The room in which Cathy and I are staying in Montreal is on the 32nd floor, and has two windows abutting one another in the corner looking north toward Mont Royal and and west.  The corner windows are lovely, giving the effect of a panorama.  Looking over the lights of the city, I’m reminded of one of my favourite songs by one of my favourite songwriters, Victoria Williams.  She finds magic in the ordinary; wonder in the moment.  She’s got muliple sclerosis and there’ll be a day when she won’t be able to make her art or her living, but she’s unfailingly positive and insightful and humorous and true to her vision.  True to the words of this song. 

“What kind of song would you give if you had a song to give?  What kind of life would you live if you had a life to live?  Would you want to make something good that you could look on, give you lots of pleasure?  Yeah, you would.

What about this thing that you gave, what if it weren’t quite perfect?  What if there was something bad about it?  Would you love it just the same?  Would you still care about it?”

Last night I was watching Philip Bloom films, first on Vimeo and then on his wonderful website and blog where he is responsive and open and helpful to others seeking to make pictures and tell stories of their own. 

I am inspired by all of his work, but this one seems to share a view of a city’s people and moments I strive to capture in words. 

Enjoy. 

Last Sunday Cathy and I had really great “sister date.”  We met up downtown at the Harbourfront Centre where Nick Hornby was reading from his latest novel Juliet, Naked and was interviewed by the Globe and Mail’s Carl Wilson.  We both enjoyed the reading, thinking the newest novel will feature more of his really insightful characterizations with their idiosyncrasies and questionable judgement/actions/maturity that is so smack on to many of us that we relate to them over and over again.  Hornby lets us take the mickey out of ourselves. 

In talking about this, he told Wilson that he more often does it with male characters because he came of age in the feminist era, during which time there was a lot of new respecting and appreciating women so exposing their quirks and silly behaviour just doesn’t feel right.  Which made me chuckle, thinking he sounded like one of his characters. 

Cathy and I were both surprised to hear him say that he never feels any sense of accomplishment when he looks at his books lined up on his shelf (not to mention those movie treatments of several of them).   He said he looks back in his mind to himself at work, and all he can think about are the long hours lost to sitting at that computer playing solitaire.  (I wondered how many of us that laughed at his statement were having a chuckle at ourselves.)

At first I felt a little crushed – if Nick Hornby doesn’t experience a sense of achievement in his creative accomplishments, will little ol’ me ever feel it?  I mean, what are we working for?  I don’t particularly aspire to best-selling novels or anything like that, but I do feel a great sense of satisfaction in building and sustaining this blog and getting the odd story out there now and then.  But why keep going if there is never a sense of having accomplished something meaningful at the end of it all? 

But then I got to thinking, what if Nick Hornby looked at his bookshelf and said “There, I’ve done it.  I’ve achieved everything now.”  What would be the impetus then for him to write another story?  If he felt he’d achieved all he had to, then why attempt to ascend to the next level?  In that respect, I think his looking at his bookshelf and thinking only of those hours lost to solitaire games might just be a healthy thing after all.  If we lose our direction, that goal at the end of it all and the reason for moving from the place where we’re at, then why move at all? 

Anyway, the thought of Nick Hornby, famous author, sitting at his desk moving virtual cards around, maybe feeling stuck or tired or lazy or uninspired endeared him to us in much the same way as his characters do.

After the event, us sisters went and had lunch and a couple of beers on a sunny pub patio and talked about that.  And lots of other stuff, as sisters do.

literacy is power

7 September 2009

I teach creative writing courses in a continuing education department of a college. Most would consider these to be “special interest” courses, which people take for enjoyment. And that’s great – one of the reasons I teach these courses is because I enjoy it.

But there is another really big reason I do it. It’s because I believe that lifelong learning is a fundamental right of every human being, and that lifelong learning makes better citizens, communities and countries. I teach courses because I want to help people achieve that feeling of satisfaction and power I get when I expand my own knowledge. When a learner says to me “I’ve changed because of this course” the sense of gratification I feel in having engendered, just a little, someone’s personal growth and the power they feel at having told a story is enormous.

Literacy DayBut adult learning is so much more than that which I promote in my own little world. According to UNESCO, one in five adults is not literate. Two-thirds of those adults are women. 75 million children on this planet are not in school.

You want to talk about how literacy is about personal empowerment and human development? Then think about what it means that that 776 million adults lack minimum literacy. It means that 776 million people lack the skills necessary to overcome poverty. 776 million people lack access to information about how to take care of themselves and their children, about how to find help and support, how to achieve gender equality and how to carry out sustainable development so they can support themselves and their communities.

Literate parents raise literate children. People who are literate participate more in their communities and they make their voices heard through actions – like voting. And just as literacy is a tool of personal empowerment and human development – illiteracy is a tool of oppression and domination. We all know the Taliban work hard to oppress and dominate by withholding education. It’s not a new idea – it’s been going on for centuries, and continues around the globe.

Tomorrow is International Literacy Day. Stop for a few minutes and think about what literacy means in your world. What your access to education and information affords you and those around you. Think about what it means as you sit at that computer, accessing and contributing to the world of ideas and information on the World Wide Web.

Think about the sheer courage that girl in Afghanistan must drum up just to go to school in the morning because she probably heard stories about angry dudes throwing acid the faces of girls who go to school. Think about your laid-off neighbour who is suddenly faced with navigating the “information society” for a job his high school education didn’t equip him for all those decades ago. Think about your new neighbour who has escaped an oppressive regime but lacks the language skills to read a simple street sign, a carton of milk, a prescription bottle or the newspaper.

And maybe instead of buying coffee at Starbucks this week, give that ten bucks to an organization like this one or this one or this one or this one or one in your community, and imagine the possibilities for a world in which 776 million people don’t lack basic literacy skills and have a chance to rise above poverty and oppression. Literacy is power. Share the power.

technical genius

23 August 2009

I lost my blog for awhile.  And what an exercise in frustration – trying to get help from virtual geekdom.  Clearly my interpretation of what the WordPress world labels as “easy”  was on the wrong side of understanding. 

And I’ve had no time to deal with the whole thing – my job has been exceedingly demanding, and by the time I get home in evenings (or late nights), I’m not exactly up for taking risks with a year’s worth of journals.  What breaks my heart most is having acquired this readership, this circle of like-minded friends who were all kind enough to check in on this little life.  I hope I can find you back.

In the meantime I have saved the posts.  It took some time but everything’s copied, and I really want to hang on to my realia url – – or do I?  Am I married to it?  But here I am, back on the “wordpress for amateurs” site.  And it’s bugging the hell out of me that I don’t have creative control over the look of this blog, even though I’m quite sure you could care less.  I’m sure it’s just another way for me to avoid the real work – the writing.

Thanks for coming back.  I’m really glad you’re here.  And if I’ve learned anything in this exercise, it’s that I need this blog.  I can’t face the oncoming seasons without it. 

Best.  Mean it.

jm

Writers and creative people often get stuck.  I can be one of the ‘stuckest’ – and I’ve come to learn that one of the best ways to become unstuck is to take small steps.  When you walk – figuratively or literally – the ever-benevolent universe begins to put things in your path.  And you begin to uncover opportunities in the unlikeliest of places.

So many people get stuck because they are too focused on the great big steps, or grand result they are envisioning their art or their lives to be.  It gets overwhelming, and then we turn to time wasters while we wait for the right time, the right place, more money, a better job, a nicer day, next weekend, new art supplies…

Time wasters get us nowhere.  Little steps get us somewhere.  I’m not against time wasters in general – every now and then it’s important to waste some time.  It’s called resting.  But time wasters can also impede our progress – they can stand in the way of what we want.

So in honour of my own desire for change in certain elements of my life, I’m recognising some time wasters that have got to go, and I’ve made a free-write list of little steps.  They may not take me directly to my dreams today or tomorrow, but they’ll get me moving.

And for the first time in a long time, I’m saying: “Hey universe – just throwin’ it out there…”

Visualize the perfect gig.
Make some pages in creative journal – experiment with processes.
Visit that creative journal every evening after dinner.
Get back to yoga.
Embrace cooking again.
Try some new recipes.
Bring my camera with me every day.
Do something fun in my city every Saturday morning.
Visualize/draw/collage the happiest workspace.
Don’t buy coffee at work anymore.
More aimless walking.  Bring camera.
Update collage file.
Organize art supplies.
Do my dishes every night.
Pay attention to those disorganized bookshelves.
Make a list of artist dates.
Go to the AGO on a weeknight.
Go to the beach more often and write there.
Find a new place to live.
Do morning pages again.
Go to bed at 11 or earlier every night.
Write more poetically – more abstractly.
Add it to decorated pages.
Make some dolls, collaged and real.
Fix the desk chair.
Replace the fridge magnet poetry.
Find those random piles of stuff.  Eliminate them.
Make some things to hang in the windows.
Find a pretty throw for the couch.
Get off the couch.
Put clothes away.
Call my mother.
Organize paperwork.
Clean out file cabinet.
Eat fish twice a week.
Go for night walks again.
Get up earlier in mornings – take that time for me.
Sit up straight.
Get out the stair stepper.
Clean the refrigerator.
Get a pedicure twice a month.

Note:  This list is too long.  Because it’s like going to a restaurant and looking at their ten-page menu and finding yourself unable to decide what to eat.  So the first little step is to select five of the little steps for this weekend, and maybe ten for the next week.

Now you.  Take a little time and write some little steps.  Do it for yourself.

This week I’m reading the Hemingway memoir, A Moveable Feast.  Last week I read John Steinbeck’s memoir, Travels with Charley. 

Hemingway is reflecting on a time early in his career, living amongst artists and writers in Paris, struggling to make ends meet, and having doubts about his calling as a writer.  Steinbeck, near the end of his career, on an extended road trip around America with his dog Charley, had seen enormous success and recognition for his writing. 

So, I’m reading about Parisian cafes and shopkeepers and horse races this morning and it occurs to me, what if Hemingway never got famous after all that?  I’m struck with something akin to grief, thinking that if his fortunes had taken a different turn, would he have written these stories?  I mean, the events happened – what if I never got to read about them? 

For some reason I got to thinking about some balanced rock sculptures I saw in the Humber River a few years ago.  I walked by this spot regularly then; and one day, dozens of the otherworldly things were just there in the water.  I love the dichotomous nature of them: the ancient, permanent rocks balanced tenderly and precariously on top of one another – one swift wind or current and it’s all over.  A few days later, they were gone.  Not kicked over by unappreciative teenagers – there were no little piles to signify such a violent end.  The rocks that remained in the water were scattered as would any in a shallow riverbed.  In creating the mystery of the sculptures’ arrival and disappearance, the artist was telling a story.

So what if, like the rock sculptures, Hemingway’s life came and went and most of us didn’t know it?  His writing/living experiences in Paris could have been anyone’s.  And if the name Ernest Hemingway was as familiar to people as Joe Shmoe, would the story be of less value?

Steinbeck seemed to put effort into making his story less about John Steinbeck Famous Author than a man with questions, desires, doubts, faults and vulnerabilities.  And had this reader never have read one of his stories before this one, she would have fallen in love with him for the first time.

And she’d still want to be transported back to Paris in the 1920s to sit at a café and drink brandy and eat fresh bread dipped in oil with artists and writers.

And she still thinks about the story of those rocks.

So if ten people – or ten million people read a story, would it make any difference?  Would it make any difference in your desire to tell it?  I think those ten people might have something to say about that.

 

A rock balancing artist making sculptures near my home in Toronto’s Beaches.