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Monthly Archives: June 2010

I am surrounded by something like a tapestry, seamless, like a fence, but floating a little off the ground, high enough that I could crawl under it if I wanted.  It has many things written and figured on it, words and images of great beauty and solemnity, but it is transparent also, and I can see into the distance in every direction.  Around my feet there is something piled and heavy, like snow, and I am gathering handfuls of it to rub onto the tapestry, because it is only my handfuls that will keep the tapestry clean, and if I stop, even for a moment, it will begin to grow grey and soiled, so I make my way around the circle of fabric again and again, circuit after circuit.  Then, on the other side of the tapestry, I see that there is someone else also cleaning the fabric, but she is moving in the opposite direction, so we only pass each other periodically, but there is a moment on each circuit when we are in precisely the same place, and our hands meet through the fabric, and it is always enough for me to begin a new circuit once more.

There is neighbourhood group centred around one of the parks near our house.  It is not one of the city’s official neighbourhood groups, because there are too many limitations on these organizations.  It is simply a group of neighbours who gather to make an icerink or have a community BBQ or run free soccer for kids, and it is by far the most active and functional neighbourhood group in the city.

My wife was talking to a member of this group at the park the other day, and he suggested that the neighbourhood around this park was so strong partially because its school is still exclusively a walking school, so that most of the parents in the area see each other twice a day, five days a week.  He was explaining that this sense of community is what makes the school’s PTA so strong, but I think that it also goes a long way toward explaining why the city’s most active and most independent neighbourhood group is centred around the closest park.  There are only two walking schools left in the city, both of them less than ten minutes walk from my front door, and I do not think it is any coincidence that both of them are also within easy walking distance of a strong and effective neighbourhood group.

It is not that there is anything especially magical about walking schools.  They are merely what forces people in our area to walk through their neighbourhood, passing each other’s houses, meeting each other in the street, talking with each other on the school’s front lawn.  This function could be performed by many things, by a church or a community centre or an employer, but it is a function that is no longer performed by anything in many of our communities.  The walking schools bring otherwise isolated people into the street, makes it possible for them to encounter one another.

Even though my children do not attend the school, many students and parents pass by my house every day, where I am usually sitting on my front porch with a coffee, and I have come to know many of them over the last few years, some of them so well that they will beg a cup of coffee from me if they have not had the time to make their own.  My children know them too, shouting and playing and arranging times to meet in the park.  Once my eldest even put up a stand to give the kids free lemonade on their way home from school.

When people interact in this way, not occasionally, but continually, as a part of the way they live, the natural outcome is that a sense of community will develop.  It will be impossible to avoid this development.  It will lead us on the way community, however much we try to avoid it.

I was in a used bookstore the other day, the stereotypical used bookstore, with very tall shelves, and sliding ladders to reach them, and a vintage stairway, and the smell of books over everything, the sort of place that I can wallow in for any amount of time.  I was browsing the philosophy section, when I overheard this conversation.  I relate it as nearly to life as I can recall.

– Hey, look, it’s the same edition of The Republic that we’re using in my philosophy class.

– Cool.  I love Plato.

– Really? What have you read?

– Oh,  nothing.  But I really love Plato, and I’m totally going to read him some time, you know?

– Are you taking a philosophy class next semester?

– No.  I would love to, because I really love philosophy, but I just don’t have space in my schedule.

– That’s my problem too.  There’s just so much I want to take.

– Yeah, I love everything, you know?  But maybe I’ll just read some of it on my own.  Maybe I should buy that Plato book right now.

– No, no. You can borrow mine. I mean, the semester’s over, so I won’t need it any more.

– Cool.  Hey, so maybe I’ll buy this copy of The Prince instead.  My ex-boyfriend said that it was the only book you’ll ever need to read.  He said it was about how to rule the world or something.

– Yeah?  It wasn’t on my philosophy course, but I’ve heard people talk about it.”

– I think it’s totally the kind of thing I’d love.

– Yeah, me too.

– You can have this copy if you want.

– No, it’s okay.  I think I’ll get this one, Das Kapital. I’m thinking of taking a course of Marxism, so maybe I can read ahead a little bit.

– I love Marxism.  I have a friend who’s a Marxist, and maybe a Leninist.  I’m not sure.  And I think I might be a Marxist too, but not a communist, you know what I mean?  I think we should share stuff so that there won’t be poor people or anything, but you have to have your own stuff too.  That’s Marxist, right?

– Um, I’m not really sure, but you’re probably right. I guess I’ll find out when I take that course.

– Are you a Marxist.

– No, I don’t think so.  I’m trying to decide whether I want to be a nihilist or an existentialist.

-Oh.  That’s really cool.  I love existentialism.  And nihilism too.  Can’t you be both?

– Ah, maybe.  I don’t know.  When I asked my professor about existentialism, he just gave me a list of books to read.

– Is Marx on it?

– I don’t think so.

– Oh.  That’s too bad. Who is on it?

– I can’t remember all of them.  It’s a long list.  There’s Kierkegaard, I think.  And Nietzsche.  And Sartre.

– I love Sarte.

– Have you read Sartre?

– No, but he was so romantic.  He was with this woman philosopher. Her name had ‘de’ in it, de Boudoir or something, and they were in Paris, and they were really in love with each other, but they’re love wasn’t easy because they loved their philosophy more.  It was very romantic.

– Wow.  I didn’t know that.

– I love those kinds of stories, you know.  It makes people seem more real.

– Yeah, I know what you mean.

– I’d love to be with a philosopher.  It would be so beautiful, and so tortured too, because that’s how philosophers are.  But beautiful.

– Yeah.  Would you marry him?

– No.  That’s not how it goes.  It’s more romantic if you break up and find other people but keep coming back to each other.

– Oh.

– I love philosophy.

– Me too.

People always want to begin with writing, but good writing is an ending before it is a beginning, a culmination before it is an inauguration.  As I mentioned a few weeks ago, good writing is preceded by slow and careful reading, by thoughtful and patient reflection, and by learned and leisurely conversation.  Writing that does not proceed from these things is deficient.

Slow and Careful Reading – It is better to read one book very well than to read many poorly.  Being well-read should never be confused with being much-read.  Many people read much without ever reading at all.  There are fewer people who truly read well.  Though they may perhaps read less, they are the readers who gain from their practice.

Good reading approaches the text slowly, attentively, with an openness to what might be thought through it, with an openness to being interrupted by reflection and by conversation.  There is no substitute for this time and for this attention.  It permits what is not us, what is other than us, to approach us through the text.  The text is not itself of the greatest importance.  It is the site through which we are encountered by what is of the greatest importance, and its value is in how well it provokes us to be so encountered.

Good reading leaves its mark on the text.  It writes in the margins, and it turns the corners of pages, and it notes its favourite passages with bookmarks, even if it does these things only figuratively.  A book that is well read is stained with fingerprints and coffee stains, even if only in metaphor.  It is well used.  It is a tool that has become worn to fit the mind that is reading it.

Thoughtful and Patient Reflection – It is necessary to reflect on reading whenever something calls through the text, whenever the text provokes, but also regularly, as a discipline.  To reflect is to engage in the exercise of thinking as if it were a religious act, as if it was the rule of a monastic order, in order that it might sometimes become a spiritual act, beyond the rule of any order.  It is to order one’s mind so that it might be prepared more fully for what will come to disorder it entirely.

Reflection is always accompanied by a writing that is not a writing, a secret and secretive writing, notes and jottings, incoherences and incomprehensibles, a writing that will never appear as a writing to be read, a writing that remains hidden and unread.  It is a writing that is also a rereading,  a returning to the places in the text that need mastication, rumination, regurgitation.  This writing chews the text like a cow chews its cud, again and again.  It digests the text, gains sustenance from the text, takes the text into itself, makes the text a part of itself.

Reflection is a wondering and a wandering.  It follows the text to other texts and returns them to where they began. It takes its time as it wanders.  It does not run or even walk.  It strolls.  It ambles.  It perambulates.  It wallows in its journey through the text, follows it wherever it leads.  It is not concerned with a destination, at least not now, not yet.  It leaves destinations to the future and reserves for the present a certain forgetfulness of what the future might demand.   Its purpose is to see what might be encountered now on its path through the text, spiritually, emotionally, intellectually, not to create a coherent text of its own.

This activity, this reflection, this meditation, is essential.   It must not be hurried.  It is not brainstorming or some other such technique.  It is an openness to the text, a willingness to give the text time and space, a discipline of doing the text justice.

Learned and Leisurely Conversation – Conversation is not mere group discussion.  It is not mere argument.  It is not mere chatter.  It is a coming together through the text, where the text becomes a site where we catch sight of one another.  There are always too few of these opportunities to converse, always.  They must be treasured when they arise, guarded jealously, so that they are not overwhelmed by the many things that are less important but more pressing.

Conversation involves a careful listening of one another.  It considers what the other has to say.  It considers what it will reply before it replies.  It takes its time, so it is not afraid to pause.  It is willing to say less and have it be meaningful than to say much and to have it be mere chatter. It knows that it is better to give things their proper time.

Conversation is being on the way together, is helping one another along the way.  It turns us in the same direction, puts us shoulder to shoulder.  Though we may turn our eyes to one another, our feet are always on the path together, following the same path together, so that we might draw nearer to what it is we are seeking.  Whatever disagreements we may have between us, conversation always agrees, before all else, to walk the path together.

Conversation is also sitting at the table together, breaking bread together, recognizing what is other to us through the breaking of bread.  It is the invitation to the table and the acceptance of the table.  It is sitting face to face.  It is having more between us than words.  It is also having between us a giving, and a hospitality, and an invitation, and an acceptance.  It allows us to digest each other’s words like bread and wine, to make each other’s words a part of us.

Conversation never ends.  It is always being suspended for a time, but it is never ended, except by death.

Writing –  Only in the context of these disciplines of reading and reflection and conversation, only in the context of these practices, that writing can begin.  Indeed, these disciplines will produce writing, inevitably.  Though this writing may take many forms, it will become a necessity in the one who reads and reflects and converses.  It will become, not a task to be undertaken, not an ideal to be fulfilled, but a hunger to be satisfied, a thirst to be quenched, a lust to be satiated.

This is what there is to be learned.  This is the learning that teaching must let be.  This is the learning that teaching must let be learned.

I harvested my garlic scapes today, along with a whole bunch of chives, and enough mint to get my mint patch under control.  My problem is that I grow garlic on a mass scale, something like four hundred plants, so I end up with far more garlic scapes than any one family is likely to use, even in a family as extended as mine.  The scapes do not dry well, becoming tough and fibrous, and though they last quite well if they are kept cool, they become dry and unusable long before I can use even a small portion of them.  I looked to the internet for ideas on how to preserve them, but it was mostly useless.  There were any number of recipes for garlic scape pesto, which can be frozen into ice cubes and thawed throughout the year, and I have made this kind of thing before, but I can only eat so much pesto.

So, I determined to see whether I could adapt the idea of the frozen pesto cubes, only without the pesto.  I roughly chopped the scapes, put them in a blender with some olive oil, ground them into a paste, and put them into ice cube trays.  This approach worked well, but I found that I was using a fair amount of olive oil to get the moisture content high enough for a smooth paste, so I tried adding a little water instead, and found that this was a much better option.  The scapes pureed better, froze more solidly, and will probably last longer in the freezer.  They do tend to stick in the ice cube trays a little, but some warm water on the back of the trays gets the cubes free quite quickly, and then they can be bagged and kept in the freezer until needed.

By the time I was finished experimenting, I had settled on proportions of something like two tablespoons of water for every quarter pound of roughly chopped scapes, but this will likely differ a little depending on how fresh and how moist your scapes are.  My suggestion is just to add water in small increments until the paste is smooth, and to pour off any excess water that collects in the bowl.  It should not take long to find proportions that work for you.  Of course, if you do not have four hundred garlic scapes that need processing, and you are not interested in finding some just to make garlic scape ice cubes, you can always come over and sample mine sometime.  I assure you, I have more than enough for everyone.

Last year I wrote what I called a State of the Blog Address quite close to the anniversary of my first post on April 11th, 2008.  This year, as you will see if you check today’s date very closely, I am a little late to mark the anniversary, and this is mostly because I forgot about it until now, and I would not likely have remembered it at all had Dave Humphrey not emailed to tell me that he has extended our vocamus.net domain for another three years and to remark that I will now need to keep blogging at least that much longer.

This gave me pause for thought.  I had told myself when I started writing this blog that I would commit to it for at least a year, and I publicly committed myself to a second year in my first State of the Blog Address, but I had never looked any further ahead than a year at a time, and the idea that I might be writing in this way for three more years was, I admit, a little daunting.

This is not to say that I am less interested now in writing through this form.  I still find it a very useful medium for me, allowing me to formulate ideas in the limited time that my life as a father and a husband and a teacher and a gardener and a cook permits me, and allowing me to share these ideas with the people who are important to me.  For these and other reasons I have every intention of continuing to write through this blog for at least the next year or so, though what I write through it will likely change as much during that time as it has changed over the past year or more.  Even so, the idea of comitting to three years of writing in any particular form is perhaps a little more than I am willing to entertain.  It is certainly possible that I will still be writing a blog in ten years.  It is also possible that my life or the world or both will have changed so much even in the next year that I will need a very different form to accommodate what I would like to write.

So, the domain has been renewed for three more years, but I will commit to nothing more than to be here to write a State of the Blog Address next year, which will have to be enough for all of you, since it is more than enough for me.

The poems that I most need to be poems are always the ones that disappoint me most, and I very much need this poem to be a poem, not for myself but for another, and I only hope that he is less dissatisfied with it than I am.

The Tree Trembles

The tree trembles beneath the axe’s blow,
But its strength is sound, and its roots are deep,
And its heartwood is true, and it stands firm,
Stands a moment more proudly than it did,
Because it soon must fall, because the bright axe
Has whispered to it from the whetstone’s edge
That its time approaches, but still it stands,
Not to defy, but to fall from its height.

The hill, raising its stones from the harbour, is left to nature, to the scrambling cedars and to the little northern scrub plants, dogwood and sumac and creeping juniper, finding purchase here or there, but the heights have all been claimed by cottages, claimed long enough ago that their lawns now imitate their more southern and more suburban counterparts, so the trees are much fewer, if mostly cedar still, and the brush has vanished altogether, and the trees that do remain stand with their lower trunks bare, so that they seem to wade with their skirts up, long-legged in the waves of unruly foliage below them.

As a parent who is trying to support his children’s learning, I am always looking for places where they can see their interests in action and actively participate in them.  Why stop at reading about beetles in books when you can catch your own beetles and see them for yourselves? Why be satisfied with watching an internet clip about bats when you can make a bat house and attract them to your own house?  This kind of learning, learning that engages people with their world in active and tactile ways, is essential to everyone, in my opinion, but it is especially important for young children.  In fact, the difficulties involved in incorporating this kind of learning into the classroom is one of the major reasons why I am avoiding the traditional school system altogether.

Unfortunately, it is not always easy to get access to the places we would like to see.  While there have been some people, like Piccioni Brothers Mushroom Farm, who have been very cooperative, most places are closed to the idea of having anyone, especially small children, come and see what they do, and even if they are willing to have us through, like Speed River Bicycle, insurance restrictions and labour laws often prevent them.  The clear message is that having learners in the workplace is a hindrance, a distraction, an annoyance, and a legal liability.  It would be easier for everyone concerned if they would just go back to their classrooms and leave well enough alone.  The shops are closed.

Now, I do actually agree with this assessment.  Having learners, especially young learners, under your feet while you are trying to accomplish something  is very certainly a hindrance and a distraction and an annoyance and a legal liability.  I  agree that it would be easier, far easier, to send learners back to a classroom and let them learn what they can from their teachers.  I even agree that there is almost nothing to be gained and very much to be lost by most workplaces in letting learners through their shops.  I understand all this.

Even so, it always disappoints me when yet another workplace or university department or public works or volunteer organization tells me that its shop is closed to visitors in general and to children in particular.  The benefits of an open shop seem to me so obvious, to the children certainly, but also to our society more broadly, that I can hardly believe one more person is giving up the opportunity to share a passion, a craft, a skill, or a knowledge with a young learner.  It saddens me that we are a society more interested in efficiency and liability than in conviviality, that we are unable to recognize what we are modeling to our children when we shut them away in schools and daycares and after school programs and deny them access to the things going on in their world, that we fail to see how this only produces adults who are still children, unable to think and act for themselves, unable to do anything but follow their bosses and their politicians and their advertisers blindly.

I understand.  It is much easier to keep a closed shop.   But it comes at a cost.

As I return once more to Martin Heidegger’s What Is Called Thinking?, I am stepping away from the thread of his argument for a moment to take up some comments that he makes on the the nature of teaching.  “Teaching is more difficult than learning,” he says, “because what teaching calls for is this: to let learn.  The real teacher, in fact, lets nothing else be learned than – learning.  His conduct, therefore, often produces the impression that we properly learn nothing from him, if by ‘learning’ we now suddenly understand merely the procurement of useful information.  The teacher is ahead of his apprentices in this alone, that he has still far more to learn than they – he has to learn to let them learn.  The teacher must be capable of being more teachable than the apprentices.”  Then, a few pages further on, he returns to the subject, saying, “Learning, then, cannot be brought about by scolding.  Even so, a man who teaches must at times grow noisy.  In fact, he may have to scream and scream, although the aim is to make his students learn so quiet a thing as thinking.”

The question of teaching and learning is one that continually preoccupies me, as my longtime readers will know, and I am particularly concerned with how to teach, not literature as such, but learning through literature.  I am interested, to use Heidegger’s language, in how to teach students to learn, in how to provoke them to learning, in how to draw them into learning.  The difficulty is that I must accomplish this within the constraints of institutional education, according to the demands of grades and credits and degrees, demands which remain operative on students generally even if they are alleviated, at least to some extent, in my own class?

In response to these questions, I am toying with several ideas for my fall class, and I am interested in Heidegger’s claim that to teach is to let learn, but that this letting learn is not necessarily a quiet or a passive thing, that it sometimes involve a good deal of noise, a good deal of screaming.  In other words, if Heidegger is interested in what provokes us to thinking, I wonder whether we might take another form of this word and suggest that he is interested also, at least to some degree, in the provocative, insofar as it relates to thinking, and the question for my own teaching becomes about how to provoke learning, how to provoke reading, how to provoke reflection, how to provoke conversation, how to provoke writing, and to do so entirely apart from the entirely artificial and deformative stimuli of grades and credits.  How would a teacher be provocative in this way?  Would it require a certain noisiness at times, as Heidegger suggests?  What would be required for a teacher to provoke in our school stoday?