Love Letter #2

Today’s contribution to The World Needs More Love Letters holiday campaign.

“In the country of loss, there are no words which can bring back what’s gone.  All comforts are stripped in this rocky place, dark except the glimmer which keeps us going, one step after another. A lit candle, a crimson ray of daylight, a lantern held aloft – the light in the distance has various forms – but what it emits is pure love.

Our love of life and of one another. Our collective love which wraps its arms around us and holds us upright during our worst times. I hope in this season you have found that glimmer and known that light was shining just for you. It will get brighter as you continue to move towards it.”

If all you needed was love…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I finished my term paper and had it handed in by 10:30 this morning – which officially leaves me free to live the other aspects of my life until at least mid-January when the school term begins anew! And thus I’ve got the energy to return to this blog with a new (temporary)  writing project – and without the guilt of “I should be working on my paper” hanging over me.

Phew! Now onto the fun writing: Love letters! I’ve recently been alerted to the World Needs More Love Letters which marshals group love-letter writing once a month to cheer up a person in need. From December 3-14 of this year, they are promoting a marathon 12 Days of Spirit writing event in which participants are encouraged to write a letter each day to the project-suggested recipient. I’ve just written my first and it’s sitting by the piano waiting to go out in the post – and I’m dedicating myself to doing this little exercise for the next eleven days hence – both as a way to work my pen and also because I want to live in a world where people exercise this type of indirect reciprocity.

I highly encourage all your spreaders of love and compassion to join in this quest to lift the spirits of someone in need during this holiday season (and beyond) – by writing letters, or by exercising some other act of anonymous kindness. Since working on my term paper I’ve been thinking again about how we achieve the world we want to live in – and I think that the only way is by doing it. That is, finding the space in our lives to be the people of our imagined better world.

But enough philosophy! Letters can be brief and don’t have to take up more than five minutes and a stamp – and for someone who needs love and support, who knows what brightness you might bring them.

Not writing.

I tell myself all the time that I don’t have time to write. That I don’t have space. That I don’t have enough unbroken minutes and silences to sit down and really work. Which is somewhat true. But what’s also true is that I feel foolish about writing. Really. Foolish. Because the voice inside me, the same one that says that I must find meaning, says this is meaningless because isn’t the whole human project meaningless anyway? And so I am silenced by an inability to take myself seriously in the face of the death-reality of human life. What a thing to face mortality every time I sit down to write!

Silencing that part of myself seems nigh impossible – especially these days with all the philosophy-reading and life introspection my grad program requires. Rather than turning off the questions, I feel like the universal taps have been left wide open and I am being flooded with rivers of why and how, and not that! Not quite drowning, though drinking enough in to get water poisoning overtime. I suppose that one way to get through it is to create characters who ask these questions and beat themselves up – therefore at least getting something productive out of my self-questioning. Making poetry out of existentialism though? I don’t know how to do that without sounding pretentious.

I suppose another problem is that I’ve fallen into the distraction trap of the Internet and writing means removing myself from some other pastime that I think I’d rather do. But like my channel-surfing teenage self, I don’t really want to spend my time in the zone of random information and video – and when I’ve spent an hour or two at it I really feel like I’m letting my life drip away, no matter how current or important what I’ve been looking at seems to be. When I putter in the garden for two hours, when I spend an hour organizing the kitchen, when I go to a coffeeshop and write pressingly into my notebook – I don’t feel like that. So what makes the Internet (or television for that matter) so compelling? I don’t think the answer is laziness but something else. Something related to my first point above and also to the fact that life (and all of these activities I just listed) requires a lot of work to make a go of anything. And also, it takes a long time to get really good at things. So rather than laziness, I think it’s more like inertia that keeps me glued to the Internet over living my real life. And once you get over that hurdle, the part that keeps one stuck down and unchanging, one is really over halfway to the point of producing. Bodies in motion stay in motion and all that.

Like right now, I was just sitting on the couch, vacillating between reading a really good book of current philosophical thinking on what makes us human, looking through some old journals and surfing the Internet. A part of me lately has been yearning to write, not necessarily even creative writing, but something that will give me an outlet for synthesis as I rack up ideas, images, arguments and (yes, even) self-doubts. The fact that I wasn’t settling on any one of the above things (reading, surfing, annotating past thoughts) tipped me off to the fact that I really wanted to be doing something else which felt more meaningful than any of those things. I could, of course, easily subsume that feeling into another round of Internet meandering, but instead I decided that although we have to go out shortly, and I don’t feel like installing myself in the silent studio at the moment – I could just sit up on the couch and write whatever came to mind. Which was this. Because I am attempting to figure out not only why I don’t write (and by that I mean – seriously, off the blog, developing narrative or at least lyric), but also why I am in a loop of procrastination in my life generally. It’s not making me happy – at work, or in my creative life – and yet there I find myself dog-paddling towards forty and trying not to have the predictable midlife crisis about it all.

Ultimately I think it’s about habits, and I’ve fallen into some rather insidious habits that allow me to stay in a mode of procrastination rather than moving out of it. I’m not really in the mood to make grand promises or pronouncements about how I’m going to fix myself (it is Saturday morning after all) – but I am simply making an attempt here to focus my own awareness on something that’s been eating at me lately. I need to write, I want to write, and yet I’m not doing it. And I’m not doing it because of existential issues, negative self-talk, and the lure of other things that involve a lot less effort from me. So there. That’s why I’m not writing, or at least part of the reason for it. Something that I would like to change about myself anyhow.

Founding mythologies

(A follow-up rough draft to my original post on Genesis).

Most women intimately know the curse of Eve – the moment in Genesis where God mandates that childbirth will always be painful before casting our founding mythlings into the wilderness. From this we draw our monthly expulsion of egg and tissue as the reminder of God’s epithet and we call it so. “The curse” being one of the many euphemisms used to describe that period of blood flow – our shame for the sin of the apple. Bad woman who sought the fruits of knowledge and so brought upon the downfall of our rather simple Adam. Then again, Adam took a bite of the apple too, didn’t he?

And we forget that as punishment for his role in the whole Eden debacle Adam also received a specific curse. More painful to our human legacy than Eve’s small burden – Adam’s curse was nothing short of civilization. For God says to Adam “cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Which is where our civilization begins: the advent of agriculture.

As with our monthly bleeding, we accept civilization as part of our natural state of being. Ten thousand years is a long time after all, we can hardly be expected to remember that we once inhabited the earth as a minority population alongside much larger animal kingdoms – that before our mouths were filled with dust, they were fed by the wild in which we lived. But those who told the first stories (that were eventually written down onto those scrolls which became the Old Testament) remembered. Not only did those voices remember, but they could see the uncivilized tribes right outside their own doorsteps – and they must have felt they had some explaining to do. How else can we understand man imprisoning himself in the yoke, lashing himself to the plow? Only divine punishment could take us from there to here. We didn’t willingly choose it, did we?

But of course human transitions don’t work that way. They aren’t a punishment, nor are they a conscious choice. The movement from hunter/gatherer to shepherd to agriculturalist flowed over thousands of years as populations expanded and shrank, as the climate changed and the ice receded. It would have been as simple as nomads wandering through the same territory year after year, leaving seeds behind and harvesting their next time through. Or a particularly good cave for keeping a flock or banking food against future want. Perhaps one year the snows never came and so instead of moving on a people decided to stay. As much as we want a single, linear narrative of civilization – it takes hundreds of individual and collective decisions to add up to our steel and concrete present.

It’s safe to say if Jack and Jill Cromag could have forseen what their tendency to settle would eventually wreak on their beautiful green earth – they would have packed up and kept roaming. Such is hindsight, but here we are.

***********

Adam and Eve beget Cain and Abel. Abel, the shepherd with whom we side for his gentleness and fealty is murdered brutally by his brother, the farmer. Despite having the mark of evil delivered by the Lord, Cain is allowed to live.

Why exactly? Because Cain, embodiment of agriculture, must slay the shepherd in order for humans to get from there to here. It was not possible for our forefathers who wrote on those scrolls to envision giving up a pastoral existence for any other reason than violence or force. These changes need some acknowledgement in the form of powerful stories – which informs us that the whole project of civilization was questioned at its outset – contested as it emerged. Certainly, later wars between the “barbarians” and the “civilized” are ample evidence of exactly that. Even to this day there are some 50+ tribes extant in the world who reject modernity in so much as they can avoid it altogether. The advent of agriculture was by no means a *given*, but the emergence of certainly needed an explanation.

By the time we’d figured it out though, it was too late – as Genesis demonstrates in the story of Joseph which dominates the end of this most precious first book. Not only does this new reliance on agriculture (not to mention the rise of cities and the dispersal of peoples) leave us vulnerable to famine. We are now more vulnerable to each other. Through the power of foresight (storing food in advance of a famine) – Joseph is not only able to amass personal wealth but also to enslave all the people of Egypt who are weakened by starvation on behalf of the Pharoh. Having turned their entire existence over to the civilizing influences of agriculture, they are unable to return to another mode of living in their impoverished state. It is too late for the people of Egypt now “owned”. Let’s not forget, we mythologically regard Joseph as a good guy – a victim of personal tragedy who masters his own fortune by sucking up to power. Just as we are encouraged to identify with the business-owning class of the early-21st century, the early story of Joseph chides us that we can not get along in the world if we don’t somehow identify with our captors.

Joseph Campbell theorizes that myth is present in our society “to come to terms with the world [and] harmonize our lives with reality,” and Genesis is a collection of them to remind us that the social order we live in needs explaining. Far be it that we believe Hobbes and his “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” description of our natural state that leads us into our bargain with the beast – the very founding stories of Judeo-Christian existence (not to mention those of many other cultures) demonstrate the sense of helplessness with which humans were plucked from their wild garden and dropped into the arms of the Pharoh.

Astralabe (a poem draft, a fragment)

Whose child was I?

Granted a name promising
stories written across stars,
access to the future, a glimpse
behind the habit my mother
sometimes wore.

Passed into the arms of Brittany
and held in stiff folds of
linen. Rustling silence and starched
piety. I wasn’t old before
I asked why

Only to be sent with my cousins
to find dandelion for dinner.
Bitter green and grey potato
filled in the hollow
of what I wanted to know.

But this name! More question than answer
to my past. An instrument through which
one gazes at sun, moon and
stars with both feet still planted
on the ground.

For readers of this blog a hint: Astralabe was the son of Heloise and Abelard, conceived illegitimately and then given to a relative to raise. He pretty much disappears from the historic record after this is noted about him. I would like to turn this draft into a poem cycle – for now it comprises another entry in my academic reading journal.

Emigrate: A found poem and photograph

Emigrate

Go in the Spring and take up a
Free Farm of 160 Acres
in Western Canada.

(close to Schools, Churches,
Railways and Markets)

The Richest Land on Earth.
The best climate.
The fullest enjoyment of health.

Men of 18 years and over get a Homestead, 160 Acres
Free.
Railways spreading out in every Direction.

Special Excursions will leave Detroit, Mich.
in March, April and May, 1900

Get in before the Rush,
secure a Free Homestead
and become
independent.

Postcard Fiction: Foxes

They came early spring and set up camp there, in the woods near the lake, eyed stands of hardwood they would cut to make room for the necessities of cabin and garden. Father, mother, three boys under nine and a rickety wagon that would carry them no longer. There were no roads on which to travel in any case; they stood now at the end of one.

Their livelihood hinged on the clutched deed, and despite poor soil they spent the summer cutting, chopping, digging, cursing. Father, mother and two horses doing the heavy work until one of the horses stumbled forward and died. By autumn they recognized the land’s poverty would never allow for rolling fields of grain or orchards ripe for market. Lucky to be fed the first winter on roots and stone soup. Father meditated on the possibilities of logging, trapping, and more hard-working sons as he tramped the land in search of clues to an existence.

During a breathless trapline walk there came an idea as he knelt to recover a fox, its winter red pelt all gloss and luxury. A glitter in the grey, he turned over the possibility of breeding rather than trapping and saw its value. What was more, he knew a place to keep his quarry from predators, requiring no fence or feed. A tiny island some distance from shore would imprison these pups with an aversion to swimming, and provide their small subsistence.

He trapped his foxes live, rowed them in batches to populate the scrubby island by summer’s beginning. The family worked and cursed through their second cycle on the land, another son now heavy in mother’s belly as she pulled the plow in lieu of the last horse which had died over winter. All the while father kept his foxes close in thought, felt assured by their presence nearby.

As the northern lights of November winked their last, fall turned into a truly raging winter. Buried in snow the family huddled, prayed, and wished for the life they had left in city slums. Father’s mantra, even as they hungered, stayed the same all winter long: come thaw, come spring, come pups, come pelts. He whispered by the fire, sometimes sitting up all night.

Then came the longer days and stronger light; they traversed sodden paths through the wood to the lake, finding then it had frozen solid during winter’s height. It was thin-to-melting now and in a few days father launched his rowboat towards the copper island to investigate. Surprised then to find no living animal nor carcass as he explored the rock studded with spring’s green shoots. Neither tufts of fur or blood to mark a struggle. He was puzzled.

Rowing back he realized, put frozen lake and homing drive together; saw those small red creatures skittering one by one across the ice, disappearing back into the wooded hills above the cabin. Squared his shoulders then, returned to thawing land.

(This piece of postcard fiction is based on a true family story, was submitted to GEIST’s annual contest in 2008 but won no prizes, and has no postcard to go with it any longer.)

Considering who you wanted to be

Firefighter, archeologist, mad scientist, doctor, nurse, prime minister, teacher, writer, movie star, policeman. “What do you want to be when you grow up?”, the encouragement of grade one ambitions most likely thwarted by bad luck or practical considerations once coddling questions disappeared. Left in an over-stuffed room to paw through the shelves and wonder what serendipitous material you might knock up against in the absence of what you once had. That confidence of direction which allowed you at the age of three to proudly tell everyone that once grown up you would be a singer in a restaurant, because the sagging dinner act you saw during a trip to San Francisco was the most glamorous thing you had ever seen and you saw nothing ridiculous in the declaration. If you really can grow up to be whatever you want, why not a declining voice in a smoky pasta bar? Seemed as good as anything else, until you saw Dennis Lee reading “Ookpik” at the public library and came home believing that you could fill scribblers full of rhymes like his with no effort (He’s never locked in the zoo. He lives in a warm igloo.) and attempted to do just that. Which lasted until the time mother took a university course and came home talking about the pygmy tribes of Africa, put a copy of The Forest People on the bookshelf and anthropology entered your vocabulary. Study other people, far away places, a little like archeology but without the bones and dirt? That sounded okay, got tried on for awhile and sounded impressive to adults (every kid wants to dig up dinosaurs, few want to study other cultures). But then, they always said you were a good arguer and People’s Court was your favourite show so you started watching every law and court drama on television you could in preparation for becoming a lawyer. Perry Mason was dated, but everyone listened to him and it was rumoured that lawyers made lots of money. Which carried you through into a first job at the local A&W, getting stoned before or after work and wondering if what you wanted ended here. And was it enough to live the rest of your life on?

A poem for sharing.

I was looking for a wedding song for a friend, tossing around the idea of putting a poem to music rather than doing a conventional/ridiculous love song. Found this, and although it’s not what I needed it moved me to share it. Mary Oliver is on the top of my favourite poets list these days.

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean–
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down–
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is is you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?

Mary Oliver