Monday, 18 February 2019

Snow

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It snowed yesterday and the day before and the day before that. Snow, snow, snow. Some people say that there are as many as 52 names for snow in Inuktitut. That may be an exaggeration but there seems to at least be these ones: aput 'snow on the ground', qana 'falling snow', piqsirpoq 'drifting snow', and qimuqsuq 'a snow drift.'

We should have more names for snow. For example it would be good to have a name for disappearing snow. That’s what’s happening here today and, though I complained about being housebound, about the slippery streets, and about the cold, I’ll be sorry to see it go, because soon I’ll start worrying about whether the coming summer is going to bring us the heat waves and forest fires we saw last year.

In Orman Pamuk’s poignant political thriller Snow, “the silence of the snow” is a theme throughout the novel. The Snow Palace Hotel, where the protagonist Ka stays, is in the snowbound city of Kars. The snow symbolizes a world which is cut off from the outside world and also the apathy of its residents.

Snow is often used as a symbol in literature. I recently read Edith Wharton’s wonderful 1911 novel, Ethan Frome, set in a town in which winter represents isolation and unhappiness, yet there is also reference to “the crystal clearness” of the winter. In Shakespeare snow can refer to purity, chastity, or the decline of old age.

Snow can have positive or negative implications or sometimes both, as in the final words of James Joyce’s The Dead: ‘His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their latter end, upon all the living and the dead.’ Some critics have claimed the snow here represents death and desolation, but surely it also suggests the opportunity for renewal and another chance. Sometimes the bleakest scenario offers the chance to turn things around.

That’s how I see it. Sometimes things seem hopeless, like yesterday’s New York Times article on global warming entitled “Time to Panic,” yet I am determined to believe that individual action can prompt political action and we can turn things around.

I’m going to keep in my mind the image of the beautiful labyrinth that artist and poet Sophia Rosenberg created on Lasqueti Island last week.

 



 

The labyrinth path shows a journey that offers a return and a new beginning. But we have to stay on the path. We have to keep putting one foot in front of the other. We have to think seriously about our footprints.

 

 

 

Sunday, 10 February 2019

Clear-sightedness


A few years ago, my vision worsened. My eyesight was blurry and I found it hard to see when I drove  at night, and my ophthalmologist said I had to deal with my cataracts. I’d resisted this advice previously because, although I am quite brave about things that take place below the neck, I hate the idea of anything being done to my eyes. In nightmares, the thought of needles being put in my eyes is at the top of my torture list.

But it was time. What made it easier to face the surgery was the positive experience of many of my contemporaries. And, in particular, old friend told me that what was wonderful was not just the clarity of vision but the brilliance of colours. “It’s as though your eyes had been covered by brown sludge,” he said, “and then it’s removed and everything brightens.” That sounded good.

I kept those thoughts with me as I gritted my teeth and faced the scalpel and found, a few days after the surgery, that he was right. What had looked like a brownish-blue bowl would now have to be called cerulean. It was that bright! A scarf that I’d thought of as mauve was actually closer to magenta. A brown shirt had become tangerine. Surgery had coloured my world!

However, it hasn’t made me as clear sighted as I’d like to be. I still see the world through the eyes of someone who’s been looking at it for almost seventy-seven years. These are old eyes, and they see things through a film of custom and habit.

When I was young, I knew my parents didn’t live in my world. They didn’t like the music, magazines, movies or books I found so exciting. They didn’t appreciate the way the fifties and sixties had changed everything. They saw an erosion of the values they’d held, and the things that delighted me just depressed them.

Looking back now, I begin to understand how it was for them. I know that nostalgia is an unreliable emotion that produces a good deal of falsehood but it’s hard not to look back. It’s difficult for me to see things without a lens of disappointment and I fear for the future. I can cope with social media, but I don’t like it. I admire the savvy of the young, but I can’t imagine that anything good can come of internet dating. I’ve never thought I was a prude, but I now find much of today’s world vulgar.

It’s my old eyes. I wish I could see things freshly.  I need a procedure that will remove that sludgy film of experience that is limiting my vision. I guess a lot of us old folk do.

Monday, 4 February 2019

Fly Shame


Recently I read an article in the Guardian that listed new words for guilt about air travel: in the Netherlands it’s vliegschaamte; in Sweden it’s flygskam; in Germany, Flugscham. Literally, they all mean “fly shame.” I wonder if there are also words for “meat shame” or “dairy shame”?

These are the things I have been ranting about lately. Since the Cop 24 climate change talks, the Davos Economic Forum, the UN and Intergovernmental Report on Climate Change, I’ve been increasingly worried about the climate crisis. Greta Thunberg’s presentations at COP 24 and Davos, as well as her TED talk, have made me remorseful about the damage my generation has created, the degraded environment we are leaving for our grandchildren. And, since watching clips of the hundreds of thousands of young people demonstrating around the world to draw attention to these problems, I’ve felt compelled to change some of my own practices. I doubt that I’ll ever fly again, I no longer eat meat or eggs and I don’t drink milk. But I can’t quite give up cheese. The cheese stands alone, says the old nursery song called“The Farmer in the Dell.” For me, the cheese stands alone. For the moment. Maybe one day I’ll give it up.

But, first, what I have to renounce is the random ranting. Yesterday I was having a pleasant conversation with an old friend and then, when she spoke happily about two trips that she has planned, I took her to task about the evils of air travel. “It’s time for everyone to just stay home,” I bellowed, and attempted to make her feel guilty about these holidays.

Why? She’s a good person who, unlike me, uses public transport and walks almost everywhere. She goes away only for long trips to Europe to see friends and to visit relatives in her old country; she doesn’t zip off for five days at an all-inclusive in some warm place simply because winter is getting to her. She shops carefully and locally, recycles diligently, and volunteers at worthwhile local organizations. Who am I to complain about her occasional airplane flight?

And anyway, as my daughter wisely advised me, shame has never been an effective deterrent for any kind of behaviour.

So I’m now going to stick to writing letters to people in high places, leaving my friends to make their own decisions, and focusing on doing a bit better in my own life. And perhaps cutting back a bit on the cheese.

 

Saturday, 2 February 2019

Libraries

  
Lately I’ve been talking a lot about the virtues of bookstores: Massey Books in Vancouver, Munro’s in Victoria, even our new little new and used bookstore in Nanaimo, Windowseat Books. These, and so many other independent bookstores, are inviting spaces which are full of treasures.

But today I am thinking about libraries, because yesterday my friend Patricia Young, an award-winning Victoria poet, and I had the pleasure of reading from our new books at the North Nanaimo branch of the Vancouver Island Regional Library, and it got me thinking about the special attractions of libraries.

As a child I was taken frequently to both the Dunbar and the Kerrisdale libraries in Vancouver. What freedom I felt in those places, with all those shelves and shelves of books. I remember that there was a children’s section and an adult section, but I don’t remember anyone ever stopping me when I moved from one to the other. I felt on the brink of great discoveries. As Virginia Woolf said, I ransack public libraries, and find them full of sunk treasure.

It was a privilege to work part-time at the Blackader-Lauterman Library of Architecture and Art at McGill many years ago, and to live across the street from the very beautiful old Westmount Library with its inscription, Tongues in Trees, Books in the Running Brooks. Later there was the fabled New York Public  Library with its stone lions and the majestic Rose Main Reading Room. Most wonderful to me was the Bodleian’s Duke Humphrey’s Library at the University of Oxford, where inside the books were chained to the tables and the church bells from the surrounding colleges ring regularly. All these places fueled my imagination so that when, years later, I saw Wim Winders’ film, Wings of Desire, it was easy for me to accept that invisible angels might gather in libraries.

“What a great environment,” many people said about the meeting room of the North Nanaimo  library where Patricia and I read. The space is airy and light, with comfortable chairs, and Darby Love, the librarian, is friendly and facilitative. The library is frequented by people of all ages and all sorts, and is clearly a well-used community meeting space. Libraries, like churches, are welcoming to everyone and so, especially at downtown branches, they are used by the homeless and troubled, which is a good thing for all of us.

As Anne Herbert, author of Random Kindness and Senseless Acts of Beauty has written, Libraries will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no libraries.

We’re lucky to have them!
                                                                            
                                                                                                                                                              






Thursday, 24 January 2019

Bookstores



 
There’s a special feeling about an independent bookstore. It is similar to a church or a library in that it has a reverential sense, but without any restrictions on moving about, talking or laughing. A bookstore can be a haven that often serves as a safe place to meet friends or family, and it offers a sense of community. In a bookstore, people talk about books and share recommendations. Writers get to have readings there. And bookstores have actual booksellers who are almost always people who know and love books and can supply helpful information. 

Ordering books on the internet gives you a very different experience. Yes, the purchase might be less expensive, but the experience is a good deal less expansive. In a real bookstore, you can browse and pick up the books and get the feel of them in three dimensions. Four, if you spend time with it. You can chat with the bookseller, ask questions, get help with finding the books you want. You will encounter real people, people who share your interest in books. On the internet you  look at graphic illustrations, press buttons, enter numbers, and a few weeks later you will receive a drone-delivered book.  It’s not a human interaction and it doesn’t have much to do with literature. The big internet stores and the big chain stores make it clear: they see books as “product” and they are all about product.

 A real bookstore isn’t about product; it’s about people and place, and poetry and prose. It’s about inquiries and explorations and connections.

 Earlier this week I had the good fortune to read from my book Minerva’s Owl at Vancouver’s Massy Books on Hastings near Main -- http://www.massybooks.com/ -- which describes itself as is “a funky retail destination in Vancouver’s Chinatown neighbourhood” and as “a place full of wordy, quirky, artsy, connectivity.”  Massy Books is all those things and more.

 At the beginning of my reading, I commented on the surroundings and noted that you can get the feel of a really fine bookstore as soon as you walk in. Everyone nodded. It felt good there. And I picked up a couple of great books at low prices!

Vincent Van Gogh saw the positive spirit of such surroundings, “Bookstores always remind me that there are good things in this world,” he said.

These days we need to be reminded of that.

Check out Massy Books. You’ll feel better for it.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   

 

Monday, 7 January 2019

Epiphany

 

 




The word “epiphany” is derived from the Greek epipháneia, meaning manifestation or appearance. The Feast of Epiphany has to do with the Magi following the star and seeing the Christ child. It is about manifestation. Seeing the light.

 At this moment of Epiphany 2019 we are in the midst of a climate crisis. Finally, most people have stopped denying that the climate is changing because of human activity, but there are different approaches as to how to respond to the crisis. The UN and 15 year old Swedish activist Greta Thurnberg have pointed out that eliminating or greatly reducing meat and dairy from our diet and restricting air travel to emergencies would make a huge difference. This is something each of us could do, but the uptake on such ideas is slow.



Recently I saw a tweet from a scientist who proposed that “there is nothing wrong with making individual low-carbon choices,” but suggested that there are problems with emphasizing individual lifestyle over collective action. It seems to me that, not only is there “nothing wrong,” there is also a lot that is right about people making lifestyle changes. It is something that has a ripple effect. And when people choose not to fly there is a reduction in the number of planes that will fly, because the airline industry runs a tight margin and they frequently cancel flights. It’s not the case that the plane is going anyway.
 
 
Thurnberg points out that her generation will only fly in emergencies because previous generations have used up the carbon quota of the young. She also suggests that action is important because hope depends on action. My counsellor friends tell me that these days there are unprecedented levels of anxiety and depression in children and youth. Maybe the inaction of older generations contributes to a sense of hopelessness in young people.
 


We will all feel more hopeful when we make changes in our lifestyle to take care of our planet. And, in my first post two years ago, Staying Home, I noted that there are real advantages in spending less time in the air.
 


Certainly it’s true that we should take collective action to put pressure on government and industry to take big steps to reduce climate change. When that happens, we are all going to have to make personal lifestyle changes -- so why not start now? There will be no prizes for being a late adopter and in the meantime our individual lifestyle changes will be helpful.

 


It may be comfortable to turn a blind eye to the damage caused by our consumption of meat and dairy and our addiction to airplane travel, but it’s dangerous.  It’s time for a collective epiphany. It’s time to see the light. 

 

 




















 

Thursday, 11 October 2018

Eminently Presentable Men


Over the last several weeks there has been much talk about Judge Kavanaugh and the other men who approved his nomination to the Supreme Court of the United States. Many of us felt a sense of incongruity as we watched the line-up of nicely turned out, well-dressed men, emanating wealth and privilege while listening to testimonies of violent sexual assault.
Throughout my childhood and teenage years, I saw power as symbolized by confident men in dark suits. They embodied authority and were not to be questioned. Sometimes I felt there was something under the surface that was to be feared, though I could not say what it was.

Recently, talking to a friend about such men, D.H. Lawrence’s poem called How Beastly the Bourgeois Is sprang to mind:  

How beastly the bourgeois is
especially the male of the species —

Presentable, eminently presentable — shall I make you a present of him?
 
Isn’t he handsome? Isn’t he healthy? Isn’t he a fine specimen?
Doesn’t he look the fresh clean Englishman, outside?
Isn’t it God’s own image? tramping his thirty miles a day
after partridges, or a little rubber ball?
wouldn’t you like to be like that, well off, and quite the thing

Oh, but wait!
Let him meet a new emotion, let him be faced with another
man’s need,
let him come home to a bit of moral difficulty, let life
face him with a new demand on his understanding
and then watch him go soggy, like a wet meringue.
Watch him turn into a mess, either a fool or a bully.
Just watch the display of him, confronted with a new
demand on his intelligence,
a new life-demand.

How beastly the bourgeois is
especially the male of the species —
Nicely groomed, like a mushroom
standing there so sleek and erect and eyeable — 
and like a fungus, living on the remains of a bygone life
sucking his life out of the dead leaves of greater life
than his own.

And even so, he’s stale, he’s been there too long.
Touch him, and you’ll find he’s all gone inside
Just like an old mushroom, all wormy inside, and hollow
under a smooth skin and an upright appearance.
 Full of seething, wormy, hollow feelings
rather nasty — 
How beastly the bourgeois is!

Standing in their thousands, these appearances, in damp England
what a pity they can’t all be kicked over
like sickening toadstools, and left to melt back, swiftly
into the soil of England.

Lawrence wrote this poem almost century ago in another country but it still resonates. He specifically points at the male of the species, but surely a finger must also be pointed towards the females who stand behind most of these men, enabling them to stay “sleek and erect and eyeable” so that they too can suck their lives out of the remains of others.