this is not a review: ‘savage fields’, by dennis lee

 

I’ve been doing some bookshelf cleaning — clearing out the excess to make room for new stuff. Only so much room and I really hate it when I can’t see what I have. Am donating or giving the prunings to various places and friends but before some of them go they will spend time in a new stack called “Stuff to Read Before It’s Definitely Given Away”.

Most recently plucked from the STRBIDGA pile was Dennis Lee’s Savage Fields, published in 1977 by Anansi. Its subtitle: An Essay in Literature and Cosmology  did NOT help it win my attention over the years and more than once I thought to just ‘donate’… but something made me keep it and I’m so glad I did.

Less essay than discussion of Lee’s theory that everything is either of (or about) the earth or the world,  including stories. (Earth being anything natural… World being anything man made.) The savage fields of the title refers to the friction caused when earth and world collide, which of course they constantly do.

His interest is in how that happens in literature, and so he dissects two books as examples:

The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, by Michael Ondaatje (a combination of prose and poetry in which Lee theorizes that Billy is trying, constantly, to kill the earth and so is, in fact, killing himself)

and

Beautiful Losers, by Leonard Cohen (one of two novels by Cohen, which Lee suggests is about freeing a repressed Canadian history through liberation of thought)

I will forgive that both books are by men. Dennis Lee is himself a man. This is often how things go. I will forgive it also because Savage Fields is a fascinating piece of work nonetheless.

I’ll admit that I’ve read neither Beautiful Losers nor Billy the Kid.  The former strikes me as incomprehensible and the latter not up my street but, oddly, I really liked reading about them through Lee’s lens. I enjoyed his analysis and the way he takes the story of each book apart, illustrating his theory of how we continue to screw up the earth because, essentially, we can’t accept beauty when it comes our way, that we have this need to alter it, put our own stamp on it and make it ‘better’. (Better than what? It was trundling along just fine until we got involved.) Lee says that we turn earth to world because we can’t help it and even while knowing on some deep level that we are screwing ourselves.

We’ve been more or less doing this by various means since we invented agriculture, which is when we stopped living in harmony with ‘earth’.

Another of Lee’s theories is what he calls the Isis Continuum, which, essentially, is happiness (Isis being a goddess of Egyptian mythology, wise and unconditionally loving). Again, we, for some reason, often refuse the simplicity of happiness, creating chaos instead as if not believing happiness is truly possible.

Lee posits his way through both books, offering excerpts and outlines of the stories, analyzing characters and actions.

Savage Fields isn’t a difficult read, but it’s an unusual one. One that takes a pot of tea and a Sunday morning to find your rhythm with (best read whole or in two parts, but definitely not fragments). It’s the kind of book you want someone else to read so you can talk about it with them and apply Lee’s theories, to find the savage fields in literature or at least to keep the notion of it in mind.

“World and earth are shown as being at war, yet they keep turning out to be the same thing. How can we resolve the contradiction?… To conceptualize this unusual state of affairs takes a certain amount of effort — indeed, a willingness to bend one’s mind in unaccustomed directions.”

“I started this book in 1972. I knew the title before I knew what the title meant. There are months of drafts between the sentences. The voice kept sounding false, excluding too much of who I was. Now I look at it, and find I have scarcely made a beginning.”

“Clear thought is an achievement of difficult beauty.”

The kind of book where most excerpts are pointless out of context. The kind of book that isn’t easy to quote from and details are soon forgotten, yet you feel inexplicably changed for the better for having spent time with it because suddenly ‘something’ feels clearer. Surely one of the best reasons for reading.

Dennis Lee was a founder of House of Anansi, which prided itself in the late 60’s and 70’s on its difference, its experimental style, and its interest in the Canadian story.

 

 

 

jane’s walk — ajax, ontario — best parts

 

This year my Jane’s Walk was through a slice of Ajax , which wasn’t even established as a town until 1941, and then only by accident when a company set up shop in what was a field to make bombs for WWII. They made millions apparently… (40 million). And it was women from across Canada who made them. They arrived on trains from the west and the east and lived in dormitories built expressly for them (surrounded by 8′ walls and barbed wire).

Before that, Ajax was an unnamed area of fields, a scattering of farms, part of Pickering Township, east of Pickering Village, and west of the Town of Whitby. Then suddenly there are 9,000 people employed by Defence Industries Limited, all of them making bombs, and a wee town emerged.

After the war, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation built homes for returning soldiers. Our Jane’s Walk guide said they were meant to be torn down at one point but the residents put up such a fuss they were allowed to stay and are still the backbone of Ajax, lining the streets surrounding Harwood Avenue. (A few people on the tour grew up in, or knew people who still live in, those CMHC houses, and shared memories including how there weren’t a lot of cars initially and so the A&P would allow you to drop off a list of what you needed and they’d deliver.)

The best part is that in the centre of this beloved neighbourhood, where people still refer to houses by who lived in them decades ago, and in the very space where the women’s dormitories used to be, is now a park and community garden. Beans and tomatoes instead of bombs.

   

And a short walk away, the civic centre (Pat Bayly Square) features a memorial to the significant contribution by women to the war efforts of WWII.

The other best part is simply discovering a new neighbourhood in a town I very often drive past, assuming it can be summed up by a quick glance… because nowhere can be summed up that way. Everywhere has its stories, its nooks and crannies and spaces only the locals know about.

Importance of community is the best part of Jane Jacob’s philosophy, and the sense of connection to a place you thought you knew or a brand new place is the best part of any Jane’s Walk program. Keeping that in mind makes it possible to make all kinds of discoveries on your own anytime, anywhere.

Just throw a dart on a map and take a walk, reminding yourself that community takes many forms and is born in strange and wonderful ways.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

hey, cupcake…

 

Once upon a time there was a girl who grew up believing in bravery, truth, equality and heart. She thought everyone was the same.

She grew up.

She saw there was a difference.

And then one day so many voices sang a song she longed to hear… “same, different, what does it matter? !” What matters is brains and heart and truth sang the voices and the girl was happy to hear this happy song and packed up her brains and her bravery and her truth and arranged them on her new desk and on her shelves and she opened books that said this is allowed and this is allowed and this and this and she memorized it all and took it to heart and she was very good at keeping things true and there were pots of tea, and fresh cupcakes everywhere and they were marvellous and all was well.

Tra la, tra la, things went (or so it seemed) until out of the blue (or so it seemed) the people who said same different doesn’t matter said what are you doing? And the girl said keeping things true. And the same different people said why? And the girl looked up from her books, looked up into their faces, and she was confused, didn’t understand the word why.

There is no same they said (or maybe they implied it), everything is different. We thought you knew that. We thought you knew this was just a desk and those were just shelves (who cares that you line them with truth?) and you are just a girl and stop eating the good cupcakes… the stale ones are for you. We thought you knew that.

Once upon a time there was a girl.

this is not a review — good night stories for rebel girls, by elena favilli and francesca cavallo

 

I only meant to peruse this book but ending up reading it in one sitting like a bag of chips… just one more, etc., until the bag was empty.

It was a beautiful few hours.

100 bite-sized entries (a single large print page each) of 100 women known and unknown, all of whom have contributed extraordinarily to all aspects of society.

Intended for children, it’s really a quite marvellous read for all ages, a kind of SparkNotes for anyone who’d like to be introduced to highly influential women of history (and present times), most of whom you’ve never heard of.

The condensed format is no small potatoes. As anyone who writes will know, making marvellous out of few words is hard work. (Consider the old saying….”Please excuse the length of this letter; if I’d had more time it would have been shorter.”)

And then there’s the art… beautifully coloured illustrations… one for each ‘bio’, each by various female artists from around the world.

In the Preface, co-authors Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo write “…trust is not something women get to experience very often… “  They’re referring in part to the women in the book who “…No matter the importance of their discoveries, the audacity of their adventures, the width of their genius… were constantly belittled, forgotten, in some cases almost erased from history,”  but this reference of trust is also for the ‘now’, in its acknowledgement of the overwhelming response to monies raised through crowd-funding in order to publish the book, people (from over 70 countries) who trusted and believed that a book like this was necessary.

The first entry belongs to Ada Lovelace, a 19th century British mathematician whose bio begins, story-like….”Once upon a time, there was a girl named Ada who loved machines. She also loved the idea of flying. She studied birds to work out the perfect balance between wing size…” etc., and ends about 250 words later with this:  “Ada wrote the first computer program in history.”

While each ‘story’ begins differently, they all have their own tone. I love Ada’s for its tra la opening, all birdies and the fanciful idea of flight, followed by that big tekkie punch of an ending.

And so it goes, each double page spread a whole new person and their world.

Among the stories featured, a cyclist (who broke records but was ultimately forbidden from competing because she was a woman), a blind ballerina who went on to found the National Ballet of Cuba, the President of Mauritius (who is also a Scientist devoted to the environment), the 22 year old Canadian inventor of a flashlight that’s powered by body heat (and which won first prize at the Google Science Fair), a Russian journalist who risked her life to expose the truth about Chechnya, an Italian woman who is today considered one of the greatest painters of all time.

And how lovely to meet Astrid Lindgren (Pippi Longstocking), and Catherine the Great who did great things in Russia (including having her creepy husband Peter imprisoned, and Bolivian skirt-wearing mountaineers, Cleopatra (I didn’t know how powerful she was or that she was the last pharaoh to rule Egypt…. given how the focus on her, historically, has been her looks and that stupid asp; in fact her motto was “I will not be triumphed over.”). And then there’s Hatshepsut, another Egyptian pharoah. Huh, imagine.

And Coco Chanel and Cora Coralina, a beloved Brazlian poet and baker, and Elizabeth I who was locked in the Tower of London by her rotten sister Mary and who, when Mary died, became Queen and created a merry court of music, poetry, painting and theatre, a great admirer of Shakespeare. She was a very good Queen.

The book is alphabetical and I’m only at the E’s so, really, I shouldn’t go on, except that I will because from E to Z there are activists, politicians, Florence Nightingale, Frida Kahlo, computer scientists (one of whom was crucial to the success of the moon landing in 1969), a couple of pirates and a sailor, Harriet Tubman, Helen Keller, war heroes, writers and astronomers, Jane Goodall, Empress Jingu of Japan who successfully led an army and who people assumed had magical powers because otherwise how could a woman successfully lead an army?, Joan Jett, Julia Child.

I’m leaving out several and haven’t even mentioned suffragettes and a formula one racer, an Apache warrior, astronaut, architect, doctors, athletes, a surgeon, a boxer, Malala Yousafzai, the Saudi Arabian woman who said screw it, I’m going to drive a car and you can too!, an archaeologist, paleontologist, a German naturalist who discovered the process of metamorphosis, Marie Curie, the first female tattoo artist, a surfer, Maya Angelou, trombonist Melba Liston (who began her career playing with Billie Holiday),  a drummer, a couple of spies, Queen Nanny of the Maroons who saved her people from starvation, the geneticist who discovered male/female chromosomes, Nina Simone, a Jewish scientist in Europe during WWII (a tricky thing to be), an explorer, a marine biologist, an orchestra conductor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg…

A nice touch is the very last double page spread, which is blank for the reader’s own story and self portrait.

“May [these] portraits impress upon our daughters the solid belief that beauty manifests itself in all shapes and colours, and at all ages. May each reader know the greatest success is to live a life full of passion, curiosity, and generosity. May we all remember every day that we have the right to be happy and to explore widely… [and] feel hope and enthusiasm [for] a world where gender will not define how big you can dream, how far you can go.”

This is a book for every girl.

Every boy too.

*

Also a web site which feels a little like a happy Revolution..

 

My source, Blue Heron Books…

(support indies!).

diner love

 

Impossible to read Edward Keenan’s piece about the slow demise of family run diners (Toronto Star, Jan.26/19) without being overwhelmed by the urge to visit my own favourite local, aka: Whitby Diner, where the first time we ate there the chef came out onto the made-with-love scruffy little patio chock full of giant tomatoes growing in white plastic industrial sized buckets (originally home to feta cheese) and told us how he left Greece as a youngster and lived for a time in Newfoundland then moved to Toronto and, finally, Whitby where he spent many years making doughnuts at a number of local establishments but was happy to get out of that racket. He tells us with pride about the cucumbers he grows on his land just outside of town (his wife, apparently, is an amazing pickler and the pickles are for sale).

And so we head over on this snowy Saturday morning and while tucking into the best white toast (toast is an art), sausage and over not-entirely-easy/not-entirely-medium eggs (the chef at Whitby Diner really gets me)… I revel in the memory of a few historical faves.

Diana Sweets on St. Paul Street in St. Catharines where Howard Engel’s Benny Cooperman eats an egg salad sandwich (because Howard Engel is from St. Catharines and the Benny Cooperman series’ town of Grantham is actually based on St. Catharines) and where my older sister worked and where I loved hanging around because she was like a rock star in those white don’t-make-no-noise  shoes and aproned uniform and how — my god this was big! — she could go right into the back room and USE THE GESTETNER MACHINE to print out daily specials. I wasn’t allowed back there but just waiting for her to emerge with a handful of freshly minted menus was bliss. The glorious smell of the ink! I swear I’m still slightly high from that stuff.

And the stories.  Every day she’d come home and tell something. About staff, about customers like the Hells Angels or the elderly couple who wandered in and studied all the wooden booths trying to find the one they’d carved their names on when they were courting. They found it. (Carving names in the booths was apparently never discouraged, which was just one more groovy thing about ‘The Di’ that made me want to work there one day.) (I never did. Went straight into delis instead and from there I lucked out and got a receptionist gig in a denture clinic, which is when my career really took off.)

The diner across the Homer Bridge where my sister also worked (before the illustrious DS) and where buses didn’t run so my dad had to drive her and pick her up, during which transport I tagged along so that I could wait for her on a twirling counter stool and ask diner related questions like why are there so many flies on the windows? and where sometimes somebody gave me a slice of pie to shut me up.

The place in the old Towers plaza next to the Bank of Montreal where I would drop quarters into the jukebox and listen to John Lennon’s Imagine over and over and over while eating plates of fries with vinegar.

PJ’s in Whitby where the tables used to have built in PacMan games instead of place mats. Now they are just tables… *sniff* (but hands down still the best staff and the best place within walking distance for a cup of tea and/or brekkie and/or lunch and to soak up some beautiful unchanged over the years small town vibe).

Teddy’s in Oshawa. THERE IS NO BETTER PLACE FOR GRILLED CHEESE AND FRIES. None. (And none of yer fancy cheeses either… I’m talking process slices on Wonder bread. Once in a while, and done right, it is heaven.) (Technically more a family restaurant but I’m including it because it’s an ancient fixture on the landscape. And because of grilled cheese.)

A mere quick handful as I’m feeling peckish…

~

(All of which to say…. please, please, support your local diners! They are so much fun, essential to community and almost always run by interesting people, and because it is so very heart-warming to hear a waiter say “Hello, Betty/Jim/Stanislaus/Georgina… the usual? And how’s your mum doing…?”)

And this is a world in need of heart-warming.

~

All pics taken at Whitby Diner (where the jam is amazing). And for sale.

Thanks to Edward Keenan for loving diners and to the Toronto Star for the wonderfulness it publishes.
Support newspapers!

 

(Also… what have I missed?? Current favourites and all diner love memories welcome.)

 

 

 

 

whoa nellie!

 

I’m not a joiner of things, not a clubbish person generally. This has always been the case, although when I was about ten I invented The Boogie Woogie Club and invited friends to join. Amazingly, on opening day, a few showed up in my parents’ basement where we sat around until someone… Kathleen Erickson possibly… said so what’s this club about… I mean what do we do?

Good question, Kathleen, I thought. But I didn’t have an answer. To this day I have no idea what the Boogie Woogie club was supposed to be or why I’d thought of starting it. I do remember seeing the words boogie woogie  in a song title in one of my lesson books for accordion and, knowing me,
I probably just wanted to incorporate it… somewhere. A club with no purpose would have seemed as good as anything.

The club disbanded shortly after Kathleen’s unanswered question and we headed over to the school to do long jumps in the sand pits. Or similar.

Which more or less brings me to 2018.

Where I find myself part of another group, only this time I’m not the inventor (which bodes well for the group’s future).

Also, this group has that essential ingredient: a purpose.

The Wild Nellies is the result of two women having coffee one day and wondering what they could do to benefit the lives of other women, specifically women moving on from abusive relationships. What they landed on was the idea of women celebrating women through various disciplines — visual art, music, literature, sharing their own work or the work of someone that’s inspired or influenced them in some way. The event would be free, they decided, and held in one of the area’s most wonderful spaces, and all of it would be done to bring attention to the needs of a local women’s shelter.

That they take their name from Nellie McClung — writer, legislator, suffragist, activist, public speaker, one of Canada’s original feminists, and a member of The Famous Five, who met over tea to change the political shape of this country by having it declared (after extraordinary campaigning) that women were indeed ‘people’ — is most fitting and wonderful (not the least of which wonderfulness being the coffee/tea origins).

Women have always found ways around being invisible, of having no voice, of being ‘talked over’ and told to be quiet, that their passion and their interest in fairness is too ‘shrill’—

(A woman who knows what she wants and gets it, is often seen as headstrong, difficult, a force of nature, while a man who knows what he wants and gets it, is a man who knows what he wants and gets it.)

—Yet despite not having their voices listened to, and the sometimes even greater obstacles of being isolated, unable to speak the language, being penniless, afraid for their lives, or tied down with childcare, women continue to find ways to meet, to gather, to band together and bring about change for the betterment of not just themselves, but for all women, for community, the benefits of which ultimately reach beyond gender.

Which brings us to 2018 again.

And the announcement today of new legislation that requires employers in Ontario to pay all workers equal wages for equal work. While it has, for some time, been technically illegal to base wages on gender… until now it’s been okay to pay part-time workers less than full-time for the exact same job. And those part-time workers are often women.

It seems there’s no end of bits to take care of and so the tradition of women gathering continues.

Put the kettle on!

One of the the things I love best about Nellie McClung is that she used her fiction, her writing, as a springboard to discuss relevant issues of the day. This was unusual for a woman at the time. Women were meant to write about fluff and leave it at that.

And it’s what I love best about her namesakes, The Wild Nellies, who propose to do the same thing… use their art to bring attention to important issues.

I’m so happy to be a small part of their first ‘performance’ at The Robert McLaughlin Gallery on April 8th, along with eleven other women who will use their artistic voices to honour and celebrate the power of female creators in sculpture, film, theatre, illustration, literature, music and more, and in the process hopefully be part of that women’s domino effect that continues to try and make this pale blue dot a fairer, safer, and better place for us all.

Note: I have no problem at all making an exception to my otherwise anti-clubbishness ways for these chaps. Also, I think long-jumping  might actually kill me at this point.