Monthly Archives: March 2010

Though I am a proponent of home schooling in many of its guises, I am actually a little wary of the term.  Its connotations are too much about schooling and too little about learning for me to be completely comfortable with it, and it seems to imply that either children are educated at school or they are educated at home, where the fact is that all children, wherever they are more formally educated, need to be learning in the home, because there is much that formal education does not and can not teach us.

So, though my kids are not yet old enough that I am forced to put them in formal education of some sort, and though my wife and I have not yet decided whether we will actually home school our kids when they come to that age, we are already learning at home, not necessarily in very formalized ways, but intentionally and constantly.

As part of this process, I was looking for a way that my kids could express what they are learning in ways that are not just assignments, in ways that are relevant to them, and so I have decided to make a blog that I am calling Ethan and Marlon’s Field Journal.  Though I am doing most of the typing, my kids are directing all of the content.  It is a place where they can tell their stories, show their pictures, and link to the things that interest them in what we are learning. They are very excited about the idea, and I am just as excited to see them learning at home.

I was supposed to give a weekend of talks on home and the threshold last year about this time, and I promised a reader that I would post my notes, but the talks were subsequently postponed until the fall, and then I forgot about posting them entirely. I ran across them this afternoon, however, as I was going through a completed notebook before filing it, so I thought I might still post them here, though it is now long after the fact. They are not notes in the sense of an outline for any talk or talks in particular, because I do not really speak in this way. Rather, they are the short reflections on the home that informed my thinking going into those talks. I am posting them merely as I wrote them, almost unedited.

The limits of the home are defined by the beyond of the home, by the street, by the neighbourhood, by the town or the countryside. The home is the home because of what is not the home, because it divides the space of the world into the at home and the not at home. In a significant sense, therefore, the home can only know itself as home to the degree that it knows what is not home. The home is defined by what is beyond the home.

To say this most radically, I can perhaps become at home only through my practice of being not at home.  The home is always, by definition, distinct from what is not home, but the practice of home begins when I am not a at home.  The practice of the home begins as a practice of the street and of the neighbourhood.  It is a practice of  the road.

The practice of the road is a practice of openness to encountering the other person.  It is an openness to being moved by the other person.  It does not try to manufacture an encounter through its own activity.  It maintains an active openness to what may encounter me.  It is an active passivity, an active waiting.  It maintains an availability to the approach of the other person, a kind of hospitality in advance.

The practice of the road is pedestrian.  The driver is transported and so is closed to the other person. The pedestrian is not transported.  The pedestrian is always potentially open to encounter.

The road is the image and the metaphor of what is not the home.  It leads to and from the home.  It begins and ends at the doorway of the home.  There is no home without a road, no home from which one does not depart and to which one does not return.  Without this coming and going, without this journeying to and from the home, there is no home, not of any kind.

My journeying is always in relation to the home.  I circulate around this pole, around this center.  It remains before me and behind me, an object of my longing and my nostalgia.

When I am encountered on the road, I am always encountered in relation to the home, in relation to my coming and going, in relation to my longing and nostalgia, in relation to my ground and my center.  My response to the other is grounded precisely in this relation to home.  The home determines how I turn myself toward the other, how I hold myself open to the other, how I maintain myself in anticipation of the other.

The road is the place where I encounter the other, always, without exception.  There is no other place where I am confronted by the other.  If I am confronted by the other, I am on the road, no matter where I am.

The confrontation, the encounter, brings me alongside the other, even if only for a moment.  It turns me in the same direction. It causes us me walk with the other.  The road makes us companions, fellow travelers, strangers walking in the same path.

The place of the threshold is the limit of the home and the not home.  It is the membrane.  It is the hymen.  It is the sacred curtain.

The door cannot be left open, not always.  Only the home can be always open.  If the door is always open, if anyone can enter the home at any time, the limit between the home and the road is erased.  The home ceases to exist as a home.  It ceases to be distinguishable from the road.  Its intimate space is no longer distinct from the public space of the world.

The open home is not the home that has its doors open to the other always and in every case.  It is the home that is always open to the possibility that the door might be opened to the other always and in every case.  It is the home that desires that the door might indeed be opened to the other always and in every case, though this desire always remains impossible.

The open home always anticipates the other’s approach.  It always receives the other at the threshold, even if, for whatever reason, the other cannot be invited across the threshold at this time.  It is a home that always welcomes the approach of the other, even if this welcome cannot become an invitation across the threshold.  The open home is not an absolute hospitality.

At the same time, the practice of the door expresses itself as a desire for the invitation.  The open home may not be able to extend an invitation to the other in every case, but it always desires to do so.  It is always broken-hearted when it cannot do so.  The open home is always characterized by a willingness to lay aside whatever it can in order that an invitation might be extended.  It delights to sacrifice itself in order to receive the approach of the other with an invitation.

The open home is essentially, but not absolutely, hospitible.  It does not make of one the host and of another the guest.  Its desire  is to make everyone at home, to whatever degree it is able.  It does not reserve the invitation for an occasion, because its invitation is not to an occasion.  Its invitation is to the home, as it is at that moment, as it is striving to be at that moment.

As I post this eighth chapter of the Lindy novel, I am finding an increasing number of things that I would like to go back and change in earlier chapters.  I am mostly ignoring these impulses until the novel is complete and I can do a complete edit, but there are some things that I am changing from here on in.  Most significantly, I will be referring to the house as The Crofts rather than Aubade’s Seat.  The Crofts is easier to say, its meaning is easier to understand, and it is less pretentious. I hope the change does not offend anyone too much.  As always, those who are new to the story can find the beginning at Chapter One.

Chapter Eight:
In Which There Is a very Grave Turn of Events

Lindy woke the next morning with the feeling that she had slept exactly the right amount, enough that she was no longer tired but not so much that she was now groggy, and she was sure that the rest of the day would be as perfect as its beginning.  You have probably felt this way yourself some morning or another, as if the day has begun so well that you cannot imagine anything going wrong, and I must say that I am very fond of those mornings myself, even if they do not always turn into the perfect days that they seem to promise.

Some fresh clothes had been laid out for Lindy on the dresser overnight.  They were cut much like her own jeans and t-shirt, only they were made of some homemade cloth and sewn by hand in just her size, and they fit her so well that Lindy wondered whether someone had found the time to make them especially for her.  They felt a bit rough on her skin at first, but by the time she had splashed her face in a bowl of water on the washstand and put on her own shoes, she had almost forgotten that they were not her regular clothes, and she set off in search of the kitchen.

Remembering what Alisdair had told her the night before, she tried imagining that she was in the kitchen and then opening the door of her room very quickly, but she was disappointed to find nothing there but the hallway.  She tried again, and then several times more, but all with the same result, and she was becoming a bit frustrated, so she started walking down the hallway, wondering how long it might take her to find the kitchen on her own and wishing that she could just appear there like Alisdair had showed her.  Then, just as she was thinking this, she turned the first corner, and there was the kitchen, though she did not quite know how.

“It was sort of like learning to skate,” Lindy told me later.  “If I was trying too hard, I just couldn’t do it.  But as soon as I stopped worrying, it happened all by itself.  And pretty soon I could do it whenever I wanted.”

Now, I know that Lindy makes this traveling about the house sound easy, but I assure you that it can be a little harder for some people.  I, for one, have never been able to get the hang of it.  I always seem to panic, and then I start thinking about everything at once, and then I end up in a closet or a bathroom somewhere, so if you should ever find yourself in The Crofts, you need not feel ashamed of using your own two feet like I do, even if Lindy was able to get the knack of it right away.

When she arrived in the kitchen that morning, however, Lindy was less excited at her achievement than she was bewildered by what she saw.  The kitchen was definitely the same room that she remembered from the previous day, but it was now entirely empty.  There were no stoves, no tables, no pots, no food, nothing but the grey stone oven, huge and empty, and the broad flagstone floor, cleanly swept and bare.

“Where is everything?” Lindy exclaimed, though there was nobody there to hear her.

“Everything is right where I left it,” answered the voice of Penates from the middle of the empty room, and then the cook himself appeared from nowhere, already bare-chested in the cool of the morning, and already in the midst of doing something, though Lindy could not see what there was for him to be doing.  He was moving slowly at first, but picking up speed, like one of the old steam trains at the railway museum, until he was going as quickly as Lindy had first seen him, darting from one thing to the next, and everywhere he moved things began to appear around him.  He moved to an empty wall and turned his hand in the empty air, and the gas stove leapt into view with the flame alight.  He reached above him into nothingness and pulled down a great brass kettle, like a giant fruit from an invisible tree.  He pulled flour from cupboards that did not exist until he opened them, took eggs and milk from an icebox that only appeared when he went to it, and laid everything on a table that seemed to come into existence only because he needed it.

Lindy watched as the kitchen filled around her, and it was like watching a dance, not like a ballet or a ballroom dance, but like the dance at her cousin’s wedding the summer before, where there were people playing fiddles and drums and where everyone danced all over the floor and seemed always about to bump into each other but never quite did.  Here and there, moving around Penates, Lindy thought that she could see glimpses of the ghostly people who had filled the kitchen the day before, and they seemed to be dancing too.  It was beautiful to watch, and Lindy must have stood there for quite some time, because her feet began to hurt her a little.

“Penates,” she called, “could you get me a chair to sit on?  I know they’re here somewhere, but I don’t know how to find them.”

“Just put your hand out where the chair should be,” Penates called back, “and it will be there.”

“Like the traveling thing?”

Penates shrugged as he stirred something in a big bowl.  “Sure.”

Lindy looked behind her where the broad wooden table and its assorted chairs had been the day before.  She started to reach into the empty space, but the thought of something invisible just waiting for her to touch it was a little unnerving, and she hesitated.

“A chair is never a chair until you sit on it,” called Penates from across the room, “so sit on it and make it a chair.”

Lindy had never thought of things quite like that before, but it made a strange sort of sense to her.  She turned back around and sat in the empty air without another thought, and she was not at all surprised to find that there was suddenly a stool beneath her and a table stretched out beside her.  She felt, for the first time, that maybe she was beginning to understand The Crofts a little.

The house seemed to chuckle at her, and Lindy realized that she could still feel it around her, quieter than the day before but present nonetheless, and it was comforting somehow to know that The Crofts itself was still watching out for her.

Penates soon had a bowl of oatmeal on the table for her, made with big whole oats and chunks of dried apple and cinnamon and brown sugar, and there was apple cider too, and a pot of tea.  As soon as she took a bite of the porridge, Lindy knew that this was exactly what she had wanted, and the cider was good too, though she left the tea for the others who were now gathering around the weathered old table.

Moe and Clinton were not among them, and nobody paid much attention to Lindy other than to smile and say “Good morning,” so she sat quietly, eating her oatmeal and listening to what the others were saying.  Actually, at first she tried not to listen to them, because she thought that it might be eavesdropping, but they were sitting so close that Lindy could hardly block them out, and after a while she gave up trying.

Everyone seemed much more worried than they had been the night before, as if the decision they had made then seemed different now that it was morning.  They kept starting to say things, and then stopping in the middle of them, and then pausing to look down at their food, and then trying to finish what they had started to say a few minutes earlier.

One of the group was an old man with long white mustaches hanging down over his lip, and he was doing most of the talking.   “It’s so close to Midsummer,” he was saying, as he fed bits of his breakfast to the raven perched on his one shoulder and to the small white owl perched on his other, “and if Alisdair can’t return by Midsummer Noon…”.

“But…  he’ll be back before then…  Right?” asked a much younger man, almost a boy.  A ghostly stag with golden antlers and golden hooves stood behind him, and his own face had something wild about it as well, as if he was more used to the forest than to the table.

“Oh, Ceryn, I’m sure he will be,” said one of the bird women who had arrived through the kitchen windows the day before.  “Midsummer is still more than a week away.  There’s lots of time for Alisdair to… well… whatever it is that he has to do exactly.  He’ll be back in time.  I know he will.”  She bent her head and brushed her cheek on her shawl as though preening her feathers.

“I don’t doubt that Alisdair will be back as quickly as he can,” said the mustached man, “and I agree that he must go.”  The others nodded.  “It’s just that this is all happening so close to Midsummer, and if something should happen…”.   Some of those at the table looked worriedly at each other.  “I mean, if he can’t meet Khurshid at the bridge…”.

“Yes, yes, we know,” said the bird-woman nervously, and she made her little preening motion again.  “Alisdair must meet Khurshid at the bridge on Midsummer Noon or…”.

“That’s quite enough of this talk,” said a woman on the far end of the table.  She had been quiet until then, and she spoke quietly, but Lindy thought that she must be someone important because everyone stopped talking and looked down the table to where she was sitting.  She had only smooth hollows where her eyes should have been, and symbols like letters from a strange alphabet kept appearing and disappearing on them, sometimes changing so quickly that Lindy could not really see them, and sometimes pausing for a moment or two, just long enough for Lindy to have read them if only she had known what the letters meant.

“We all know that Alisdair must turn Khurshid back at the bridge,” said the woman after a moment, “and there’s no use in worrying any more about it.”  She looked at each person in turn.  “Either Alisdair will return by Midsummer Noon, or he will not.  Either Khurshid will remain bound for another year, or he will not.  It has always been this way.  Nothing has changed.  So I will hear no more about it.”

Lindy would have liked to hear what else the eyeless woman had to say, but Cleanna sat down beside her just then, and Lindy said good morning, which the bird woman thought was invitation enough to begin talking very quickly in a high sing-song kind of voice.  She told Lindy how happy she was to meet her, and said that it was nice to talk with her now that circumstances were less stressful than the previous afternoon, and confided that she had been quite worried that Alisdair would be detained longer than he had been, which would have left The Crofts practically undefended, and then she finished by assuring Lindy that everything would turn out for the best now that Alisdair had things well in hand.  She said all of this so quickly that Lindy had trouble following what she was saying, but it was nice not having to say anything in reply, so Lindy just listened, even when there were things that she did not quite understand.

Just as Cleanna seemed to be slowing a little, Moe and Clinton did appear with Alisdair right behind them, and suddenly everyone was hurrying to eat their last few mouthfuls of breakfast and taking their dishes to the sinks and refilling their mugs of tea or coffee.  Alisdair crossed the kitchen, which had become very quiet and solemn, like Lindy’s class right before a big test, and then everyone followed him out the kitchen’s sidedoor, through the little mudroom where Lindy had first entered the house, and out into the garden.

It was a beautiful morning, a little cool and a little damp from the dew, but with a bright sun that promised an afternoon warm and dry enough to put a blanket on the lawn.  Lindy felt once again that the day was good, and she wanted to whistle or sing to herself, only everyone else seemed very somber, so she kept her happiness to herself.

She walked with the others through the trees, the long grass brushing wetly against her legs, until they all came to the low platform of pink stone where the arch stood.  Everyone else stopped then, but Alisdair stepped onto the stone dais and went to the arch.  He placed a hand on one of its pillars and turned for a moment to wave at them.  “Don’t worry,” he called.  “I will return soon enough,” and then Lindy had just enough time to remember how the arch had felt beneath her own hands before he passed through the swirling grey and disappeared.

Lindy did not turn away for a long while.  Alisdair’s going had happened so quickly, so suddenly.  She felt as though it should have taken longer somehow, that he should have said something more, or that people should have had a chance to say goodbye to him, but he had gone without hardly a word.

She kept looking at the picture the arch held now, the reverse of the one that she had seen so often from her place on the wall.  It was exactly her place on the wall that the arch was framing for her now, only it was not really her place any longer.  Her yard and her house were not behind it.  Her cubby was not behind it.  Her mother was not behind it.  She suddenly felt very lonely and very far from home, and she wished that she had been able to go with Alisdair, no matter how dangerous it might have been.  The day was still beautiful, but she was now as solemn as everyone else.

She looked up to see that most of the others had left.  Only Moe had stayed, shuffling back and forth in his baggy clothes. “How long will it be until he comes back?” she asked.

Moe shrugged his huge shoulders.  “It’s hard to say about things like that here.  It could be a minute, or maybe an hour, or a day, or a week. Time’s a funny thing.”

“I feel like I’m going to cry,” she said.  She felt silly saying it, but it was true.

“No shame in that,” the big man replied, and he patted her back clumsily.  “We’ve all shed our share of tears.  Just can’t let them keep us from doing what needs to be done, that’s all.”

Lindy nodded, but she had no idea what it was that she needed to be doing, and she could not seem to cry anyway.

Just then, there was a kind of humming sound, and Lindy turned to see the arch filled with silver and grey again, only it was flickering now.  One moment she could almost see the flecks of golden stars from where she stood, and the next moment there was only the garden wall and the green of the trees.

Images and voices filled Lindy’s mind.  She thought that she could hear Alisdair saying something, but she could not make out what it was because there were so many other voices shouting over everything, and she saw what she thought was Alisdair’s face as well, but it was as if she was seeing it in a pond when the wind makes the water ripple.  The only thing that she could make out clearly was the voice of The Crofts itself, and it was crying, like the women cried in the old movies, wailing and weeping and shrieking, and Lindy could feel the fear of the house over everything.

She tried to go to the arch, but Moe grabbed her hand and held her back, and the noise  kept getting louder and louder, and the wailing of The Crofts grew louder too, until Lindy could feel the ground shaking and see the leaves on the trees shaking.  Some of the others came running from the house, and a few of the bird women in their animal shapes were circling around the arch from above.  The sound grew until Lindy thought her ears would burst, and still it grew, and then it suddenly stopped altogether, and the silver-grey of the arch stopped flickering, and everything seemed very still, and the only sound was The Crofts softly moaning in her mind.

Then Lindy seemed to see someone in the arch.  She thought that it might be Alisdair, but he was blurry, and she could not tell for sure.  The voice that began speaking was certainly Alisdair’s voice, though, even if he seemed to be calling from a long way away.  He kept saying the same thing, over and over, as if he was afraid that they might not hear him.  “Lindy must take the crown,” he said, “Lindy must take the crown,” again and again, and then the arch became still for a moment, and Alisdair’s crown appeared through the blue and silver and grey and fell onto the shell-pink stone.  It made a dull ringing sound, like a cast iron pan falling onto the floor, and it was loud in the quiet of the garden.

Nobody seemed to know what to do, standing still in their places, and Lindy found that she was truly frightened for the first time that she had come over Mister Hat’s wall.  She felt as though everyone was waiting for her to do something, but she knew that she would never be able to walk over to the crown and pick it up by herself, so she stood there with everyone else, not saying a word.

At last, after a time that could not have been nearly as long as it felt, Clinton began slowly to walk from the little group of onlookers to the middle of the stone dais.  He bent down, picked up the crown, and held it up a little for everyone else to see.  “You must all agree,” he said, his voice a little softer than usual, but still firm and precise, “that Mister Bridgebane has made his wishes very clear, and that the force of necessity affirms his judgment in every respect.  Someone must wear the crown on Midsummer’s Feast, and Lindy is the only one among us of Alisdair’s race.  She must wear the crown.”

None of the others said anything in reply, and Clinton said nothing more, but The Crofts suddenly began its screaming again, and its voice was full of anger, growing angrier as Clinton began walking toward Lindy.  It was saying no words that Lindy could understand, but she knew it meant, “Stop! She must not wear the crown. Alisdair must be found.  She will be the end of everything.”  Its voice was so loud in her mind, and its anger was so strong, that Lindy was sure everyone else could hear it also, and she wanted to run, but her feet were fixed, and all she could do was sink to her knees as Clinton set Alisdair’s crown on her frightened head.

At that moment, as the heavy crown bowed her forehead, everything began to swirl, and the garden disappeared from around her, and Lindy was surrounded by nothing but darkness and cold, her back against a hard damp wall.  The house at last was silent.

Previous Chapter < > Next Chapter

As you will probably have gathered on your own by now, very few of my interests lie in the realms of science or mathematics, but this was not always the case.

I was very interested in botany and entomology in my early teens.  During the summers that I spent with my father and brothers at the hunting camp on Manitoulin Island, I used to go for long walks, taking specimens of anything that seemed interesting.  I would dissect, pin, arrange, bottle, and collect things.  I would grind them and make infusions out of them and even paint with them as  pigments.  It was amateur science mixed with some strange instinct to herbalism and alchemy, all born out of months spent in the midst of nature without much else by way of distraction.

I was also fascinated by some of the more or less philosophical questions that mathematics raises.  I can remember pondering for hours about what zero was, for example.  If it was not a number, then I wanted to know what it was precisely, and this was my first flirtation with the idea that nothingness is actually necessary to thingness, not just as a placeholder, but in essence.

Unfortunately, as I have recounted to many people over the years, these kinds of interests were soundly beaten out of me by the very people who were supposed to be teaching me about them.  One mathematics teacher, for example, came by my desk one day to ask what exactly I was doing.  I showed her my notebook and explained that I was trying to work out the nature of zero.  She told me to stop fooling around and start doing my homework.  I never did any kind of mathematics again except under compulsion, and I dropped the subject entirely as soon as I was able.

A whole semester of memorizing the parts of a cell, for reasons that were never explained to me in any way, had a similar effect on my interest in biology, and my chemistry teacher the following semester actually told me, only two weeks into the course, that I should drop it because I was most likely to fail it anyway.  I ended up taking Science in Society instead, where we baked bread and wrote poems about scientific principles and mostly did very little of anything.

Since that time, however, I have found any number of books that have appealed to the initial interest that I had in science and mathematics, as rudimentary and uninformed as that interest was.  Oliver Sacks’s Awakenings was the first such book I can remember.  Its story engaged me so thoroughly that it inspired me to read further about dopamine and to learn more about chemistry than I ever did in any class. Its attraction for me was that it situates a particular scientific problem in its narrative context.  The reader is invited to identify with the scientist and with the patients and with the story.  The science becomes meaningful because it is a part of a story, and it was this story and that caused me to go beyond Sack’s book to some of the more technical details of his work.

This is one of the reasons why I encourage my students to read Robert Adams’ The Land and Literature of England if they are interested in the history of English literature.  As opposed to most history textbooks, it employs an interested narrative rather than trying to achieve some kind of disinterested objectivity.  It revels in the anecdotal and the tangential, even when it admits that some of these things are a little suspect historically.  It makes the historical study of literature into a series of tales that could be shared over a few pints, assuming that you are the sort of person who would share literary stories of any kind over a few pints, which I must assuredly am.  I find, invariably, that this narrative of English literature not only entertains and informs the students who bother to read it, but that it also encourages them to go to the historical documents themselves.  The story not only helps them to learn the basics.  It also creates the desire to learn more deeply.

I am writing about all this now because I have just finished another of these books:  Colin Tudge’s The Secret of Trees.  The front cover of my edition proclaims that it is “a love-letter to trees,” but it is more accurately a love story about trees, a story that goes back millions of years and is by no means finished yet.  Tudge does not at all shy away from the technical details of his subject, giving introductions to plant biology, natural history, and botanical classification, among other things, but neither does he dwell on them.  They are simply included as elements of his larger narrative, and this narrative, written as only a lover can write, inspires its readers to love trees too.  More than that, it gave meaning and interest to some of the mere facts of biology that were inflicted on me in highschool.

If some teacher, any teacher, had thought to tell me the story of how mitochondria, and other organelles as well, probably originated as independent simple cells and then invaded other single cells in order to form complex cells, this would have lent a whole lot more meaning to the apparently random shapes that I was labeling in my notes.  If anybody had taken the time to explain how plants use hormones to respond to their environment, I would have had a meaningful point of entry into chemistry.  Yet everyone was so busy trying to transmit information that they failed to make the information meaningful.  Everyone was too busy, too scientific, too objective, and too educated to tell a story.

Yet stories are how we learn, certainly as children, and also, if we are willing to admit it, as adults.  I understand that scientific papers and mathematical proofs serve their purpose, and I am not suggesting that we do without them.  I am only arguing that these things remain mostly meaningless without the context of their stories, and I am also perhaps suggesting that the increasing irrelevance of academia for many people has to do with its inability to remember and recount the stories that give its work meaning. It is these stories that inspire people to learn more, inspire them to love what they learn, and so these stories need to be shared more often.

I often wonder how this blog might have been different if I had started writing it before I became a parent.  Very likely my poor readers, if there had been any readers at all, would have endured many more posts on literary theory and many fewer posts on children’s literature.  This is not to say that I was not interested in children’s literature before I became a parent.  I have always loved stories and storytelling, fairytales and fantasies, illustrations and drawings.  I have also taught classes on the subject, even before I had children.  The difference now, it seems, is that most of my time is snatched here and there between the duties of parenthood, so I have few of the lengthy stretches of continuous time that I need to read theory, but I have many of the short bits of time when my kids would like me to read to them anyway, and so I find myself reading so many children’s stories that I almost have to find something interesting every once in a while, even considering how poor most writing for children generally is.

This past week, I happened to pick up The Moon’s Revenge, a fairytale written by Joan Aiken and illustrated by Alan Lee, mostly because I liked the cover illustration, and because, all painfully cliche adages aside, it is often possible, in fact, to know a good deal about a book from its cover.  To be fair, I also recognized the names of both the author and the illustrator, so my bets were well hedged, and they were not at all disappointed.

Joan Aiken has written many novels, shorter tales, and picture books in a wide range of styles for almost all ages.  Her best known work is probably The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, which is a series of twelve fantastical and quasi-historical novels, but she is also known for her Armitage Family Stories, and some of her short fantasy tales are very good as well.  I have not read any of her longer books, I will admit, but I have enjoyed her children’s books, and I suspect that I will be exposed to her novels more as my children grow.

Alan Lee is probably best known for his illustrations of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and for his subsequent work as a concept artist on the film adaptations of these novels, but he has worked on many different books and films, though consistently in the genres of the fairytale or ancient mythology.   Faeries, which he illustrated with Brian Froud, was one of the books that I happened to pick up from the library of my friend’s father the other day, and I also remember his art from some of the Rosemary Sutcliff books that were a staple of my reading for several years in my early teens.  He has a lightness of touch that usually manages to navigate between the two extremes that make most fantasy illustrators so horrible, falling neither into overly-dainty fairy cuteness nor into overly-heroic sword-and-sorcery stereotype.

The Moon’s Revenge is an example of both the author and the artist at their best.  The story follows the simple yet inexplicable logic that characterizes all good fairytales, where wishes can be obtained by throwing seven shoes at the moon, but only at the cost of the moon’s wrath and of seven barefoot years and of a sister who cannot speak and of a terrible danger that will threaten the whole town.  The pace of the story is impeccable.  It does not hurry, making time for the little complexities of the fairytale, but it swells to its climax with a grand inevitability.  It is very good storytelling.

The illustrations, fortunately, are equal to the story, as too few are.  Lee’s watercolours lend the images a softness and a mysteriousness that is well suited to the subject, but his consistently dark and natural colours, heavy blues and greens and greys, continually suggest the sea and the mist of the seashore, and they ensure that the detailed watercolours do not become mere pastel prettiness.  The effect is wonderful, and the work is easily as good as anything that Lee has done in his many grander projects since.

Suffice it to say that I am now officially scouring the local bookshops for a copy of my own.

I bought a copy of Jacques Derrida’s Limited Inc at Macondo books yesterday, and it was inscribed,

Mani Haghighi
21 October 97

I googled the name, as I always do when I find a reasonably informative inscription, because I love the story of a book as much as I love the story in a book.  Usually I discover nothing very interesting from these searches: a facebook page perhaps, or a business profile, but most often nothing that would even positively identify the former owner of my book.  My search for Mani Haghighi, however, was rather more informative. Apparently Haghighi is a well-known Iranian filmmaker, the director Abadan, Men at Work, Hamoon Bazha, and Canaan, and the writer of Fireworks Wednesday.  His Men at Work in particular is considered to be a modern classic of Iranian cinema.

Now, I expect that you are probably as skeptical as I first was about whether Mani Haghighi the Iranian filmmaker is the same Mani Haghighi who used to own the book I just bought, but the facts do seem to fit.  It turns out that Haghighi took an undergraduate in philosophy from McGill University, which explains why the book was inscribed in Montreal, and then he took a masters in philosophy from the University of Guelph, which explains why I found it in my local bookstore.  I think these two facts alone are more than enough evidence to suggest that the book in my hand was once owned by Mani Haghighi the filmmaker.

What remains unexplained, however, is why I only found the book now, thirteen years later.  I doubt that Haghighi retains a residence in Guelph, especially considering that he went on to further post-graduate work at Trent University and has since been making films in Iran.  Perhaps he gave it to a friend before he left who just recently sold it to Macondo.  Perhaps he sold it to a used bookstore those many years ago, and then it was purchased by someone else, and then it was resold to Macondo, and then I finally discovered it yesterday morning.  Whatever the case, I now find myself distantly and mysteriously linked to this man who was living in the same city and studying at the same university as I was more than a decade ago.  We never chanced to meet then, but I am now reading something that he also once read.

I think I will try to find one of his films.

I have always wanted to invoke a muse, any muse really, although I hold a special fondness for Calliope and Melpomene and even, to a lesser but still substantial degree, Polyhymnia. The trouble is that there is relatively little demand (current literary fashion being what it is) for invocations to anyone, and there are tragically few readers (current educational standards being a little worse even than current literary fashion) who would recognize an invocation even if I were to write one.

Fortunately, I have never been easily dissuaded from an idea once I have made it my own (usually by theft, original ideas being increasingly difficult to come upon), and so I have determined to write an invocation here for no very good reason except that I want very much to write one.  Even if everything else I write is worthless, let it only be said that my invocation was wonderfully accomplished, and I will consider myself satisfied.

So, I strongly admonish anyone with so little to do with their time that they can spend it critiquing what I write: refrain from criticizing this invocation entirely unless you are prepared to do so in the most laudatory fashion. I leave you the rest of my writing for you to tear between yourselves beneath the table, and if you object that my current metaphor casts you as dogs, at least be thankful that you are well fed, because I have given you the meal almost whole and kept only the smallest scrap for myself.

An Invocation for a Blog
Come sweetest three of sisters nine
And grant your ancient dignities
To this still adolescent art,
That it might learn maturity
By speaking with your wiser tongue,
And you might find your youth return
By walking in its firmer step,
And we might make a unison
That knows the best of youth and age.

Now, there you have what may be the world’s first invocation on behalf of a blog, though I am certain that it will not be the last, not with the shining example that I have just set for the world.  This invocation will probably mark the beginning of a new era in the literature of the web, a new movement to integrate the traditions of the past with the media of the future.

Of course, I have been wrong before.

I read Roberto Bolano’s The Savage Detectives and 2666 one immediately after the other, having never read Bolano before, and I knew immediately, from the first few paragraphs, even in translation, that he was the kind of writer who would remain with me.  I wanted to write something about 2666 immediately, but I had made  a promise to a reader that I would wait until he had finished it, and this served as a convenient excuse to avoid the reality that I had no ready way to articulate the book’s effect on me.   My excuse has now been removed, however, and so, with a good deal of trepidation, I will venture to say what I can.

2666 is composed of five mostly independent narratives, five novellas if you like, that could very well stand on their own, to the point where there is some debate among Bolano scholars as to the order in which these narratives should be arranged, a debate that has been further complicated by a sixth section of the novel that appears to have been found among Bolano’s papers after his death.  Though the novel’s five narratives are not dependent on one another,  neither are they entirely unrelated.  Not only do some of the characters and events and locations directly overlap, but the sections also contain seemingly coincidental references both to each other and to some of Bolano’s earlier fiction, including The Savage Detectives.  These references are often strikingly and unavoidably coincidental.  They drew my attention repeatedly as I read, often more strongly than the central narrative, until they seemed to become a figure for the novel itself.

Let me give an example.  In one section of the novel, Professor Amalfitano finds a geometry book among the books that he is unpacking.  He cannot remember ever having purchased it or ever having been given it as a gift.  He cannot even remember packing it.  He is uncertain what to do with it, but then he recalls having read about Marcel Duchamp instructing his newly married sister to buy a book of geometry and hang it by strings from her balcony, so Amalfitano takes the mysterious book and hangs it on his clothesline.  Then, in a later section of the novel, another character is passing by a backyard in the course of investigating the many killings of women in the city.  He notices a book hanging on a clothesline, but he continues on his way, and the book plays no further role in his story, but the two narratives are nevertheless linked by this allusion one to the other.

These kinds of references are never strong enough to provide a metanarrative for the five sections, seeming rather to emphasize how tangentially, how coincidentally, how randomly they intersect one another, even if this insistence on coincidence is certainly also also a metanarrative of sorts.  In fact, Bolano seems to make this point explicitly at one point in the novel, saying, “Coincidence is total freedom, our natural destiny.  Coincidence obeys no laws, and if it does, we don’t know what they are.  Coincidence is like the manifestation of God at every moment on our planet.  A senseless God making senseless gestures at his senseless creatures.  In that hurricane, in that osseous implosion, we find communion, the communion of coincidence and effect and the communion of effect with us.”

Here, Bolano seems to be articulating a principle of coincidence that does in fact operate in the place of traditional metanarratives, even in the place of the ultimate metanarrative, in the place of God.  The void that is opened by the end of metanarratives is a void where coincidence becomes the source of freedom and of destiny and of mystery and even, especially, of communion.  Coincidence becomes God, a senseless God to be sure, but a God nevertheless, and if coincidence becomes God, then only coincidence itself provides a metanarrative that might join things together, that might make of us and of our stories a communion.

All this reminds me of a passage from The Savage Detectives, where Bolano says, “The heart of the matter is knowing whether evil is random or purposeful.  If it’s purposeful, we can fight it.  It’s hard to defeat, but we have a chance.  If it’s random, on the other hand, we’re fucked, and we’ just have to hope that God, if he exists, has mercy on us.  And that’s what it all comes down to.”  Though coincidence is not directly conflated with God here, there is the same sense that the necessity of God is found in randomness, in coincidence.  As long as evil has a purpose, there is no need for God.  We can fight a purposeful evil, even if it is difficult.   What we cannot defeat is a purposeless evil.  We do not know how to begin such a fight.  We do not even know that it is evil, not for certain, not without a purpose, without an intent.  In the face of such a random evil, we are left with nothing but hope in the mercy of a God whose very existence remains in doubt.

If, then, the senseless God of coincidence offers our stories the possibility of communion as the passage from 2666 suggests, it would seem that this possibility, this mercy, is not assured.  In the face of purposeless of evil, and the evil of 2666 often seems purposeless indeed, there can be only a tenuous hope in the mercy of a God who may not even exist and who might appear merely as a book hung on a clothesline or something else even less recognizable.  Yet it is only these appearances, these coincidences, these acts of a senseless God, that bind Bolano’s stories together, and I think that these places are precisely where his work might be read most profitably.

I never blog about anything technical.  I review neither software nor hardware, neither application nor gadget.  There are good reasons for this:  Not only do I lack any education and experience with the subject, but I am also a late adopter and a selective Luddite, so almost everyone else is more qualified to write about these things than I am.  I just try to stay clear.

Today, however, I am making an exception, because today Dave Humphrey introduced me to Readability, a bookmarklet that allows users to remove the clutter, the adds, the sidebars, the themes, from any webpage, rendering the page’s text according to preferences that the reader selects.  It is one of those almost too simple ideas, and yet, for anyone who reads as much online as I do, it makes life so much easier. With a single click on any page, I can have just the text I want in a reasonable font size that runs the entire width of the screen. With a second click I can print or email it.

I have wanted this for years without even knowing what it was that I wanted, and so I am sharing it with those of you who have not yet discovered it yourselves.  I may not be qualified to write on technology, but I know what I like, and I like Readability a lot.

As a teacher, I do not prepare a lesson.  I prepare only myself.  I prepare myself to teach, to model, and even, perhaps especially, to fail.  I do not offer my knowledge.  I only offer myself, with my knowledge certainly, and with my experience, but also with my failures and inadequacies.  No amount of lesson preparation can covera  poverty of self-preparation, and this self-preparation is not a matter of a few hours the night before class.  It is a matter of a life lived.  I prepare myself to teach with every moment that I live, for good or for ill.  I am always preparing to teach, and I can only hope that I am preparing well.