Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Courage to Be …

A writer, an artist, a creator, a free spirit, your authentic self.

The title comes from Paul Tillich’s book of the same name, which I’ve read twice, both a long time ago. Maybe it’s time I read it again. Tillich writes about modern life and the anxieties it engenders: fate and death; emptiness and meaninglessness; guilt and condemnation; despair. Tillich says, ‘I have chosen a concept in which theological, sociological, and philosophical problems converge, the concept of “courage”.’

Life can be a struggle at times: we question our decisions, wonder if we’ve ever done anything meaningful, wonder if we’ve fulfilled our potential, been good enough parents. We can go round in circles, get stuck. It takes courage to live, to face the challenges of life, to follow the byways and highways, as well as to wack our way through the tangles of jungle that appear to bar our way at times.

It can be even more difficult if the path you choose is one of the arts. For some people it doesn’t seem to be a choice – they are driven to create in whatever medium. They cannot survive without that art practise; it is their meaning. However, the arts generally don’t provide a lot for the basic essential needs: food, clothing, shelter. Many artists died poor, or struggled to survive, to find patrons.

Tillich: ‘What conflicts with the courage of wisdom is desires and fears.’

Our society is based on money; one needs it to pay for all those basics and the non-essentials that improve our lives, of the things we think we should have. We are expected to grow up and find jobs. Some are lucky enough to find work that feeds their passion and to be adequately and even occasionally well paid for it. Others give up their artistic passions to work in other occupations that will provide the necessities. They do their art part time, set it aside for years, or leave it altogether. Some get stuck in a sort of limbo, never quite satisfied with their lives, not able to move forward in a way that gives satisfaction.

I wrote my first story when I was about nine years old. I planned to be a writer, and thought I could become a journalist because at least that was a job that could actually be paid. But my family didn’t have much money and I couldn’t afford to go to either of the universities I would have liked, that offered journalism degrees – they were both out of province, one out of the country. I didn’t consider a technical school which was available not so far away – was I wrong? I opted for a Bachelor of Arts in English. Then realized it wouldn’t get me a job either and took teacher training, which did result in paid work. I always continued to write.  Moved on from teaching to other jobs, married, had a child, still wrote. Always felt a need to find paid work, though sometimes it was part time so I could write more. I didn’t have the courage to be a writer full time, to put myself in that precarious position. Or did it take more courage the other way?

Eventually I took a writing course at the Summer School of the Arts in Saskatchewan and was inspired and felt I’d found my community. I began to have short stories published.

Tillich: ‘Courage … is the readiness to take upon oneself negatives, anticipated by fear, for the sake of a fuller positivity. … Biological self-affirmation needs a balance between courage and fear.’

Art is about creation, but it’s also about sharing. If no one sees or reads what you do, does it have the same meaning as doing it only for yourself? There are different satisfactions. And you still have to find a way to support yourself, unless you are lucky enough to live with someone who will support you financially and in other ways, or you need to find one or more patrons. One of my favourite mystery writers, Dorothy Sayers, still received money from her parents after she found a job as a copy writer because the job didn’t pay quite enough. Eventually Sayers succeeded as a writer.

I owned hardly any furniture for years, didn’t buy a house until in my forties. My jobs were mostly short term. A year or two or five here, there, then moved on because it was no longer satisfying and the money wasn’t enough. Though I never stopped writing, even if at times it was just journals.  I got tired of times of poverty.

Then I found a job I could do for longer, and I stayed for fourteen and a half years. I was getting older and wanted to buy a house, a place I could retire to and write. I also travelled a little, bought some furniture. Continued to have success with short stories published or broadcast or winning awards.

Tillich: ‘… anxiety is the awareness of unsolved conflicts between structural elements of the personality, as for instance conflicts between unconscious drives and repressive norms, between different drives trying to dominate the center of the personality, between imaginary worlds and the experience of the real world, between trends toward greatness and perfection and the experience of one’s smallness and imperfection, and between the desire to be accepted by other people or society or the universe and the experience of being rejected, the will to be and the seemingly intolerable burden of being which evokes the open or hidden desire not to be.’

At the age of 45 I felt that existential anxiety again. I had a good job that I liked, was supporting myself financially, but would I ever get a book together? Get a book published? What meaning did my life have if I didn’t follow that passion and develop my gift with words?

A really good counsellor helped me sort out a path. I would work to the age of fifty-five when I could take early retirement and have a small pension.

So I did it, and eventually opted for self-publication. I have my personal publishing company and have three books out, another forthcoming. I don’t have a lot of money, but the essentials are covered. Sometimes I’m totally happy, at other times I’m not. I see friends who have worked longer or have partners who can help with expenses, and they travel, spend time away from the cold in winter, etc. I can’t afford to do those things most of the time. Writing is a solitary art. It means I have to face myself every day, face the blank page or the page that was written previously and suddenly looks like crap. I have to find ways to cope with dark days, as anybody does. I am following my passion, and I’m glad for that.

Many of us choose different lives than our parents did. Our children may follow other paths than we do. I don’t think there are wrong answers. Each of us must seek the routes that lead to our own satisfactions that work for us. Just because someone we trust, love or respect tells us things, facts, etc. doesn’t mean we shouldn’t examine those in light of our own beliefs. I learned long ago that constructive criticism in regards to writing can be very useful, but I don’t accept everything – I have to choose which criticism I agree with for any particular story. I think that applies to life.

 It takes courage to live, to find what one loves and pursue it. I love to write, to create a story, a book, a world, characters. It’s hard work at times, too. I’ve had recognition from peers and others, which is encouraging.

It’s easy to look back and think why didn’t I have more courage and choose to give writing priority earlier. How would my life have been different? Perhaps I could have had more success if I’d spent more time writing. But I can’t change the past. I made the decisions that seemed right at the time, and I continue to strive to do that, to find a balance that satisfies me. I think it’s the best anyone can do.

“The courage to be is the courage to accept oneself …”

Paul Tillich

Today, driving out to have Thanksgiving lunch with my parents I listened to a CBC Radio program about Victor Frankl and his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning.” I haven’t read that book, though I had heard about Frankl before. Perhaps it’s time to read that book.

I’ll end with a quote from one of my favourite poets, e.e. cummings, “To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best day and night to make you like everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight and never stop fighting.”

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Autumn Thoughts

I’ve never lived anywhere that didn’t have at least a couple of seasons. Did spent a few months in Victoria, B.C. many years ago where we had snow only once, and winter meant chill and rain. Anyway, I do like changing seasons.

When the nights get significantly colder and the days have a nip in the air, it’s time to put the garden to bed, draw in, make plans for change.

I live outside less when it’s cold, but I still go for walks and that’s important; I always feel better when I spend time outdoors, even in the dire cold.

That time isn’t here yet, however.

I brought in all my tomatoes recently and picked some herbs. I like to dry my own. There’s still carrots to dig. Harvest from my own small garden tastes better than any other food.

What will this fall bring? I look forward to seeing my grandson and hearing about his new school. I have a writing project close to completion, and am working with my son, who will do the design of the book. I’ve got several other writing projects in various stages and will decide which to work on when.

My writing group is meeting soon after a summer hiatus. My book club has had one meeting and another is coming up in October. We’ll go to a pub and sample beer, talk about our favourite poets.

There’ll be movies and plays to see, friends and family to visit with.

And lots of reading!

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Homo Fictus

I first heard this term on the CBC Radio program ‘Ideas’ (Vestigial Tale) It’s also used in a book called ‘The Storytelling Animal’ by Jonathan Gottschall, and can be found here and there on line. I don’t know who originated the expression, but it refers to humans as storytellers.

Gottschall writes, “Tens of thousands of years ago, when the human mind was young and our numbers were few, we were telling one another stories. … Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories. … Human life is so bound up in stories that we are thoroughly desensitized to their weird and witchy power.”

Why do we tell stories, listen to, read, watch and take part in stories throughout our lives?

There are different theories, and you can find some of them in Gottschall’s book. Here are my reasons.

Escape. Sometimes all I want to do is to get away from a boring or difficult time in my life. In those situations I don’t want a story that is demanding, but rather something that has a happy ending or at least some fun and enjoyment in it. I still want a story that is well told and reasonably well written, although for this purpose I’m willing to read (or watch in relation to a movie or TV show) something that is less than excellent. Mysteries fit into this category for me – e.g. Margery Allingham, Dick Francis, Ngaio Marsh.

Entertainment. Closely related to the above, but not necessarily at a difficult or boring time in my life, rather more of a past time that is enjoyable for its own sake. Again, a well told tale with characters I can like and relate to is important. A TV series like ‘Alias’ fits this for me, also Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, Joanna Trollope and Maeve Binchy’s books among others.

Enlightenment. I love a story that shows me the world in a new way or makes me think more deeply or differently about people, things, the universe. Elizabeth Moon’s ‘The Speed of Dark,’ Ursula Le Guin’s ‘The Dispossessed,’ and Janet Kagan’s ‘Hellspark.’

Emotion. There are stories that just sweep me up and carry me away with their passion and pulling at the heart strings, making me sad, horrified, or happy by turns. ‘The Color Purple’ by Alice Walker is one like that.

Enslavement. For me this relates particularly to a book series. I can’t wait to get on to the next one and I often will reread the series periodically because I love the characters and the world so much. The ‘Harry Potter’ series is one such, as is ‘The Lord of the Rings.’ In a more negative way, I found the ‘Whiteoaks of Jalna’ series by Mazo de la Roche addicting. I enjoyed the first few and then couldn’t stop reading because I wanted to know what was going to happen to certain characters or the family, but I got heartily sick of them!

Exertion. I got fixated on ‘e’s! This reason could also be called challenge. Sometimes I like to read a book or experience a story that is written or told in such a way that it challenges me. It’s not an easy read or experience. The topic or the writing style is unusual and requires work to unravel. James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ is an example of this as are plays such as ‘Waiting for Godot’ and ‘The Chairs.’

And of course, if a story can do all of the above at once, it’s pretty special!

Story is all around us – in fiction and nonfiction, in the commercials we watch or read, in our children’s play, in how we explain our lives, in the ways we remember our past, and in the words and images we use to plan for our future.

Do stories help us to figure out how to live our lives? Do they make us more empathetic? Do they give us ethical and cultural contexts for our lives? Are there only seven basic plots? What are the societal purpose of stories?

I write partly to figure things out as well as to try and communicate a certain view or vision to others. I read for those reasons along with the ones above.

In the Introduction to ‘On the Origin of Stories,’ (a drier and thicker book than ‘The Storytelling Animal’) Brian Boyd writes, “A biocultural approach to literature invites a return to the richness of texts and the many-sidedness of the human nature that texts evoke.” As his title is a nod to Darwin’s ‘The Origin of Species,’ Boyd seeks to explore the evolution of stories as part of human evolution. And later in the book he writes, “That is what I want to explain in evolutionary terms: our impulse to appeal to our own minds and reach out to others for the sheer pleasure of sensing what we can share …”

Sunday, July 24, 2016

How many names do you know?

Herb, Ariss, Eli Bornstein, Robert Bateman, Emily Carr, Ken Danby, Ivan Eyre, John Arthur Fraser, E.J. Hughes, Gershon Iskowitz, A.Y. Jackson, Yousuf Karsh,  Dorothy Knowles, Marie Lanoo, Ernest Lindner, Degan Lindner, Alexandra Luke, J.E.H. Macdonald, Ernst Neumann, Daphne Odjig, Pitseolak Ashoona, Bill Reid, Otto Rogers, Jack Shadbolt, Harold Town, Tony Urquhart, Frederick Varley, Caroline Walker, Avram Yenofsky.

I heard of a recent questionnaire that asked Canadians to name three hockey players and one visual artist who were Canadian. How would you do on this?

I thought I’d highlight a few Canadian visual artists:

And there are so many more!

Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Days like Horses, Run Away (Writers You Probably Never Heard Of)

The words came to mind recently, for reasons that I can’t fathom. Anyway, as most of us do today when we want to find something out, I did an internet search. I must confess, that first I did attempt to look up, what I was pretty sure was a quote from something, in my copy of “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.” Yes, I do own a real copy of this book, hard cover, too, from many years ago when some of us had never heard of such a thing as an internet.

Anyway, I discovered that there was a writer called Charles Bukowski, who published a book in 1969 called “The Days Run Away Like Horses Over the Hill.” Now that, I thought, is a beautiful line. But I knew that I’d never heard of Bukowski and so that’s not where I would have come across the words. I was intrigued, though that Bukowski was born in Germany, as was I, though he was an American citizen. His grandmother was born in Danzig (now Gdansk) as was my mother. Paths diverge, however. Bukowski’s father was German American and fought in WWI as an American soldier. He met his wife, Katharina in Germany and they lived there for a few years until the difficulties of post war inflation convinced them to move to the United States. Bukowski didn’t have a great life, at least from my point of view, but he did publish many short stories and poems, novels, non-fiction. There are many recordings of his work, and films that use some of his work. I read the poem “Wild Horses …” on line. Not sure if I’ll read more of his work, though I very much like some of the titles of other poems: A Poem is a City, and When you Wait for the Dawn to Crawl Through the Screen Like a Burglar To Take Your Life Away.

Further research found me at a U2 site with the lyrics for “Dirty Day.” And there I found the words in the last line. When I looked at my copy of the CD (yes, I still have CD’s and play them), I found a dedication “For Charles Bukowski.” U2, an Irish band, has German connections – their album “Achtung Baby” was recorded in Berlin. In 1982 German filmmaker Wim Wenders approached the band looking for music for his film “Until the End of the World.” “Stay (Faraway, So Close)” was another song for a Wenders film.

Recently, I found a book in the library called, “Hidden Folk: Icelandic Fantasies” by Eleanor Arnason. Since I’m planning a trip to Iceland next year, I picked it up and read it. I’d never heard of this writer and enjoyed the book very much.  Arnason lives in Minneapolis, but her family background is Icelandic. I also discovered that she has written science fiction, and been compared to Ursula Le Guin (one of my favourite writers). So another connection and  new discovery. I will read more of her books.

I was pretty sure that Arnason is a name of Icelandic origins, and it is (internet research again). I do know Canadian author David Arnason, who I met many years ago when he was teaching at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. I even wrote a review of his collection of short stories “Fifty Stories and a Piece of Advice.” He was born in Gimli, Manitoba, on Lake Winnipeg. The land was granted to Icelandic settlers by the Canadian Government in 1875. The community became known as New Iceland. After reading Eleanor Arnason’s book, I decided it was time to read more of David’s work and I recently finished reading “Baldur’s Song: A Saga.” David Arnason has written many other books including, “The Dragon and the Dry Goods Princess,” “The New Icelanders: A North American Community” and “The Demon Lover.” Another connection – my fantasy (second in The Leather Book Tales series, coming out later this year) “Child of Dragons” has Icelandic characters.

Like wild horses running across the prairie, the mind at times wanders and forages where it wills.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Mother Courage and Her Children

Between 700 and 900 migrants fleeing the conflict in Libya may have died at sea this week.

4.8 million Syrians are refugees from the war in their country

John F. Kennedy once said, “Mankind must put an end to war before war puts an end to mankind.”

Have we made any progress in this area? Are things getting worse instead of better?

Theories of the causes of war generally look at three area: biology, culture, reason. The biological theory posits that we are naturally aggressive and territorial creatures. Some cultures have been more warlike than others (e.g. ancient Rome); some have worked hard to eliminate war and even to remain neutral during times of conflict (e.g. Switzerland). Reason may tell us, on the one hand, that a particular war is necessary (e.g. to protect citizens or to prevent a dictator taking over), while on the other hand it may tell us there should be alternatives to war.

In 1939 Bertoldt Brecht, in collaboration with Margarete Steffin, wrote his play, “Mother Courage and Her Children.” The story takes place during the Thirty Years War in Europe (1614 – 1648). It’s considered a classic drama and an anti-war play. Brecht wrote it in response to Hitler’s invasion of Poland, and apparently finished writing in in just over month.

“What they could do with around here is a good war. What else can you expect with peace running wild all over the place? You know what the trouble with peace is? No organization.” – From “Mother Courage and Her Children” a sergeant.

Mother Courage, the main character of the play, a single mother, runs a canteen wagon with the Swedish Army as a way to take care of her family. Over the course of the story, she loses both her sons and her daughter in the very war where she tried to make a living.

After the Protestant Reformation in Europe in the 1500s, a cultural upheaval that splintered Catholic Europe, there were various conflicts from 1524 to 1651, in a number of countries. These ranged from The German Peasants War, and the French Wars of Religion to The Thirty Years War, and the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. The Peace of Augsberg in 1555 was supposed to have settled things, allowing more freedom of religion. However, religious oppression continued on both sides.

The war began in the Holy Roman Empire, and though initially about religion, it spread to other countries (over 200 states of various sizes) and became a war for territory. Over one million men fought in the war. German cities lost one third of their population, the rural population was reduced by two fifths. The population of the Holy Roman Empire was reduced from 20 million to 16 million. As well, famine, plague and other diseases such as typhoid and influenza ravaged the population of Europe. Most deaths occurred in towns and cities where refugees had fled and lived in crowded and unhealthy conditions.

(Painting By Sebastian Vrancx - Sotheby's, Public Domain,

“Dangers, surprises, devastations –
            The war takes hold and will not quit.
But though it last three generations
            We shall get nothing out of it.” – Mother Courage at the end of the play.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

The Power of Sleep

Winston Churchill used to have afternoon naps.

Years ago a friend gave me a book about napping. It was colourful and fun, but I can’t remember the name of it and I gave it away at some point. At the time, I was going through menopause, which can be a very sleep disturbed and sleep-deprived time. It was for me. During one period I never seemed to get more than 6 hours a night. I couldn’t nap much during the week because I still worked full time, but I did start taking naps on the weekend to catch up on sleep.

Eleanor Roosevelt napped before speaking engagements.

Now that I’m retired from jobs of any sort, though I still work – I’m a writer – I sleep whenever and however long I need to. My circadian (biological processes that occur naturally in a 24 hour period, even without reference to light) rhythms seem to vary from time to time. If I’ve been visiting my grandson, who gets up fairly early – 7 am usually – I get into that cycle. If I’m on my own at home, I may have periods where I stay up late and read, write, the creative juices flow and it could be after midnight before I sleep. At times I go to bed fairly early, then wake up at 4 or 5 am and am awake for a few hours. After that I may sleep until 10 or even noon.

Here is a web site about several famous people who napped regularly. Unfortunately they’re all men, but I’m sure there have been and are many women who understand the power of a nap:

According to some things I’ve read, if your circadian rhythms get out of sync with night and day you may have a sleep disorder. Well, I reject that. I think that we’ve gotten too attached to our modern day world of work and how we need people to function for that world to work. If someone couldn’t sleep at all, I could see that being a problem. The body needs to rest. But why do we all need to be awake or asleep at a certain time? In reality, of course, our world does have people who have to or choose to work at night.

I do think it’s important to get enough sleep for your personal health. Sleep deprivation is linked to heart disease, diabetes, poor immune systems, poor mental health, and obesity. I know someone who suffered from severe insomnia for many years and ended up with memory problems. The doctor said this was a result of the constant insomnia. The amount of actual sleep may vary from person to person, and I think when and how you get that sleep may not matter. There are lots of examples of people who sleep differently and need varied hours of sleep.

I recently had a bout of flu that didn’t make me feel very sick, but made me incredibly tired for several weeks. I’ve also had quite a bit of stress in my life for a while. All I wanted to do after the flu, was to sleep and read. I felt in need of the kind of holiday I loved as a kid, where I could just laze about and read as much as I wanted. So I relaxed and let sleep heal me.

Sleep patterns also change with age, but there is some difference in how this is viewed. Some studies apparently show we need less sleep as we age, other experts say we need just as much. But our sleep does become lighter and more fragile as we age. For more on this:

My own belief is that the thing to do is to accept who you are, and what your body and spirit are doing and needing at any particular time. Then find ways to make that work for you in the best way possible.

“I love sleep. My life has a tendency to fall apart when I’m awake, you know?” – Ernest Hemmingway

“He loved his dreams, and cultivated them.” -- Colette