Saturday, January 21, 2017

Papa

In this drawing, Melville artist Gordon Matthews has captured my father utterly.  Firm chin and mouth, determined eyes tinged with compassion and some sadness.  And, in the background, the church, symbol of the faith that sustained him, located in St. Victor, the community that formed him, and that he loved.  The portrait hangs in the dining room, by the table.  Its presence evokes Papa’s spirit that still imbues the dinner conversations he loved so much.


Today, January 21, in honour of what would be my father's 106th birthday, I reprise the inventory of lessons Papa taught me that I posted in 2013 on the anniversary of his death, with a few additions.  Through his actions, always; he never preached. 

Be grateful for the small moments.  ("This is the life," he would say, sipping a bear with neighbours on the patio on a perfect summer day.)

Respect the power of nature.  (Hail and tornadoes mean business).

Give up your dreams for those you love.  (Even if it means you won’t be a pilot).

Be innovative.  (No matter what your friends or neighbors might say.)

Read.  (National Geographic, Popular Science, La Liberté et le Patriote,  join book clubs).

Be informed.  (Watch the news; know the world leaders and events.  Current issues are important.)

Take classes.  (It’s worth doing correspondence course assignments by hand on the kitchen table, by kerosene lamp if you have to.)

Do crossword puzzles, and play cards.  (Keep French and English dictionaries on the kitchen cupboard for reference, and play cribbage and bridge at every opportunity.  Oh, and never disrupt a flush.)

Take the time to yuck it up with friends over coffee and spirits.  (In the shop, in the field, in the kithcen, no matter.)

Savor good food and good wine and good company.  Linger over meals.   (Memories are made around the dinner table).

Eat slowly.    (Especially leaning against the wheel of the combine, in the field, during harvest.)

Find out how things work.  (An internal combustion engine,  a manual transmission, a computer).

Go to church.  (Even when it’s a beautiful harvest day, and you have acres in swaths.)

Drive a manual transmission.  (And parallel park, too, and start after being stopped on an incline.)

Do things right.  (Read the instructions, learn to type on a QWERTY keyboard with the correct fingering; be systematic about things.)

Be proud of your heritage.  Speak your first language.  (French in my case; you made no effort to learn it).

Save.  (A rainy day is just around the corner.)

Do what it takes.  (Get up at 4 am, come home at midnight, fall asleep stirring your coffee with your finger, go to bed, and do it all over again, for weeks on end, year after year, for a lifetime.)

To my children and grand-children, my nephews and niece: This is your legacy.  Hervé was a very wise man, tested in the fires of the Great Depression and the Dirty Thirties.

Happy Birthday, Papa.  Thank you.  Bonne fête, et merci.  I hear your voice every day. Tu es toujours à mes côtés.





Friday, January 20, 2017

Pain

On a lark, the other day, listless and distracted, I return to Ron Rolheiser’s website, just to see what the priest and retreat master has written lately.  I used to anticipate and devour his weekly columns.    As I read about Christmas and the Incarnation, and Rolheiser’s message sinks in,  I am able to name the malaise that has infiltrated me during the last eighteen months, and sometimes even threatened paralysis.  Pain. 

Pain, when absence of a common vision defaults to the status quo;

Pain, as media twist headlines so that a story about a funeralhome charging a family $100 carbon tax (instead of $1.00) for cremation becomes a story about carbon tax instead of a story about the funeral home’s error or deception, whichever is the case;

Pain, as a Prime Minister with the common touch and a progressive agenda I support takes a holiday without first checking the details with the Ethics Commissioner, and in so doing jeopardizes the good he can do because he appears elitist and hypocritical;

Pain, when I see fake news, logical fallacies, insults, and derision used to advance an ideology;

Pain, as the bullying strategy of a pathological liar who took the scab off the underbelly of humanity was rewarded, and he took the oath of office as President of the United States; 

Pain, as protesters whose frustration I understand resort to violence in their outrage.

Even at Christmas, and, indeed in the essence of the Christmas story, Rolheiser says, "pain lingers."   Lucky for me, he not only helped name my malaise; he had a suggestion for managing it.  I must "burrow deep into the heart of planet earth and find it shimmering with divinity."  In order words, I have to grab onto my joy with both hands and fight for it.  My children’s passion, my grandsons’ laughter, my husband’s caring,  all give me life.  It’s easy to find joy there.  No effort required. 

To honor Rolheiser’s words, though, I need to see divinity around me every day.  I have to admit, when I look around, that’s maybe not as difficult as I’m making it out to be.  I witness a  parish raise twenty thousand dollars in five months to sponsor a refugee family and furnish a home.   I  watch members of our Refugee Sponsorship Committee put their lives on hold to orient them in their first year among us.  Our neighbours clear the snow on our triple driveway  while we’re away.   Sunrise dazzles each day and warms my heart.  Friends grace our table.

I can also take a lesson from President Obama, who stayed grounded through eight stressful years in office by reading ten letters each day from Americans.  The 10 LADs, as his staffed called them, reminded him of the reason for his work.  They also enabled him to salvage his joy.  He says,

“I tell you, one of the things I’m proud of about having been in this office is that I don’t feel like I’ve ... lost myself . . . I feel as if — even if my skin is thicker from, you know, public criticism and I’m wiser about the workings of government, I haven’t become ... cynical, and I haven’t become callused. And I would like to think that these letters have something to do with that.” (Jeanne Marie Laskasjan, New York Times, January 17, 2017)

These role models are important, because hanging on to joy is just one half of the equation.  The other, as Jennifer Welsh says in The Return of History: Conflict, Migration and Geopolitics in the Twenty-First Century, is action.  Each of us has a responsibility to go beyond understanding the forces at work in our society.  We must work to build the free and generous society we value. 
"If we want a deeper transformation," she says,

we have to initiate it ourselves.  We can learn from the movers and shakers, the celebrated or the unacknowledged,  of the twentieth century:  Individuals stepping up to draw attention to injustice, to demand greater equality of participation, and to stand up for fairness.  And they did so knowing that their demands would likely involve some personal sacrifice. (p. 295)

So pain is inescapable.

That’s the reason, in the end, that I put myself through the torture of watching the inauguration.  I like to be a witness to history, and this inauguration is history.  The pain of a cold and stark inaugural address can be the catalyst for continued action.  People better than I have experienced a similar malaise.  They have acted, and they have kept their joy.  So can I.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Reads--2016

My reading list for 2016 is an ECG of my life.  Since 2013, I have been keeping track of the books I read, to have an accurate inventory of how many (or, sadly, sometimes, how few) books I have read during the year.  It’s not complicated—just the year, and under that, the month I finished the book, along with the title and the author.  Sometimes I remember to include the publication date, if I think it matters.   For two Januarys now, I have posted an inventory of my favorites, in case they might interest you.

At the evolution of this year’s record, I am astounded that, without even looking at the months, I can pinpoint when my husband suffered his heart attack and underwent cardiac bypass surgery.  My reading list parallels the narrative of my life!

In the first three months, I read non-fiction, exclusively.  I devoured the New York Times columnists, especially Paul Krugman, Charles Blow, Frank Bruni, and Nicholas Kristof.  Their columns, were they bound into an anthology, could count as a read.  The lucid and courageous comments of those columnists steadied me through the flux and darkness of 2016, and I continue to count on them for courageous commentary.

As well, I was immersed in divergent books about religion.  Ron Rolheiser’s Sacred Fire, a Christmas gift, and the sequel to The Holy Longing, that I read a few years ago,  focuses on maturity, especially our responsibility, as aging adults, to give our lives away.  Rolheiser suggests how we might do this and why we might want to do it, and offers some principles (ten) that would provide direction.  To tantalize you, here are a few of those principles:
Live in gratitude and thank your Creator by enjoying your life.
Transform jealousy, anger, bitterness, and hatred rather than give them back in kind.
Let suffering soften your heart rather than harden your soul.
Live in a more radical sobriety.

In contrast, The Dark Box: A Secret History of Confession by John Cornwell elucidates the motives behind the push for confession in the Catholic church, a perspective I needed to read.   Like some books that reveal a dark side heretofore unrecognized in people, practices, or institutions, this book disillusioned.  I realize that, even at my age, I have innocence to lose.  

A counterpoint to those themes, two books connected to one of my passions, human nature.  Malcom Gladwell’s David and Goliath  explains the advantages of being the little guy, and why the little guy often wins.  Daniel Pink’s To Sell is Human explores the idea that everyone is in sales, and the principles of sales can buttress any career.   Unbroken, the story of the World War II pilot, Louis Zamporini, especially his years as a Japanese prisoner of war, picked up threads of both the nobility of the human spirit and the degradation of which it is also capable.  I had to read this book in very small doses, and without eating or drinking, that’s how disturbing it was.

All the books after Unbroken are fiction.  That’s when my husband was hospitalized.  To manage the stress of his illness and the ugliness of the politics around me, I needed to escape.  So, I went to my Books to Read list, and reconnected with the online ordering service of my local library.  Fiction saved me.  I didn’t come back to Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain until June, and then, only to finish it and return to fiction. 

From that list, I would recommend :

Black and Blue by Anne Quindlen,   a gripping novel about spousal violence.

The Dinner by Herman Koch, the unsettling story about the impact of family secrets on children.

The Rag and Bone Shop by Robert Cormier, another powerful commentary with a shocking ending on the influences that can shape a young person growing up, especially relations with both peers and adults. 

Annabel by Kathleen Winter, that grapples with people’s responses when the unimaginable happens.  A child is born a hermaphrodite (with the both male and female reproductive organs).  What might be the implications for the child?  the mother?  the father? the doctor? grandparents? teachers?  Who knows and who doesn’t?  What factors might cause people to react the way they do?

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, a memoir that poses the question, How do children cope when parents struggle with addiction and narcissim?

The Color of Tea by Hannah Tunnicliffe, a stunning and captivating novel about the effects of work and friends on a marriage.  The prose is incandescent, like gossamer.  The story and its portraits are woven of simple words brought together in an original design, and set off with unusual and evocative comparisons. It’s an unassuming book I’m so glad I transfered to my own list after finding it on someone else’s.

By fall, I thought I could redirect to reality again.  I picked up Lawrence Hill’s The Illegal, timely in that it had just won Canada Reads, and its theme dovetailed nicely with our parish refugee sponsorship project, which I co-chair.  With apologies to Hill, my state of mind did not do the book justice. 

I’ve come full circle, really, having just finished The Return of History: Conflict, Migration, and Geopolitics in the Twenty-First Century by Jennifer Welsh.  The author contests the thesis of American political commentator Francis Fukuyama in his essay, "The End of History," who posits that, with the spread of Western liberal democracy after the end of the Cold War, "traditional power politics and large-scale conflicts" would diminish, leaving a "path toward a more peaceful world."  Welsh suggests that, in fact, history, that is, the sequence of authoritarianism and conflict, is returning.  Her explanations for this phenomenon mirror my own theory that feudalism is enjoying a renaissance.  A tribute to Welsh, she goes beyond a description of the phenomenon and offers solutions for the ordinary person.  This is a must-read.

Still on my desk, bookmarked, begging to be finished:  Hitler’s Willing Executioners:  Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen that I fished out of a give-away bin at the curb of a Calgary suburb, and La porte du ciel by Dominique Fortier, a shot-in-the-dark by a prize-winning author. 

My reading life sustained me and challenged me during 2016.  Just in case some of my selections might do the same for you, I share them.




Friday, January 6, 2017

Discourse


Careless memes  often appear in my Facebook feeds.  You know, the kind that target a political figure the page owner reviles, accuse the individual of destroying a province or country, label the person an idiot, and call for support for these ideas from the public.   Most of the time, I ignore them.  That’s not a wise course of action, though.   As they circumvent the principles of discourse, these memes subvert our political process.  They are dangerous.

I understand why people resort to this kind of expression. 
·  It’s easy.  Just take a photo, add some bold print, some expletives, a generalization or two, and some inflamatory names. 
·  It allows venting that needs no thought.
·  It often gets a reaction.
·  It requires no knowledge of the issues, no information on various perspectives that impact on the issues, no details or support for any of the accusations levied against the person.

The meme is a missed opportunity for discourse.  So too is ill-advised action.  As an example, let’s consider the actions of some members of the youth wing of the Canadian LabourCongress at an October 25, 2016, Q & A with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.  You may remember that some attendees at this dialogue session with Trudeau turned their backs on him as he spoke.  They wanted to underline that he had let them down, that he had, in effect, turned his back on them, and they were giving back in kind.  Even when one of those protesters had an opportunity to ask a question, he kept his back turned to the microphone and to Trudeau.   The Prime Minister expressed his disappointment at the rudeness, you may recall, and indicated his willingness to answer the question when the individual would face him.  The individual maintained his pose, and the question went unanswered.   

I admire Trudeau’s response in that situation.  (If you read on, please press pause on your assessment of Trudeau and his government’s first year in office. This post is not that analysis.  Its purpose is rather to focus on the ramifications of the choices we make to express disagreement in a democracy.) In staying calm and answering the questions of other attendees, Trudeau highlighted the importance of discourse.  For government to work, elected officials must connect with their electors often to hear their concerns, to obtain feedback, to get ideas, and to keep people engaged.  Citizens must, in turn, share their opinions with their representatives.

Discourse does take work.  It means that, as citizens, we must :
·  do our homework, and be informed;
·  let our opinions be known;
·  be open to sources of information that comment on all sides of the issue, even those we don’t agree with;
·  take the time to articulate views, resisting the temptation to use attack strategies;
·  adopt a problem-solving stance, remembering that generating a thoughtful and sustainable solution to an issue is more important than perpetuating an ideological view;
·  maintain an open mind;
·  keep partisanship at bay;
·  remember that problem-solving takes time.  Issues that have existed for decades can’t be solved in a year or two or even three.   There’s no magic bullet, no matter what some might want us to believe.
·  relegate protest strategies to the next line of defence, should the grievance process built on discourse fail.

I wonder, though, if the people who post accusatory memes or resort to ill-timed protest realize how destructive those actions can be.  No matter who the politicians are, no matter their political views, mainstream or extreme, no matter the individual’s own position relative to those views, generalizations, attacks, name-calling and disrespect have serious consequences.  We stand to pay a very high price if we skip over discourse and head straight for protest. 

No matter your appraisal of Trudeau, we do have a prime minister who puts himself out there.  He makes himself vulnerable in various forums to answer people’s questions, and he does so regularly.  He knows going in that some people will be hostile.  No matter what people may think, the man is not naïve; he’s lived his entire life in the public eye, much of it in the age of social media.  Quite lucid about what he is about to do, still, he does it. 

Two things here.  One—we know full well what happens when a leader locks himself or herself up in the ivory tower and refuses even to have press conferences, never mind to engage with people in a situation that is not controlled. Two—Rudeness, sadly, is a common feature in assemblies on contoversial subjects.  In various professional forums I have facilitated, I have often had to answer questions and explain delicate positions.  It takes determination and strength of will to remain calm and professional in the face of personal attack.  So, then, if Prime Minister Trudeau continues to face rudeness and hostility rather than discourse when he interacts with Canadians, what would be his incentive to persevere?  Why not just retreat to the ivory tower? It’s a lot easier.  Isn’t it in our best interest to provide positive reinforcement to politicians who engage, not  treat them with scorn or disrespect?

After all, don’t we want the best and brightest to see a life of service in politics as a rewarding career option?  For me, that’s a no–brainer.  Of course.  Of course I want people who are clever, experienced, astute, honest, and charismatic to take a risk and run for office.  People who truly have a social conscience and want to serve,  and who might even have to sacrifice more money in the private sector.  If a potential candidate anticipates invective, personal attacks, ridicule, harassment on social media, or even threats on his or her family,  why bother?  People need gratitude and reinforcement, not abuse.  We will get the candidates and the politicians that our response deserves.

What if discourse doesn’t work?  What if efforts at rational argument are ignored, scorned, or worse, discarded?  Then, we must protest.  I am an idealist, though.  Even in protest, there’s no place for unsubstantiated claims, invective, name-calling, or threats.  Let’s do the work that civic engagement demands.  We are better than resorting to easy action and facile memes.


Image source:  Source:   https://www.smith.edu/discourse/