I’m enjoying The Stories of English by David Crystal. When he wrote about Bede, Lindisfarne, and Durham, I got nostalgic for my Medieval Literature class at Durham University. I was 19, full of romantic notions — cobbled lanes and ancient cathedrals made me wild with delight. Our professor took us on a weekend trip to Lindisfarne, which was magical. We mis-timed our drive off the island and got caught in the incoming tide. Scholars lept out of cars to push them through knee-high water.
Recently I finished reading Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution by Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd. It was mostly pretty heavy going but worth it for the following quote: “Many scholars believe that language evolved to manage social interaction. Social actors can often benefit by communicating about who did what to whom, when and why . . . (Imagine People’s Court with a cast consisting only of mimes!) (144).
The other day subway passengers offered a variety of images. One woman carried tall stalks of bamboo. There was an old bearded man in a kufi cap. A young couple huddled together in a side-bench. The girl slept with her head on her boyfriend’s chest. A lock of her hair kept falling forward into her face and her love kept trying to tuck it behind her ear.
I just finished this novel set in 1930’s Toronto. I enjoyed learning the social history of city streets I’ve seen. Though I don’t know very much about baseball, I cheered on Lucio as he threw the ball that hit the mysterious bird that had stolen Bloomberg the pitcher’s glasses. And when Lucio’s lover Ruthie hits the ball at a crucial game, I loved this description, “Ruthie’s swing starts, and it starts from the centre of her being. It starts twenty years before, when Abe and Sadie Nodelman (her parents) are trying to convince the Timothy Eaton Company to pay its employees a living wage. It starts some sixty years before that, when Marx writes of a spectre sweeping through Europe, with the streets of Paris on fire . . . ” (365)
One of my jobs is just a 25 minute walk away. You can go on a back road that features industrial and rural scenery. I try to be alert when I walk by a grassy bank because I’ve seen a lot of groundhogs there. Last week I thought there were no groundhogs about but when I looked carefully I saw the face of one creature perfectly framed in his hole. He looked back at me for a few minutes and then retreated.
Jan Wong’s Red China Blues delivered both entertainment and education. I like her direct sense of humor and honesty. The chapter on Tianamen Sqaure was especially moving. She actually observed the massacre from a Beijing hotel balcony on the north side of the square. I remember that June weekend in 1989 very well because my friend Mindy and I were at an Amnesty International conference in Chicago when the Tianamen atrocity happened. There was an impromptu protest march led by Chinese students at the University of Chicago.
The Toronto Public Library has had all kinds of holds turn up for me recently, so I’ve been turning lots of pages. I finished Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, which was a hit with me. The heroes saved a violin from ideological destruction by saying the name of a tune was “Mozart is Thinking of Chairman Mao.” I also liked The Prophet’s Camel Bell about Margaret Lawrence’s time in pre-independence Somali. She had a neighbor with a pet ostrich. The neighbor kid would greet the ostrich every morning with “Ostrich! Give news of yourself!” Marjan Satrapi’s Embroideries was a quick, funny read. Now I’m reading a book about Vietnam War Restister’s in Toronto. What next?
I was leaning on the counter at a nearby Canada Post Office, addressing a package to Missouri, when a man strode up to the two cashiers with a letter. He was shocked at how much it cost to send it express to the States. “I don’t understand why it costs 23 dollars just to send an envelope. When you send things from the States it costs next to nothing. I just don’t get it. Why does it cost so much? It’s the same country.” The clerks didn’t know and when he left to get some cash they rolled their eyes at each other. One said, “He should call customer service. Don’t ask me.”
When I approached the desk to weigh the parcel, I asked the cashiers if they thought price-challenging guy was American. I was curious, as an American in Canada myself. The older clerk said, “Yes, I’m sure he was. I can just tell.” “Was it the attitude?” “Yeah, though you can’t say that about all Americans.” The younger postal worker, who turned out to be from North Carolina, agreed. I said, “I’m from Missouri. We’re pretty laid back, too.” I think it’s good to ask why, but not in a “this is how we do it in the States” way. And why did the guy seem offended that Canada was a different country with different postal prices? Did he think Canada Post had no right to set its own prices?
I saw the postal customer as I walked home. I wish I had worked up the nerve to ask him where he was from and how long he’d been in Canada. I imagine he could have told me a lot about his impression of Toronto and if he was going to pay the 23 Canadian dollars after all.
I thought Enron might be on the boring side, but it really had me on the edge of my plush seat, leaning beyond the cup holders. What a medieval morality play! There were villains aplenty and not so many heroes. Is it really that easy to sell image and confidence over substance? Is it really only money that motivates people? I’d like to think it’s not true, but the sad thing is our society seems so spiritually bankrupt.
Joel Meyerowitz’s exhibit Aftermath: Images from Ground Zero is in Toronto. We saw it yesterday afternoon. As I studied the wreckage, a heavy numbness pressed on me, but the pictures of firemen and construction workers were comfortingly understandable. The grief in their eyes shows the way to feeling, even though it only hints at the trauma they experienced. When 9/11 exploded, I was living in Scotland. I felt so helpless and cut off, with the air space closed, phone lines overwhelmed. Seeing this exhibit made me feel more connected. I don’t always feel proud to be an American, but looking at the NYC emergency workers did make me feel proud.
The shredded buildings, smoky dusty hole in the ground also made me think about anger, how the feelings and beliefs of 19 men translated rage into action against twin symbols of power. I have heard that anger is like a shark, destroying the image of that which it hates. Burning testimony to the hellish power of fundamentalism of any kind — why do we persist in our illusions of heavenly reward?
I recently finished Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden Lives of Islamic Women by Geraldine Brooks. Parts of it seemed overly smug, like when Brooks talked about how gentle and tolerant her home country of Australia is. (Granted, she wrote it before asylum seekers sewed their mouths shut in an Australian detention camp, protesting their treatment.) But I learned more about the Prophet’s wives and how veiling wasn’t orginally meant to apply to all women.
Stewart and I saw Bride and Prejudice for the second time last Sunday. Loved it. My favorite part is when the gospel singers serenade the lovers on the beach.
For many years, boxes of my old books and papers have been waiting for me in the garage-studio next to my mom’s house. Since Stewart and I recently drove down to Missouri, the no-room-in-my-suitcase excuse no longer flew. One night during the visit I went through a folder of essays from my freshman composition course at Westminster. I found some truly purple responses to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116. Here is my all time favorite: “In line twelve, the puissance of assonance thrills the reader with the sound of ‘even to the edge of doom.'” In case the word doom isn’t puissant enough, I helpfully explain that “the edge of doom is an eternal abyss, one which a spiritual union can conquer.” I did tone it down in the final draft, but where’s the fun in that?
I would like to announce that I have a new pair of cotton tights from Grassroots. This is mighty important information. Grassroots is where my inner hippie rejoices — lots of candles, hemp bags, and notebooks made from recycled tires.
Stewart and I have declared today a Buy Nothing Day. Hooray! So far, so good. No impulse buys. No debits or dexits. I like it because the day feels more meaningful; it just hangs together better when I put my consumer self on hold for awhile. And since I’m broke right now, the break from spending can only be beneficial.
Last night we were musing about urban, industrial life, how its not so subtle subtext is SPEND, SPEND, SPEND! It made me think about my great-grandparents Fred and Lizzie who had a farm and raised mules in Missouri. For them, most days were Buy Nothing Days and needed no remark, but Buy Something Days would have been much more novel. I remember Gran saying they rode out the Depression fine because they grew their own food.
On a Thursday night a few months back, I saw a conscientious objector from South Dakota at the University of Toronto. Before I saw him in person, I had heard Jeremy Hinzman’s name in Quaker circles and then on a CBC radio program which narrated stories of Vietnam and Iraqi war resisters in Canada. Hinzman’s quietly humorous voice had impressed me, especially when recounting his “reason for visit” to immigration officials at the Canadian border: “We’re going to visit Friends.” Luckily the border staff didn’t detect the implied F, but if they had noticed it might have spelled trouble for the visitor and his family, for these kind of Friends welcome fugitive soldiers, even shelter them in their homes, just as they did for Underground Railroad refugees more than a century ago.
As an American who immigrated to Canada via Britain, I sympathize with Hinzman’s plight and agree with his position on the war. That’s why I was so keen to hear the views of a former US military insider. I have also shared some aspects of Jeremy’s situation, such as sheltering at the Society of Friends’ Meeting House when I first came to Toronto almost three years ago. Although I was fleeing isolation from my family instead of a command to fight in Iraq, I think displacement is universally disorienting. Moreover, as a peaceful American and daughter of a Navy man, I wanted to learn more about Hinzman’s experience.
Continue reading Country Love
The west side of my LINC classroom is basically two enormous windows. They’re great for watching the alley traffic near Coffee Time. While I was sitting at a table happily filling in the attendance after class, an incoming student (for the next class) pulled up a nearby chair to face the window. We shared a quiet existential moment watching the snow fall.
Yesterday I was reading The History of God in a coffeeshop when a elderly man asked if he could sit in the opposite armchair. Pretty soon we struck up a conversation and I learned that he’s 83, a Midwesterner like me, and a WWII veteran. We talked about Maimonides and Israeli politics. I enjoyed his stories.