Monthly Archives: December 2012

The Thing About Opinions

Everybody has an opinion about everything, but surprisingly few of these people bother to get informed. They adopt opinions, rather than form them. I tell my students to get the information, to think, and then have an opinion. What matters is not what opinion people conclude, but that they conduct the process.

At the moment, here in Canada, the nation is watching as a First Nations chief is on hunger strike. People have strident opinions about aboriginal peoples. People have strident opinions about hunger strike. Rarely do they know what they’re talking about on either subject. They have visceral responses, prejudices, pro or con. I hear university students complain because aboriginal students supposedly get free post-secondary education, and I understand the frustration, but I point out to students that if such a system were in place and working, then post-secondary classrooms would be filled with aboriginal students. They’re not.

I watch Theresa Spence’s journey with great interest, and I cannot help but watch it against the backdrop of the Irish hunger strikers of the 20th century, thousands of them, who used the shaming strategy of hunger to move people and governments. Their situation in many, many ways was the same as that of Canada’s aboriginal people. In my opinion, not all hunger strikes are created equally. Some are never intended to go beyond a week or two, openly designed for raising awareness, getting some publicity. Some, such as Bobby Sands’, are undertaken with the knowledge that death will be the conclusion.

I don’t know if any of the twenty-two Irish hunger strikers who died between 1920 and 1981 could have found another way. I don’t know enough about every case to cast judgement. I do know enough about the 1981 strike to understand how and why the decision was taken. I know enough to admire the courage and conviction. That doesn’t mean approval. What astonishes me is the absurdity that people in power refuse even to consider and talk in sincere, respectful ways. They don’t think it through, either. They just have an opinion. And it’s always about power, never about lives.

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For the Record

Every family has its firm traditions for holiday times, and as families merge, because the kids dare to go off and start their own families, the matter of what constitutes the perfect turkey stuffing has been known to cause brawls in the homes of newlyweds. When to put the tree up. When to start playing carols and winter songs. I’m not speaking to the commercial tendency to put wrapping paper and Christmas goods on the shelves as soon as Hallowe’en is over. Take down the black and orange; put up the red and green. Jingle Bells in the mall November 1st. It’s ludicrous. It’s crass. It has nothing to do with Christmas.

What does have something to do with Christmas is what to eat Christmas Eve, when to put the presents under the tree, what vegetable must be served on the day–every family has its ritual for the major events of its culture. These are the things that tell us who we are, who our family is, how we know that this is Christmas. This morning, I sat with my daughter and son-in-law, waking up with coffee, and we chatted about how things were done in his house, in my house, in our house. The children have been waiting for the Terry’s Chocolate Oranges to be opened, but we can’t do that until Uncle Ben gets here. Obviously. The decorations will go on the tree on Saturday; through my childhood and my children’s childhood, the decorations went on the tree on Christmas Eve. Then the presents could be placed under it.

Everyone knows that it isn’t Christmas unless there are mini-mincemeat tarts, made in Grandma’s tart tins. The only real Christmas pie is the pumpkin, and turkey stuffing has cubed bread and sage. Sausage is ridiculous. I say this knowing that there are houses where the family would be crestfallen if the bowl (the centrepiece of the meal, really) came to the table with anything but sausage stuffing.  The year that I lived in the Czech Republic, I experienced carp and potato salad as Christmas dinner. What? Turkey isn’t a universal? These things are part of our story, our family story, chapter Christmas.

When I was a child, because I had a diabetic brother, our mother hung a blanket across the archway between the dining room and living room so that we couldn’t see Christmas in there. Christmas couldn’t happen until we had breakfast. It was agony. But it’s part of our story, one of the small things that makes our Christmas ours and nobody else’s. Christmas is not a giant generic one-note story. My daughter has taken some of our rules with her, and she has some family decorations for her tree, things her Grandmother made, fragile glass ornaments from her great-grandparents’ tree, construction paper gingerbread her own children made. The Christmas tree is a family tree, more than any chart. The decorations have stories.

In all our houses, we tell our traditions and stories to keep them alive, to tell our children who they are, to confirm our belonging. This is the oral tradition, something people think is passing, but it isn’t. We keep it alive by the calendar. It’s all for the record. Even the time I fell into the tree and said my brother pushed me. All on the record.

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The Secret is Below the Surface

Almost all gestures of sympathy and congratulation, of sorrow and joy, are expressed in trite shopworn platitudes. It isn’t because people don’t care, although let’s be honest, sometimes they don’t. People are so uncertain of their abilities to articulate momentous things. They feel inadequate in the face of grand moments. They speak greeting card. They opt for vague and indirect, as if the recipient or listener is not aware of what’s happened. They’re not fooling anybody.

It’s uncomfortable because we are seeing people in very intimate times, suddenly in the midst of very public private things. What to do? Be open and honest. Don’t make it about yourself. You’ll get your turn another day. Everybody does. Go ahead and write what you really feel about it. Go ahead and say that you hate what’s happened to your friend. Orwell said never to use a big word when a small word will do, which means that you don’t need to get out a thesaurus. Why not tell people that you’re jumping up and down with excitement for them, instead of congratulating them on their good fortune? Use honest, specific language. Think about what it really means, really feels like, this momentous event. Be real about it.

When my mother died, a longtime family friend walked up to me, and said nothing. He just stood there and looked at me with tears in his eyes and gave his head a little shake. It was the most profound expression of sympathy I experienced that day, and it’s the only one I remember. I’d like to live in a culture where the visitors arrive wailing. If you want me to believe that you share my grief or my joy, show me. Don’t use the same phrases that have been calcified for decades. Freshen them up.

Get below the surface of your intellect, find some feelings, and describe them. Your listener will be relieved.

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Plotting Time

Maybe if I were a novelist, I would be better at plotting and pacing. I also would make more money. But no. At their distribution meeting, the very whimsical muses handed me poetry, and I am very grateful. I love my present. It’s just a little bit of a problem when it comes to the practicalities of life. How to set aside time for writing when I need to pay more than a little attention to making a living. I’ve been thinking about that a lot this week. What provoked me was an article about a pianist whose ambitions had been foiled repeatedly, so she and her husband pulled together $250,000 and hired the London Philharmonic Orchestra to make a recording.

If I had $250,000, I could get a thing or two done. At least I don’t need an orchestra. But I do think I have to take a bit of a gamble because, really, all I have ever wanted to do is write and teach. I have found it very hard to make enough of a living so that I could set aside time and space to write. Time passes. The problem isn’t going away, and apparently, it isn’t going to resolve itself. I am plotting the next six months. And there are some risks, but I’m just going to take them. The first stage is to get two major projects finished, and I have realized that I need to get away to focus solely on one of those. Two years ago, I went to the Banff Centre and made real progress on a project, so I’m going to do that again, if they’ll have me. Application sent: box ticked.

Then, I’ll have a clearer path to getting the other project finished. Having two big tasks concurrently has paralyzed me. The time away for one of them will snap that stalled cycle. No matter what, they both have to be finished, one by the end of March, and the other by the end of April. May will be occupied by my annual field school in Ireland. Teaching and making a living at the same time. And then, for the first time with no clear project in mind, I am setting aside some time to write, and I have no idea what will happen. I have set aside three weeks in June, secluded weeks, away. With no obligation attached. My very own time.

I do know that it’s time to apply for some grants and residencies and to send work out for publication, and I’ll do that when I get back. Who knows if any of it will be successful. But I think I’ve arrived at a shift of some kind. I have booked accommodation for those three weeks, so I really mean it. And my mind spontaneously started casting around for a topic, wondering what the next poems will be about.

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Stave off Creeping Dementia

I have embraced the term “creeping dementia,” which I discovered in an Irish novel a few years ago. I embrace many things I discover in books. “Creeping dementia” functions for me as many things do in my family. We like to be flippant about dire things, the blacker the humour the better. My sister and I once sat in a hospital emergency room at 3:00 a.m. entertaining ourselves with comments on the general clientele one finds in a hospital emergency room at 3:00 a.m. Creeping dementia, as a term, seems to me to be a gentle reminder that things go missing in the brain with greater regularity as said brain ages. But even as I acknowledge that it happens, I resist that it happens. I also have embraced activities to stave off creeping dementia.

My mother was devoted to crossword puzzles and very late in her life still beat me at Scrabble. I have taken to crosswords as part of my morning, just to shake my brain awake. I never thought I’d enjoy them, partly because, as a perfectionist, I didn’t like the erasing and writing over and smudges on the page, the unfinished evidence. But online puzzles, free online puzzles, spare me those aggravations. Once I click away, there is no proof of my groping for a correct answer, and in some cases, puzzles with scores and timers, I can enjoy those measures of success. It isn’t easy being a determined perfectionist.

There’s also freerice.com. I can exercise my vocabulary, encounter words I have never seen before, identify geographical locations, match flags with nations, and so on, staving off creeping dementia for free. And, while I do it, a rice bowl is filling with ten grains of free rice for every correct answer. This rice costs me nothing because the ads on the site pay for the rice.  After years of being a casual user, I created an account (free) and discovered more variety in the questions. I solve, companies advertise, people eat–it’s a beautiful thing.

Every day, I use words devotedly. I read, I write, I organize, I communicate, I puzzle. I love words. Love what they can do. Words are powerful things. They are among my greatest friends. They understand me. I don’t want to lose them.

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Intersections of Print and Visual Art

Somebody somewhere remarked on how much a person learns about a subject in the process of teaching it. That may seem odd, since we hope that those who teach know the subject already. Well, we do–at least, we know more about it than our students do. But in every course I have taught, I have learned something new, often from a student, and it’s a thrill. Still, creating and teaching a new course is like a graduate mini-degree. It starts with an idea based on exposure to a representative body of materials. Once the idea is clear enough to be proposed, there’s a thesis. Then, the case has to be made in the form of the course outline, the assignments, the theoretical and creative primary resources.

That’s where I am right now. Presented with the necessity of creating a new course for an existing program, and needing to blurt out the basis for the course in under an hour, with seeming nonchalance, I explained that we’d engage with interdisciplinarity in Irish art forms, examining how a culture’s print and visual arts engage in storytelling about the culture, how they are part of a larger narrative about history and identity. It’s there. I see it everywhere. But I can’t just assert it. So there has to be a little foundation in interdisciplinary theory, a little bit of Claude Levi-Strauss, some Roland Barthes, and a bit of Walter Benjamin. There also must be some basic art theory, maybe a little Burke on beauty, Wilde on lying, Carlyle on symbols, and Hirsch on interpretation. After that, after presenting ways to think about things, bring on the art.

If the evidence isn’t there, it’s nowhere. House-end murals, high crosses, statuary, novels, speeches, poetry, paintings–in art, we find out what concerns a people, and we can read visual art as surely as we can read print. A bust of Constance Markievicz in St. Stephen’s Green can be read alongside her account of battle during the Easter Rising and her prison letters, and then she shows up in documentary footage and Roddy Doyle’s novel A Star Called Henry. We see it, and then we analyze it–assign meaning. Yesterday, I read in The Irish Times how the painter Jack B. Yeats was “an important influence on Samuel Beckett: the abstract spaces and isolated figures of Yeats’s late paintings are also those of Beckett’s late plays.” An intersection if I ever saw one.

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Thomas Hardy’s Life Story

One of the things I love about reading authors’ biographies is making connections between the life and the work. Academic departments traditionally have a lack of respect for biographical criticism, although department members regularly research and write biographies, an irony that frustrates me no end. An historian once informed me that biography isn’t history, and I replied that history isn’t either. What we both meant was that these are not “real” or “true,” necessarily. They’re both all about storytelling and making meaning from events. What’s important is to start from the original data rather than to read backwards from the stories and to assume that everything in them happened exactly that way. Not everything that goes on in a novel is something that happened to the author.

But writers write what they know. They borrow from anywhere to get what they need, but they also use their own lives. Readers need to be discerning. In the case of Thomas Hardy, one of my great loves, and the focus of my Master’s degree, there are a few staples that recur: an architect, older woman/younger man, social class divide. When Hardy was a young man, he trained as an architect, and when he married, he was beneath his wife in terms of class. Characters need to do something, and what they do needs to be convincing. In Hardy’s marriage, social class was a barrier, and he works that out novel after novel. Also recurrent are Hardy’s philosophical convictions. For one thing, he believed that we are in the hands of an unkind Fate. Novel after novel.

But most interesting to me is that he struggles, book after book, with the question of to whom does a person really belong–the one to whom a person is married or the one with whom a person has a bond. Transgressing societal order, in terms of this dilemma, is at the heart of Jude the Obscure. Hardy lays the blame at society’s judgmental feet. When we read a writer’s work, we read what concerns that writer, and it’s couched in aspects of the life.

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