Friday, March 09, 2012

Kids Are Tricksters, yes they are they are

Our little fellow was way sick last week and so maybe the return of his energy today has left me ginger about our health and mortality more than usual. Or maybe i'm just a big suck and i'm still learning to live with that. While watching this video with little t on my lap this evening he was giving a running commentary most of which was "that looks like..." comments. But as the stellar nursery shot came up (approx at 2:24) he leaned forward, pointed at the screen and said, "hey, I know that place," (emphasis his). His unhesitating confidence and certainty was amusing. And, granted, i am a credulous person and was touched and impressed. (A few seconds later, to the shuttle launch image, he said, "I have a space ship," to which i said, "yes, yes you do.") But as i listened again to Neil DeGrasse Tyson's fervent description of the universe, i was struck by something with which i am in profound agreement: everything is connected. And when little t said that he 'knew' that place he was, in part, speaking a profound cosmic truth. Did he know what he was saying? He is only three. But does it matter? When my niece at age four responded in the dark to my good night thought of, "you are so lucky," with, "I feel lucky," did she know what a remarkable tricky truth she was sharing?

There are times when the beauty and poignance of the world, the universe simply takes my breath away. The feeling that fills me is neither one of joy nor sorrow. Bittersweet is the closest word i've found to name this emotion. Nor does "emotion" name what is taking place. I am convinced it is something more. But what?

I think of the Stendhal Syndrome - that state of being overcome/overwhelmed by the beauty of art or the beauty of the natural world. I am a sufferer of this syndrome, if it is even proper to qualify this experience as such. Once while viewing an exhibit of Van Gogh's paintings from Arles, France and once while listening to Yo Yo Ma live in concert i was reduced to tears. I was struck by the apparent elusiveness of what evoked this reaction. There was no single image of Van Gogh's that triggered me, nor was there one piece by Yo Yo Ma that stood out. Rather the entirety of the moment affected me. I was neither a viewer nor a listener 'receiving information' - but rather a participant in something in which i was completely immersed and for which i lacked language with which to describe to myself or others what i was feeling.

Some colleagues at York are doing a podcast series - CoHearence - on the "relationship between cultural practices and our environment," the first two of which focus on melancholy and mourning - topics for which i have great affinity. Although it has been my nature to leap - both mind and heart - into engaging this topic, i find myself curiously reluctant at the moment. And, for sure, it has to do with my obligations to a family and, perhaps especially, its three-year-old member. Over the past few years of parenting i have experienced searing moments of awareness of the fragility of life - either when the kids get very sick or when i hear a story of some infant hurt or, as is too often in the news, killed. In those moments, the social distance between what happens to others and what happens to me and my closest loves, is collapsed; my heart literally feels clutched and squeezed - i'm sure my pulse quickens - and i have to assert conscious will to remain calm, reason that there is no need to allow any anxiety to escalate, that things are, at least for the moment, okay. I've learned (and am still learning) the truth in the maxim that "having children is like choosing to live with your heart permanently outside of your body." But, if i am uncharacteristically protective of my heart these days, my mind is (perhaps as a counter to this) all the more eager to engage (and thus these words, i suppose).

Yes, my heart is tender. This past weekend I performed stories at the Royal Ontario Museum for which I had planned to tell The Golden Fly (similar to this version). It is a story that has always moved me to bittersweet emotion. And with Taliesen being sick, my mum unwell (and my dad in step), and while listening to a podcast dialogue on melancholy, and reading Gabor Mate's work on addictions .... Well...  as I mentioned, I am curiously reluctant to embrace that space of sadness, sorrow, bittersweet. With the bright, young soul of a child in my care it seems my ethic is to keep that bittersweetness at bay - at least for a while. For surely the abundance of the bittersweet will have ample attention in the years to come. And, believing as I do (having been persuaded by Alice Miller) in the innocence of children (not that that lasts long, mind you, before it is assaulted by our world of sorrows and contradictions) I feel that part of parenting is to do what we can to prepare our young to encounter these truths. I think we treat blithely what deserves careful, loving attention. For our world - with or without the ubiquity of TV violence - has an overabundance of moments that can damage an innocent and unprepared soul. And we are wrong to think that we can protect our children from the world of hurts as long as they are "under our roof." From the moment we are born we are fully in the world. Fully! And i have learned sadly that there are so many many ways - from passive neglect to active aggression - that we mangle the souls of the young.

As my colleagues wax on, in the podcast, about melancholy and sublimation and Freud i wonder, not for the first time, how my feelings may be rooted in losses i experienced early in life. Is my sense of the bittersweet merely a result/response to what i experienced as a child? This is hard for me to answer since the evidence, for me, lies behind a virtually flawless wall of amnesia of my first ten years. What i know of those years is archaeological. Suffice to say that something in my child self thought it better to forget those years than to live with their recall. So i wonder if i am merely victim of losses which i seek to fulfill as an adult. Or could it be that, as a child, my experiences tuned me to receive particular frequencies of loss and sorrow? My explorations of literature suggest much truth in this latter proposition. From the most ancient of texts to our modern day echoes. I often think of the Bhagavad Gita, that ancient chat between the god Krishna and the prince and archer Arjuna in which Arjuna loses heart in the face of going to war against his cousins. The content of Krishna's advice aside for the moment (lots about yoga and impermanence) what strikes me is that Krishna responds to Arjuna's despair by sharing with him a vision of a grander pattern of life and death than can be seen from the vantage of one life. Not that that visions lessens the tragedy of what is to come in the war. But Krishna's truths are aimed not at the fleshly existence of one life but that of the eternal and abiding life of the soul. And yet it is a work that is imbued with sadness or, more accurately for me, the bittersweet. That these truths were discussed hundreds of generations ago gives me pause and courage that what i feel is not merely the consequences of one life but is rather an ancient discourse in which i, however unwittingly, became a participant. And perhaps this word holds the key to it all: participant. For as Neil DeGrasse Tyson (my favourite geeky enthusiast evangelist of science) says in the video above, "That's really what you want in life. You want to feel connected; you want to feel relevant. You want to feel like you're a participant in the goings on of activities and events around you. That's precisely what we are - just by being alive." Krishna seeks to remind Arjuna of his connectedness. Melancholy is what we feel when our sense of connectedness is under stress. Mourning is a process in which we seek a new arrangement of connectedness. Connected is how we start out. It is where we come from. As Taliesen implies when he says that he "know[s] that place." And as Zora Neale Hurston writes in Their Eyes Were Watching God:
Most humans didn't love one another nohow, and this mis-love was so strong that even common blood couldn't overcome it all the time. She had found a jewel down inside herself and she had wanted to walk where people could see her and gleam it around. But she had been set in the marketplace to sell. Been set for still-bait. When God had made the Man, he made him out of stuff that sung all the time and glittered all over. Then after that some angels got jealous and chopped him into millions of pieces, but still he glittered and hummed. So they beat him down to nothing but sparks but each little spark had a shine and a song. So they covered each one over with mud. And the lonesomeness of the sparks make them hunt for one another, but the mud is deaf and dumb. Like all the other tumbling mudballs, Janie has tried to show her shine.
There is so much to do in this life - so much reconnecting to do. And it seems so terribly urgent. Will our children have to grow up faster for this? Will there be time to prepare them to bear the sorrows of the world we have treated so grievously while also being able to hold joy? For i believe deeply, as Kahlil Gibran writes of so eloquently in The Prophet, that sorrow and joy are inseparable:
Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
  And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
  And how else can it be?
  The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
  Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter's oven?
  And is not the lute that soothes your spirit the very wood that was hollowed with knives?
  When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given sorrow that is giving you joy.
  When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.
  Some of you say, "Joy is greater than sorrow," and others say, "Nay, sorrow is the greater."
  But I say unto you, they are inseparable.
  Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.
I take this as a virtual manifesto obliging us to carry joy. And while i respect the hard truth of which Ecclesiastes writes (1:18), "In much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow," i feel that if we do not take seriously the obligation to carry joy then what we think is sorrow will be something quite different and deadlier. It will be despair. We need a vocabulary for this. We need to be able to communicate these truths in ways that are beautiful. Over 30 years ago i came across the following poem by Hayden Carruth and it lodged in my soul as one piece of that vocabulary i think we need:

So many poems about the deaths of animals.
Wilbur's toad, Kinnell's porcupine, Eberhart's squirrel,
and that poem by someone — Hecht? Merrill? —
about cremating a woodchuck. But mostly
I remember the outrageous number of them,
as if every poet, I too, had written at least
one animal elegy; with the result that today
when I came to a good enough poem by Edwin Brock
about finding a dead fox at the edge of the sea
I could not respond; as if permanent shock
had deadened me. And then after a moment
I began to give way to sorrow (watching myself
sorrowlessly the while), not merely because
part of my being had been violated and annulled,
but because all these many poems over the years
have been necessary, — suitable and correct. This
has been the time of the finishing off of the animals.
They are going away — their fur and their wild eyes,
their voices. Deer leap and leap in front
of the screaming snowmobiles until they leap
out of existence. Hawks circle once or twice
around their shattered nests and then they climb
to the stars. I have lived with them fifty years,
we have lived with them fifty million years,
and now they are going, almost gone. I don't know
if the animals are capable of reproach.
But clearly they do not bother to say good-bye.
And one more from Hayden Carruth before concluding this meander:
If you see a child that shivers when it hears
a diminished fifth, nurture and protect him,
for he only in the schoolyard’s fierce abstraction
will know the cry of the lynx, the cry of the hare,
and that of the old man and the young woman.
Shivering is his genius. If he have speech,
he will utter it greatly. If no, he will search
in other ways beyond the ordinarily human,
the hating and angered. He will hear the light,
he will sing the light and the darkness, or will sound
the ideas of them in the concrete nothingness
of tones vibrating in the air that sight
cannot conceive, yet they touch each one of us.
He will hear love where we would behold a wound.
How do we teach this? Or will our children be our teachers?

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Joys of Reading

John Berger is one of a handful of author's whose work i buy sight-unseen (others are Eduardo Galeano, Ursula K. Le Guin and Neil Gaiman) and this new book is a gem. Having read Ways of Seeing when in CEGEP in Montreal in 1976 my capacity to "see" in this world is very much influenced by Berger's work. I'm only a third of the way in this one and it reads like one of my favourites of his And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos. His observations of art, literature and politics have long since inspired me to see the ever-present connections amongst all these - i.e. art cannot be understood without also understanding the context of politics.

I'm surprised to learn In Bento's Sketchbook: How Does the Impulse to Draw Something Begin? that he didn't go to university. He's always struck me as a titan of an intellectual. Something for which a university-education would seem to be an essential. But there was a tradition of public intellectuals in the nineteenth and 20th Centuries that has, unfortunately, been eclipsed (if not supplanted) by the culture of punditry - a pale shadow - if glitzy and glammy - of what public intellectual life could be. Berger represents a kind of public intellectual that we have little of in North America but which seems to thrive still in France (where Berger has lived for 35 years) and where the death of intellectuals is front page news (as when Pierre Bourdieu passed away some years ago).

From Bento's Sketchbook:
Along with many others I sent a small contribution: a little portrait in charcoal of the Subcomandante Marcos which I had made in the Chiapas, southeast Mexico, around Christmas 2007.
He, I, two Zapatista comandantes and two children are taking it easy in a log cabin on the outskirts of the town of San Cristóbal de Las Casas.
We’ve written letters to each other, Marcos and I, we’ve spoken together from the same platform, but we’ve never before sat face to face in private. He knows I’d like to draw him. I know he won’t take off his mask. We could talk about the forthcoming Mexican elections or about peasants as a class of survivors and we don’t. A strange quietude affects us both. We smile. I watch him and I have no sense of urgency about drawing him. It’s as if we’ve spent countless days together, as if everything is unremarkably familiar and requires no action.
Finally I open my sketchbook and pick up a stick of charcoal. I see his low brow, his two eyes, the bridge of his nose. The rest is concealed by ski-mask and cap. I let the charcoal, held between my thumb and two fingers, draw, as if reading by touch some kind of braille. The drawing stops. I blow fixative onto it so it won’t smudge. The log cabin smells of the alcohol of the fixative.
In the second drawing his right hand comes up to touch the cheek of his mask, a large hand splayed out, with pain between its fingers. The pain of solitude. The solitude of an entire people over the last half millennium.
Later a third drawing starts. Two eyes examining me. The presumed undulation of a smile. He is smoking his pipe. Smoking a pipe, or watching a companion smoking a pipe, is another way of letting time pass, of doing nothing.
I fix the drawing. The next drawing, the fourth, is about two men looking hard at one another. Each in his own manner.
Maybe the four are not proper drawings but simply sketch maps of an encounter. Maps that may make it less likely to get lost. A question of hope.
It was one of these maps that I gave to the Helen Bamber Foundation.
Apparently the bidding for it was prolonged and fierce. The bidders were competing to give money to a cause in which they believed, and, in exchange, they hoped to get a little closer to a visionary political thinker, sheltering in the mountains of south-east Mexico.
The money the drawing fetched at the auction will help to buy medicines, care, counsellors, nurses, lawyers for Sara or Hamid or Gulsen or Xin . . .
We who draw do so not only to make something observed visible to others, but also to accompany something invisible to its incalculable destination.
A Paris Review interview with John Berger
A Guardian profile of John Berger

Inspiring Words - Fiction and not

Reminded recently of Charlie Chaplin's speech in The Great Dictator (which i wrote about on FB) i have been noting several moving speeches of resistance against oppression which i have read/heard/seen over the years. I want to believe that such language is the powerful and persuasive "speaking truth to power" that Quakers speak of. I am certainly persuaded by them.

I saw the Great Dictator many year's ago and filed away the memory. Now i am struck by how much of what Chaplin says accords with how i see the world. Not so much his appeal to "science and progress," but his talk of kindness, care and love strikes deep into my heart. When he says, "Only the unloved hate," i was powerfully reminded of Alice Miller’s words (from Thou Shalt Not Be Aware):
Children who are respected learn respect. Children who are cared for learn to care for those weaker than themselves. Children who are loved for what they are cannot learn intolerance. In an environment such as this they will develop their own ideals, which can be nothing other than humane, since they grow out of the experience of love.
These words and all of Alice Miller's work have had a huge impact on me. This short quote is a kind of manifesto to me - one that i both hear and see echoed in Chaplin's speech. The tone of fearful desperation that he strikes, the weary urgency that you see in his hand dragging through his hair as the speech begins all makes me wonder just how much he was acting. His appeal to soldiers not to "give [them]selves to brutes," is an appeal to all children who, being twisted out of shape by violence and neglect, must choose either to resist or collude. The constraint on these choices from the brutality of our society that creates the conditions for such violence and neglect (with the inexorable and heartbreaking pattern of abused children becoming adults who, in turn, abuse children) is immense. I am reading In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts
by Gabor Maté which is challenging my understandings of family violence, attention deficit disorder and addictions. And i thought i knew a great deal. I've certainly been very mindful and sensitive about such things for a long time and i have educated myself constantly. And yet, as i read Maté's work i realize two things: i am more ignorant than i thought; and i, like most people, find it easier not to think about such things - to turn away from the hand raised in need and not ask the questions that are always present, if implicit. Now, in reading Maté's work i find it impossible not to think of the people he describes, people living with addictions, as once having been innocent children who wanted nothing else but to be held, loved, cared for and yet who were neglected, assaulted, abused. Their souls having been shattered, they grow to be adults with shattered souls who, failing to ameliorate that destruction by "acceptable" means (i.e. relatively "acceptable" behaviours like workaholism, compulsive shopping or gambling) turn to even more self-destructive behaviours of any one of several chemical dependencies. And yet, as Maté shows again and again, alongside the self-destructive behaviour there still exists kindness, longing, decency. I feel if we don't pay attention to the poorest, most oppressed in our society the more surely we will bring into existence a world of carelessness and disregard. We either learn to act with kindness or we will see more and more of the contempt that our current government has for the mass of Canadians (something echoed around the world) as those with the most share of earthly wealth seek to ensure that they keep what they have even while their fellow humans suffer. Is it a wonder that there seems a proliferation of post-apocalyptic literature, film and television? I see in this a tricky message of both despair and warning. We worry about apocalypse (from alien invasion, geological/climactic disaster, disease, zombies & vampires, asteroids) almost as if we have a desire for such things. Perhaps it is the same grim behaviour as rubber-necking for traffic accidents. But there is also warning as well. And i wonder if the popularity of such apocalypticism doesn't include a warning to the world's ruling classes: share or else. And thus i am reminded of another (fictive) speech - that of the character V in V for for Vendetta. A post-apocalyptic call to action that should perhaps be heeded even now.

Finally, another speech i am reminded of (and it is no fiction) is that of Salvador Allende prior to his death in the American-backed coup in Chile on that other fateful September 11 date:  Salvador Allende's last speech (english translation). You can listen to it with this video.  It is an appeal to resist oppression like few i have ever heard.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Unexpected Uses of the Ordinary and the Music of the World

There is delight (if not a touch of delicious mischief) in using something for a purpose not only not intended by the maker but probably never imagined. This latest exploit by OK Go fills my heart with mischief. As one friend said, "I want to change jobs." Indeed, as i watch our three-year-old spend ALL of his time playing (when he's not sleeping), i think and rethink the world of play and just how incapacitated are so many of us grown-ups. The playfulness of OK Go's work is, to say the least, inspiring. And it's also obviously incredibly hard work. But why do we separate work and play the way we do? Such is one of the building blocks of the current and dominant common sense. I daresay this is one dichotomy that is profoundly BAD sense.

My friend dian marino told me of a visit to her mother's during pickling season. Knowing that she was going to enter a house over-run with pickles she was surprised to see none. She asked about the pickles and her mother's response of "in the basement" was so matter-of-fact that dian was halfway down the stairs before the oddity of the situation hit her. Why would the pickles be in the basement when clearly no pickling had yet been done? Nor were the pickles in evidence once dian reached said basement. Shouting up to her mother she was told to check the washing machine and, sure enough, the pickles were being duly cleaned in the Maytag's gentle rinse cycle. "Not what the manufacturer had in mind," dian thought.

dian was a student of Corita Kent, an artist and educator who taught at Immaculate Heart College (and whom i blogged about previously). While dian made it clear to me that her ingenuity was 'genetic', i am positive that it was her work with Corita that educated that ingenuity and allowed dian to follow in Corita's footsteps and 'teach' that ingenuity to others. Jan Steward, Corita's co-author of Learning By Heart: Teachings to Free the Creative Spirit (2nd Ed.: Allworth Press, NY, 2008), writes:
Neighbours around the corner from us have just added a beautiful deck to their house. I was sure when i saw it that it had been made by some Japanese master. Woodgrains were perfectly matched , joints formed and held - not with nails - but by interlocking pieces of wood. I was surprised when I was introduced to the carpenter, a young man of thirty-two. I asked him where he had learned to do such fine work. I went to Immaculate Heart, he said, and was taught by a woman whose teacher had been a student of Corita. Did you ever hear of her? A few months ago I went for a new pair of glasses and told the young woman who helped me how much I liked her cheerful store. There were serigraphs, children's drawings, banners hanging from the ceiling, and a parrot in a cage with his vocabulary written out so visitors could talk to him and get an appropriate reply. I asked who had put it all together. I did, she answered, and I asked her how she knew how to do this. I had a wonderful art teacher,  she said.  She didn't teach us how to draw or paint so much as she taught us to care. She was a student of Sister Corita.
While i do believe there is that about artistic talent that is mysterious, i also believe that far more can be taught about how to create than we allow ourselves to believe. But perhaps artistic talent is mysterious only because we fail to respect the ability to exercise our imagination - something everyone can do and everyone can learn to do but which, unfortunately, though we start life with amazing capacities, we seem to unlearn most of them by the age of ten.

OK Go is a group of people who haven't forgotten how to play. From their rube goldberg machine and marching band versions of This Too Shall Pass to the treadmills of Here It Goes Again and all the others, they play and play and play and, what's more, inspire that play in others (we've been tumbling dominoes in this house for months). But what raises this to another level is that each of these creations is obviously the work of many hands and minds. What we see here is collective, cooperative creative power. And in that lies much hope.

I learned last year about the hindi word jugaad which means "jury-rigged", clever inventiveness, workarounds. It is also the name of a slapped together motorized vehicle. It is a powerful and playful manifestation of creative power.

I can remember this creative power as a child as i recall imagined worlds (notably the bridge of the Star Trek Enterprise and the comic book landscapes of Apokalips and New Genesis, Krypton and Gotham City) and see that the memories of such are as vivid as those of "real" places in which i lived.

The ingenious play of Ok Go is something i hope inspires people to connect with their own ingenuity. And then, my deeper hops is that we will apply this wondrous ability to the daunting challenges which confront us now - climate change, species loss, food uncertainty, etc.... Surely we can find ways to live our lives better and more joyfully while also making the sacrifices we have made inevitable by our centuries of exploitation of our precious planet.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

A Must for Critical Media Literacy

In the 1980s i was one of an army of volunteers who worked with Peter Watkins on his 14+ hour-long film The Journey which was a stunning examination of both mass media and the nuclear arms industry. I continue to look at the media world through that experience which gave me eyes and ears to see and hear the messages between the lines, in the cracks, underneath the static. Though I haven't actively applied that knowledge to my endless hours of virtual surfing.

Joy Indeed

I"m a little behind in sharing things here. On it now.