Thursday, May 26, 2016

Gratitude

Oliver Sacks, Gratitude. Knopf, 2015.


I found this jewel, Gratitude by Olliver Sacks, at Mother Theresa's, one of the dozen or so used goods / charity shops within walking distance of my new place. In perfect condition, with good hand. Does that phrase apply to something as solid as a book with French cover as it does to fabric? Whatever. It feels wonderful. And the simple words inside are so inspirational.

When I moved here, into a condo in Chilliwack, a small city, out of my house in the woods of Hope where I had been happily ensconced for 20 years, I had an unsettling feeling of a kind of "sky burial" high on the top floor, looking at the mountains to the northwest and northeast. A feeling that this will be my last home and, love it as I already do, I don't really want to think of leaving, leaving it, along with the planet. Maybe I'm just missing my friends, and our artsy ritual routines of coffee, lunch, books, walks, Scrabble. Of course, leaving is inevitable. Another 20 good years, I tell myself. My friend Molly left us last September at age 86 or 87. Missing her although I still do, she was a generation ahead of me. I should have 20 more years.

Twenty some years ago, when I turned 45 and was still working, I wandered the halls at the time of my birthday bemoaning "half my life is over" to which my supervisor, bringing me back down to some sort of reality, commented: "I think you're being optimistic." Right. I left soon after. No time to waste.

Oliver Sacks, who was born in England, educated at Oxford and then San Francisco, lived and worked in New York, was 83 when he died last year, happy in the belief that he had lived a good productive life. Work and love, he says. That's what matters. His quiescence (in the sense of calm acceptance, grace) reminds me of words from Raymond Carver, a more local writer who lived a much shorter 50 years. Carver grew up around Yakima and died in 1988 near Port Angeles, mere minutes from here on the Washington State coastline. His "Late Fragment", one of my favourites, says: And did you get what / you wanted from this life, even so? / I did. / And what did you want? / To call myself beloved, to feel myself / beloved on the earth. 

Simplicity and appreciation. Yes. I can't complain either. Or rather, I choose not to. Like Sacks, I feel almost overwhelmed with gratitude, for the beauty in which I have lived, for work which I have relished, for loving and being loved. Twenty more good years.

I finished this little gem in one sitting. I'm going to give it to someone else, as a birthday present. Someone older.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Visiting Hours


Shane Koyczan's Visiting Hours. House of Parlance, 2005.




I found this gem at Nuggets in Chilliwack. Can it be fifteen years since I first heard this name, Canada's new voice, when haiku-poet friend Chuck Brickley suggested that we invite Shane to Hope? This was shortly after Koyczan had won the National Poetry Slam Individual Championship for performance poetry. (I think it was in San Francisco but I can't confirm this.) Alas, although Hope is on the road between Vancouver and Penticton, the invite never went anywhere. One of life's regrets. Then in 2004 or '05 I attended an evening poetry slam at Cafe Deux Soleils, on Vancouver's Commercial Drive. Shane performed a piece about body image and sex. Alas again, that night, a much older woman named Irene won with her piece about infidelity, adultery, and STDs. Then in 2010, the world met Koyczan through his participation in the Vancouver Winter Olympics Opening Ceremonies. Then a friend found his CD. I must admit, I wasn't aware that he has published his poems in at least three books. There are also his spot about Home on the Knowledge Network, the TED talk about bullying "To This Day" which has gone viral, and documentaries I have yet to see.


Visiting Hours was first published in 2005 when Koyczan would have been under 30 and one or two poems scream immaturity. But for the most part they highlight this poet's ability to transcribe feelings into words, words into story, story into a gasp of revelation, and finish with a flourish of inspiration. On pages punctuated with laughs of recognition and surprise.

As with the bards and ovates of old charged with the duty of remembering, memorizing, and passing on in spoken work and music the received wisdom, Koyczan revels in rhyme. Although the problem I have with rap is that I cannot hear the words, this is not a problem with Shane Koyczan. His poetry is accessible. Accessible is my highest compliment. Accessible is the sign of an artist who desires, intends, to communicate with an audience, as an equal. Obscurity to me, which is all about the poet, the "me", not about the audience, is a form of snobbishness. Koyczan's accessibility is the opposite--familiar words from one who knows that it is a sign of respect to bake the apple pie if that's what your guest has asked for. The best apple pie you can make, with your grandma's secret recipe.

Search for: Deconstructing Rhyme Patterns in Rap Music Vox https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QWveXdj6oZU

Shane Koyczan TED Talk Bullying "To This Day"
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sa1iS1MqUy

shanekoyczan.com

Friday, May 20, 2016

Riding the Skyline

M. Allerdale Grainger, Riding the Skyline. Horsdal & Schubart, 1994.


I bought this slim volume at Baker's Books in Hope. It is part of his local interest collection, the Skyline being the name of a mountain ridge and trail in the Cascades east of Hope.

M. Allerdale Grainger was a Cambridge University graduate who came to BC during the gold rush of 1897. He worked for the provincial government Forest Branch, as Chief Forester from 1916 to 1920, "before following his predecessor, H.R. MacMillan, into the lumber business." [intro, p vi] Grainger worked in an office in Vancouver and escaped by rail into the Cascade Mountains around Princeton every weekend that he could. Mrs Grainger accompanied her husband perhaps one or two weekends a year to the rustic cabin on a friend's ranch. Grainger kept records of his horseback riding adventures in the drafts of articles and in letters written to relatives and friends, including a Mr Denny in England. Travels to Colorado and the Chilcotin add variety and contrast. Collected from the Archives some 50 years later by Peter Murray, these accounts give a glimpse into life in rural British Columbia in the 1920s and 1930s.

The boom and bust of a resource extraction economy, including mines opening and closing around Princeton. The casual job-to-job employment history of non-professionally-trained workers. The interactions with local First Nations. The important role of both trains and horses in this lifestyle in transition. Cars spook horses. Polo ponies become the best bargain, when owners can no longer afford to keep them. Thousands of men pool in work camps mumbling Communist ideals. The real estate boom along the proposed new trans-continental highway (#3, the Crowsnest / Hope-Princeton, completed in 1949).

Living and working with horses is the part that most fascinates me. And the trailside encounters with people who once made the news, like the lost nurse who trekked alone for two months every year, and the man, Buck Allison, who reputedly held the horses for Bill Miner. And of course, the ever-present awe-inspiring beauty of this landscape and its impact upon tired souls.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Casual Vacancy

May 15, 2016

J.K. Rowling's The Casual Vacancy. Little, Brown, 2012.




My first reaction upon getting "into" this 502-page novel about one small town in England is awe. Awe. Wonder. Admiration at how much this writer knows about the inner workings of teenagers -- the beautiful, the popular, the jocks, the nerds, the abused, the cutters -- and how she rocks these young people in the ripples caused by the death of one man in one small pond. Pagford, hours from London, smaller and more conservative than neighbouring Yarvil, is dominated by the ruins of an ancient abbey and a fractious parish council. The death of Councillor Barry Fairbrother leaves "a casual vacancy" to be filled by an election of someone favouring one of the two camps -- the Mollison/Pagford complacents or the Fairbrother/Jawanda hopefuls. And the community is set atwitter by the hacked comments on the district website whispering, like the ghost of Hamlet's father, things the listeners in their hearts believe but would really rather not be forced to admit that they know.

Not to be a spoiler, but The Casual Vacancy is a sad and depressing story about culture failure, about conservative vs. social activist attitudes, punishers vs. empathizers, bullies vs. victims. This novel makes us think about: the needy and the compassionate. The finger-pointers and the mirror-avoiders. The relationship between powerlessness and passive aggression. The gaps between systems and the needs of people. The efficacy of monogamy and the nuclear family. The difficulty seeing and knowing motivations and intentions, authenticity and hypocrisy. How many people have to die before reconciliation is a possibility?

During one of the shudder-inducing scenes -- was it the dinner party from hell or the explosive council meeting? -- I realize that "this is why I choose not to be involved." Guiltily conflict-avoidant. And I am comforted by the memory of wisdom shared by an Elder in a Longhouse ceremony some years ago: "We are all here to help each other through." Words to live by, but not in Pagford. 

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Kerouac's Ghost

May 5, 2016

Ken McGoogan's Kerouac's Ghost




Ken McGoogan's novel Kerouac's Ghost is about passing the baton. You know that scene at the end of The Tempest when Prospero hands his magic wand to the next generation. As does Morag Gunn at the end of The Diviners? In Kerouac's Ghost, it is ten months after Jack Kerouac has died (in St. Petersburg, Florida, October, 1969). Kerouac has been researching an acceptable biographer and now his ghost, like that of Hamlet's father, visits young Frankie McCracken. "I am not happy," he implies. "There is something I want you to do for me." An annunciation, of sorts, up there, in a fire lookout tower in the Canadian Rockies, where the ghost Jack explains to Frankie all the reasons why he is "the chosen one."

Personally, I was a few years too young to have been bitten by the Kerouac bug, the groupies hitching to Haight-Ashbury with battered copies of On the Road in their backpacks, stumbling towards ecstasy--physical, pastoral, sexual, chemical. Nor have I ever been enamoured by the romance of addictions or substance abuse. And I confess to being a bit judgemental about "men" who tomcat, assuming as I do, that it is really just a case of being stuck in adolescent self-centredness, evading adult responsibility, denying any mutual respect towards fellow human beings. So this recreation of the hippy cosmology of hope-free love-faith is for me an interesting bit of historical fiction to begin with. The exploration of hero worship, mental illness, religious fanaticism, stoner oblivion, and Kerouac's self-referential editorial commentary is interesting. As is the depiction of the heavy load carried by the children of addicted parents.

In style, McGoogan moves back and forth in setting, in time, and in realities. I enjoy the literary allusions, the name-dropping, the philosophical fusion. For me, explication is helpful. I'm not big on abstractions. I never assume that what I think something means will match what anyone else thinks something means, or how anyone else interprets something. So I appreciate the guidance the omniscient writer puts into the mouths of characters. Although some editors would be screaming: "Don't tell them; trust your reader."


As Shaw says, the goal is not to "find" yourself but to "create" yourself. Neither Jack nor Frankie accept this ideal of responsibility, of internal rather than external motivation/control. They are addicted to "waiting for the signs". They seem content to be that pinball in the machine, enjoying the propulsion while someone else, some unseen other, plays the arcade game.