Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Joys of Collecting Rocks - Why Collect?

Why COLLECT?



Maybe a casual remark tossed off by David Spade on George the other night got me started thinking about this. Spade said that, as a child, he was so poor that he collected rocks. Poor? I had never associated a rock collection with poverty. Inexpensive, yes. But collecting rocks was part of the joy of rural living, for sure. We had the freedom to explore without fear or anxiety. Although it is probably true that most of our acquisitions are gathered free of charge, at least until collectors expand into cutting, polishing, and lapidary.

Independence. Another part of rural living was often an absence of other children your own age close by. Yet in our home, the word "bored" was not allowed. "Only boring people get bored," we were assured. The point being, we were expected to learn ways to amuse ourselves when there were no other people around. We were expected to be independent.

Responsibility. Moreover, it was our responsibility, part of our duty as we grew up, to find something to do, to develop interests, preferably interests which get us outside, interacting with our environment, noticing things, asking questions, doing some primary research. Engaging with the world around us. Collecting was a common solution. Some kids collected bird eggs, bird nests, wasp nests, skeletons, skulls, feathers, butterflies, leaves, flowers. Some began "life lists" of birds encountered and identified.

Accessibility. Collecting rocks was something that was easy to do when you lived on a farm. Check out the new load of gravel dumped on the road. Perhaps it is composed of agates, or lava rock, red or black. Just walk out into the fields and look down, especially after the soil has been turned, or after a rain. Quartz and calcite will stand out white in the black till. Mica and tourmaline will wink at you. Feldspar may look pink, or jasper blood red. Iridescence may signal a fossil of some sort. Or you may find a CMO, culturally modified object, such as a "stone hammer" with a band chipped out around the centre, for binding rope to the granite, or multi-colours of flint or chert fashioned into points, scrapers, tools, or utensils. If you live in or travel to the right places, you may find jade objects, or you may be seduced by the multi-facets of crystals (quartz, amethyst), or semi-precious (garnet) or precious (ruby, emerald, sapphire, diamond) stones which are the raw material for jewels. Or gold or copper or silver nuggets washed in the river, or gold dust in the moss. And don't forget the thundereggs, the geodes, with their agate bands or smoky quartz crystals inside the hollow rock ball. Variety. Colour. Translucence. Lustre. Sparkle. Scratch. Mystery. Something will make it a "keeper."

The Joys of Collecting Rocks - The Benefits

BENEFITS


Collectors are Keepers. Once you become known as a collector, people will have a better idea of what gives you joy, of the kind of things you like to keep. They will give you rocks as gifts. My cousin once gave me a dinosaur bone he brought from Alberta. A neighbour gave me a "Gulf of Mexico rose" which looks like a collection of sea shells embedded in petrified sand. A boss gave me a lump of fossilized seashells. Friends took me on a collecting expedition up a high mountain road where we found moulds and casts of sea creatures millions of years old. That same friend gave me a cluster of aragonite crystals, a pale peach colour. Another gave me a bunch of obsidian from Oregon; you can see the conchoidal fracture which makes it so good for chipping to a sharp edge. In some, you can see the fire petrified inside. One of my brothers gave me a massive purple lump of square crystals as a house-warming present. I lost the name, but love it still. It's the colour. And a late beloved friend gave me a selenite ball, a round clump of crystals from the Red River floodway, a connection to home. A client gave me a stone with a hole carved through it. It looks like David's slingshot, some sort of weapon, but it was probably used for fishing with nets. And a man I never saw before or since gave me a polished slab of metamorphosed sea floor found in nearby mountains, when he attended my book launch at the library. And my cousin (actually my Dad's cousin, but we are almost the same age) gave me two slabs of a pale white and sea-green marble-like cut rock which I suspect might be jade. She has others; someone at the dump gave them to her. She has bowls full of rocks decorating her coffee table too.

I know I'm not the only person attracted to these beautiful objects. There is a whole industry surrounding specimens as decoration, natural "objets d'art."





The Joys of Collecting Rocks - Connections


CONNECTIONS




I love the variety, and the beauty, but the connections I associate with the rocks I collect add meaning both to the rocks and to my life. I treasure a piece of flint from Stonehenge and copper ore specimens I lugged home from Whitehorse. Each rock has a connection to a place or a person or a story. The ancient creatures from the sea floor now on top of the mountains, plant leaves from the age of dinosaurs, river rocks set in lava. I can look at a rock and see, read, a story. How these water-rounded granite pebbles must have sizzled when the green andesite lava engulfed them. How cataclysmic the explosion must have been before these sharp-edged quartz clasts were shattered and then sopped up by the lava flowing over, surrounding them. I think I am most attracted to the igneous rocks -- offspring of the dance of earth and fire. It's something about being an earth lover with a fire sign.


The stories the rocks themselves tell are of igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic activity Millennia Before Man. They seem to put an often too-proud and too self-centred humanity into perspective. Small in relation to the planet, the solar system, the universe. Mewling within imagined Time.


I love how my rocks connect me to places and people of my own past and present. Another part of what I love about rocks is the sensory experience they offer. You can see the colour and sparkle. You can hear how each one sounds different, depending on what you strike it with, a chopstick, a knife. You can feel the varied textures and the differences in weight, the heaviness of a hunk of galena, the floating weightlessness of a bomb of pumice. You can even taste some rocks. Salt. Potash. But please, do not lick it after it has been passed from student to student around the whole classroom.


These things are real. Not made by man. Not manufactured steel or tin or plastic. Natural. When I have to pass them on, when I have to move from my house, I shall take their photographs with me, as a way to keep, to maintain those connections.









Saturday, September 22, 2012

Book Club Conflict I - The Push/Pull



I've always been conflicted about book clubs. Pulled by the desire to share a passion. Repelled by the fear that precious time will be taken up reading titles chosen by others, titles far down on my own "Must Read" list. Repelled also by the fear of negativity, the depressing spectre of having to listen to books and their writers (who come to seem like friends) being trashed by other readers. Or worse yet, trashed by readers who have not read them, but insist on talking, about how such-and-such is superior. Or about the movie version. Whatever happened to that open-ended question: What is it about this book that makes it worth writing, publishing, reading? What might I have missed?

In the Book Club push and pull, will I be moved by love or fear? Will I stay home or will I go?

Book Club Conflict II - Pre-Reading

Last month's Book Club book was Wayson Choy's Not Yet: A Memoir of Living and Almost Dying.

I begin, as I've been taught, with Pre-reading. What is the book about? Illness and recovery, not a topic which interests me in general. However, the title says "living," "dying," and "memoir," three subjects in which I do have an interest. What do I know of this writer? Wayson Choy is Canadian. A fellow British Columbian. He grew up in Vancouver's Chinatown (described in his memoir Paper Shadows.) To his friends and former professors at UBC, he is known as Sonny. (I know this because I play Scrabble with a daughter of one of his professors.) Wayson was "discovered" in a Carol Shields writing class. His first novel, The Jade Peony, was a One Book Vancouver selection among its other achievements. His second novel All That Matters was nominated for the Giller. I know because I went to his presentation at the StanleyTheatre in Vancouver, when I chose that ticket as my reward for volunteering at the Vancouver Writers and Readers Festival. That night he talked about that book, and this one, as he had already experienced the health crisis which is the focus of Not Yet. I also heard him read from this book in Toronto, where I had abandoned my attempt to speak to him because the line-ups were just too long. I'm Canadian too. I don't do line-ups. And when the line-up started forming outside the Men's Washroom, waiting for him to re-appear, I just shrugged. Give the guy a break.

My Book Club point is: I've read his previous books. I love his writing style. I've heard him speak on the topic, so my hesitation, my general disinterest in things medical or in books about health is trumped by experience. Yes, I will read it, and I will attend.

Portrait of Wayson Choy by John Beebe, from thebukowskiagency.com (Permission requested 2012/09/22)



Book Club Conflict III - Reading Not Yet


I save it until I have time to enjoy it undisturbed, and read it not too far ahead of the meeting night, so that I will not have to make notes or re-read before the discussion. Every time I am interrupted, I long to get back to reading Not Yet. I finish it easily in less than three days. It is a short book with an accessible style. It keeps my interest, engages me.

He speaks about going to China to film a documentary, Searching for Confucius, and I remember vaguely seeing that film on Knowledge Network or Vision a few years ago. I find a trailer on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7HSgMgXxelc

He also speaks of his teaching at Humber College (where I attended his presentation but refused to stand in line to greet him.)

The one thing I hate about reading borrowed books (in this case, a Book Club copy supplied in bulk through the local library) is not possessing my own copy to refer back to and to make notations in. So I make sure to go uptown and photocopy my favourite passage, just to have something of the book to keep. And further to that passage, I do a cursory search for something general about Buddhism and about diamonds, the link between Buddha and diamonds. I cannot wait to go.



Book Club Conflict IV - Post-Op - The Group Response


Our library Book Club is very informal. We have no "official" group leader other that the volunteers who coordinate ordering. We are scheduled to start at 6:30 pm, the third Tuesday of every month, and people generally arrive between 6:30 and 7:00. We start by going around the circle, with each person answering: Did you read the book? Did you like the book? Sometimes the answers include Why?

For Not Yet, nine readers show up. Two have not read the book and hope perhaps that the discussion will help them decide whether to read it or not. Two people do not like the book. Three people love the book. Two are ambivalent. Messages are received from three absent readers. One could not read the book as she had just lost her spouse under very similar circumstances. One sends one word, "Boring." The third says she liked it.


Then we go around again. People object to: the narrator's selfishness, self-centredness; the waste of taxpayer money treating someone who doesn't look after himself; the narrator/writer being a lost soul, without an anchor, not Chinese enough; to an adult choosing to live with other people. "He should be independent like me." To the lack of sex in the book. To his seeming lack of commitment. Others offer: that it is a book about "how not to live your life"; about how allergies can kill. Those who like the book speak of love, of loving his previous books, of the writing style, of the Chinese heritage, of the cats and the puffers. People identify with his asthma, his hoarding tendencies. They say they love the writer because he is handsome and because he loves people and life. They keep going back to the cats. The readers who are indifferent say they read it but do not see the point -- he had an attack, was treated, recovered, backslid, and ended up in hospital again. So what? A medical history is hardly literature. Are there no themes, no ideas, no lessons?


How not to live your life has already been suggested. The cats are important. Page 85-87, I suggest, whipping out my photocopied pages.The scene in rehab where the nurse hosing him down points out "Buddha, Buddha . . . all Buddha." and the offending spray transforms to a shower of diamonds. Numinous, but I wouldn't use that word in public. "Beautiful writing," someone suggests, but surely it is more than just beauty. "What does Buddha mean?" someone asks. "Enlightenment," someone else answers. There's theme. There's the possibility of the sacred, spirituality, of something beyond the human, even if it dwells within others. Choy doesn't say be believes it, but he records it, he shares it. He started this scene, by asking the nurse if she could see the Buddha on his belly. She didn't get his joke. She was more enlightened than he was. It is a story shared by a man who is truly Canadian, not self-centred but self-deprecating, humble even, yet wise enough to include all the wisdom offered to his denying eyes, his stressed heart, through the love of many others. This nurse, alert medical staff, restaurant owners, exorcist monks, filmmakers, market stall vegetable sellers, housemates, step-children, coaches, etc, etc, etc. Pay attention, they are all saying to him. Do something. Think differently. Change yourself. Your life.
So it is a book about denial (the cats, the puffers), about how not to live your life (ignoring symptoms, creating medical emergencies), about the importance of taking notice (the signs, the symbols, the mythic characters, ghosts.) About the way Confucius and Buddha both represent paths to enlightenment, ways to live a better life. The narrator is anchored by his calling; his eyes, his writer heart see diamonds in the shower spray, symbols of permanence and transformation. But you have to Pay Attention. In life, and in reading.


Copyright Creative Commons Attribution "A Shower of Water Diamonds" by Paul Sapiano, from Flickr via Wikipedia.

Book Club Conflict V - Afterthoughts

In a book club, you learn a lot about other people and their reading habits. About "talkers" and "listeners." About words "striking a chord." About diversity and tolerance.

We are so Canadian. So polite. We tend not to respond to what other people say, even if they sound outrageous, self-centred, bigoted, judgmental, abusive. For example, I hate it when a female character with a sex life is referred to in the discussion as a "slut." In this day and age! Women trashing the choices other women dare to make? Yet I say nothing. We just nod. Yes, try to focus on the words, the ideas, not on the person who says them, for sure. Everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion (even if they are wrong, we think to ourselves.) "Ingenious, but wrong," a professor used to write on our essays. "But how can any opinion be wrong?" we asked in surprise, in disgust. "It's my opinion, whatever it is." It is wrong if it is not supported by the text, if it contradicts or ignores what the book itself says. If it judges the art by externals. You know, if you reject Madame Bovary because adultery is against your personal values. Or reject sex as a potential path to enlightenment because of Victorian or fundamental values or the unquestioned acceptance of dogma. If you assume that what applies to you must also be applied to others, real or fictional.

Well, let's be honest. I have committed that sin myself. Not liking a book because I did not like what I perceived to be the underlying philosophy. I didn't like Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections because I felt it reflected values of misogyny, misanthropy, ageism, and ironic superiority, values in which I wish, or choose, not to be immersed, even for the pleasure of reading. Yet the contrast between the young American and the more mature Canadian makes me appreciate Wayson Choy even more. A man who loves life and people and his work as a writer so much that he is blind to the signs warning him to take care, that he could be in danger of losing that which he loves most. I suppose if I were more charitable I would wonder whether perhaps Franzen feels the same way about America. If Americans don't pay attention, they are in danger of losing it all.


Another good thing about a book club, if I force myself to confess, if I allow myself time to ponder, is the way it helps me become more aware of what I like and what ticks me off. Maybe even, about why certain things tick me off. About my own often self-defeating coping mechanisms, my dislike of negativity, my tendency towards avoidance, and contrariness. And impatience. Especially my impatience with interpretations which make something smaller than it really or potentially is, that are "reductive". Interpretations which discredit or ignore or miss ideas which are unfamiliar. I hate remarks that are mean-spirited, or condescending and superior. Readings which focus not on what is there but rather on what is not there, on what "should" be there. "Should" and the expression "Yah, but . . ." The difference between response and reaction. Whose book is this? I want to ask, or Write your own damn book, I am tempted to say. But that would sound disrespectful, letting my impatience get the better of me. Sorry. Not Canadian enough.

Usually I end up going home feeling lucky to have been able to learn from the negative experiences of other readers. Not what they think, necessarily. Not their interpretations, but what they noticed. For all those details are important, and if you look at them in the light of "how not to live your life," they all add to the writers subtle presentation of his own failures and idiosyncrasies, tolerated by those around him because of the cocoon of love he has built in the families he has created for himself.



Book Club Conflict VI - PostScript

So as I am writing this, the telephone rings. One of the readers who had yet to read the book is calling to say my words inspired her. She read Not Yet. She found it exquisite.

Next month, Emma Donoghue's Room. For this one too, I will go.