Adam A. Donaldson interviewed me about Vocamus Press and the Book Bash Festival for his Guelph Politicast podcast. Have a listen.
My garden will be on this year’s Guelph Urban Farm Tour this coming Saturday, July 16. The event is organized by Transition Guelph, and there are some amazing looking gardens on the tour. Take some time and see what’s growing in Guelph.
The vehicle makes us homogeneous.
We become distinguishable, not in ourselves, but only by brand, by model, by government issued license plate numbers. We pass one another and reveal nothing remarkable about ourselves beyond a personalized license plate, or a decal, or a bumper sticker, or a penchant for rolling through stop signs.
We should do without personal vehicles, not only to protect the environment, not only to encourage health, not only to save money, not only to increase community between us, but also for the simple pleasure of individuality.
One of the myriad roles I occupy on any given day is Managing Director of Friends of Vocamus Press, a con-profit community organization that supports Guelph book culture. The title sounds fancy, but it basically means that I’m the guy on the board who has to do the actual work, though there is a new Director of Communications, Sheri Doyle, who is taking on some of my duties, bringing new ideas, generating different kinds of interaction with our community, and generally doing a great job.
It wasn’t easy for me to admit that I needed this kind of help. I prefer to do things myself just to be sure that they get done, and I’ve had some bad experiences where people committed to help with something but never followed through on it. Even when I know a task doesn’t fall within my strengths — finances (hey, I got a 51% in grade 13 math), social media (I’m not really a fun person, and I’m not sure I want to be), or technology (I’m a selective luddite, becoming more selective all the time) — it’s often easier for me just to learn how to do it and get it done myself than to trust someone else to do the job, even if they’d probably do it better and easier. It’s one of my many issues.
I’m learning to accept this kind of help, however, and I’m learning that it’s often better to go about it just by tying in the people I know I can trust wherever they fit rather than posting an official job description to people who I might not know as well. Now, Sheri took on her role by responding to just such a job description, so there are clearly strong exceptions to the rule, but I’m finding it works best for me just to connect interested people, good people, people I can trust, wherever they happen to fit, even if they may not fit the preconceived roles that the board had in mind.
For example, a local author named Ryan Toxopeus has been very involved and helpful over the past couple of years. Among other things, he has split tables with other genre fiction authors at conventions that wouldn’t make sense for me to attend even if I had the time. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have the experience with arts grants to fit the Director of Fundraising role the board is looking to fill, and it would be easy to focus too much on filling that role and pass him over, which would be a waste of a good, dependable, interesting guy who actually wants to be involved in what we do.
When I run into those people, I’m finding that I need to stop asking whether they fit the roles that we think we need to fill, and start asking whether we have other needs that could be met by their unique skills and interests. In Ryan’s case, he’s already started doing good work, organizing tables at conventions, filling a need that I’m unable to meet. So I decided to see if he wanted to take on that role more formally.
I sent him an email suggesting that we make him Special Advisor to the Galactic Senate on Issues Pertaining to Fantasy, Science Fiction, Horror, and Speculative Fiction in and around the Environs of Wellington County. He thought that Genre Fiction Coordinator might be a more suitable title, but he was interested in helping out in that area. He also thought it might be a good idea to have a meet up for genre fiction writers a few times a year, which is just the sort of thing that I’d love to see.
The point here, one I’m learning only slowly, is that you can’t pass over good people just because they don’t meet some predetermined plan. When you find them, you need to make room for them to use their strengths, even if you have to make up the job description as you go.
My garden is getting there. It still has a way to go, but it is getting there. I can now sit on the porch and enjoy it for what it, even as I’m planning what it will be.
I can also watch as people walk it in different ways. Some stop and look at the plants. Some wander a ways up the paths. Some sneak fruit when they think they’re unseen. Some come to the door and ask about a particular species. The neighbourhood kids come to use the play equipment. The family picks fruit and vegetables.
All these people all walking my garden in their own way, and I love it. That’s what the garden’s for, even when someone steps on a plant by mistake or a kid dislodges a stone from the path. That’s all part of the garden being a place where people walk. I don’t begrudge it.
On the other hand, there are the Saturday night drunks who pull out random plants, break the fencing, and piss on my house.
It doesn’t happen every Saturday, but often enough to sadden me, not just because it’s stupid vandalism or because it means extra work for me, but because it shows they don’t understand a garden except to destroy it. For whatever reason, they aren’t able to walk the garden, only tear it apart, and there is a symbolic level about this that distresses me.
I feel viscerally that their inability to walk the garden is a symptom of things much darker.
I believe most in humanity through community, not as a replacement for what has traditionally been called God or faith or religion, but as the most perfect expression of precisely these things.
It is only through one another, through community, through being with and for each other that God appears, that faith finds substance, that religion becomes more than empty theology and conquering orthodoxy. It is not in the rigorously spiritual nor the perfectly orthodox that we discover God. It is in love for one another, not a love that is perfect, but in a love that desires earnestly for perfection.
All else is meaningless.
One of the most dangerous ideas afflicting our culture today is that of balance. We talk about balancing career and family, or having a balanced diet, or keeping a balanced perspective, but when we live like this, constantly afraid to do anything that might upset the carefully constructed balance of our lives, we also fail to believe and to do the things that are truly important. Living a balanced life permits no great loves, no great deeds, no great passions.
Now, I’m not suggesting that everyone should run out and throw themselves into some craziness or another just to add spice to their lives. What I’m suggesting is that we forgo a life of cautious balance in favour of the tension that lies between great and driving passions.
Let me be clear here. Being passionate in this way does not mean following your bliss. It does not mean dancing like no one is watching. It means loving things worth loving, and loving them so much that you are willing to do and to be and to sacrifice whatever they require of you. It means loving family and community, friendship and conviviality, justice and hospitality, mercy and forgiveness. It means loving them enough to do the things that bring them about.
Too many people stay with a spouse for fear of upsetting their lives. Too few stay because they have fostered a great and encompassing love.
Too many people have children to satisfy social expectations of what the family should look like. Too few have children because they love what the family can be.
Too many people volunteer their time out of duty. Too few volunteer their time because they love to see justice and mercy done.
Too many people are looking for balance. Too few are willing to live in the tension of great passion.
My friend John Jantunen launched his new book last night, a novel called Cipher, well worth a read, and there were quite a few people there to celebrate with him. I was particularly enjoying myself, because I had no responsibilities for the event, so I could just have a couple $2 pints and chat with the other guests.
At one point I had a chance to talk at length with an established publisher who was kind enough to answer some questions for me and to take an interest in what we’re doing at Vocamus Press. Then, as our conversation was finishing, two young men came to introduce themselves and ask about what was involved with Vocamus, and I found myself abruptly switching my role from student to mentor in the time it took me to turn from one conversation to the next.
On my way home after the event, I had a chance to reflect on the evening, and it struck me that this moment of being both student and mentor embodied a principle that is essential to the formation of a strong and developing community. When we become too proud and isolated to learn from each other, when we become too arrogant and protective to teach each other, our community ceases to grow. In order for us to develop as individuals and as communities, we must constantly be teaching and learning, encouraging and challenging. If it can happen naturally, over a pint or two, so much the better.
Today is the final day for Macondo Books, a local used bookseller that has been a fixture in Guelph almost as long as I’ve been alive and certainly as long as I can remember.
It was the place where I first bought a real used book, a keeper book, one that would sit on my shelf. I had bought piles of trash fantasy and science fiction, of course, but it was Macondo Books where I went early in highschool, when I thought Samuel Coleridge and William Blake had rendered all other poetry worthless, to buy a hardcover collection of Romantic period poetry. I still have it, in much the worse condition for having taken it on vacation into the northern Ontario bush that summer, reading it by the light of a kerosene lamp in the evenings. I kept it, not because it’s such a terribly great edition, but because it was my first.
I bought countless more books there over the years. I was intending to list the titles that I could remember, but as I started going through my collection, I realized that there were just too many. I had gone to browse Macondo’s shelves too often: wandered too many times the hundred yards or so up from the market where I worked as a teenager, the cash I had earned waiting to be transformed into books before I ever made it home; spent too many afternoons avoiding my university work by spending money I didn’t really have on books I didn’t really need; went too frequently to find books as gifts for other people’s birthdays that were inevitably accompanied by gifts for myself, actual birth dates be damned.
I know, of course, that nothing, least of all a bookstore, is meant to last forever. I know that almost forty years is a pretty good run for a bookstore at any time, never mind at a time as difficult for booksellers as these past few decades have been. I know that there are other bookstores in the city (though far too few), one even as close as a block away. I know all this, but I still can’t help feeling a real sense of loss as Macondo closes.
I went in to say my goodbyes yesterday, bought a whole pile of poetry books at 80% off, books that I probably wouldn’t have bought otherwise but that I couldn’t pass up at garage sale prices. There wasn’t a whole lot left, not after a month of half price sales and no new acquisitions. The shelves were pretty bare. It felt like it was dying already, just waiting for someone to pull the plug.
I will miss Macondo Books.
I spent a few days in Black Mountain, North Carlina a few years ago, and things may have changed since then, but it was a singular experience at the time. We had been driving interstate highways for the better part of two weeks, passing sign after sign, billboard after billboard, all advertizing for big capitalism’s all-stars, places where you could buy everything from hamburgers to televisions to cars at prices that ensured their employees couldn’t make a proper wage. We had driven from Guelph, Ontario to Waycross, Georgia and halfway back, stopping in dozens of towns, without finding a single place where I could buy a used book or a cup of truly fairtrade coffee.
Then, we turned into Black Mountain, and there, within touching distance of each other, were a used bookstore and an independent cafe. There were also independent stores selling kitchenware, hardware, flowers, and everything else. The reason, I was told, had to do with a law passed decades earlier when a bunch of hippy artists essentially took over the town, a law something to the effect that all business operated within town limits had to be owned by someone who also lived within the town limits.
Now, I may not have all the details right here, and I’ll leave it to someone from Black Mountain to correct me in the comments, but I will never forget the difference in the economic culture of that town compared to all the others I saw on that trip, and that difference struck me again the other day when a friend and I were talking about how on earth to rescue a democratic tradition that is increasingly dominated by corporate interests that have the money to lobby politicians, that own the media through which most people receive their news, that employ large portions of the electorate, and that often have influence internationally as well. Even when simply acting legally in their own interests, these corporate entities can’t help but undermine many of the elements – freely elected officials, an informed electorate, a separation between public and private interests – on which democracy depends. In other words, in order to rescue democracy, we need to rescue capitalism.
I have no real answers to this conundrum except to suggest that my experience in Black Mountain might be instructive. What might happen, I wonder, if we were to permit the market to operate freely in most respects, but to insist that all businesses must be owned by people who live in the town where they are located?
I’m married to an economist, so I’m well aware that transitioning to this kind of model at this stage in our economic development would be essentially impossible. I’m also aware of the whole set of legal and practical difficulties that might be created in this sort of system. However, the more I think about it, the more I feel like the benefits would far outweigh the problems if people were forced to see their employees and their customers and their communities and their local environments in person every day. I think that they might make different decisions in everything from employee benefits to environmental regulations. I also think that our political arena would be more open, better informed, and less influenced by the interests of a very few.
I think we should give it a try after our current system collapses under its own corrupt weight. It can’t be too long now.