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Thoughts on books, war, retirement : my week ( early winter 2014)

Why would anyone be interested in my week?

After all it is my week, a week of a boomer now retired and finally accustomed to a life that differs greatly to the hectic, crazy and wonderful workplaces I once inhabited. In teaching, there was always nightly preparation, on-going relationships and building community with the most volatile of humans, students; at OCT, it was the thrill of creating new policy, determining pathways for the more than 300,000 teachers in the province. And now instead of dashing off in traffic to be bright and perky in my office by 8:30, I sit by my window in the kitchen, watching the dark and cold day hopefully brighten.

This has been a hard winter, too early begun with a crippling ice storm during the Christmas break and temperatures that have made me feel much like the bear who wants only to sleep or find comfort food in order to wrap herself deeper and burrow
away from the chill of venturing out of my doors. Brrrr.

Yet, my spirits preternaturally down have found some solace. I returned to a painting class with Martha. She is a somewhat wacky teacher whose lunch, by the way, consists of those baked orange goldfish used to augment a salad and a cup of tea. Recently she exhibited her wire installations of an albatross across Canada. Why I continue to return every few years to Martha’s class is her attitude. She is not a bouncy, over the top kind of woman; however, she can bring together any group. She makes collaboration a reality in a way few can manage. When we practice critique of our artworks at the end of three hours, she will find something insightful to say about absolutely everyone’s work. She is able to create a coterie of like minded but also wildly diverse people and make them feel comfortable- at least that’s what she does for me. None of us will be great artists but the time spent exercising our paintbrushes feels relaxing and fulfilling. The rest of the world disappears.

More than that, if I have a comment, Martha listens. Really listens. In many classes, although I may contribute analysis based on my art history background, I can easily spot, the ho-hum, ignore this one and move on attitude of the instructor. Martha uses my words as springboards to engage others and deepen understandings of the work that is evolving in class. It feels good to have someone value and really hear me. People used to in my professional life. Really.

Thinking of books, I find a correlation – as always- in art. In The Goldfinch, the protagonist finds a resting place for his soul away from life in his pursuit of art and; likewise I hear a comment in a little interview on Q with Viggo Mortensen yesterday. Mortensen addressed art as keeping us from pondering the big questions, for example: when will I die? He reflected that art is the diversion, the distraction that keeps us moving forward. His conversation with Jian Ghomeshi made me think of having studied Pascal in university and the need for the chase. Art is the good chase, an important one to enliven our souls and make the world more beautiful, less corrupt and less broken by self-serving politics. It turns us away from the ugliness of daily events by people whose ethics, although they use them as a shield, are weak, wrong– and our fear of our own mortality. During the interview Mortensen disclosed, “When I was a little boy, my first question every morning was “ ‘When will I die?’”. I am reminded of my little girl whose life’s work has been to watch and comprehend the dying: listening, observing, unraveling their stories to allow an opening between the worlds of today and tomorrow.

Punctuating the week was a lecture by Cathy Tile at her Living Literature class. Yesterday it was The Watch by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya. I had gobbled up the book too quickly as the story dealt with a legless woman in Afghanistan, the story echoing Antigone’s plea to bury her brother. And although I immediately found the writing good, not boring or pedantic, I really did not want to engage with the subject matter: too dark. Tile has covered quite a number of war-themed books. I did respond positively to Toby Room’s by Pat Barker as the protagonists were artists, so an easy connection for me. And many years ago, Barker’s Regeneration Trio opened up an understanding of war on a personal level that rendered it less heroic and more devastatingly human with the depravations of a plethora of portrayals. However, The Watch, besides the centerpiece of a stranded woman who is determined to bury her brother’s body did not really attract me.

Yes, I was drawn in by the multiple perspectives of the soldiers from various places across the US whose experiences and attitudes differed towards the plight of the woman, but rather than being able to escape from the hardships and major conflicts in life, this book threw me deeper into the mire of this terrible world, preventing an escape into my thoughts, fantasies, whatever. I admit that I finished the book in an a detached witness-kind of manner, not allowing myself to be yoked to the events.

My rational mind attempted to keep me apart so that Tile’s lecture and its detailing would make sense- all in an intellectual vein. Superficially I could comprehend and process her comments as she deepened my understanding of Roy-Bhattacharya and his thorough research of visiting American service men after writing his first draft. His first hand exposure to the real feelings and thoughts of military people humanized the story, riddling with holes the entire propaganda of why America engagesin wars such as Viet Nam and Iraq. Tile’s book talk provided context, thoughtfulness concerning his approach to developing his art.

Usually I seek out historical or contemporary fiction as a springboard to hide from the big questions or confront the major issues that plaque us: the paradox of learning more but being shielded by the words that do open our eyes to new realities; and if they are well told, will reach into our times and troubles, intensifying how and why we comprehend. Perhaps this is the ultimate irony: that being shielded by language, we gain experience and pierce the theory-practice divide by empathizing with the emotions and vulnerabilities of others. Often literature removes us from or softens the edges, romanticizing, making more distant or punctuating stories with dreamscapes. The Watch is not like that. You feel the woman’s anguish. The strong, tough, enduring hard little pit of a protagonist that refuses to move or be moved.

This adamant act of courage by Nasim in the book is giant. Placed literally in the centre of the yard, she maintains her stance in spite of pain, danger, anger and wins the compassion of the soldiers surrounding her. It is a great story, Sophocles’story, that has endured even into present times. It made me remember why we must study the classics; as they truly form the back story for all significant writing.

The Watch provided a perfect teaching moment. By grounding the story in Antigone, the author reinforces the importance of the Greek myths and Joseph Campbell’s studies that underline the importance of trying, trying even as we know it will end in failure: because we are not gods, only fragile humans with limited abilities and possibilities. That the old stories, the myths have so much to give us for contemplating who we are, what we do and what we value is a triumph in writing.

As well, Tile engaged me personally regarding a few comments I had offered on Shani Boijanii’s The People of Forever are Not Afraid, a coming of age story of three young women in the Israeli army. (I think I described having heard Boijanii being interviewed by David Bezmozgis in an earlier blog.)She enquired, “Did you like the book?” Caught off guard, I did not really think when I responded, so I later shot off an email, relating the book to Coetzee’s questions of where is home and how do I get there, connecting this underlying theme to Boijanii’s ordinary Israeli girls in extraordinary times.

It took me almost 5 years to feel ok about not working. I always loved art and writing and reading, but it is very different when they are the borders not the substance of your life, when you must find time to push them from the edges to the core of your life. When you work, you fly- you are mother, teacher, daughter,wife, employee, housekeeper, driver, all powerful, crunching so much together. You command, you are powerful and at the end of your day, as you drop into the couch, you proudly, while eyes drooping, exclaim, wow! how did I do so much. There is exhausted pride in accomplishments of so much squeezed into so few hours. Retired people are the powerful Oz reduced to a squeak.

But once retired, the opposite is true. The hours are long and you eventually discover events, classes, friends to fill the day along with the reacquaintance of things you once loved and hope to rediscover meaning in. The reversal is hard, particularly when your partner still dashes and smashes about with important matters that, as you once did, effects many.

However, life whether you want it to or not, changes. Lingering over a newspaper, lunch with a friend, little things become bigger. Life just changes and events expand to fill the hours that once contained multitudes of responsibilities.

Yet this week and particularly Tile’s lecture revived my soul- a bit. It reminded me of larger matters than just cramming a day full of activities: the important questions we minimize when we work, the bigger issues that underpin and mobilize our society. Like many good moments, her lecture was a surprise, to peer through the fog, the bad weather, the noise of times gone by, and reflect on what is germane.

As I edit this last year’s blog, I am sad to link it to this week’s attack on Parliament Hill and the murder of Nathan Cirillo at The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Here it is a real war story on our own land. No words. Just grief. Sadly, another war story from which we cannot turn.

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