Gratitude – Post 115 – Zadie Smith

I am grateful for Zadie Smith and I suppose in saying that, I am grateful for the wisdom of Aristotle, though it was Zadie who steered me in the right direction.

Aristotle had some firm ideas on writing and how to present a valid argument to an audience of readers. The elements of Ethos, Pathos and Logos must be present in balance, according to Aristotle. Though Aristotle was born over two thousand years ago, his sense of a written argument holds up even to this day.

Ethos gives the writer credibility and he/she forms a trust with the reader. Pathos is the quality of writing that evokes sadness in the reader, speaks to the heart. Logos is Aristotle’s favourite element in writing and I would hazard a guess that Logos is the favourite of Spock, not Dr. Spock, but Spock the Federation ambassador on the USS Enterprise for you Trekkies. Logos, just as it sounds, uses logical argument supported by evidence.

I listened to Zadie Smith speak on CBC Radio recently as she discussed her writing. Zadie Smith is a British writer born of a Jamaican mother and English father. Smith now divides her time between New York and England. Her books enjoy a wide appeal, some of which are Feel Free and White Teeth and Stop What You Are Doing And Read This. She is a prolific writer.

Smith’s writing, personal in nature, challenges the reader to see the world through the eyes of others and to read or embrace aspects of life that we might decide we don’t like without ever having explored it. Aristotle said, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” In essence, Aristotle would have considered Zadie Smith as having an educated mind.

Smith said she expects her writing to find balance among Aristotle’s three requirements of argumentative writing. She says these days that Pathos seems the only element of opinion that we seem to focus on, without any support from fact and evidence. Though she doesn’t buy into social media in regards to Face Book or Instagram and the like, she says “none of our lives are free of the influence of social media.” Great untruths can be spread like a disease without every providing any factual support and we seem more than willing to gobble it up.

Smith says she must uphold Aristotle’s standards because she has “very little faith in her feelings”, meaning she is not so arrogant as to assume she is in the right on all subjects and as such she requires evidence and fact before she forms an opinion, which requires venturing into areas that she might assume beforehand that she wouldn’t like.

I find her approach to writing and to life fascinating. So many of us stay within only that which we know we like, where we feel safe. I remember telling my children that if we didn’t try new things we would never learn to walk or ride a bike or learn to read and I do believe we are students of life right up to the very end. I like to think that when we cross the line to the other side everything makes sense and we utter an emphatic oh, I get it now. Very little of what we encounter on any given day makes sense as of late. Having listened to Zadie Smith I feel a little closer to the truth. Aristotle would be proud of her.

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Gratitude – Post 114 – Summers

I am grateful for summers, the summers of my childhood.

The temperature went down to thirteen degrees last night. I flung open the windows and crawled beneath my heavy blanket pulled up to my chin and slept comfortably, the air coming in the window fragrant and fresh. When I got up this morning, the air was still chilly as Gracie and I strolled, but as the wind lifted my hair I heard it whisper its warning. “Summer is fleeing,” said the breeze and I winced. And it got me thinking about my childhood summers.

Summertime was for children, is for children. We escaped school and timetables and bagged lunches with limp tomato and cheese sandwiches. My mother became my mother again instead of being my principal. We embraced summer with extraordinary vigour, never worrying about how many days were rain-filled or sunny, never watching the calendar.

Summer was tree forts, eating peas straight from the garden, riding ponies, picnics in the back yard. My mother made a mean picnic with egg salad sandwiches, the crusts cut off and the dill pickles sliced into slivers, with lemonade in sealer jars. Summer was lying on the hill and finding turtles and rabbits and castles in the clouds, while listening to the grasshoppers snap their hind wings.

The highlight of summer was Rainy Lake, specifically slipping into the water from the beach on Reef Point at my Aunt Helen’s cabin. At home, summer was haying, driving the tractor, never feeling the burden of farming but only the fun. Going to Reef Point was an adventure, one we counted on, waited for, the breathless freedom of it. It was sitting in the front of the canoe while my cousin Dale maneuvered us around the bay and to the tiny island where we imagined pirates had left their treasure. When we couldn’t find the loot we settled for sweet blueberries. It was having a Styrofoam duck buckled around my waist because I couldn’t swim and watching from the beach as the big kids played tag under the inverted military issue air rafts when cousins from the “other side” came to visit. Rainy Lake was the sound of the screen door banging on the cabin and the patter of bare feet down the well-packed trail to the beach. It was trapping minnows in a tea towel and catching frogs in the pond and it was roasting marshmallows over the fire that cracked and snapped and zinged.

In some ways I am re-capturing my childhood summers now. I am floating on Falls Lake, my arms stretched out, the water’s appearance dark and brown but fresh and only slightly cool. I am buoyant and weightless and I can pretend I am a child again, having learned to swim. I no longer have to stay on the beach. I set the tiny branches alight in my fire pit and toast marshmallows until they burst into flames, their coating crunchy and black and delicious. I can hear the loon in the distance, her voice a signal that everything is as it should be. I am home, tucked safely in my memories, so very glad to pull them in around me in the cool air as August devours summer.

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Gratitude – Post 113 – My friend Wally

I am grateful for Wally. He was a very close friend and he has died. It took two years for cancer, a brain tumour specifically, to claim Wally, while we looked on with encouragement and positive thoughts, looked on with fear at times, wanting to beg of those or that which seems to be in charge of our inevitable departure, not to take him from us.

We will all leave this world; we know this. We don’t know how or when and I think most of us spend little time pondering our eventual demise. When we lose someone we love, someone we admire, the world seems less for a time, but then we are reminded of the great privilege of having our breath continue to go in and out, our lungs filling and emptying and we are so very glad we got to spend the time we had with them. We’re not always able to hold on to the reminder of living life as full as we are able to each day, but we try.

I had the honour of helping to care for Wally during his illness while his family waged a Herculean battle to do everything in their power to try to defeat the beast. And I was witness to love of the highest order, witness to the true definition of family while they became Wally’s strength, fed his laughter, held his hand, moved heaven and earth to find a solution.

Wally had been a Physical Education teacher and he did so with passionate enthusiasm. “If you can’t be on time,” Wally told his students. “Be early.” Those may be borrowed words, but he used them well. His wife cared for him gently and with grit and every single moment was love-filled, love-shared and as Wally would have said, they left everything out on the floor, nothing held back. His sons were tender and gentle, while whispering for him to cling to them for strength, to keep fighting. They stepped out of their own lives to honour their father who had given them so much, who had led by example. They each saw him through to the very end, never leaving their post, never wavering or tiring in their love, keeping him at home. There is no finer gift to give.

Wally was always game for fun. “Let’s do it,” he said of every opportunity that came up. He laughed and teased and loved and inspired and cared what happened to those around him, just as much as he cared about what happened to the planet. Whenever I would hum a song absent-mindedly in his presence, he would lean over and ask me who recorded that particular song. I would give it some serious thought and come up with an answer. “Then let’s let them sing it,” he would say, patting my arm as he did so, and he would get me every single time. Oh, how we would laugh.

At his parting and at the celebration of all Wally was to this world and what he meant to those of us who had the great fortune of knowing him, stories were shared, stories told with laughter, with tears, with gratitude and respect. It truly was a celebration. I read Mary Oliver’s poem When Death Comes. My heart was pounding so hard it hurt my chest. Public speaking appears nowhere on my list of personal attributes. I placed my hand on a precious necklace given to me by friends that hung around my neck, held it there and a calm came over me as if Wally himself was whispering his encouragement in my ear and the pounding stopped and my breath slowed and my voice strengthened and I delivered a message that Wally lived by. “When it’s over,” Mary Oliver wrote, “I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.”

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Gratitude – Post 112 – My Father

It is Father’s Day, but every day I am grateful for my father. I am not sure many of us whose fathers have gone ahead think of the hero of our childhood with more devotion on Father’s Day than any other day. There simply isn’t a single day that goes by without my father in it, in memory now having lived without him for more than double the years I lived with him. That fact alone is surprising, where on that first day in October 1974 of living without him came a certainty and an almost wish that my heart should have stopped beating when his did. But not so. And over time the ache and anguish was replaced with comfort and joy at having spent the years with him that I did, that I lucked out having the privilege of growing up under his carefully watchful and gentle eye. And of course, over time perhaps he became more perfect, but I’m okay with that because my child’s heart knew he was as perfect as anyone could be and I couldn’t have loved him more fiercely, more completely. I still miss him, I still look for him when something significant happens, and I still hear him whispering encouragement when the road is bumpy.

I sometimes entertain the “what if”, the “if only” of loving someone that much. What if he sat across the table from me now, the fifty-four year-old version because he would have joined the centenarians club this November. I would make him a cup of coffee and put it in his small white mug and listen to his spoon move the cream around, the music of it as the spoon hit the side of the mug. He would lean on his elbows on the table and look at me over the top of his glasses. His head would tip just slightly to the side, which softened his appearance and assured me I could ask anything of him.

What would I ask him if I could? I would be tempted to ask him what he missed the most. Was it seeing his children all safely grown and in lives that seemed to work? Was it bearing witness to the next generation as they gasped for breath and could be held in one’s arms, their problems as of yet so small they could be contained with a hug, with a snuggle, with a whisper, with a dragging of lips across their face. Would I ask him what moment in his life he was most proud of, hoping he would say my birth while knowing that ferrying a Liberator across the Atlantic, across northern Africa to India during World War II would have been a remarkable challenge from having left home at not yet a man.

Would I ask him about his dreams and were they mostly realized, farming being at the top of his list. Or was there something yet he had ached for and knew there was no time now when his heart failed him.

I would ask him to laugh, to reseal that sound in my memory because it fades at times and I can’t quite hear his voice. I would slip my hand in his and see if it disappeared as easily as it once did, but in that I am older than he when he died, my hand is now wrinkled and scuffed and marked. I would ask him to play the piano or the guitar and to sing Old Black Joe or Home On The Range.

I would tell him that he taught me well, that he gave me confidence to believe in myself though it took quite some time. I would thank him for being him, for trying his best to get it right and for allowing me to be his shadow for nineteen years. I would tell him I was blessed and I would mean it with every cell of my being.

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Gratitude – Post 111 – Leaving

I am grateful for 66 Forsythe Road South.

I am moving. I sold my beautiful property with the maple syrup trees and the Ginkgo tree and its history of 270 million years and the Butternut rescued from my friend’s back yard. I leave the Blueberries and the Blackberries that grow in abundance. I leave my pony buried beneath the Pin Oak and carry with me the memories of him wandering my yard in search of patches of clover, nickering at me through the open window, wanting to press his nose into my neck, to breathe me in, his lips searching my pockets for something he is sure is there. I leave behind the frogs whose nighttime chorus and full orchestra calms and soothes me, their sound floating in my open window and hanging on the still air. I leave behind the two little boys from next door who hide behind my garden shed and behind my blueberry bushes pretending I am the scary dragon they have hunted, until of course I find them and then I am just me, my breathing fire having ceased.

I leave behind the Golden Raspberries and the Haskap and the lush Rhubarb and the Peaches from the two wee trees who share their bounty each year, enough to keep me in peaches all winter. I leave behind the path I follow on morning strolls with Gracie, the Pileated Woodpecker greeting me most mornings, flitting from tree to tree, his mate suspiciously absent the last two seasons. I leave behind the hours of lawn mowing, the incessant handling of firewood, the repairs to fence and outbuildings that shout regularly at me, their voices harsh and grating and repetitive and …

I leave behind the neighbour’s dogs who prefer my property to their own for depositing bits of themselves. I leave behind the beagle up the road continuously howling his protest of his lot in life while tied with a short chain to a small shelter. I leave behind the deck that came too close to claiming my sanity when I used every force available to me to remove what seemed like centuries of paint, winning in the end though I feared the battle was unbeatable. I leave behind the skunk who anointed Gracie not once, but twice, though I fear a distant skunk relative is waiting to introduce himself where I am going. I leave behind my neighbours’ raised arms when Gracie and I walk past, neighbours who know both our names and pause to give attention to Gracie’s extended nose.

I’m not sad or hesitant or uncertain at the leaving. I’m ready for a new adventure, for a life with a little more space in it for me and less grass cutting and less wood hauling and wood stacking and less all the things that are familiar. I eagerly turn the page, will strike out and discover what is next in my attempt to down-size and simplify. Gracie and Finnegan will tag along, the constant in the unknown. There will soon be tufts of dog and cat hair in the corners of my new home and there will still be me. I will take myself along, maybe a slightly different version of myself with the addition of possibilities. Seize the day, I repeat in my head. Seize the day.

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Gratitude – Post 110 – Spring

I am grateful for the smell of spring.

It is Spring today. Not because the grass is growing. Not because the trees are straining to burst into leaf. Not because the pussy willows have come and gone as has the maple syrup. Not even because the frogs are singing to me at night, my window lifted enough to let the frogs’ voices come in and play in my dreams. Not for any of those signs, though they are lovely accessories to the announcement. It is Spring because I can smell it, just as I did when I was young, so much younger than I am now, when the soil was turned over and the fragrance found its way to my nose. That is when I knew: Spring had finally arrived.

I didn’t know then what I know now. I only knew that when my father squatted next to the field and filled his right hand with what I called dirt and then held it up to his nose, his eyes closed, his shoulders softened, that he had an important message to share. “It’s alive,” my father said. “The soil is alive.” I didn’t question his statement, didn’t ask for proof. His interpretation was good enough for me. I trusted him on all matters and if he said the soil was alive, that meant it was.

Now, I know that the fragrance is created by soil-dwelling bacteria, Actinomycetes. The bacteria are happiest when the soil is wet and warm. As the earth warms and dries the bacteria produces spores that release that lovely smell of Spring. When Spring rain falls, those spores are produced again, rising up into the air by the force of the falling rain, right into our noses.

The skunks and raccoons are well aware it is spring and are very busy in my yard and paddock. They come out every night and are like living roto-tillers. They have turned over a huge swaths of the grass that is poorly, exposing the grubs they like to dine on. The crows come during the day as do the robins and have a feast of worms and who knows what else, made easier by the work of those busy nighttime marauders. I’m sure the smell alerts those animals who then begin their tasks. Though my yard looks messy at first glance, the diggers only go where the soil and grass has been weakened, where the moss is winning the race. Perhaps this is exactly what they are meant to do. It means more clean up for me, but I’m not sure it is a bad thing. I didn’t care what caused the smell when I was a child, I don’t really care now, except about the power of the message the soil is transmitting to others, not just us.

“Life begins again,” my dad said, and I have no doubt that it was that very cycle of life that called him to farm, to be a farmer, the same longing that ached in my heart and still does. The cycle of life indeed.

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Gratitude – Post 109 – Poetry

I am grateful for poetry.

I am not sure poetry can be taught. We can be taught to arrange words together that rhyme, just the same as we can be taught to play the notes we see on a sheet of music, but that is not the same as creating magic. I think writing poetry is a skill as innate as the artist’s hand that controls the paintbrush. We can be taught to admire the craft of creating an image, an understanding, with words, words so carefully chosen the result looks effortless.

I cannot write poetry and it is not for lack of trying. I just don’t have the skill, but I admired poetry as a child, loved the rhythm of it, like a train clicking and clacking, the rocking back and forth. I admired poetry as an adolescent, as someone searching for that which we search for that is without name. I was both in awe and frustrated by a poem’s meaning that at times seemed elusive and in other moments seemed perfectly clear. I appreciated teachers who allowed his/her students to find their own meaning and not be required to see what the teacher saw to get a passing grade. I remember one high school English teacher who decided her answers were the only answers. She told me I had zero writing ability, her exact words, and I may still be holding a grudge, though how silly would that be.

A very young admirer of poetry, I memorized Walter de la Mare’s works, though I may have been more fascinated with the fact that he carried a horse around in his name, which was nothing short of ideal to a ten-year-old. And then there was William Wordsworth and his host of golden daffodils that fed my life-long passion with nature’s quiet, a need as fundamental to me as breathing. As a high school teen I admired the physicality of EE Cummings who I incorrectly gave credit to as being a woman and I was fascinated by his devotion to lower case letters and his “blizzard of punctuation” as described by Harvard Magazine in 2005. Cummings challenged the rules of writing and told budding poets they could create visual masterpieces with poetry.

And like so many of us, I admired the easy flowing language of Mary Oliver who has recently died, though I don’t think she would have used such a verb to explain the action of her leaving us. Tell me what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? she asked of us, and many more simple but thought-provoking questions. She challenged us to see beyond what we know and inspired us to imagine.

I remember many of the poems I recited at the festivals as a child, every other year alternating between music and spoken poetry and if I don’t remember the entire poem I certainly remember parts of them, the best bits that I have packed along with me all these years. I can’t remember where I’ve left my glasses, but I remember there are fairies at the bottom of my garden from fifty-five years ago, which seems fantastical to me now.

If I had to choose a favourite poet or a favourite poem I couldn’t. My enjoyment of poetry shifts with the weather, with the wind, with my mood, with what I’ve just eaten. But you can never go wrong with the words of Carl Sandburg. Poetry is an echo, asking a shadow to dance.

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