Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Power of Words - Part 3

Funny how I find such power in words that when vocalized I seldom trust. Maybe it’s been too long listening to politicians but I find the written word far superior to that of the spoken. For this reason, perhaps, I have always found it difficult to write fiction—it is hard to write a non-truth. Not that it is easy for me to tell a lie but I find a lot of people, including myself, are prone to hyperbole. It is something I try to amend whenever I feel it bubbling inside but because of this innate tendency I usually add a grain of salt to words spoken by another. (Because I do it, you must also). As for writing, I have my own auto-correct built in: whenever I am not quite writing my truth it feels like I am trudging up a steep hill with 100 pounds on my back. The written word is sacrosanct to me.
That said, I do write fiction but most of my tales seem to have at least some foundation of truth. I discovered that it is just a matter of taking that hyperbolic  tendency and stretching it a little bit further. My friend, “Sam”, was instrumental in helping me break through this literary barrier.
When I first told Sam about my problem he gently berated me for equating fiction with untruths. You have to look at it another way, he said. His theory is that because there must be countless solar systems and, in them, a myriad of civilizations and experiences, somewhere , sometime, whatever my imagination dreams up has to be based on someone’s reality… just not my own. Makes sense in a weird way. I keep it in mind anyway.
Sam and I have been friends for over ten years: he’s a man of great generosity and, having been around the proverbial block a few times, one of the true survivors. I met him in the late 90s when I was working at an emergency shelter in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Sam didn’t live at our facilities but would come to visit in the evening or stand in line for the sandwiches made from surplus food. One night he came to watch some TV when a particularly nasty neighbourhood denizen was also visiting. “Keith”, like Sam, was a survivor but his longevity was steeped in amorality—he was a good looking, smooth talking bully among the defenseless. Knowing this the shelter staff kept a close eye on him whenever he was present and therefore, that night, when he started verbally abusing a middle aged mentally challenged woman, I was on him immediately. I ordered him out. He complied but not before letting us all know, in very colourful words, exactly what he thought of me. Sam, by this time, had had enough and got up to defend my honour.  More words were shouted and physical stances made before I separated the two, got Keith out with an indefinite ban and watched the night settle down to its normal craziness. A while later Sam left. He came back the next day with a black eye and swollen face. Keith, it seemed, had lain in wait outside the shelter, beating him up as a cautionary warning never to get involved again.
I left that job about a year later, lost contact with Sam and eventually moved to a calmer neighbourhood on the north shore. Walking home one afternoon then, I was more than pleasantly surprised to see Sam binning in the back alley. I walked up to him and, reminding him of how he defended me, gave him a hug and teasingly called him my hero.
It has been about eight years now that we’ve shared the same neighbourhood. Sam prefers to sleeps rough. Although he has been known to take the generosity of folk who offer him work as a house sitter he finds construction sites and parks more to his liking than soft beds and warm feet.  One Christmas, I gave him an IGA gift certificate. I meant well but I embarrassed him—he prefers to give rather than get and his “getting” is always the result of a barter or a dumpster find. Most times I see him pushing his shopping cart down the street or juggling great big garbage bags full of cans and bottles on his bike. When we see each other we always stop and chat. I keep it short when he’s been imbibing over a certain limit but more often than not we find something meaningful to talk about. But not, that is,  before he has offered me a gem or two of what he has found… it is amazing what people throw away.
I like Sam, even admire him, but I have never invited him home for tea. I kid myself and say it’s about the alcohol and how it triggers certain familial memories. Then I think, no, he’s just too dirty.  But I am not so sure either of those reasons are my truth.
My home is my sanctuary: my own fictional tale of the perfect life. His life is messy, uncertain and, at times, precarious: a reverberation of my own reality tale. I try to keep the two separate but … maybe this is why it is hard for me to write fiction… it exposes too much.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Power of Words Part 2: For the Love of Fiction

Continuing on with last week’s discussion, I want today to give praise to the power of words that align themselves in tales of fiction.
I’ve always been an avid reader but I think my love of story ignited when I was twelve. My mom gifted me with Anne of Green Gables and I was smitten. I still remember its apple green wrapper showcasing Anne perched on a fence with high neck collar, sun hat and black sturdy boots. It was my first hard cover. I knew by the way my mother gave it to me, the reverence she placed on it, that it was more than just her favorite book.  It was, in some way, my literary menarche. I stopped reading Nancy Drew and Trixie Beldon and forged on to new adventures. I went from Romance to Westerns, Sci Fi to Suspense. By my mid-twenties I had moved on to the classics and devoured Dante and Homer, Dostoyevsky and Milton. I read Toni Morrison and Atwood, Ondaatje and Lessing. Forty years later I am truly an eclectic reader with, on average, three different genres on hand for various needs: a classic for settling me down before a hectic day; a mystery, fantasy or romance for relaxing at the end of one; and a non-fiction text for moments in between.  I not only love them all but am continually amazed by what they give me. Regardless of the genre and their ranking between high and low brow, books, especially the fictitious ones, not only comfort me but open doors to new perspectives.
I remember years ago, during a rather difficult time when I needed lots of support, a two-bit cowboy romance helped me get past the depression I felt for being so dependent. In the story the hero suggests to the “maiden in distress” to think of him like the stake used to hold up a tree damaged by a winter storm: the stake, he says, is only needed until the tree establishes its roots again. I held on to that metaphor and was able to go forth with hope and belief that I, too, would grow strong again.
Sometimes it is just a sentence or a word that opens my eyes to a new way of looking at an issue. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s quote in The Great Gatsby: He paid a high price for living too long with a single dream helped me begin the grieving process after leaving a certain position. And, upon reading the word “legitimize” in some suspense novel, I was immediately granted an answer to a problem that had been holding me back.
I know I am not alone in this. Last week I wrote of a chapter in Primo Levi’s book: Survival in Auschwitz.  I read and reread his words, sinking into their power as he tried to remember Dante’s retelling of Ulysses’ single-mindedness and ultimate shipwreck. I felt a strong affinity to Levi’s emotions of needing to get the story out, to be understood… to share the magnitude of how we are so tied to history and the words of those that came before us. I felt myself urging Levi on, wanting his desire to be fulfilled: not only that his friend, Jean, would understand Dante but that he see what Levi, himself, was only just beginning to sense—a possible meaning, a parallel cause that linked Ulysses’ fateful voyage to their own. It was as if at that moment, fiction opened a door so that Levi could somehow name his experience, illuminate it— if only for a moment—and somehow ease the pain of his powerlessness.
And that is why I love fiction. Beside its idyllic companionship and entertainment value, fiction serves me in learning more about myself. It doesn’t spew facts and research; dole out expert analysis or professional opinion but opens, instead, a portal to possibility. Fiction breaks down walls and rejuvenates the idea of Jung’s collective unconscious. One has only to read Homer to know that our humanness is age-old and founded on a continuum: we may have evolved in some ways but we still do greed, anger, grief and love in much the same way as our ancient ancestors. In many ways, fiction is what ties us together, what proves our interdependence.
So, I ask you, what does fiction do for you?

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Power of Words

There is this incredibly beautiful chapter, The Canto of Ulysses, in Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz. In it Levi attempts to teach Italian to a fellow inmate, Jean, on the hour long walk to the kitchens. Levi writes:
I would be pleased to teach him Italian: why not try? We can do it. Why not immediately, one thing is a good as another, the important thing is not to lose time, not to waste this hour.
He starts the lesson with the twenty-sixth Canto of Dante’s Inferno which describes the eighth circle of hell where the counsellors of fraud are kept.  In this verse Ulysses, infamous for his smooth talking ways, tells the story of his last voyage. Levi writes:
Who knows how or why it comes into my mind. But we have no time to change, this hour is already less than an hour.
Levi is determined to not only remember Dante’s lines but to teach Jean the words. He is tormented that he can only bring forth bits and pieces. Several stanzas, however, remain intact and he recites Ulysses’ inspirational speech that ultimately pushes his men onward to their death:
 “Think of your breed; for brutish ignorance
Your mettle was not made; you were made men,
To follow after knowledge and excellence.”

Levi continues:
As if I also was hearing for the first time: like the blast of a trumpet, like the voice of God. For a moment I forget who I am and where I am… [Jean] begs me to repeat it. How good [Jean] is, he is aware that it is doing me good. Or perhaps it is something more: perhaps, despite the wan translation and the pedestrian, rushed commentary, he has received the message…
I would give today’s soup to know how to connect … the last lines [together]… [but] it is late, we have reached the kitchen, I must finish:
“And three times round we went in roaring smother
With all the waters; at the fourth the poop
Rose, and the prow went down, as pleased Another.”

 I keep [Jean] back, it is vitally necessary and urgent that he listen, that he understand this “as pleased Another” before it is too late; tomorrow he or I might be dead, or we might never see each other again, I must tell him, I must explain to him about the Middle Ages, about the so human and so necessary and yet unexpected anachronism, but still more, something gigantic that I myself have only just seen, in a flash of intuition perhaps the reason for our fate, for our being here today …
We are now in the soup queue, among the sordid, ragged crowd of soup-carriers from other Kommandos. Those just arrived press against our backs. “Kraut und Ruben? Kraut und Ruben? The official announcement is made that the soup today is of cabbages and turnips: Choux et navets. Kaposzta es repak.
Levi’s chapter ends here at the soup kitchen with the last line of Dante’s Canto—the last line spoken by Ulysses:
“And over our heads the hollow seas closed up.”
Levi speaks to me on a level I find hard to express. His writing is strikingly poignant and so utterly defiant—that in the face of such deprivation and brutal savagery, humans can count on the power of words to get them through another day, perhaps only an hour … even a second.
I have never faced the degradation and humiliation that Levi and others in the concentration camps suffered. I have never had to fear death at every moment or to feel continued powerlessness, hunger, fatigue and defeat. But I have known the power of words and felt uplifted by them. They have reached deep within me, a reassurance that I am not alone.
I will write more on this but Levi’s urgency, the force that urged him to teach Jean the words of Dante, is contagious. I find I need to get this out tonight in whatever state.

Friday, December 7, 2012

A Joyful and Peaceful Expression of Self

A man spoke to me today about the “blessings” of work. He said that he never quite understood its value until he retired. Now he sees how eight hours of work; eight more of play, and eight of rest is a perfect balance. Without it, he said, he is listless and finds less joy in life.
Another spoke in wistful terms as he watched me refill a bin with nails. I like work like that, he said, you can see what you’ve accomplished. My work, he lamented, is so nebulous with its meetings and report making…
I pondered upon these two encounters, both on the same morning, as I continued my day: ringing up sales; restocking shelves.
I am currently reading Primo Levi’s  Survival in Auschwitz. He writes of the infamous sign above several concentration camps where men and women were mercilessly worked to their death. It translates to read: Work gives freedom.
Three views of work: a blessing from structure; rewarding through accomplishment; freedom through death.
Okay, that was unfair of me to include the latter. There was no choice involved in Auschwitz, no monies exchanged; no fairness exacted. The work instead was a euphemism for brutal slavery. But still, it is good for me to keep Levi’s story in the back of my mind. I can get into a state of self pity when I view my current employment as a cashier. Sure, I still have a part-time BodyMind practice and my writing but I, in my humanness, want more. Or, at least, more of the work I love and less of that I do not.
A few days later I sat in the lunchroom after a long eight hours of serving customers. There were five of us, all cashiers, waiting to head into a mandatory meeting that none of us had the inclination to attend. Jackson was teasing Susan, a high school student; Anna was texting a friend and Georgia, a woman of my age, was sitting across from me, on the other side of the table. There were more of us to come but at that moment there was just a small comfortable gathering of work friends. I t was almost Walton-esqe in feeling, a family-like intimacy that bespoke of camaraderie and homespun tolerance.
Georgia got up and walked around to where I was sitting. I’ve done some energy work on her in the past, a couple of times, here and there, during lunch or coffee break. Nothing formal, just a few minutes to relax her shoulders or release a headache.   It works for both of us: I get to do the work I love; she feels better. As she approached she smiled and, in her accented voice, said: “Jo-Ann, my neck … touch me.”
So, for the next few minutes I worked on Georgia while Jackson and Susan played and Anna texted. Another view of work: a joyful and peaceful expression of Self.