Saturday, January 17, 2009

Look, Ma, i'm on TV!

Getting Tricky :: Asking Challenging Questions with Trickster Pedagogy from Christopher Wulff on Vimeo.

Last summer i was interviewed about "trickster pedagogy" after having given a wee talk about it to a group of alumni of a leadership program. I'd forgotten all about it when i bumped into Christopher Wulff who had loaded this up to a website some time ago. It's 11 min and 28 seconds long and i elaborate a bit about what i mean by trickster pedagogy as well as talk about 'zines in particular - Chris Wulff also being a big fan of 'zines. Chris also runs an Emerging Leaders website where he's written up a summary of my talk as well as shared some links to some relevant popular education documents that i and the Catalyst Centre have published.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Jewish Women Occupy Israeli Consulate in Toronto

I learned about this demonstration just as my friends were being arrested. What courage!

Yet again i come close to despairing of the situation between Israel and it's colonized territories. The brutality against Gaza is horrific. And the media war of pointed silences, contradictory information, propaganda and misinformation is enough to make me want to crawl under a rock. But i was amazed to listen to an episode of Democracy Now this week and see the interview with Israeli scholar Avi Shlaim. His account of Israeli history (going back to the 1967 war) and more recent events between Israel and Gaza is quite at odds with almost ALL media coverage (Democracy Now excepted, of course). I was particularly struck by his account of the events leading up to Israel (as he says) breaking the ceasfire:

This is Israeli propaganda, and it is a pack of lies. The important thing to remember is that there was a ceasefire brokered by Egypt in July of last year, and that ceasefire succeeded. So, if Israel wanted to protect its citizens—and it had every right to protect its citizens—the way to go about it was not by launching this vicious military offensive, but by observing the ceasefire.

Now, let me give you some figures, which I think are the most crucial figures in understanding this conflict. Before the ceasefire came into effect in July of 2008, the monthly number of rockets fired—Kassam rockets, homemade Kassam rockets, fired from the Gaza Strip on Israeli settlements and towns in southern Israel was 179. In the first four months of the ceasefire, the number dropped dramatically to three rockets a month, almost zero. I would like to repeat these figures for the benefit of your listeners. Pre-ceasefire, 179 rockets were fired on Israel; post-ceasefire, three rockets a month. This is point number one, and it’s crucial.

And my figures are beyond dispute, because they come from the website of the Israeli Foreign Ministry. But after initiating this war, this particular table, neat table, which showed the success of the ceasefire, was withdrawn and replaced with another table of statistics, which is much more obscure and confusing. Israel—the Foreign Ministry withdrew these figures, because it didn’t suit the new story.

The new story said that Hamas broke the ceasefire. This is a lie. Hamas observed the ceasefire as best as it could and enforced it very effectively. The ceasefire was a stunning success for the first four months. It was broken not by Hamas, but by the IDF. It was broken by the IDF on the 4th of November, when it launched a raid into Gaza and killed six Hamas men.

And there is one other point that I would like to make about the ceasefire. Ever since the election of Hamas in January—I’m sorry, ever since Hamas captured power in Gaza in the summer of 2007, Israel had imposed a blockade of the Strip. Israel stopped food, fuel and medical supplies from reaching the Gaza Strip. One of the terms of the ceasefire was that Israel would lift the blockade of Gaza, yet Israel failed to lift the blockade, and that is one issue that is also overlooked or ignored by official Israeli spokesmen. So Israel was doubly guilty of sabotaging the ceasefire, A, by launching a military attack, and B, by maintaining its very cruel siege of the people of Gaza.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Life's Gifts and A Dream of Wild Bees by Olive Schreiner

Life's Gifts

I saw a woman sleeping. In her sleep she dreamt Life stood before her, and held in each hand a gift—in the one Love, in the other Freedom. And she said to the woman, "Choose!"

And the woman waited long: and she said, "Freedom!"

And Life said, "Thou hast well chosen. If thou hadst said, 'Love,' I would have given thee that thou didst ask for; and I would have gone from thee, and returned to thee no more. Now, the day will come when I shall return. In that day I shall bear both gifts in one hand."

I heard the woman laugh in her sleep.


A Dream of Wild Bees

A mother sat alone at an open window. Through it came the voices of the children as they played under the acacia-trees, and the breath of the hot afternoon air. In and out of the room flew the bees, the wild bees, with their legs yellow with pollen, going to and from the acacia-trees, droning all the while. She sat on a low chair before the table and darned. She took her work from the great basket that stood before her on the table: some lay on her knee and half covered the book that rested there. She watched the needle go in and out; and the dreary hum of the bees and the noise of the children's voices became a confused murmur in her ears, as she worked slowly and more slowly. Then the bees, the long-legged wasp-like fellows who make no honey, flew closer and closer to her head, droning. Then she grew more and more drowsy, and she laid her hand, with the stocking over it, on the edge of the table, and leaned her head upon it. And the voices of the children outside grew more and more dreamy, came now far, now near; then she did not hear them, but she felt under her heart where the ninth child lay. Bent forward and sleeping there, with the bees flying about her head, she had a weird brain-picture; she thought the bees lengthened and lengthened themselves out and became human creatures and moved round and round her. Then one came to her softly, saying, "Let me lay my hand upon thy side where the child sleeps. If I shall touch him he shall be as I."

She asked, "Who are you?"

And he said, "I am Health. Whom I touch will have always the red blood dancing in his veins; he will not know weariness nor pain; life will be a long laugh to him."

"No," said another, "let me touch; for I am Wealth. If I touch him material care shall not feed on him. He shall live on the blood and sinews of his fellow-men, if he will; and what his eye lusts for, his hand will have. He shall not know 'I want.'" And the child lay still like lead.

And another said, "Let me touch him: I am Fame. The man I touch, I lead to a high hill where all men may see him. When he dies he is not forgotten, his name rings down the centuries, each echoes it on to his fellows. Think—not to be forgotten through the ages!"

And the mother lay breathing steadily, but in the brain-picture they pressed closer to her.

"Let me touch the child," said one, "for I am Love. If I touch him he shall not walk through life alone. In the greatest dark, when he puts out his hand he shall find another hand by it. When the world is against him, another shall say, 'You and I.'" And the child trembled.

But another pressed close and said, "Let me touch; for I am Talent. I can do all things—that have been done before. I touch the soldier, the statesman, the thinker, and the politician who succeed; and the writer who is never before his time, and never behind it. If I touch the child he shall not weep for failure."

About the mother's head the bees were flying, touching her with their long tapering limbs; and, in her brain-picture, out of the shadow of the room came one with sallow face, deep-lined, the cheeks drawn into hollows, and a mouth smiling quiveringly. He stretched out his hand. And the mother drew back, and cried, "Who are you?" He answered nothing; and she looked up between his eyelids. And she said, "What can you give the child—health?" And he said, "The man I touch, there wakes up in his blood a burning fever, that shall lick his blood as fire. The fever that I will give him shall be cured when his life is cured."

"You give wealth?"

He shook his head. "The man whom I touch, when he bends to pick up gold, he sees suddenly a light over his head in the sky; while he looks up to see it, the gold slips from between his fingers, or sometimes another passing takes it from them."


He answered, "likely not. For the man I touch there is a path traced out in the sand by a finger which no man sees. That he must follow. Sometimes it leads almost to the top, and then turns down suddenly into the valley. He must follow it, though none else sees the tracing."


He said, "He shall hunger for it—but he shall not find it. When he stretches out his arms to it, and would lay his heart against a thing he loves, then, far off along the horizon he shall see a light play. He must go towards it. The thing he loves will not journey with him; he must travel alone. When he presses somewhat to his burning heart, crying, 'Mine, mine, my own!' he shall hear a voice—'Renounce! renounce! this is not thine!'"

"He shall succeed?"

He said, "He shall fail. When he runs with others they shall reach the goal before him. For strange voices shall call to him and strange lights shall beckon him, and he must wait and listen. And this shall be the strangest: far off across the burning sands where, to other men, there is only the desert's waste, he shall see a blue sea! On that sea the sun shines always, and the water is blue as burning amethyst, and the foam is white on the shore. A great land rises from it, and he shall see upon the mountain-tops burning gold."

The mother said, "He shall reach it?"

And he smiled curiously.

She said, "It is real?"

And he said, "What IS real?"

And she looked up between his half-closed eyelids, and said, "Touch."

And he leaned forward and laid his hand upon the sleeper, and whispered to it, smiling; and this only she heard—"This shall be thy reward—that the ideal shall be real to thee."

And the child trembled; but the mother slept on heavily and her brain-picture vanished. But deep within her the antenatal thing that lay here had a dream. In those eyes that had never seen the day, in that half-shaped brain was a sensation of light! Light—that it never had seen. Light—that perhaps it never should see. Light—that existed somewhere!

And already it had its reward: the Ideal was real to it.


[from Dreams by Olive Schreiner and reproduced from Project Gutenburg - in accordance with their licence]
I learned of Olive Schreiner's work over 25 years ago, a time when i was exploring international literature and feminism as well as being an anti-apartheid activist. I read her Story of an African Farm as part of my education about South Africa. But it was discovering her parables in Dreams that made my heart sing. I realized many years later that Schreiner's stories were an important part of my eventual choice to be a storyteller. When i moved to Toronto in 89 i special-ordered (from the long-gone Britnell's Books on Yonge St.) a facsimile edition of Dreams. Alas, it was loaned and lost. So, it is with a child's delight of discovery that, having decided to check Project Gutenburg, i found Olive Schreiner's works. How i love the internet sometimes!

These two tales have always struck me very deeply. They are troubling in the best possible way. The first, Life's Gift's, i was reminded of when Niki sent me her story, Stone, which i blogged last week. The second was remembered on the heels of this memory as i looked at our newborn son Taliesen and wondered about what parents can teach their children, what we can hope for for them. And i'm sure it is normal, or at least common, to want the world for them. But can there be any greater gift than the gift of how to make meaning? I wonder. And is that something we can teach? Or is it something that must be sought and found uniquely by each person? I am unsure. It's certainly true that the metaphor of "the search" for meaning (or "truth") is common. And, while i believe that neither meaning nor truth are things that lie in wait to be discovered, perhaps the metaphor is making a more subtle point than that of highlighting the object of the search and is rather pointing to the nature of the search itself - i.e. a task that each individual decides to embrace or not.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Raven Steals the Light

The season of revels is coming to an end. Tomorrow is Twelfth Night and i had hoped to finish preparing a bankelsang of a raven story based on a story from J'net's culture found in E. Richard Atleo's Tsawalk: A Nuu-chah-nulth Worldview. Well i'm still working on the story, but i offer you this clip from the 1990s TV show Northern Exposure. The winter solstice has, for many cultures, been a time to mark and celebrate the relationship of day and night, the coming and going of the sun. And human imagination has created a beautiful diversity of ways of making meaning of this time. I like the notion of twelve days of christmas (christian doctrine aside). In principle i think there should always be a season of the year to celebrate abundance. I'm also partial to theft stories which carry tricky lessons about life and creativity and more.

I have a real soft spot for Northern Exposure and, as with other literary worlds (such as Armisted Maupin's San Francisco), the characters feel like old friends. I recall this performance of "raven stealing the light" and seeing it again, i am as moved as i was the first time i watched it.

Stone by Niki Pidd

There was this woman who was stressed out. She’d got dragged out in front of the Media and the Vatican and her Dad. Everyone was looking angry and mean and they had big yonnies in their hands and they were gonna chuck ‘em at her. They reckoned she’d had an abortion and was on the pill and was gay. They really wanted to kill her.

She was pretty scared. Her heart kept banging against her ribs and she wanted to run but there was no way they were gonna let her get away. Then this cool guy stepped out of the crowd and grabbed her arm. He smiled at her and she knew he wasn’t gonna hurt her. For a moment she even smiled. He turned around and said to them, “Anyone of you that hasn’t had unprotected sex can chuck the first rock.” Then he pulled out his mobile phone and started writing an sms. The woman could see it and it said, ”Don’t panic.” It took about ten minutes until they were all gone. He gave her a hug and said, “Look after yourself.” Then he hopped on a push bike a rode down the street.
(Niki is a good friend who has just returned home to Melbourne after a ten week European trip - a "magical mystery tour", as she says. She was inspired to write this wee piece by, amongst other things, a visit to St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican and the Catholic Church's recent (and ongoing) attacks on humanity. Thanks, Niki!)

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Treasure trove of ancient classics

I confess that if there is a spectrum of relationships to books that runs from bibliomania (the only officially recognized mania pertaining to collecting things) to bibliophile to just-don't-give-a-damn-i-watch-TV-anyway, that i am somewhere between the "phile" and the "mania". I do love books. And if i have a passion for collecting them, i am still safely distant from the pathological extreme. Nonetheless, i think i did salivate when i learned of the Clay Sanskrit Library (thanks, Corvin - it's all your fault), which is publishing remarkably affordable and excellent translations (so Corvin assures me and he's a far better judge than i since he reads Sanskrit, the lucky dog) of classical Sanskrit literature. Of course, this also appeals deeply to the storyteller in me. They've already published a complete translation of the Ramayana (in seven volumes). And they're working on the Mahabharata with at least 11 volumes already published. As the longest epic in human history it should take up quite the shelf space when complete. I have read bits and pieces of these epics for over 20 years, including a fair number of translations of the Bhagavad Gita (which is found in the Mahabharata). The Gita is considered one of the greatest literary works of all time and i'm inclined to agree. You can download an excerpt here.

In their introduction to the Mahabharata they write:
In a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, the narrator buys from an enigmatic bookdealer an ancient tome written in an indecipherable Indian script: the Book of Sand, so named because like the sand it has no beginning and no end. Whenever he opens the book, he finds different paragraphs and different illustrations on pages whose shifting numbers make no sense. Soon he becomes obsessed by the book’s fathomless depths, and his evenings are spent consumed in its protean secrets. I suspect that when Borges wrote his story, he had the Maha·bhárata in mind.
I agree with this speculation and this passage reminds me of having read Borges' accounts of books and libraries. His story The Library of Babel lodged firmly in my imagination the minute i read it. It's a delicious description of the universe as a library. And one that i have perhaps become lost within. Who knows. Some years ago this image, blended with that of other libraries about which i'd learned: Neil Gaiman's library in the land of the Dreaming (especially as depicted in the comic The Hunt) - a library that contains every book that anyone has ever dreamed; the description of the Book of Thoth in an ancient Egyptian story (a Book said to be hidden in golden box inside a silver box in a box of ivory and ebony in a sycamore box in a bronze box in an iron box and there's serpents carved into one of the boxes that protect it all rather lethally); the library depicted in Umberto Eco's In The Name of the Rose; and the Library of Alexandria whose history is described in The Vanished Library by Luciano Canfora (about which the reputed destruction by Muslims is challenged here). All this talk of books and libraries lead me to imagine my own version of a "vanished library" which contained books of wonder. I fashioned twenty-four descriptions of books found in this "vanished library" and, as i wrote these descripions i also came across Prospero's Books, Peter Greenaway's amazing interpretation of The Tempest. He, too, described fantastic books. And i imagine these might also be found in the vanished library. Here is one of the descriptions i wrote:
7. The Book of Delight
This book is housed in a puzzle-box made of seven different kinds of wood: zebra wood, rose wood, ebony, spalted maple, apple, teak and oak. Small panels must be moved into the correct position for the box to be opened. Once accomplished the curious (and determined) will find a thick book whose cover seems to run with many dark colours. The colours swirl slowly and resemble clouds moving across an obsidian sky. Patient readers will be rewarded by the marvelous sight of fireworks bursting amidst the swirls of dark colour. The pages of this book alternate between image and text. Each image (photograph, drawing, watercolour, doodle) has been produced by a person during a moment of joy. The text recounts moments of private delight – almost unnoticed by those who experienced them: a three-year old girl is bid goodnight by a storytelling uncle who says, “you’re so lucky,” and the almost sleeping child responds quietly into the darkness, “I feel lucky”; a lonely man walks along a sidewalk on a late-winter day and notices, upon looking up, that the magnolia tree is covered in velvety buds; in a beach cottage room full of family, a grandfather suddenly stands up and dances unselfconsciously with a doll, remembering younger days when his three-step dance “signature” was both well-recognized and desired. The latter half of the book is blank and the last piece of written text invites the reader to place their hand upon a blank page and recall forgotten moments of delight. Once done the reader is free to add to the book’s wealth. It is often reported that the sound of many voices cheering and laughing can be heard in the library as this book is read.

Remembering Heartbreak

In 1984 and 85 i spent a good deal of time in Nicaragua where i learned spanish, volunteered on farms (planting potatoes and talking about Salvadoran guerilla's need for very good watches), taking thousands of photos and cutting coffee, amongst other things. This photo of Umberto, one of the worker-owners of the coffee farm where i worked for a few weeks, is one of many i hope to scan and share in the coming year. Having injured my leg one day, i hung back from the coffee fields and spent the day helping Umberto roast coffee for us cortadoros. Sadly, the coffee was wretched. But it was flaboured uniquely with the very fresh fruit of our labours. I can taste it still. My visits to Nicaragua are now over 20 years in my past and yet they remain vivid in my heart and inspire me still. When the revolution succumbed in 1990 to US aggression, i was deeply saddened and have carried that complicated sadness within me since. The complicated emotions, perhaps not surprisingly, included anger. I had risked my life to make some small contribution to the revolution. And i'll never forget being shot at by contras packing US-supplied M16s. Though terrified while under fire, the emotion that has lasted is profound anger (tinged with indignation - I recall standing, the morning after the first attack, over the site from where the contras had been shooting. The spent M16 shell casings lay all about and i gathered a few up - strange mementos.)

This anger was refreshed as i listened to Harold Pinter's 2005 Nobel Prize for Literature acceptance speech which Democracy Now featured this week on the occasion of Pinter's death this past christmas eve. Pinter spoke of Nicaragua:
The Sandinistas weren’t perfect. They possessed their fair share of arrogance, and their political philosophy contained a number of contradictory elements. But they were intelligent, rational and civilized. They set out to establish a stable, decent, pluralistic society. The death penalty was abolished. Hundreds of thousands of poverty-stricken peasants were brought back from the dead. Over 100,000 families were given title to land. 2,000 schools were built. A quite remarkable literacy campaign reduced illiteracy in the country to less than one-seventh. Free education was established and a free health service. Infant mortality was reduced by a third. Polio was eradicated.
I share Pinter's analysis. He describes perfectly my own sense of things in that time. (And his mentioning of the eradication of polio reminds me of the day i went deep into the Nicaraguan countryside, everyone heavily armed, to deliver the polio vaccine to villagers living far from the highways. It was a moving day.) This speech sparkles with the kind of truth to which the phrase "speak truth to power" refers. This is the kind of truth that is so disastrously absent from mainstream media. It is the kind of truth i witnessed in the coffee fields and homes of revolutionary Nicaragua. It is the kind of truth that has sustained me over the past quarter century of activism to be a better person and help make a better world.

Pinter also includes in his speech an excerpt from a Pablo Neruda poem that has held profound meaning for me for almost thirty years. In this stanza we see Neruda's genius in knowing that there can be no poetic embellishment that is more meaningful than the heartbreakingly simple decription of the last line:
And one morning all that was burning,
one morning the bonfires
leapt out of the earth
devouring human beings
and from then on fire,
gunpowder from then on,
and from then on blood.
Bandits with planes and Moors,
bandits with finger-rings and duchesses,
bandits with black friars spattering blessings
came through the sky to kill children
and the blood of children ran through the streets
without fuss, like children's blood.
I know i will listen to and reread this speech several times in the coming weeks. I need the reminder of the truths of which Pinter speaks. It cracks my heart open once again. It has always struck me as an irony of the human heart that broken-hearted is the only way one can live - for it is through the cracks that we let in truth and love and through which our compassion can flow.

Below is the one of the two excerpts that Democracy Now featured. The second excerpt is here. And you can watch all of Pinter's speech on YouTube here (though the sound quality is distracting). The two Democracy Now episodes that include Pinter's speech are here: Tuesday, December 30, 2008 and Wednesday, December 31, 2008. The Democracy Now website also includes complete transcripts of their shows and the relevant parts are here (Part 1) and here (Part 2). You can read all of Pinter's speech at the Nobel site here (and it includes downloadable PDFs in Ebglish, French, Swedish and German).