Sunday, December 30, 2007

A World of Wisdom

A disciple of the Sufi master Bauhaudin Naqshband once asked him why he never interpreted the stories he told. Naqshband responded, “How would you like it if the fruit vendor from whom you bought fruit ate the fruit and left you only the skin?”

A story, like a piece of fruit, is a unique experience for each person. And, while many may agree that the taste of an apple is of a certain quality, a certain sweetness, who is to say that one person’s pleasure in the fruit is identical to another’s? Or, perhaps, we could compare a story to a many-faceted jewel through which light refracts in myriad ways. Each moment of experience of the wonder of refracted light is unique. So it is with stories, each telling is unique; the experience of each listener is unique. Each story represents a vast wealth of meaning that is in constant motion as we tell to each other, listen, remember and reflect. Indeed, often our remembrance is varied, emphasizing one element over another, leaving out a critical element that the story needs to work. But somehow we piece it back together again – we make up for the missing pieces with the gift of our imagination – so infinitely variable.

The stories I share on this blog are tales that i have found (or, as i often feel, have found me) that persist in my mind and heart. They speak to me over and over again of things that i am always coming to understand better, more deeply, more slowly. I am always prepared for boredom to set in as i tell a story for the Nth time only to be surprised again and again at the seemingly unending abundance of meaning to be had. One of my delights in learning and researching stories is finding stories that are similar yet different and that come from different cultures of the world as with the following two stories. The first is a “joke” that I learned while growing up in Quebec. The second is a tale from Bengal that I found in Folktakes from India: a selection of oral tales from twenty-two languages selected and edited by A.K. Ramanujan (Pantheon 1991).

Once there was a flood in which a faithful man was trapped in his house. He went to the second storey where he looked out the window and saw a canoe approach. “Get in, get in,” the canoeists said. “We’ll save you.” But the man waved them away, saying, “I put my faith in the Lord. He will not let me come to harm.” The canoe paddled away. The floodwaters rose and the man had to flee to the third floor. He looked out the window and saw a motorboat approach. “We’ve come to rescue you,” the boaters said. But the man waved them away, saying, “I put my faith in the Lord. He will not let me come to harm.” The boaters left and the floodwaters rose faster. The man climbed onto the roof of his house when along came a helicopter that lowered a ladder. But the man waved them away yelling, “My faith is in the Lord. He will not let me come to harm.” The waters rose and the man drowned. In heaven he demanded an audience with the Lord. Standing before the Lord he asked, “Why did you let me die? My faith was strong and yet you let me die.”

“I don’t understand it,” said the Lord. “I sent you two boats and a helicopter.”

God in Everything
Once there was a guru giving a lecture to his disciples about God. His teaching on this day was about the presence of the divine in everything. “God is in the trees, the stones, the river, the animals and in you,” he said. One disciple was very moved by this lecture and was pondering the teaching as he walked towards a nearby village. On the edge of the village he looked up to see a commotion down the street. Soon he saw that it was an elephant that had gotten out of control and was smashing its way down the street. The driver was madly flailing as he struggled to keep his balance on the elephant’s back. The disciple could see the damage the elephant was causing, people almost trampled, carts overturned, shop fronts reduced to rubble. But the disciple thought of the new teaching he had just received. And he considered that if God was in everything then God must be in that elephant as well as within himself. He resolved to stand in the elephant’s way and practice his new learning believing that his awareness of the presence of God would protect him and the elephant. He stood his ground as the elephant galloped towards him. The elephant was suddenly right in front of the disciple. The elephant wrapped his trunk around the disciple, picked him up and smashed him against one wall and then another. It dragged him in the street and left him bloodied and bruised in the dust. A short while later the guru came by and was startled to see his disciple injured in the street. “What has happened?” he asked. The disciple explained: “Master, I was reflecting on your teaching this morning when I saw the mad elephant. I resolved to deepen my belief in the presence to God in everything, including in the elephant. I believed that God would protect me.” “I see,” said the guru. “It is indeed true that God was in the elephant. But God was also in the driver of the elephant who was yelling at you to get out of the way.”

Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Fate of a Bird

Once upon a time on the banks of a river that ran along the edge of a large city there lived an old man who some said was very wise while others said he was nothing but a homeless fool. Children were told by parents to stay away from the old man. But children are curious, and all the moreso of those things they are told to stay away from. One day three children were walking along the road when one spotted a wee bird that was tangled in some roots. The boy bent down to free the bird and, holding it gently, said to his friends, “I have a way to see how dumb that old guy by the river is. I’ll hold this bird in my hand behind my back and we’ll ask the old guy if it’s alive or dead. If he says ‘alive’, I’ll break its neck and show him he’s wrong. If he says ‘dead’ then I’ll let it go and he’ll still be wrong.” The friends agreed and they set off and found the old man sitting by the river as usual. The kid with the bird in hand and behind his back said, “old man, I’ve got a riddle for you. I’m holding a bird in my hand. Is it alive or dead?” The friends chuckled. The old man looked at the kids and said, “well I don’t know if the bird is alive or dead. But I do know this, whatever is the fate of that bird is in your hands.” The friends stopped chuckling. The three kids looked silently at the old man and then turned and left. As they stepped onto the road the child holding the bird held his hands up and let it fly away.
I learned this story so long ago i cannot remember not knowing it. Perhaps i carry it with me still because i can remember so many cruelties from my childhood. Mostly i remember the absurdly cruel behaviours of my peers (there was the boy's gang and the cool girls and you were cool or not, in or out at the whim of the in-crowd). But i also remember my own wee cruelties, inflicted on snakes and frogs who were guilty of nothing more than the bad luck to be in my path on days i was probably feeling particularly put upon.

They Peeked

A young couple were thinking about having a second child. Their daughter was four and, not wanting to startle her, they thought to let the girl know what they were thinking about. Sensitive to how children could react to change they were curious about their daughter’s reaction. Though they didn’t know what to expect they were themselves surprised when their daughter nodded thoughtfully at the news and said, “Oh, that’s very interesting.” They were a bit puzzled at this but felt that they had done what was right. A year later they gave birth to a boy. Bringing him home where his sister would meet him for the first time, they recalled her strange reaction a year earlier. They brought their son in the house and laid him in a crib. His sister looked at him and then at her parents and said, “I would like to be alone with my brother for a while?” This was an odd thing for a five-year-old to ask and it worried them a bit. But they loved their daughter and were sure that whatever she wanted could hardly be dangerous. They agreed and, leaving the two children alone, left the room. But they peeked. They saw their daughter drag a chair over beside the crib. She climbed onto the chair and, leaning into the crib and over her brother, they heard her whisper, “Tell me about God. I’m beginning to forget.”
I learned the above story almost 20 years ago from a friend in California. She told it to me as something she had heard had happened to some friends. As delighted as i was by the tale i was skeptical that it had actually "happened". It had the telltale feel of an urban legend, despite how benign it was (urban legends tend to be rather more violent or gruesome). I thought if it was an urban legend it was only a matter of time before i heard it once again. And, sure enough, i did hear it again - ten years later. I've since heard in one or two more times. Nor does it matter to me whether these types of tales about about something that "happened" or not - the truths they carry are no less important.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

"House Rools" and the Wisdom of Children

Though popular education is often reduced to being only about playfulness (and therefore neither serious nor rigorous) there is, nonetheless much truth in its use of playfulness. I like to remind people that in our first five years of life we learn language, social and motor skills and much more largely through play. I saw this first-hand when, in 1976, i studied with Wally Weng-Garrety, an early childhood educator at Dawson College who then got me a part-time job at the McGill Family Daycare where i worked on and off for the next four years. The childrens' day was one of perpetual play and i could see that every second of it was a learning experience. I have often wondered why it is that, as we grow older, we reduce the amount of play in our learning - in many cases reducing it to zero. Play is one of the most powerful pedagogies that we have. But it is the nature of play to be very hard to control as well as predict. And, since most mainstream mass education is about conformity before it is about learning, play moves to the bottom of the list. This is only a smidgen of my reasoning about the importance of play and why popular education values play and playfulness more than most other approaches to learning. Of course, with popular education, it is not play for playing's sake - rather it is about learning what power is, how to deal with power, develop one's own and both resist unjust uses of power as well as exercise justice (as well as a whole host of other dispositions such as compassion, kindness, etc.). All this to say that we should all look to children for daily lessons in play. They can be our teachers, those of us who have grown up and away from that time in life when all seems to be about play. I think artists and parents will know readily what i am talking about. So, it was with utter delight that J'net called my attention to our daughter's and her friend's "house rools" for a fort that they had built of blankets, sheets, chairs and futons. As you can see from the list above, written by our neighbour's youngest, their "rools" included:
  1. no war
  2. have fun
  3. eat candy
  4. smell bad
  5. be nice
Now how's that for a guide to right living? What would Marcus Aurelius or Lao Tsu think of that?

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Goddess in Disguise (as usual)

Another Befana photo - this collage of images is from Giselle Signoroni. And this juxtaposition of Befanas and puppet faces reminds me that La befana is none other than the Goddess in disguise. And, as Actaeon, who learned the hard way, knows, to look at the Goddess unmasked is a dangerous affair.

Celebrating the Return of the Light

Here's a lovely Befana shot from sister hag Mary Li (thanks, Mary). La Befana for those of you who have been wondering is an Italian legendary figure who famously travels the land on the eve of the Epiphany (aka Twelfth Night) leaving gifts of candy. There are a few versions of the legend that range from quaint to bittersweet, from ethical to moralistic, but all agree that La Befana is an old woman who did not give directions to those peripatetic Magi (aka Three Wise Men aka astrologers from the east aka three kings aka George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg and Ice Cube) as well as failed to accept an invitation to join them in their pursuit of that shining star and the Christ child. After having second thoughts, La Befana runs after the travellers, but it's too late. Thus she spends every eve of the Epiphany in her own endless pursuit. When i have a wee bit more time i may render my own version of this charming legend, for there are many themes within it that are close to my heart, not the least of which is gift giving. But in reflecting on this legend this weekend i was struck by the more moralistic versions (e.g. if the child is good she gets candy but if bad, coal) and i suspect that few people, if any at all, give coal. And the more benign take on the gift-giving of La Befana is that she sees divinity, the sacred, in every child. And in this sense, are no all children, including those of us who haven't been children for a long time, deserving of these gifts?

Friday, December 21, 2007

The Season of Revels Has Begun

A young Befana-in-training investigates this magically-glowing hoop dress as preparations are made to begin this year's Kensington Festival of Lights. Me and my wee family had an uproarious time with our sister-hags, serenading the moon and sun and thousands of participants who strolled by and shared with us nothing but smiles of wonder and delight. We sang That's Amore, Besame Mucho, La Vie En Rose and, of course, O Sole Mio. Oh and the harmony was wonderful (if i don't say so, myself), though to the untrained ear it just might have sounded like cacophony. Befana singing is a unique artform that must be appreciated in context. What a wonderful solstice evening it was and as joyous a launch of this season of revels as could be done. Cheers to all my sister Befanas, to Gaby and Andy of Red Pepper Spectacle, to all the puppeteers, lantern holders, drummers and musicians of all kinds and, of course, to everyone who attended to partake of the abundance.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

How Surprising Our "Nature" Can Be

I went to the 1.001 Friday Nights of Storytelling last week for the first time in a while and brought my new family. After a lively post-potluck dinner conversation about running the weekly sessions, Dan Yashinsky began the evening. Once the usual customs had been honoured (asking who's here for the first time, explaining the rules, i.e. only telling, no reading, etc.) Dan asked for the first teller to come on up. Well, much to the surprise of J'net (my wife) and i, we saw J'net's 14-year old boy take the talking stick. J'net and i exchanged glances - parental code for "oh oh." And we were both delighted as we heard him share a story he had learned from his dad. A short tale of an owl and a mouse and very well told. It was a wonderful way to start the evening and all the moreso to hear a new voice - and a teenager's voice at that! One story inspired another and i eventually got up to add this tale to the evening's telling:
Once there was an old man who was walking along the banks of the Ganges River. The river waters were running fast as it was spring in the mountains from where the water flowed. The water was muddy and he could see bits of trees floating along in the swift current. It was then he noticed a piece of tree root pressed to the bank by the current and on it a scorpion entangled in the roots trying to free itself and avoid plunging into the river. It was clearly only a matter of minutes before the tree root was pulled into the river again ensuring the scorpion’s doom. The old man reached out for the tree root and held it as best he could in place. He then reached out to rescue the scorpion. As soon as his hand was within reach the scorpion lashed its tale and stung the old man. He drew back his hand, shook it and reached out again. Again the scorpion stung him. Again and again he reached out and again and again the scorpion stung. The old man’s hand was swollen and purple when a traveller wandered by and, watching this strange sight, shouted, "Hoy, you old fool, can’t you see that that worthless creature will kill you before it lets itself be saved. It’s an ungrateful animal; why not let it be.” The old man looked ack at the traveller and said, "Ah, my friend, just because it is the nature of the scorpion to sting, why should I give up my own nature to save?”

Monday, December 17, 2007

If It's Solstice Then It Must Be Time for the Kensington Festival of Lights

Many years ago i was asked to join an unusual choir - a chorus of hags, you could say. As many times as i had marched along the route of the annual solstice celebration that is the Kensington Festival of Lights, never had i had so much fun. It is one of the great clowning experiences of my life. Well, once again i am joining La Befanas, the merry, raucous, cacophonous (very occasionally melodious) and always hilarious, group of solstice hags singing their love songs to the sun. This year i will be joined by my wife, J'net, as i continue to introduce her to the wonders of Toronto. This video is of the festival in 2005 with a wonderful section of La Befanas. If you've never attended the Festival of Lights, come on down this Friday night. It's unforgettable.

Trickster Pedagogy, Etc....

I've got a few gigs lined up for the beginning of 2008 and any help you readers (albeit modest in number) can give to spreading the word would be greatly appreciated. The first two are in Nova Scotia at the Tatamagouche Centre and the other is a paper i'm presenting at the AAG Annual Meeting in Boston in April.

Trickster Pedagogy and Praxis
February 12-14; Tues 7pm to Thurs 1pm
Every culture has a rich tradition of tricksters, clowns, fools, jesters, and more. They have survived in stories and traditions that preserve an ancient form of teaching that uses riddling, storytelling, and playfulness to teach by misdirection. Not exactly a secret knowledge, yet trickster pedagogy lies largely ignored or overlooked by dominant as well as alternative forms of education. This workshop explores some of the history of these practices, shares some trickster practices through storytelling, drawing, and riddling, and includes some of the theory that frames many of these practices, to allow educators and activists to strengthen their practice for social change.

If People Counted: Popular Economics Workshop and Curriculum Development
February 15-17; Fri 7pm to Sun 1pm
Popular economics challenges dominant and common notions of what economics is all about. The Catalyst Centre offers numerous popular economics activities that increase economic literacy, debunk dominant notions, and envision more just and equitable processes for sharing wealth, caring for each other and preserving the planet. This workshop highlights the Catalyst Centre’s approach to popular economics, and offers effective techniques and skills. Especially useful for educators and activists of all stripes who wish to develop popular economics curricula, or incorporate these activities into their educational work.

A Modest Manifesto for Today's Organic Intellectual
A Paper Presentation at the Association of American Geographers Annual Conference (April 15-19, 2008)

Popular economics is a heterogenous field of activism and scholarship that simultaneously contests dominant notions of economics, pedagogy and community organizing as well as the subjectivities of the participating scholars and activists. Connecting a diversity of theoretical and practical challenges to dominant economics including economic literacy, community economic development, participatory budgeting, progressive economics, community economies and more, popular economics is committed to resisting oppression. The success of popular economics relies, in part, on the creation of new forms of pedagogy and new practices of ethical self-transformation - new economies need new subjectivities. These new subjectivities are already being shaped, invented and experimented with in numerous sites including a variety of academic disciplines, civil society organizations, voluntary community organizing and municipal administrations. The Catalyst Centre, a Toronto-based popular education worker co-op, has developed an approach to popular economics education that could serve as a model that combines strategic and tactical thinking and collective action. This paper describes this approach, and articulates a notion of praxis that necessarily includes the role of ethical self-transformation or resubjectivation as discussed in J.K. Gibson-Graham's work. For the scholar-activist this new subjectivity can be seen as an application of the notion of organic intellectual, first theorized by Antonio Gramsci.

Popular Education, Social Movements and Story Telling

Hey, gang, i just got a copy of a new book that includes an interview with yours truly. Public Intellectuals, Radical Democracy and Social Movements: A Book of Interviews done by Peter Mayo and Carmel Borg has just been published by Peter Lang (NY: 2007); here's the PDF of the book info. It is mighty distinguished company with which i find myself and I am not being falsely modest in being deeply moved. I manage to share a few thoughts about popular education in a Canadian context and connect it to the storytelling praxis i have been developing for some time. Seeing this interview after having done it quite some time ago i realize that i begin some thoughts that are past due for further attention. I highly recommend Nita Freire's interview which includes some rare reflection on Paulo Freire's use of Portuguese, something that people who have only read him in translation will find illuminating. Freire's eloquence rarely makes it across adequately in translation.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Toronto Community Development Institute - April 2008

A group of folks has come together to mount a Toronto Community Development Institute this coming April. Here's the cover letter and Call for Workshop Proposals. Check them out. This promises to be a great event that will include lots of popular education process and content as well as lots of other types of training, critical dialogue, collective thinking, and perhaps even some community organizing and development (in the spirit of walking the talk, as it were).

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Snow Queen at Young Centre for the Perfomring Arts

Went to see The Snow Queen last night at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto. Treat yourself. I remember this Hans Christian Andersen tale as one of the scariest that i heard as a child. There was something about the transformation of the boy as he fell under the Snow Queen's spell that terrified me. Alon Nashman is much more than what the program note of "Narrator" implies. Alon narrates, dramatizes, exhorts, thrills, enchants, even dances the story. Though there is also the ethereal (and kinda creepy) dancing of the Snow Queen, performed by Kate Alton, that arrests the eyes whenever she is on stage. And then there's the string quartet's unsettling score which matches the story perfectly. I had mostly forgotten the tale and, though enchanted by Andersen as a kid, i have mostly left his stories behind. But a few have marked me, as powerful stories will. And i was impressed with this story once again, though this time what moved me most was the dedication and courage of the wee heroine who refuses to give up on her best friend. As i watched the faces of the wee girls that accompanied me to the play along with a 14 year old boy, my sister and my wife, i could see the power of story and theatre touch their hearts and minds. Though my six-year old step-daughter spent a good deal of the show in my lap, hands over ears, with her head turned away from the stage only to steal glances every few seconds as she was caught by the tale. If you're a storyteller or fancy becoming one, then go see this play. If you have kids (7 or 8 and up is best) take them and share this magic. Or if you simply want to be touched by the ancient magic of storytelling clothed in elegance, go see this play. It runs until December 15th. Just click on the link above for the show info.