Unsettling this Settler (a prologue)

3925A couple of weeks ago, I read Paulette Regan’s Unsettling the Settler Within for a class I am taking on the nature of forgiveness and apologies. Dr. Regan is a scholar, a Canadian “settler” (i.e. like me, and probably most of my readership, she is not First Nations), and acted as the Director of Research for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. This book was written prior to the start of the TRC’s mandate and deals with the legacy of Canada’s Indian Residential Schools and, in a broader sense, the disastrous effects that Canada’s colonization has had on the Indigenous people who have lived here for thousands and thousands of years–long before the first British flag was planted on this so-called “empty” land. More to the point, she emphasizes the urgent need, not for First Nations people to reconcile themselves to their present situation, but for settler Canadians to reconcile themselves to Canada’s violent, intentionally racist, colonial history, and to recognize the ways in which these colonial structures and systems are still very much active in present-day Canada.

Unlike many of my fellow white Canadians, I did not grow up completely ignorant of residential schools or of violent policies like the “Sixties Scoop” (in which First Nations children were forcibly removed from their families and adopted out to white parents, in many cases actually sold to American families as if they were livestock). Since I didn’t learn about any of these events in school I can only assume I knew of their existence because my parents bothered to tell me (thanks Mom and Dad!). Beyond this starting point, though, my path as a settler who calls Canada home and wants to be part of a nation I can be truly proud of (a country that keeps its promises and actively upholds EVERYONE’S human rights) is not clear.

There is a step (or rather a long series of steps) beyond being simply “aware” of the history. What we do with this step is important. Regan cautions that well-meaning Canadian settlers are all to quick to pity Indigenous people, and the discomfort this pity arouses causes us to try to find quick fixes for “their problems”–in other words, to continue to disenfranchise and ignore the agency of First Nations people themselves. So if I’m not supposed to “fix” things, what can I do?

I sense this is a question (or rather a long series of questions) that I will need to ask myself as I move through my life, but for starters, I can let go. I can let go of cherished ideas based on lies. I can let go of the convenience of the status quo.

For me, today, this means two things:

  1. Acknowledging that what Indigenous people experienced at the hands of the colonial (and later, the Canadian) government was genocide. First Nations people were forcibly removed from their homes and lands, killed, starved, forbidden from participating in cultural traditions like the potlatch and the sun dance, and removed from their families and taken to Residential Schools where they were abused (physically, sexually, and psychologically), underfed, inadequately cared for, and prohibited from speaking their own languages. Until relatively recently in our history, Indigenous people in Canada were unable to vote, become professionals, or, in the case of women, marry a non-Indigenous person without losing their native status. For more than a hundred years, the government of this country enacted policies and programs with the specific intent of attempting to wipe out “the Indian problem” and make First Nations people and culture disappear in Canada. This is genocide, as defined by the United Nations. The fact that First Nations people are still here and that parts of their cultures have survived is a testament to their resilience, not our benevolence.
  2. Supporting BC First Nations if they want to change the name of the province of British Columbia. West of the Rockies, colonial agents stopped bothering to make any treaties with Indigenous tribes (not that the government honoured the ones they had made farther east but that’s another issue) and simply took the land they wanted. BC is unceded First Nations territory, and as such, to call the land of this province either “British” (i.e. belonging to the British) or “Columbia” (after the  “Columbian” district of this part of North American, which surely takes its name from genocidal rapist Christopher Columbus) is inaccurate and insulting. The name of our province was chosen by Queen Victoria (a monarch who never set foot here), but the land was never hers, or ours, to name. We did not buy it. We did not pay for it, trade for it, or treat for it. We have no right to insist on a status quo based on theft. Obviously, if BC’s First Nations ultimately decide that they’re fine with the province’s name as-is, that’s cool with me, but I don’t believe settlers’ wishes should be prioritized in the matter.

I called this blog post a “prologue” because these thoughts, these considerations, are just the very very start of what will presumably be a life-long project of identifying and acknowledging my colonial biases, the benefits my status as a settler has brought me, and trying, ultimately, to do something about it in a way that is respectful and effective. My own humanity is implicated in the ways I choose to respect or ignore the humanity of others. I’ve a long road ahead and I’m just getting started.

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Kathleen Stewart’s “Ordinary Affects” is an Extraordinary Book

978-0-8223-4107-9-frontcoverWritten by anthropologist Kathleen Stewart and published by Duke University Press, Ordinary Affects may seem, at first glance, unremarkable and perhaps even pretentious, just another academic text published by an academic press. But Ordinary Affects, a collection of more than 100 vignettes and observations of “ordinary” American life, quietly unpacks the everyday occurrences and relations that constitute this “ordinary” in ways that are unsettling and profound. If Ordinary Affects were a work of fiction I would greatly admire it. That it is not fiction makes me obsessed with it.

Though Stewart (who refers to herself as “she” and “her” in the text rather than “I” or “me”) is present in many of the vignettes, one does not get the sense that she sees herself as a stand-in for the Everyman (or “Everywoman”) of contemporary American life. She is a woman, she is white, and she is an anthropologist. Her observations are necessarily filtered through these lenses, however, the majority of the stories collected in this work are not really about her, per se–some are about people she knows or has spoken to–an ice fisherman  or a Vietnam vet or a homeless person whose friend was struck by a train, some concern stories she has seen in the news, handwritten signs, towns she has visited, experiences remembered and relayed to her by friends and family. There are deaths, violent crimes, injustices, accidents, yard sales and traffic jams, domestic disputes and grocery stores, acts of protest and (American) dreams. Within small fragments of text bearing headings like “Dryer Sheets”,  “The TV Repairman”, and “Suburban Apocalypticism”, Stewart gently and relentlessly pursues the ordinary, revealing it as trembling with potential, multi-faceted, twining and entwined. One senses there is more there, blurry and difficult to pin down.

“The ordinary” Stewart writes, “is a moving target. Not first something to make sense of, but a sense of sensations that incite. The possibility that something will snap into sense or drift by untapped” (93). Many of Stewart’s vignettes involve those moments where that something does indeed “snap into sense”, if only for a moment, a flash of recognition, of a happening, that soon dissolves back into the shuffling and shifting landscape of everyday life. In a segment called “Pipe Dreams” (98), a group of striking miners waiting in a West Virginia health clinic have realized that their strike has failed. One of them begins to fantasize about looting the governor’s mansion–“Power grows palpable in the image of high brick walls that can be breached by a potent, collective, working-class masculinity.” A something fills the room, then is gone.

As a student in an anthropology class, Ordinary Affects (written in a lyrical prose reminiscent of the way French poet Francis Ponge wrote about objects), is a refreshing addition to the more dry theoretical texts that often dominate the curriculum. As a writer, this book is an absolute gift.

Ask Nifty: Sage Advice for Fictional Problems

Hello, dear readers! I’m feeling a bit whimsical today and I love to give advice, so I thought I’d dispense some common-sense solutions for some troubling fictional problems. Happy reading!

Dear Nifty,

Weird stuff happens around me all the time, but I never got my letter from Hogwarts! I’m in my thirties now, but still feeling really bummed about it. What gives?

–Sad Muggle, Birmingham, England

Dear Muggle,

I get the sense that you are feeling down on yourself and questioning your abilities. I know it’s disappointing not to get into the schools you want, but remember, when one door closes, another opens: if you’d become a wizard, you’d never have gotten the probably very exciting job you have now, right? RIGHT? On a more serious note, if you turned 11 in the 1990s, it’s important to remember that the English wizarding world was experiencing great upheaval due to the events of the Second Wizarding War. The Owl Post Office would have been in disarray, Hogwarts was at that time undergoing several rapid changes in headmasters, and in that dangerously prejudiced political climate, it simply would not have been safe to accept new Muggle students into magical society. The fact that you didn’t get a Hogwarts letter is not a judgement of your magical abilities and you have nothing to be ashamed of.

I never got one either.

I never got one either.

Dear Nifty,

I was so excited about having my first real guest for tea that I accidentally gave my bosom friend currant wine thinking it was raspberry cordial, and she drank three tumblerfulls! Her mother thinks I got her daughter drunk ON PURPOSE and won’t let us be friends anymore. I’m in the depths of despair. Why do I keep getting into these terrible scrapes?

–Lady Cordelia, Avonlea, P.E.I.

Dear Cordelia,

Anyone who gets to a third glass of anything before she realizes she’s drinking wine probably isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer–you might be better off without her. This would give you more time to focus on your intellectual pursuits and be top of the class at school.

But if you still miss your friend, don’t worry. I have a feeling that in an emergency your “bosom friend” would be about as useful as a box of hair. Eventually her annoying younger sibling will get the croup and you’ll come out of THAT scrape looking like an effin’ rockstar. Just make sure you have plenty of ipecac on hand.

Derp derp.

Derp derp.

Dear Miss Nifty,

I am the third of five unmarried sisters who are all out in society at once. My two older sisters are very beautiful, capable and graceful and I just can’t compete. Meanwhile, my two younger sisters don’t seem to care about anything but men and parties, and my mother just encourages them! There’s always so much chatter at our house, but whenever I want to say something, nobody listens to me! I don’t really feel like I have anything to connect to (apart from my piano forte) and no one seems to take much notice of me. What should I do?

–Mary B., Hertfordshire, England

Dear Mary,

Don’t take it personally, but you seem like a bit of a stick-in-the-mud. Is it possible that’s why you’re feeling ignored? No one likes a party-pooper, Mary! Maybe, instead of focusing on whether or not other people take notice of you, you should focus on finding ways to be happy with yourself.

In the meantime, it’s likely that your family situation will improve on its own. If your older sisters are as beautiful and competent as you say, they’re sure to marry rich, saving your family from poverty in the event of your father’s death, and saving YOU from having to marry out of desperation. Also, if your two younger sisters are really that silly and man-crazy, there’s a good chance at least one of them will go off and do something stupid, trapping her in a loveless marriage, yes, but also helpfully removing her from your day-to-day existence at home. Don’t use this occasion to gloat; rather, see it as an opportunity to forge a better relationship with your remaining sister and to set a good example for her.

Wow, Mary, you sure look happy to be here.

One of these things is not like the other ones.

Marcus Aurelius Knows What’s Up

GLS_Marcus Aurelius_Meditations011After making a new year’s resolution to be kinder (and a more personal one about worrying less), Marcus Aurelius’  collected Meditations could not have come up in my liberal studies curriculum at a better time. Sometimes considered one of the original self-help books, it really only falls into that genre if you consider self-help in the truest sense of the word: the author wrote to help himself, not to instruct other people. Unlike today’s self-proclaimed self-help gurus, Marcus Aurelius was an emperor of Rome and had no need for either wealth or fame. He never intended for his meditations to be published, and had nothing to gain by recording his personal thoughts and philosophies, except actual Self Help, that is, he wrote down his thoughts to reflect on his character and to help himself in his never-ending struggle to be a better human being. Marcus Aurelius more or less tried to follow a Stoic philosophy, and though I’m not 100% convinced that kind of philosophy is for me (I’d rather wish for a loved one not to be ill, for example, than to wish that the illness of a loved one didn’t bother me), the humility and sincerity with which he recorded his private meditations make for a deeply personal read, and many of the struggles he returned to again and again are struggles I am familiar with myself (even though I am not a 70-year-old Roman emperor and seasoned general leading military campaigns in Germany).

Being concerned with your own goodness, not other peoples’:

What ease of mind a person gains if he casts no eye on what his neighbour has said, done, or thought, but looks only to what he himself is doing, to ensure that his own action may be just, and holy, and good in every regard. Do not look back to examine the black character of another, but run straight towards the finishing line, never glancing to right or left.

– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.18

When people endeavor to be kind they often set out to extend themselves beyond the narrow sphere of their own lives. They endeavor to consider the lives of others, whether these “others” are halfway around the world or just around the corner. Kindness is often synonymous with an expansion of awareness of and concern for the lives and actions of other people.

This is fantastic stuff, however, “thinking about others” isn’t always a good thing. Sometimes when I think about others, I end up thinking about climate change skeptics, and Stephen Harper, and Vladimir Putin, and ISIS, and MRA groups, and oil companies, and rotten CEOs who take home huge bonuses while their employees take home pay cuts. I also think about rude people on the bus, or trolls on the Internet, or acquaintances whose behaviours/opinions I disapprove of, or an argument I lost a year ago that still cheeses me off. And it’s not helpful. Teachers used to say “Keep your eyes on your own paper,” and I think I need to do a bit more of that, figuratively speaking. It’s not that other people don’t matter, it’s that my own behaviour does not, and should not, depend on what they do.

Not worrying about dying/when you’re going to die:

There is a stream of things entering into being, and time is a raging torrent; for no sooner does each thing enter our sight than it has been swept away, and another is passing in its place, and that too will be swept away.

– 4.43

All that you see now will very swiftly pass away, and those who have watched it passing will swiftly pass away in their turn, and he who dies in extreme old age will be brought to a level with one who has died before his time.

– 9.33

Whether it happens in sixty days or sixty years from now, I am really afraid of dying. I’m afraid of being in pain or being scared, and I’m afraid of making the people I care about sad. I am afraid that if this life is all there is (and there is so little, or perhaps no, evidence to show that it isn’t), that I will not make it count.

Marcus Aurelius didn’t worry about death, or at the very least, he made a repeated and concerted effort to make his peace with it (and he kind of had to considering he was old and in ill health and waging a war far away from home). Whether you die old or young, virtuous or not, you have lived all the life you are going to live, and after that there’s just nothing to worry about. Marcus Aurelius saw trying to be good as a way to live your life to the fullest while you were here, by acting on and developing the natural goodness he believed existed in every human being. After that–no worries.

[Unfortunately, the Meditations offer very little comfort to those who are afraid of the deaths of other people. Marcus Aurelius did lose several children, and of course he did grieve them, but he tried to avoid dwelling on it–it’s more sensible to try not to be sad about the death of a loved one than to wish it hadn’t happened, and Stoic philosophy considered the welfare of your loved ones, incredibly, to be “indifferent” to the question of your own happiness. Which I don’t agree with. But at least I can try to come to terms with my own eventual death, so, you know, that’s one less thing to worry about.]

Not worrying about achieving fame, praise, or other external measures of success:

Cast everything else aside, then, and hold to these few truths alone; and remember, furthermore, that each of us lives only in the present, this fleeting moment of time, and that the rest of one’s life has either already been lived or lies in an unknowable future. The space of each person’s existence is thus a little thing, and little too is the corner of the earth on which it is lived, and little too even the fame that endures for the longest; and even that is passed on from one poor mortal for another, all of whom will die in no great while, and who have no knowledge even of themselves, let alone of one who has died many long years before.

– 3.10

Does an emerald become any worse if nobody praises it? Or gold, ivory, purple, a lyre, a sword, a blossom, or a bush?

– 4.20

All is ephemeral, both that which remembers and that which is remembered.

– 4.35

Somehow the encouraging phrase, “You can do anything”, which I have heard and read so often in my lifetime, has given birth to the sneaky subconscious follow-up, “Therefore, whatever you do should be Great,” suggesting that a “regular” life is now something of a failure. The reality is that most of us will NOT do something capital-G Great in our lifetimes, that is, something for which we’ll gain recognition. Most of us will live and love and die without anyone outside of our acquaintances ever knowing we existed. At our funerals people will say, “He had a great laugh and he loved practical jokes” or, “She always loved music,” and that is just fine. Not having done something Great does not make what contributions we did make any smaller.

I should point out that the few quotes I’ve included are just examples of Marcus Aurelius’ writings on these issues, when in fact, the Meditations in their entirety repeat these thoughts over and over, in various permutations. If you read the Meditations as if he wrote them for the benefit of others, you’d think that the author had completely accepted death, and bad things happening to loved ones, and bad people existing in the world who will never see the error of their ways (or as I put it to TC, “Some people are going to die never knowing what assholes they really are and I have to be okay with that”). When you remember that Marcus Aurelius wrote for himself, you realize that he returned to the issues of death, and recognition, and his relationships with others again and again because he struggled with them. He would not have written about these issues day after day after day if they weren’t on his mind.

And so what Marcus Aurelius gives me is permission to struggle with life, while at the same time acknowledging that nothing is preventing me from doing my best (my best being whatever I can do before encountering an obstacle that is outside of my control). Throughout, Marcus Aurelius reminds himself that all the retreat he needs from the cares of everyday life can be found in his own mind. And reading him I find, for myself, a serenity that wasn’t there before.

Reveries of a Solitary Blogger

Since September, I have been enrolled in a graduate-level class in Liberal Studies (like Humanities, but even more broad). During this time, I have had the opportunity to read, and grapple with, and sometimes hate, a variety of canonical writers and texts, from Sophocles to Henrik Ibsen, from Euripides to Margaret Atwood, from Plato to Thomas Mann, from Freud to Henry James, from Genesis to Lucretius, and on and on and on. When it comes to by-gone thinkers (especially European males), my library is fairly well-stocked for a single semester of reading.

As a broad (albeit Western-heavy) foundation for further study, the ideas I’ve encountered this semester have been a lot to take in. Before we had an entire planet’s worth of knowledge (and also, let’s face it, baseless opinion) at our fingertips, people used to sit around reading books and THINKING about things, and proposing ideas for the way the world worked based on nothing more than observation and deduction. Long before microscopes, Lucretius (ancient Roman, author of massive didactic poem The Nature of Things) knew that matter was made of atoms, which could neither be created nor destroyed. He also thought that while you slept your “soul atoms” left your body and floated around in the ether until you woke up, but hey, he made some pretty interesting hypotheses based on what he could observe at the time, and some of them (like his ideas about genetics) were pretty on the money.

What’s significant to me is not whether these philosophers, psychoanalysts, poets, and/or scholars were right or wrong, but simply that they took the time to think deeply about the world and to try to answer big questions: what is the universe? What makes a human being? What is a person’s obligation to the State, and vice versa? If we’re becoming more “civilized”, why are people so unhappy? What is the nature of love? Of beauty? Of “truth”? Despite the almost total exclusion of women and working class men from the intellectual sphere at the times when most of these thinkers were writing, encountering these works, I almost long for the European “salons” of the late 18th-century, where educated people would meet to talk and argue about the big ideas, and a time when intellectual conviction about the way the world is and ought to be was enough to spark a revolution.

Reveries-RousseauWhich brings me to the subject of my penultimate class for this semester, and also (technically) of this post: the autobiographical Reveries of a Solitary Walker by 18th-century Swiss writer and composer Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau lived a rather sad and tumultuous life, eventually cut out of his Parisian intellectual community for being too religious and prevented from further publishing or public speaking by the French government for not being religious enough (he believed he did not need the Church to have a relationship with god), plagued by chronic health issues throughout his life and by his own paranoia and melancholy in his later years. These troubles, combined with deep convictions resulting from intense self-reflections, forced Rousseau to adopt a quiet life of contemplation and comparative solitude (though not quite as solitary as Rousseau would have you believe–it’s true that he was denounced in the circles where he wanted to be welcome, but he did have many visitors and a great deal of correspondence with fans and well-wishers, in addition to a very supportive wife).

ANYWAYS, Rousseau, in his now quiet and isolated life, sought to find comfort and satisfaction in himself, taking long walks in the countryside during which he would think many thoughts. The ten “walks” which comprise his Reveries are a collection of some of these thoughts. Though I must confess that I have neither completed all of Reveries of a Solitary Walker yet nor totally gotten on board with the way the Rousseau depicted in this text is (his pious brand of self-pity is a bit much, even though I know he had his reasons), there’s something I really really like about the fact that this book exists. Because Rousseau makes THINKING important. Not so you can win an argument, or look clever, or sell a bunch of books. But just so that you can know yourself, and your own moral compass, and how you want to be in the world. As Rousseau “walks” (or rather writes, though the reader is meant, I think, to assume that each section topic is something the author pondered as he rambled around the countryside), he discusses human conundrums like how he came to his unpopular religious beliefs (through “…the basic principles adopted by my reason, confirmed by my heart, and bearing the seal of my conscience uninfluenced by passion” he says in the Third Walk), whether or not it’s alright to tell lies if they don’t advantage you or hurt anyone else, and the uncomfortable moral state people find themselves in when good deeds done freely become obligations done resentfully.

I guess I like Rousseau because although I don’t go on too many long excursions, commuting via public transit has provided ample time for walking and thinking and I often do find myself parsing out moral conundrums like the implications of giving a donation to an organization like the United Way from the comfort of my own home but refusing spare change to a person on the street, or of owning a car even though I know how much damage the extraction, transport, and burning of fossil fuels is doing (or at least, I know that I don’t even know how bad it really is). And sometimes I just find myself thinking about anything, because I have a 20-minute walk from the station to my apartment, and nothing better to do with the time. Today, for example, I thought about how I would hypothetically describe what “seeing” is to a person who was born completely blind and has never experienced it themselves (I settled on saying “Sight is a way of knowing where objects are, and how big they are, and what shape they are, and whether they are moving, without having to touch them or hear them,” but I’m not totally done with that one yet).

What Rousseau does for me is bring home a little epiphany I’d had earlier in this course which is that philosophy doesn’t have to be some lofty process that requires a great deal of book-learning or a knowledge of Greek. It’s just a process of trying to reason out what’s going on within and outside of you, and I realized that when I was a kid, I USED TO PHILOSOPHIZE ALL THE TIME. I grew up in an agnostic household with a father who occasionally turned car rides into mini lectures about whatever (one where he tried to explain to five-year-old me why god wouldn’t be a boy OR a girl comes to mind) and whose answers to my questions about religion were non-dogmatic enough to leave me to make up my own mind about the spiritual realm (except for knowing that god, if god exists, is NOT a boy OR a girl). This meant that I had the freedom to float around in the bathtub while my impatient family members knocked on the door, wondering if I was maybe the only REAL person in the universe (because I couldn’t hear anyone else’s thoughts), or if the fact that I have now existed means that I am infinite (because now there will always be The Time Before Lauren and The Time After Lauren, regardless of how long my physical life is), or whether the weird gyprock spackles on the ceiling were actually a skeleton hoard coming down from the sky on horseback with spears and arrows (probably not but it looked that way from where I was) or whether I was really here at all or whether the whole entire universe is inside a single atom.

My commute notwithstanding, I’ve realized I don’t have as much time to just think about stuff anymore, and though in many ways it’s because I’m now more responsible, and I’m doing and learning lots of cool stuff instead of just being idle, I miss it.

I Don’t Like van Gogh’s Sunflowers (and other cultural confessions)

Vincent_Willem_van_Gogh_127I don’t like Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers. I don’t. I think they look puffy and pregnant and mildewy and sick–and all kinds of wrong, like furry alien appendages poking out of vases that couldn’t possibly be large enough to hold them upright. The paintings are a rotten-artichoke coloured assault on my eyeballs and I just don’t like them. So there.

I like to think I’m about as cultured as any other middle-class North American with a university education, who grew up with creative and left-leaning parents and an abundance of white privilege. As a child, I didn’t have “fine art” all over the walls and we weren’t at the philharmonic or the opera every week Vincent_Willem_van_Gogh_128but my young life did include some rare and exciting trips to the ballet, theatre, museums, galleries, etc. and the rest of the time I had access to a huge amount of recorded music (both in my parents’ collections and on CBC Radio), prints and posters, good films, music lessons, SO many books of course, and assistance in pursuing post-secondary study. All this is to say that I had more than enough opportunity to become familiar with and learn to appreciate the Western Canon of art and culture as well as important contemporary artistic, literary, and cultural figures and objects.

But sometimes, I just DON’T. Appreciate them, I mean. And sometimes, instead, I appreciate absolute total crap. I’m a traitor to my learned middle-class compatriots, perhaps, but that’s just how I feel about some things. For example:

DANTE’S INFERNO

I understand that Dante’s ideas of the punishments of hell really infiltrated the Western imagination (a lot of what people imagine hell to be like actually comes from Dante, not the Bible) but otherwise, come on! Most of Inferno rattles off the names of political and artistic figures that Dante was familiar with (often personally) and which he had the audacity, or the pettiness, to place in his fictional hell (some of the people he mentions weren’t even dead yet when he wrote about their divine punishments). There are some interesting things going on in this text but for the most part, I feel like there are more enjoyable books to be read.

Mona_LisaLEONARDO DA VINCI

A genius, certainly, but not always my cup of tea (with the notable exception of Lady with an Ermine and MAYBE The Last Supper). His depictions of the Christ child are creepy monstrosities, and most of his women look like clean-shaven men with dresses and no eyelashes. And the Mona Lisa? I’m pretty sure she’s smiling so mysteriously because she’s actually just Leonardo da Vinci in a wig. Given da Vinci’s incredible talent there’s really no excuse for not getting women right (and he could, as his drawing of a female head, “La Scapigliata” shows, so I’m not sure why he didn’t).

MICHELANGELO’S CREATION OF ADAM

La-Creazione-dellUomo-di-Michelangelo-Cappella-SistinaDon’t get me wrong–Michelangelo was another genius of the Italian Renaissance. His statue of David is absolutely breathtaking. But the famous “Bearded Man in the Sky touches finger of Naked Man Lounging on a Hillside”? No. Adam’s head looks tiny compared to his body. Nitpicking aside, I’m just not moved by the sight of all these corpulently-muscled naked males lounging around in pretentiously-affected poses. In a frozen scene, as in performance, the sight of what could be an energetic line broken by languor, weakness, or a simple inability to follow through and complete the image is absolutely maddening. God is reaching down and TOUCHING you, Adam! The least you can do is look excited about it and carry that through-line of energy into your hand and out that index finger that is touching GOD. Instead, Michelangelo’s Adam listlessly proffers his hand like a past-her-prime Elizabeth Taylor getting a manicure. Eugh. Could you look any less thrilled to be here, Adam? Is there something more important that you were doing before you were CALLED INTO BEING?

THOMAS MORE’S UTOPIA

Um…it’s not a nice place. Just read the book. It’s not a place most of us would ever want to live in and I’m not sure what More’s point was when he conceived it. Some things, like food and medicine for all, sound great. Other things, like a life sentence of enforced celibacy for having premarital sex, seem arbitrary and cruel and add little to the Utopian concept except to reveal More’s Catholic bias (a bias he seems to really try to set aside in other parts of the text but which certainly comes out here).

GERTRUDE STEIN

I know many people far more intelligent than me have confirmed her brilliance, so I’ll have to take their word for it, but I spent two semesters studying Stein’s work (and performing it) and I just couldn’t get there. Most of it (the exception being the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas which is totally conceited and self-praising but still very good) just seems like nonsensical garbage to me. And whenever an academic or a poet or another smart kind of person tells me that they see something in the texts, that Stein had some kind of goal or purpose in her work, I think they’re lying. If she had wanted us to know what she was talking about her readers wouldn’t have had to hypothesize about it for a hundred years. The fact that no one has ever actually been able to tell me that they actually KNOW what any of her work was about (even in a general sense) is enough for me. Gertrude, you lived a very interesting life and your support of the artists around you was incredibly important but good god, woman. Did you have to write Four Saints in Three Acts? Did you? Because I had to READ it, and I can never have those hours of my life back.

J. D. SALINGER’S THE CATCHER IN THE RYE

I’ve already written a little bit about why I found both Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby a bit irritating, but really, this book just made me sad and impatient. Get it together, rich boy! If I have to read Salinger, I’d rather read Franny and Zooey even though in many ways it is equally frustrating.

THE GRADUATE

What is there to like about this film? Were you all on drugs? See point above about being sad and impatient while watching directionless rich boys failing to get their poop in a pile.

LED ZEPPELIN

It’s not that I don’t like Led Zeppelin, I’m sure I actually do. But if you played me their most famous song, one I’ve probably definitely heard so many times, and said, “Whose song is this?” I wouldn’t be able to tell you. I’m sorry. I’d have no goddamn clue.

MAYA ANGELOU

This makes me feel like a monster because it’s MAYA ANGELOU for goodness sakes–a courageous, inspiring woman of colour whose incredible career in literature and the arts expressed the realities of an incredible, and not always easy, life. But whenever I read her poems (or her line of greeting cards), my response was always kind of, “M’h”. Which says more about me than about Angelou I think. What kind of cynical bum doesn’t like to be inspired? Me, apparently.

MARGARET ATWOOD’S PENELOPIAD

People apparently liked this book SO MUCH they turned it into a play (which I haven’t seen, because I was iffy on the book). I just felt like I could sense Atwood on every page, winking at the reader (or perhaps herself) and saying, “Tee hee. How clever I am!”. I don’t know. Maybe I should give this one another go.

THE ACADEMY AWARD-WINNING FILM THE ARTIST

I wanted to like this film. I really really did. Jean Dujardin is a charming actor and the film was full of old-school whimsy but like most of the feature-length films from the actual silent movie era, it was just too damn long. It wasn’t a very complicated story. It didn’t need to take quite that long to tell it. All the good will I had when I began the film evaporated pretty quickly watching the confused and despairing Dujardin emoting for the umpteenth time.

I know I’m not as talented as any of these artists or writers or musicians or filmmakers and that nothing I will ever make will be as important as even the least of their works. I know it’s easy to be a critic, and I know I shouldn’t indulge in trashing things I have not taken enough time to truly know anything about. But sometimes, I get tired of trying to be educated, and it is an immense pleasure to get some of the bitterness out of my system.

And it’s not that I automatically reject great work either. I love Vivaldi and Beethoven and Tchaikovsky ballets and Debussy’s “Clair de Lune”. I love Greek tragedies and Shakespeare (sometimes) and Alice Munro and the Beatles and Leonard Cohen and the paintings of Botticelli and also Marc Chagall. And I do try to learn to love, or at least like, the more difficult works for what they can teach me, and how they can inspire me. All is not lost for my liberal arts education. As for poor maligned van Gogh, while his sunflowers are gloomy to me, his Cafe Terrace on the Place du Forum most certainly is not. Has painted light ever looked so warm?

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Exquisitely Crafted: Eleanor Catton’s “The Luminaries”

9780316074315_custom-ab2793381053c909c69a0e7d56cac302350a9795-s6-c30To begin Eleanor Catton’s elegant, 832-page novel, recipient of both the 2013 Man Booker Prize and the Governor General’s Award for Fiction, is a daunting task. The Luminaries contains 20 important characters (helpfully charted in the opening pages), follows an astrological structure and is, as mentioned above, an intimidating 832 pages long. To settle into the opening chapter (“In which a stranger arrives in Hokitika; a secret council is disturbed; Walter Moody conceals his most recent memory; and Thomas Balfour begins to tell a story.“) is not a matter of allowing yourself to be swept away (because how can you be with a book this physically heavy?), but of making a conscious decision to begin a long journey in the rain.

This, I think, is Catton’s intention. Her opening scene, set in 1866 Hokitika, New Zealand, finds young Walter Moody rattled from his overseas journey, bogged down by fatigue and rain. Upon entering the smoking room of the Crown Hotel, he comes upon twelve men silently occupying themselves in the kind of “studied isolation” that betrays the secret council in which they were deeply engaged just moments earlier. Both Moody and the reader must decide if the glimmers of intrigue that Catton has left visible are worth the trek into the murky unknown.

The answer for this reader is yes. Though never an easy read, the weight of The Luminaries is one which begins to gain momentum the moment we know something another character does not (which happens repeatedly throughout). Catton is a master of both concealment and revelation, parceling out each in just the right amounts so that our confusion never quite overtakes our dawning understanding, and vice versa. Her style is one which assumes and speaks to the reader, and ultimately rewards them in the incredibly satisfying final chapters.

Despite the mathematical and thematic sophistication of the book’s structure and Catton’s gorgeous, though occasionally high-falutin’, prose (the men in the Crown Hotel “might have been twelve strangers on a railway car, each bound for a separate quarter of a city that possessed fog and tides enough to divide them” their “bodily silence…deadened here not by the slur and clunk of the coaches, but by the fat clatter of the rain”), The Luminaries is, at its heart, a mystery story. Like any good mystery, the beauty of the language and the elegance of the chapter headings and divisions are secondary to the characters’ (and the reader’s) quest to seek out what is hidden and to unravel what seems at first to be hopelessly twisted. The prose and the structure, significant as they are, are the vehicles in which we travel–the mystery is the terrain.

Luckily, The Luminaries‘ mysterious landscape is one the author has mapped well and one she is adept at revealing. Unlike the patronizing explanations of Sherlock Holmes, Catton’s facilitation of our understanding is as emotional as it is rational, as lyrical as it is illuminating, and as wistful as it is fulfilling.

Having quite enjoyed The Luminaries, the only reason I wish the book were not so long is so that I would be more likely to undertake the repeated readings that would allow me to tease out Catton’s carefully crafted design a little more and derive even more pleasure from her skill. Even returning to the book casually (i.e. for leafing through) for the purposes of this review revealed details I hadn’t noticed before: delicious section names like “Tar”, “Tin”, and “The Widow and the Weeds”, and the way that the title of Part I, “A Sphere with a Sphere”, comes full circle (and becomes more poetic) for the book’s final section title, Part XII, “The Old Moon in the Young Moon’s Arms”.

There is so much to notice in this novel and so much to take pleasure in that I hope The Luminaries’ size will not dissuade you. Eleanor Catton clearly laboured long and now has a triumph to show for it.

My Rights to Write (and What)

Broadly speaking, at least here in fairly progressive, egalitarian-ish, freedom-of-speech-y Canada, my right to write just about whatever I want, however I want, is not in dispute. Which is great for me, because when I cannot communicate or am not being listened to, I shrivel up inside and a little part of me begins to die.

Which is why it is important to consider both what I legally have the right to write and/or publish, and what I should MORALLY have the right to write and share.

Legally, I have the right to publish just about anything except hate speech, another person’s work, recommendations that people cause harm to themselves or others, or slander. Fair enough. I don’t want to write any of those things anyways.

Morally, the waters of artistic freedom become quite a bit muddier. Do I, for example, have the moral right to incorporate recognizable traits of real people in fiction, in doing so assuming or inventing their motives and private thoughts? What parts of a person truly belong to them? Their life story? Their thoughts/feelings? Their physical appearance and behavioural ticks? What parts of a real person, place, or experience am I allowed to use? Assuming that some of my work will always adapt or be influenced by people, places, and experiences that I encounter either in my own life or through the media, what would be the more moral course? Representing people, places, and experiences exactly as I perceive them (or exactly as they perceive themselves), or using artistic license to transform these things, creating something that I can bend to my narrative? What are the responsibilities that come with my rights to write, and to seek publication of this writing?

I think any conversation surrounding what I, as an artist, have an ethical green light to incorporate into my work needs to begin with a recognition that I am writing from a place of comparative privilege. Though I am a woman, and young (two strikes against me in a western literary canon still dominated by old males), there are many cultural privileges that go along with being white, heterosexual, cisgendered, middle class, and dare I say, reasonably photogenic. Because of this, there are also some limitations as to what I can ethically and skillfully represent in my work.

For example, can I ethically or skilfully represent (in fiction) the experience of a culture or race different from my own? Maybe, but doing so would require not only careful and comprehensive research, but also an examination of my own motives for telling a story that is not mine. Do I want to tell this story because I feel a kind of personal connection to it, and feel that this is the story that is burning inside me to be told? Or do I want to tell this story because I want praise for writing about a “difficult” subject, or because I just want to expose the “beauty” of the Other, or because I believe that the true owners of the story are not equipped to tell it themselves? If my motives fall into any of the latter categories, I am not “engaging” with material or “exploring” it–I’m exploiting it. And that’s not okay with me. As I mentioned, when I cannot communicate or am not listened to, part of me shrivels and dies. Many cultures and marginalized groups have for centuries had the stories ripped from their mouths, and I don’t want to be part of the machine that consumes others’ stories, but never listens.

In some ways this is very freeing. It liberates me from the paralyzing idea that good or provocative writing cannot come from inside me, that it must be centered in a world (real or imagined) that is more “exotic”, more action-packed, or more thrilling than the one I inhabit. It also liberates me from the idea that my writing must contribute to some kind of social good by deliberately telling the story of a marginalized group. Don’t get me wrong–stories that have been relegated to the fringes need to be told, however, as my old theatre school chum (and literature PhD candidate) Lucia Lorenzi pointed out recently, what makes us think these marginalized groups aren’t capable of telling their stories themselves? If I want to do social good through my engagement with literature, it may, in fact, be a great idea for me to get out of the way and let people tell their own stories, and then, to make sure I read them. It is not necessarily for me to be the privileged mouthpiece of an unprivileged group. Maybe I just need to listen.

That said, I still want to write about that which intrigues and moves me. And even if I take some obvious topics out of the equation (at this time, for example, I do not feel even remotely equipped to tell a story about Indigenous people and the legacy of colonialism, or about the slave trade, or the effects of racism in the southern United States), I still find there is so much to explore that I haven’t personally experienced. I don’t personally know what it is to be physically or mentally ill. I don’t know what it is to be pregnant. I don’t know what it is to experience physical violence. I don’t know what it is to grow up without a parent. I don’t know what it is to be a parent. I don’t know what it is to be a man (or a boy). I don’t know what it is to be elderly, or to look a different way, or to be illiterate, or to be homeless. Does this mean I cannot tell stories that feature characters that have had these experiences? Am I relegated only to stories of white middle-class navel-gazing?

I hope not. I hope that when I write the empathy that I feel for my characters will allow me to tell their stories with fairness and grace, neither sanctifying nor condemning them, never relegating them to the role of the “mystical African American/Indigenous person/elderly Asian person/prostitute with a heart of gold/homeless person” who swoops in and solves the whiny protagonist’s personal crisis with some grand/folksy/poetic pronouncements on life. I hope that my ability to feel pain, fear, doubt, shame, anger, disappointment, love, joy, and grief will guide me through, even through those stories I’ve never experienced myself. If they can’t, I can’t see how I will grow as an artist.

I must remember that no one (not even a biographer) writes real people. They write a representation of them. There is art there. And art, at least in my practice, comes with both aesthetic and ethical responsibilities that I have no desire to eschew.

Nope. Not a pipe. Just an image of one.

Nope. Not a pipe. Just an image of one. Magritte is the bomb.

Nifty Reads: “Tuesdays with Morrie”

417px-Tuesdays_with_Morrie_book_coverThere is a small stack of books in the lunchroom at my office topped by a paper sign that says “Free” (it used to be a larger stack but it seems people, myself included, have been taking advantage of this anonymous book donor’s offer). One of the books was a small, unassuming paperback of Mitch Albom’s bestseller Tuesdays with Morrie. I knew the book was famous, I knew its size was perfect for easy carriage in my work bag, and I liked the look of it. So I took it, and I read it, and I guess I’m glad I did.

The book is both a memoir of the author’s relationship with his subject, and a series of life lessons imparted by the author’s late professor (and beloved friend) Morris “Morrie” Schwartz, collected on weekly (Tuesday) visits as Morrie’s body succumbed to ALS, a fatal and debilitating illness with no cure.

To be frank, a triumph of literature this ain’t. The language is so simple a fifth grader could read it. The book offers no literary surprises, no elegance, and only a very loose structure to keep it all together. As I began reading, I thought, how simplistic. How sentimental. How weird (this one was in reference to Morrie’s strange teaching methods in his sociology courses at Brandeis University). And yet….and yet.

This is a book the author approaches with no ego, only a tremendous love for his friend and respect for the ways in which he chose to live and chose to die. Yes, the book is simple. Yes, the book is emotional. But Albom is so earnest about this project, so sincere in his desire to share what his professor taught him, that Tuesdays with Morrie, the pair’s “final thesis” together, managed to win me over despite my snobbish cynicism.

I won’t bother sharing Morrie’s lessons here. To list them out as separate from the conversations that engendered them really would over-simplify them, and make them appear to be nothing more than the usual “love thy neighbour, love thyself” philosophies we encounter on motivational posters and internet memes and in self-help books every day.  The fact of the matter is that nothing Morrie had to say about life was anything I had not already heard or read before. The important thing is that he said them while he was dying, while his body was literally decaying from the legs up. Facing imminent death preceded by incredible pain and complete helplessness, Morrie still believed in the importance of love, gratitude, and forgiveness, and believed that he was a lucky man.

For me the significant and profound parts of the book are not to be found in what Morrie said, but in the ways in which Albom’s interactions with him in his dying months demonstrate the principles he wished to share. During his first Tuesday with Morrie, Albom is sheepish, not having seen his old professor in more than a decade (despite promising, after graduation, to keep in touch). By the final weeks of Morrie’s life Albom is massaging cream into Morrie’s feet (paralyzed by ALS but still, cruelly, perfectly able to feel pain and discomfort). He is helping his friend get comfortable in his chair (no small feat once Morrie is unable to move his body on his own), learning to hit his professor’s frail back to help dislodge the phlegm that threatens to choke him. Albom learns not to be disgusted by the smell of his friend’s dying body, or by the colostomy bag that sits on the floor beneath his chair. He hugs his friend, holds his hands. He kisses his old prof’s cheeks, without embarrassment or awkwardness. No money, status symbol, or prestigious career could have given Morrie the love he received at the end of this life. It was there for him because he was loving.

As I look forward to my wedding in August and the marriage that will follow it, I think about what it truly means to love and support another person, as if their joys were my joys and their pain were mine. I think about the fact that there is no way of knowing what the future will bring and although I hope for a bright one, there will almost certainly be dark times (not too dark if I’m lucky). Throughout the book, Morrie continuously, almost feverishly, quotes the poet W. H. Auden: “Love each other or perish,” Morrie says, and I’m beginning to understand it now. We enter life completely dependent upon the care of others, and many of us will exit in the same condition. Without love, how could any of us survive?

Now that I’m finished reading the book I understand why its language is so simple. Tuesdays with Morrie is an accessible book, and it should be. I don’t know if I will ever read it again (it was quite sad) but I’ve decided to keep it around. One day, maybe I’ll have a teenager I can give it to. I can say, “Here, read this book. It’s not long and it’s not hard. When you’re done, you tell me if your allowance is so important.” I look forward to it.

Dear English Paper: Go Write Yourself

Dear English Paper,

I’ve been avoiding you, and I’m sorry.

In a way, this is all my fault. I took my first undergraduate English literature course when I was 18 years old and now, nine years later, I still don’t seem to have learned my lesson. I admit that it was arrogance on my part to register in a first-year fiction course with the assumption that I (who have been taking upper level English classes for the past few years) would find it easy. In my defense, I thought it might be interesting to get back to fiction basics, and also, the student bus pass I get when I take courses is SUPER cheap. All excuses aside, we’re here now, and I know it’s childish of me to hide from you.

But does this really have to be so hard? It’s not that I don’t want to write you, I do! In fact, I absolutely love having written an English paper, it’s just that I don’t want to go through the act of writing you, rehashing the same old MLA guidelines over and over, dealing with word counts and pretentious-sounding titles. We’ve been through it all before and every time it exhausts me.

We have some history, you and I. It’s not as though you’ve always been kind to me–I recall several occasions during which I was slumped on the rug between the shelves of the library’s journal collections crying because I couldn’t find the article I was looking for (and when I did find it, it wasn’t useful anyways). There’s been a lot of wasted printer ink. A lot of late nights. I give and I give and I give, English Paper, and it’s never enough for you, is it?

But I don’t want to blame you. You want me to be better. You want me to read more critically, think more deeply, and write more persuasively. I understand this, but it still hurts. In the dead of night when I’m hunched over my laptop and I want nothing more than to close my eyes and sleep or maybe, just maybe, read a damn book for pleasure now and again, it hurts.

I want you to know that the relief I feel every time I hand you off and stop thinking about you is immense. But something keeps drawing me back to you, English Paper, and I just can’t keep myself away–soon we are entwined in the same familiar dance: introductory paragraph, argument, textual support, properly cited references, conclusion… I spice it up with a few clever turns of phrase, something daring, something a bit flashy even, but soon that spark disappears and we go through the motions, plodding along, torturing one another until I’m so sick of you I stop caring whether I’ve done right by you, whether I’ve done the best I could.

Tell me, English Paper, how does the family dynamic affect the characters’ emotional growth in D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers? And would you say any of them find fulfillment? Why or why not?

But you won’t tell me. You’ll simply blink at me, your blank face transmitting nothing but my own words, words which seem foolish upon reevaluation. You will take my words, and give me nothing.

And yet, here we are. All paths lead to you. It is time for me to conclude this epistle and meet you face to face once more, on the barren white battlefield of our difficult and pedantic love.

Adieu, adieu

NiftyNotCool

DearEnglishPaper