Monthly Archives: April 2010

Graham Ward’s The Politics of Discipleship –  I really enjoyed Ward’s earlier book, Barth, Derrida, and the Language of Theology, a careful and insightful work that responds to Derrida’s thinking with a respect that I have not often found in Christian thinkers, so I was expecting something more than I got from The Politics of Discipleship.  It still carries itself with a certain care and respect in its more philosophical sections, but much of its argument ventures into sociology and economics and politics in ways that I thought were less convincing.  I frequently found myself wishing that Ward would move more slowly, more cautiously, more precisely, more rigorously.  Each of the book’s sections needed its own book, needed to take its time, needed to make some time for what it had to say. Even so, there was much in it that I found useful, and I have quoted one section of it on several occasions now, so it is probably worth a read.  Just moderate your expectations.

John Gardner’s Grendel – I first read this book a number of years ago.  I liked it very much then but even more now on my second reading.  It is short, and it reads quickly, so it can feel deceptively simple, but it rewards an attentive reading with profundity.  I am addicted to the Beowulf legend, so I read or watch every adaptation that I can find, but I am almost always disappointed by portrayals of Grendel.  Everyone seems to want Grendel to be more human.  They try to develop sympathy for him by humanizing him, and they fail to understand how essential it is that he be evil, essentially and absolutely, in order that Beowulf might become the sort of hero that he is.  If Grendel is humanized, then Beowulf’s heroism is ambiguous, and this might make a perfectly good story, but it is no longer the story of Beowulf.  Gardner’s Grendel does not fall into this error.  Though his Grendel does inspire a certain sympathy, it is a sympathy for the role that he must play as monster rather than a sympathy for a humanity that is simply hidden behind a monstrous appearance.  This Grendel is never anything than a monster, and it is precisely this that inspires our sympathy.  He is my favourite portrayal of the Grendel figure outside of the original.

Charles Williams’ The Greater Trumps – I never understand a Charles Williams novel.  I only experience it.  I experience it as a mystery and as a pleasure and as a wonder.  My capacity for description is always beggared by his writing, and I can only ever tell others to read him for themselves, so I will say it once more: read Charles Williams for yourselves.

Margaret Atwood’s  Oryx and Crake – I read this book on the recommendation of a friend, though I have never been a big fan of Atwood’s.  It is not a bad book.  If I had not known who the author was, I would even have said that it was a fairly good book, on the higher end of the science fiction genre with respect to its writing, though not much by the way of science fiction, seeing as it represents a futuristic world in which people are still using CD ROMs.  Yes, I said CD ROMs.  Unfortunately, it is not the work of some middling science fiction writer but of the most recognized name in Canadian literature, and so it stands as one more example of why Atwood simply does not deserve this status.  The story is mostly interesting.  The characters are sometimes engaging.  The plot is well structured.  All well and good, to be sure, but none of this sets Atwood above any of a dozen genre writers I have read over the years, and she offers precious little else.  There is not a single sentence in the whole of the book worth savouring as a sentence, as language, as literature.  It is not a bad book, as I said, and maybe it was intended to be nothing more, which I can respect, but I do wish people would stop telling me how wonderful a writer she is.

John Porcellino’s Thoreau at Walden – If I had ever imagined the story of Henry David Thoreau at Walden Pond being told in cartoon, which I assure you is a thing I have never imagined, I would have been very doubtful about the wisdom of such a project.  I would have suggested that the very fine balance between romantic ideal and practical wisdom in Thoreau, a balance that too often teeters in one direction or another even in the original, would have been impossible to maintain in something as simple as a cartoon.  I would also, it seems, have been wrong, since Porcellino’s book maintains the sensibility of Thoreau’s writing admirably, though its art is very simple.  It was only a matter of minutes to read, but it’s effect lingered much longer.

“Ambrose Bierce,” says the Publisher’s Note to Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary (Peter pauper Press, 1958), “was an angry young man who got angrier as he grew older,” and I think that any author who can be described with a line like that deserves a chance to be read.  Not all angry old authors are worth reading, of course, but so many of the old authors worth reading are indeed angry that your chances are probably better with angry than with otherwise.

Bierce’s dictionary is exactly what it purports to be: a dictionary, only its definitions are characterized primarily by irony, cynicism, ridicule, contempt, bitterness, anger, and a good deal of wit.  It is nothing more than this, but if your sense of humour leans in this direction, which mine absolutely does, The Devil’s Dictionary should give you an hour or two of entertainment.

Let me offer a few examples:

Abstainer, n.  A weak person who yields to the temptation of denying himself a pleasure.

Cynic, n.  A blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be.

Discussion, n.  A method of confirming others in their errors.

Impunity, n.  Wealth.

Presidency, n.  The greased pig in the field of American politics.

Wheat, n.  A cereal from which a tolerably good whiskey can with some difficulty be made, and which is used also for bread.

I like that last one particularly.

I have been building a drystone retaining wall in my backyard.  It will eventually edge the bit of lawn that I am seeding in the backyard for my children to play on, and it will have a single terrace for a garden where I will plant some shrubs to block the view of our neighbour’s driveway.  It is pretty rudimentary stuff as far as stonework is concerned, but it has been taking me some time to complete it.

It is not that I am completely without experience in stonework.  I used to lay flagstone sometimes for my brother Nathan in the summers, and I put in a cobblestone path in the garden of our last house, and I have been setting stones to edge the garden paths of this current house, but stone never seems to get easier for me.  It is always as difficult as when I first began, no matter how much of it I do.

A mason does not build with stone.  A mason works with stone.  This is not a meaningless distinction.  Stonework is like doing a jigsaw puzzle, only none of the pieces are designed to fit together, and so they may need to be shaped a little with a hand sledge and a cold chisel, and they all weigh ten pounds or more.    Yet there is something deeply satisfying about working with stone, about seeing what the stone can become.  Every time a block finds its place, the wall comes closer to being what it will be.

If I was to read as slowly, as carefully, as truly, as reading demands, I would never read more than a page, or a paragraph, or a sentence, or a word, yes, a word, but I would need only to read this word again and again, to make it say, not all that it was meant to say, not all that it could ever say, but all that I could make it say, or, perhaps better, perhaps gentler, perhaps more hospitable, all that I could ask it to say, and this asking, this interrogation, this inquisition, which would certainly remain, however gentle and hospitable, without doubt an inquisition, would become eternal, or become eternally, or be coming eternally, or some other combination of these words that I cannot, but nevertheless feel I must, imagine, but the word that I would read without end, the single word that I would interrogate without end, that would become the beginning and the ending of so much, of who can tell how much, would first need me to find it, would need me to read every word that has been written or that might be written, so that I might be certain of it, so that I might have chosen it above all others, to be read time after time, and this is why it is the word that I can never find, that I will certainly never find, however much I look for it, however much I anticipate the moment of finding it, however much I might desire to savour it, at last, on my tongue.

I love Serviceberries (Amelanchier canadensis), or Saskatoon Berries as they are sometimes called.  The fruit tastes wonderful and makes great pies; the flowers are white and delicately fragrant in the spring; and the leaves are a beautiful red in the fall.

This is why I decided to try and grow some Serviceberries from seed last fall, collecting seeds from two very nice specimens in my neighbourhood, and working from Henry Kock’s Growing Trees from Seed, a book I have posted about before.  This is also why I went through the painstaking process of teasing the prematurely germinated seedlings apart and planting them in my seedtable this spring.  I was able to plant a whole tray of thirty-two seedlings, and I was eagerly anticiapting my own Serviceberry grove in ten years or so.

Unfortunately, the seedtable was initially placed in my basement, and the temperature was apparently not warm enough, because every one of those thirty-two seedling withered and died in a matter of week.  I moved the seedtable upstairs immediately, but the damage had been done, and I had no recourse but to console myself with the knowledge that I could collect more seeds in the fall.

A few weeks ago, however, I noticed some strange seedlings mixed in among the yarrow that I had planted very shortly after the Serviceberries.  They were quite definately not yarrow, but they were also quite definitely not the little weeds that creep into potting soil when it is reused over time.  I decided to let them be, and it quickly became clear that they were in fact Serviceberry seedlings.  I had taken the soil in which the Serviceberry seeds had been stratifying all winter and mixed it back into my potting soil, and this discarded soil must have contained at least a few seeds that had not germinated but still could.

So now, against all hope, I have five Serviceberry seedlings.

I have this flour mill, have had it for several years now, ever since my Grandmother Hill decided that she was too old to be grinding her own flour anymore.  She told me that it was “a very good grinder, a very good grinder, do you hear?” and she made me promise that I would never sell it or give it away, so it has been sitting in my basement, unused, for more than half a decade.

That was, of course, until I went to visit Loonsong Garden a few weekends ago and had a chance to learn a little bit about how grain is grown and about how flour is ground.  So, when I got home, I went into the basement and dug out the mill to see whether it was a stone grinder, which it is, and which is good.  I spent a little time playing with it  and then sent an email to Loonsong about getting a little whole grain for experimentation.

Yesterday, the owner of Loonsong came by my house unexpectedly, dropping some flour off for a friend of mine.  He took a look at my mill, and it turns out that my Grandmother was quite right, as she has so often been.  Not only does it use stones to grind the flour, which is good for all sorts of reasons, but it is an older model, so it is built far more solidly than anything available to the public now and is geared more slowly, so the flour does not overheat as it is being ground.  In other words, it is far too good a machine to be rusting in my basement, so I may be compelled to add flour grinding to my weekly activities.  It also means that anyone who has grain that needs to be ground, and I know that there are countless of you out there, is very welcome to come and use it, so long as I can have a slice of any bread that you bake.

I have been reading Heidegger’s What is Called Thinking? and I am realizing very quickly that it is not the kind of book that can be read and then summarized after the fact, a problem that I encounter again and again with the more philosophical books that I read, but that I am feeling acutely now with respect to this particular book.  So I will try to write a little differently about it as I am reading, as a kind of experiment.  I will offer a quotation from the book, or perhaps a brief summary of a section, and then I will add my own questions and reflections, and I may write more than several times about the book over the course of a few weeks.  Hopefully there will be those who are willing to think these things with me, or, as Heidegger might say, hopefully there will be those those who are willing to journey with me on the way to thinking.

Heidegger says, “What of itself gives us most to think about, what is most thought-provoking, is this – that we are still not thinking.

If we are not yet thinking, what is it in us that recognizes this ‘still not”, this thinking that might be but is ‘still not’?  What is it in us that recognizes that we are still not thinking, that we are perhaps not yet even on the way to thinking?  What is it in us that undertakes, or perhaps does not undertake, the way to thinking?  What is it in us that would make an ideal of thinking, that would desire to learn how to think?

This recognition of thinking, this desire for thinking, this will to thinking, cannot be said to belong essentially to all human being in the world, since there are many who refuse it and who are no less human for this refusal.  It cannot even be said to belong potentially to all human being in the world, since there are many who are not even capable of thinking in this way and who are no less human for this lack.  Yet there is something, something that appears only in relation to human being in the world, something that nevertheless, in some cases, perhaps only here and there, but again and again, recognizes, and desires, and wills thinking.   What is this thing?  Though I may not yet know how to think, though I may not yet even have undertaken the way to thinking, why is it that I desire to undertake it?  Why do I want to know what is called thinking?

The dogwoods stand among the still winter-gold grasses, red on gold, defiantly, though everything will soon succumb to green, to fecundity, to the leaves just now budding on the dogwood stems, to the shoots hidden beneath the litter of the grass, and to the evergreen of the forest, the scrambling junipers, the saplings of spruce and balsam, the outliers of a green that will soon permit no red and gold to mar it.

I spent the afternoon in Toronto yesterday, which is not a horrible thing, so long as I do not have to drive into the city, and so long as I do not have to be anywhere in anything resembling a hurry.  I arrived on the train just before lunch, got a hair cut, and still had about five hours before I was supposed to meet Mike Hoye, and David Eaves, and Dave Humphrey for dinner.  I spent the time walking thirty blocks or so of Yonge Street, browsing six used bookstores along the way, and stopping occasionally to refill my coffee mug, which was not always as easy as you might expect, since I dislike chain coffee shops and will settle for nothing other than coffee that has been fairly traded in one way or another, and since there is apparently a lack of such coffee on Yonge Street, along with an utter absence of real bakeries, incidentally,which would in itself be sufficient reason foe me to live elsewhere.  In any case, hot black coffee and fresh buttery baked goods aside, my time in Yonge Street’s bookshops was fruitful.

I found several books:
Michael Polanyi’s The Tacit Dimension;
Elias Canetti’s Auto-da-Fe;
Jean-Luc Nancy’s The Muses;
Emmanuel Levinas’ Alterity and Transcendence;
Emmanuel Levinas’ Humanism of the Other;
Emmanuel Levinas’ Entre Nous: Thing-of-the-Other; and
Martin Heidegger’s What is Called Thinking?

I also found a few documentaries:
Alex Gibney’s Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson;
Meg McLagan and Daria Sommers’ Lioness;
Scott Galloway and Brent Pierson’s A Man Named Pearl;
Katy Chevigny’s Election Day; and
Gary Weimberg and Catherine Ryan’s Soldiers of Conscience.

Interestingly, the conversation at dinner that night, between Dave and David and Mike and I, turned largely around the function of the printed book and of the digital text as forms for creating, publishing, reading, and archiving text, and it is strange for me to think that my experience yesterday is one that my children may never share.  It is entirely possible that they will never need or want or even be able to have books in the way that I do, replacing the blocks that I walked and the shops that I browsed and the books that I purchased with a few moments of search and download on whatever digital interface has become standard for them.  I admit this possibility, and I even admit the further possibility that this shift might reflect an advance according to some measure of efficiency, but I cannot help but feel that they will have lost something beautiful.

Dave Humphrey recently sent me a link to a lecture by Astra Taylor called On the Unschooled Life.  Taylor is a documentary filmmaker, a philosopher, and an unschooled child who has directed two films, Zizek and The Examined Life, both of which I enjoyed very much.  Her lecture is a passionate and articulate defense of unschooling that is nevertheless aware of the social questions that this mode of learning raises.  It is well worth watching.

One of the questions that it raised for me, not for the first time, was about how the principles of unschooling, with which I largely agree, confront the necessity of obtaining accreditation in order to enter certain occupations.  It was this concern that eventually caused Taylor to choose public highschool over unschooling in her teens, and it is this question that faces many homeschooled and unschooled learners at some point.  In order to pursue a certain vocation or occupation, they find themselves forced to achieve some form of accreditation through the kinds of institutions that they have spent most of their lives avoiding.

There are also those situations where parents, whatever their ideals, are simply unable to unschool or homeschool their children.  Single parents, for example, are not likely to be able to stay home with their children, and even two-parent families often feel that they need two incomes to survive, though this is untrue in more cases than people think.  There are also those families in which parents are unable to provide good learning environments at home, whether due to psychological, or emotional, or physical difficulties, or due to a lack of access to learning resources, or due to unsafe communities.

Whatever the reasons, there are many cases where children are placed in formal educational institutions even when they or their parents would prefer them to be learning more naturally and organically in their homes and in their communities, and the question becomes, at least for me, how might we enable these children to make the best of necessity and find room for learning in the gaps of institutionalized education.  Rather than unschooling or homeschooling, how can we help children to practice what we might call counter-schooling?

I do not have a definitive set of answers to this question, and I would welcome the ideas and experiences of others on the subject, but here are a few preliminary principles that I think should characterize this kind of counter-schooling:

1) Most obviously, parents need to model self-directed learning in the home, pursuing their own learning interests, making use of community resources like libraries and friends, keeping learning materials like books and films and whatever else in the home.  Both of my children have black hardbound notebooks for their drawing and writing, not because I told them that they needed to do this, but because they saw me writing my own notes in these kinds of books and because children model themselves after their parents.  I merely had to model this way of learning myself and give them the books when they asked.  They did the rest.

2) Parents need to support the learning interests of their children by connecting them to the full resources of their communities, from peers who have similar interests, to other adults with the knowledge to offer help and apprenticeship, to libraries and books and computers, to trips and excursions, and to whatever else.  This is not a matter of scheduling children with activities that are supposed to be good for them.  Nor is it a matter of granting them whatever whim they happen to have at the moment.  It is a matter of providing them with the resources that they need in order to follow the learning that really interests them.  My eldest son, for example, is intrigued by photography, so we have a camera that he can use, and a place where he can upload them to show his friends.  My youngest, on the other hand, spends hours drumming on things and plunking on the piano, so we have a musician friend come over once a week and play musical games with him.  In neither case have we started them on some sort of program that would confine their desire to learn and to do things within the constraints of classes and grades and levels.  Instead, we try to offer them informal and inexpensive  opportunities to follow their interests.

3) Parents need to help their children counter the demands of school by modifying assignments, reducing homework, and pulling their children out of school whenever possible.  If children are going to be in school, they will need their parents to advocate on their behalf in order to mitigate the influence of the institutional environment.  Children need space and time to discover and pursue the learning that interests them, and they will not have space and time if they are always doing homework and always stuck in a classroom.  Children cannot be failed in Ontario for not doing their homework, so parents can help their children to modify some assignments in alignment with their interests and to discard others entirely.  Ontario also allows for children to attend school part time, at least in theory, and we know several families who take advantage of this provision either by having their kids attend on the half days when a parent is working, or by pulling their kids out of school around a shiftwork schedule.

4) Members of the community need to take their roles as learning models seriously, acting as mentors, allowing children to apprentice with them, and including children in their own learning whenever possible.  I have creative writing sessions at my house, for example, for both homeschooled kids and for kids whose parents take them out of school for the afternoon.  These kids are working on a collection of their short stores that they will publish through on online self-publishing site.  They decided on this project themselves, and they spend their time at my place reading their stories to one another and helping each other improve them.

These are some of the ways that I think we might encourage children to learn counter to the institutions that they are sometimes forced to occupy, but I would be interested in any further suggestions that others might have.