of Story Meditations. NY: Image Books-Doubleday.
1989 The Heart of the Enlightened: A Book of Story Meditations. NY: Image Books-Doubleday.

Feldman, Christina & Jack Kornfield (eds.)
1996 Soul Food: Stories to Nourish the Spirit and the Heart. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.

Fumoleau, René
2004 Here I Sit. Ottawa: Novalis.

Galeano, Eduardo
1991 The Book of Embraces. New York: W.W.Norton & Co.
1993 Walking Words. New York: W.W.Norton & Co.