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, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15997992)

“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: http://www.artofmanliness.com/2011/03/14/the-napping-habits-of-8-famous-men/

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: http://bodyandhealth.canada.com/channel/Mental-Health/Sleep-disorders/Sleep-patterns-and-aging

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

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Travelling Through the Heart of Darkness to Reach a Far Green Country

You may recognize my title as fragments of quotes from two writers.

In “The Return of the King,” J.R.R. Tolkien wrote, “The journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain curtain of this world rolls back and all turns to silver glass. And then you see it. White shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.” So spoke Gandalf, the great wizard, to the Hobbit, Pippin, at what seemed like the end of their world in the white city, Minas Tirith. The city was under attack, many of their friends were far away, the evil Sauron seemed in the ascendant, and hope was dead. It was a very dark time and place for them right there, but Gandalf saw beyond the moment.
Joseph Conrad, in his book “Heart of Darkness” wrote about the evils perpetuated in a Belgian colony of Africa, though the story begins on the great river that flows through London. “The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth. . . ‘And this also,’ said Marlow, ‘has been one of the dark places of the earth.’” The story, continues, eventually taking us to the Congo and down the river into another darkness. As we journey with Marlow through the story, we eventually meet Kurtz, an ivory trader who has set himself up as a god, and who is now ill, probably crazy, and dying.

For me the best fiction tells great truths, of individual lives, of society; it reveals, as Carl Jung might say, the great archetypes of our lives and our world, that help to illuminate the journeys that we all set out on from the instant of our births.
Both of these books recently came to mind as I was ruminating about old age and what may be in store. There is much of darkness – loss of memory, loss of function, illusions. Do we really understand what happens to us and our brains? Again, I quote Conrad on an ancient Roman sent to Britain, sailing down the Thames: “There’s no initiation either into such mysteries. He has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is also detestable. And it has a fascination, too, that goes to work on him. The fascination of the abomination – you know, imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate.”

I have watched my parents age, and thought about what might come to me if I live another 20 years or so. Memory fails even now, though it can do that at any age. The body has more aches and pains, doesn’t recover as quickly as it used to. Friends tell me stories of their aging parents, the strange things they did, the delusions they suffer from. “Don’t get old,” is said not uncommonly by people who are old. They may become more demanding. Others complain about nearly everything and seem to find little joy in life. Some may have difficulty coping with life, yet refuse to admit it and refuse help, feeling that their children or others are trying to take over, or take advantage. I could go on and on. Friends give examples of those who live well into their nineties and maintain clarity and activity. But it seems to me there are no guarantees. Certainly books and internet posts, so called experts, tell us how to live well into old age. But do they really know if exercise, eating well, keeping active will make a significant difference? Where are the long term studies?
At times, I’ve thought that those whose parents died when they were relatively young were lucky. As were those who had moved and didn’t live close to their parents any more. My paternal grandfather died before I was born. I met my father’s mother only once many years ago in Germany. My maternal grandmother lived with my parents and me when I was very young, but I don’t remember her. My grandfather lived with us in Germany until I was seven and then we moved to Canada. He moved in with my aunt and I never saw him again.

So I haven’t seen much of the details of people aging. Often I’ve wanted to run away from the difficulties. But something keeps me here, keeps me trying. Perhaps it is partly the fear of what might happen to me as I age, and a hope that I’ll reach some kind of understanding that will make it easier. It’s also the hope that I can bring some joy into my parents’ lives. Not that they are never happy, but often it seems that no matter what I do, nothing really makes a difference. Age “Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,” to quote Shakespeare. And should we really, “not go gentle into that good night” but “Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” (Dylan Thomas) or go quietly?
I am on this journey and I want to make sense of it. I always want to make sense of things. And so I write, and think, and read, and find a really good counsellor. The journey continues. And one day I have an amazingly good day with my mother, and I think that this is why the journey has to continue. Other times I have incredible times with my son and grandson. There is joy and sorrow in life; there are challenges and high points in the journey, valleys, and mountains, storms and sunshine.

To quote Tolkien again:
The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with weary feet,
Until it joins some larger way,
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.”

Two notes:
I know that there has been contemporary criticism of “Heart of Darkness” suggesting that it continues stereotypes about African people, and does not deal with racism. I think that it is a book of its time (first published as a serial 1899), and also that it illuminates much. Anyway, read the book, and come to your own conclusions.

I highly recommend that you listen to the beautiful song from the end of “The Return of the King” movie, sung by Annie Lennox “Into the West.” You can find it on line, also. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f4wD_PT_jgk)