Monthly Archives: February 2010

It was a cold, cloudy, sleety day today, one of those days that will consent neither to be truly nice nor to be truly horrible, settling for meteorological mediocrity, which is the worst of all weather.

I decided that the day called for nesting. The kids and I made a pact not to leave the house for anything short of an emergency. We made hot chocolate. We brought our blankets down to the livingroom and watched a movie. We made a tent around one of the radiators and read some stories. We nested.

It reminded me of what Gaston Bachelard has to say about nests in The Poetics of Space.  With nests, he says, “we place ourselves at the origin of confidence in the world; we receive a beginning of confidence, an urge toward cosmic confidence.”  It was just this confidence that we built today in the face of a February day in Canada: the confidence of the nest.

I just thought that I should write and express my deep relief that Canada has been winning a few more medals lately. There were a few days there when I was deciding whether to move to the United States, or maybe to Germany, because their much higher medal counts were clearly indicative of an essentially superior way of life. Sure, I thought, we have universal health care; sure, we have a standard of living that consistently ranks among the highest in the world; but what good are these things without Olympic medals. A good country, a really good country, it has Olympic medals, lots of them. This is how you know the good countries from the bad ones.

So I am feeling a little better now that our medal total is growing. Now our ambassadors and peacekeepers and tourists can go to other places in the world without feeling deep shame for the next four years, especially if we win Gold in men’s hockey, which would make our foreign policy so much simpler, at least until the next Olympics. I mean, who is really going to have the guts to stand up against the reigning Olympic Ice Hockey Champions, both men and women. Nobody. We could probably finish up with the problems in Afghanistan and Iraq in a few days, maybe even throw in Israel and Palestine for good measure. I just hope the men do win, for the sake of world peace I mean.

This is why I am so glad that I live in a country that has spent, oh, something like 10 or 12 billion dollars to bring the Olympic Games home, and I am honoured to pay my part of the 3 to 6 billion dollars of the total that will have to come from the tax payers. Honestly, what better way could there have been to spend that money than on the purity of sport and the honour of Canada and the peace of the world? Sure, I know that the whole thing looks like it is driven by advertizing dollars and national hubris, but the essential ideals make it all worthwhile, in the end, I swear.

This coming Monday, March 1st, Michael Hardt will be giving the School of English and Theatre Studies and The TransCanada Institute’s annual lecture at the University of Guelph.  Hardt is a political theorist who has collaborated with Antonio Negri to write several very interesting books, including Empire, Multitude, and Commonwealth.  The lecture should be well worth your time, though I will not be able to attend it myself, unfortunately.   Details can be found on the University of Guelph Campuis Events Site.

I wrote last week about making a seed table, and I must admit that the post did deem to imply that I was starting tomatoes in my seed table as of this past weekend, which horrified several of my gardening friends.  Now, I am new to the gardening game, but even I know that it is still early for tomatoes, and I plan to plant red peppers in two weeks or so and then tomatoes one or two weeks after that.  Though it was the tomatoes that made the table necessary, the seeds that I put in the dirt this past weekend were of a very different sort.  They were the tree seeds that I had been stratifying in the refrigerator this winter, and they were technically no longer even seeds.

This was the reason, actually, for my hurry in making the table in the first place.  I had not expected to need the tables for a week or two yet, but I went last week to check the moisture levels of my stratifying seeds and discovered that they had all germinated, every one of them.  I no longer had little bags of dirt and hibernating seeds.  I had little bags of dirt and tangled masses of germinated seedlings, all pale and straggly and searching for light.  So, my first task was to build the table a little ahead of schedule, and my second task, accomplished this past Saturday, was to detangle and plant in seed trays the still very delicate seedlings.

The plum and cherry plants were fairly simple.  There were fewer of them, and they were stronger, and only a few of them had germinated in the first place.  The roses were a little more difficult, but there were still only a couple of dozen of them, so I planted them out without too  much trouble.  The Saskatoon seedlings, however, were a nightmare.  There were something like a hundred of them, all very delicate, and all woven together like a mat.  I was forced to pick through them one by one and to use a toothpick to help place them in the soil without breaking their roots.  This is definitely not how the manuals recommend that you plant seeds, and after several hours of tedium I would also second their judgment, but the results seem good.  I had relatively few of the seedlings die off from shock or breakage, and the cherries and plums are responding very quickly to the light.  It was good just to see the rows of little plants, and I was motivated to plant several trays of perennial herbs that can stay in the table until spring.

As our first real snowstorm of the year rolled in yesterday, it was good to have a little bit of spring growing in my basement.

I have written before about how much I love the strange, dream-like, mystical novels of Charles Williams, but they are hard to come by now. They can be purchased new, of course, though they are never in stock and are often “unavailable to order a this time,” and I do not often buy books new in any case. My local library is even less helpful, as it usually is, so I am reduced to looking in used bookstores and thrift shops, which has so far met with only very limited success.

Last semester, however, I found one of Williams’ novel’s in the EBC library discard sale, so I thought I might check to see if there were any more of his books in the school’s collection. I had low expectations. The EBC library, serving a Bible College as it does, is adequate in areas like theology and biblical studies, but its English Literature section is literally a few shelves in the furthest corner of the stacks. I did not even bother to check the computer catalogue. I just went to the section and scanned the shelves, and there, against all my expectations, were every one of Williams’ novels and a book of his theology besides.

In retrospect, I should have expected that a Bible College library would be likely to include the fiction of a writer who was also a Christian theologian and a who was, perhaps more importantly, a close friend of C. S. Lewis, for several decades now the closest thing that Protestants have to a patron saint. None of this analysis after the fact was able to spoil my mood, however, and I have just finished the first of these books, entitled Descent into Hell.

The novel is superficially about a group of actors who are putting on a play at the residence of its famous playwright, Peter Stanhope. More deeply, it is concerned with the way that some of these actors relate to themselves as selves. For example, the heroine, Pauline Anstruther, sometimes sees a copy of herself approaching along the street, and another of the actors, Laurence Wentworth, creates for himself a succubus that is never really distinct from his own substance, and he falls into a kind of demonic narcissism. Others of the characters are also self-obsessed in the more usual ways, and much of the book’s philosophizing has to do with this question of self.

In this context, Williams has Stanhope muse to Pauline about the shift that occurs from the Greek philosophical tradition’s “know thyself” to the Christian tradition’s “love thy neighbour”. The shift, he implies, is not just from knowing to loving, but also, perhaps primarily, from the self to the neighbour. Though Stanhope does not articulate this distinction at any great length, some of his other comments make it unlikely that he is opposing knowing the self and loving the neighbour absolutely. Rather, he seems to be arguing that it is only possible to know the self through loving the neighbour, that loving the neighbour is precisely what produces true knowledge of the self, and the conclusion of the plot goes so far as to suggest that knowing the self apart from loving the neighbour is productive only of a kind of hell on earth, where the human imagination creates succubi for itself and the dead cannot rest in their graves.

Of course, Stanhope’s observation makes most of Christian history an irony, since Christianity, especially in its Protestant guises, has been intimately bound up with all the various individualisms of personal salvation, democratic politics, capitalist economics, individual rights, and private property. The self trumps the neighbour here, again and again, resoundingly, even if this self remains largely unknown. What is more, this triumph of the self produces, at least according to the logic of the novel, a descent into hell on earth, and it implies that the Christian tradition, far from bringing about the heaven of the neighbour, has been far more concerned with bringing about the hell of the self.

I am not certain whether Williams would actually have levelled this criticism against Christianity, but I think that his logic is worth following. If Christianity, or any other faith for that matter, has anything worth saying in this age where the hell of the self has become our greatest ambition, surely it is that we can only come to know ourselves by loving our neighbours.  This is surely the only thing that it has ever had to say, the thing that it has always been saying, without end, though it is all too seldom heard, so I will quote:

“This is the first and greatest commandment: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

My friend Sandy Clipsham had a few of his guy friends over last night, to sing, of course, which is what guys most often do when they get together, or so I hear. I had never met any of the others, but they were an eclectic and interesting group, and we spent as much time talking about new media and alternative publishing and movies as we did singing.  There were also homemade brownies, which is never a bad thing. The singing was good too, by which I mean that it was good to sing rather than that the singing was of any great quality, and it made me reflect on the diminishing opportunities to sing with one another in our culture and on the loss that I think this.

I have no data to support this supposition, but I would say that people in our culture listen to music more than those of any previous culture, but that they actually sing and play music with each other less and less. They have an insatiable appetite for professional music, for popular music, for music that accompanies and defines certain mediatized and commercialized lifestyles, but they are increasingly uncomfortable with making music together informally, as amateurs, as communities.  They no longer sing along with one another.  This phenomenon, I think, is partially to do with the diminishment of a certain kind of church culture, and also with the diminishment of things like summer camps and school choirs, all places where people once sung together regularly, but I it also has something to do with a culture that understands music as something to be produced and consumed like any other product rather than as something to be shared within a community.  Although people who call themselves musicians, either by profession or by vocation, are often willing to do music with one another informally, the greater part of our culture is content to consume music, and so it never learns what it is to make music as a community, as amateurs, simply as an expression of community.

Yet, the cost of this inability to sing with each other is considerable.  Anyone who has sung around a campfire, or in a church service, or even in a car with some friends and the radio, knows that there is something immensely cathartic about this kind of singing.  It does not require us to be musicians.  It does not require us to be vocalists.  It does not require is to be songwriters.  It requires us only to sing along with each other, and this singing produces an intimacy between us.  There is a social risk in this kind of singing, certainly, because it is a breach of normal social decorum and because it creates a space in which different rules apply, but it is this very risk, shared between us, that opens us to each other.

So, last night, the five of us took this risk.  We sang along with one another, informally, unprofessionally, without the benefit of practice, without really knowing each other, and we risked looking foolish, or at least sounding foolish, and we got through a few tunes that were none of our favourites but that were recognizable and easy to sing, and it was good. We sang “Cotton Fields“,” I’ll Fly Away“, “Five Hundred Miles“, “He Aint Heavy, He’s My Brother“, “If I Had a Hammer“, and “Down by the Riverside“, and I went home thinking that I need to sing along with people in this way more often.

My friend Dawn Matheson has just sent me a link to the newly launched HotDocs Doc Library, which contains hundreds of documentaries by Canadian filmmakers that users can stream free of charge.  Along with many films that I have not seen, the site has several of my favourites, including How to Eat a Cat by Michael Connolly, The Take by Avi Lewis, and Thai Girls by John Haslett Cuff.  There are many films here worth seeing, and when they are combined with those that are available through The National Film Board of Canada, all free and legal, you are now officially without excuse to do away with cable forever.