On the weekend, I walked to the library with my elder daughter. While she browsed in the non-fiction stacks — the theoretical physics section — I played a little game that has served me well over the years: I wandered a little further (no theoretical physics for me) and plucked titles at random from the shelves, my choices based only on title or subject. In quick succession, I skimmed and rejected two books on Scottish folk and fairy tales, but my third choice had me sitting cross-legged on the floor, entranced.
It was a biography of Rachel Carson, the American scientist who became famous for her books about the sea and the beauty of the natural world, and who is remembered now as the author of Silent Spring, a book that warned the public about the dangers of pesticides and other chemicals. Silent Spring was published in 1962; Rachel Carson died in 1964 of cancer. If you google Rachel Carson, you will find that to this day she is reviled in some circles as a “feminizi ecoterrorist.” The biography, Witness for Nature, by Linda Lear, and published in 1997, is a little more nuanced. It evokes a portrait of a self-effacing, deeply intelligent, patient, hard-working woman who was led by her love of nature and science to become outspoken on conservation issues. Rachel Carson began her career as a government biologist, writing educational pamphlets on a variety of subjects. But she’d always wanted to be a writer. Science became her subject. And with enormous effort and obsessive care, Rachel Carson fashioned a successful literary career; eventually, she became successful enough that she could afford to resign from her government post, in her mid-40s, to devote her life to writing about science in poetical narratives that appealed to a broad audience.
It goes without saying that Rachel Carson was an unusual woman for her era. What strikes me most, however, is how fresh and relevant her message remains today.
Even though the book was an enormous tome, I decided to check it out and carry it home, and I spent the weekend reading it with pleasure. I’d forgotten how much I enjoy biographies, especially of writers. I look for clues, I nod in recognition, or admit to envy for those who have a knack for self-promotion. Rachel Carson’s attention to detail, her push for publicity, her irritation with her first publisher, who failed to promote her first book — all of this impressed me. She had a vision for the entire publishing process and she saw it through, little deterred by criticism, yet open to critique, actively seeking it out, so as to better her own work. She also frequently turned down promotional opportunities, speeches, honorary degrees, etc., to preserve time and space for her research and writing. She knew how to say no. (Is it too late for me to learn?)
Rachel Carson lived with her mother, who kept house for her; she was the main breadwinner for her family, which included at times her older sister and brother, mother and father, and later, her orphaned nieces. She did not marry, had no children. Our lives, in their domestic details, do not much meet and overlap.
But reading about her life has got me thinking about the importance of devotion to a subject; no, the critical imperative of devoting attention to a subject, if one is to hope to learn, to understand, to teach, to share knowledge, to find solutions to human problems large and small. Our lives on earth depend upon it. We cannot be lead by those who would ignore deep, complex knowledge in favour of simplistic superficial fixes. We cannot give power to ignorance. (Too late? Well, then let’s stand true against powerful ignorance.)
Here is Rachel Carson on her belief in the universal accessibility of science:
“We live in a scientific age; yet we assume that knowledge of science is the prerogative of only a small number of human beings, isolated and priestlike in their laboratories. This is not true. It cannot be true. The materials of science are the materials of life itself. Science is part of the reality of living; it is the what, the how, and the why of everything in our experience. It is impossible to understand man without understanding his environment and the forces that have molded him physically and mentally.”
Here is Rachel Carson on the human tendency to focus on egocentric problems, and to fail to see our place in the vast sweep of time:
“Perhaps if we reversed the telescope and looked at man down these long vistas, we should find less time and inclination to plan for our own destruction.”
And here is Rachel Carson on the danger of seeing humankind as separate from nature:
“Mankind has gone very far into an artificial world of his own creation. He has sought to insulate himself, in his cities of steel and concrete, from the realities of earth and water and the growing seed. Intoxicated with a sense of his own power, he seems to be going farther and farther into more experiments for the destruction of himself and his world.”
Her solution? Wonder and humility.
“Focus attention on the wonders of a world known to so few, although it lies about us everyday.”
Recognize your place in the grand sweep of time. Know yourself to be part of the natural world. Wonder at your participation in the cyclical turnings. In this way, by becoming very small, by being a piece of something much larger than yourself, you will be of the world around you, not against it. I am fascinated by her repetition of the word “destruction” — her insistence that the human belief that we are above nature, not of nature, springs from a dangerously destructive impulse, that it invents and experiments with destruction.
I love when a book finds me.
To tell the truth, I don’t have a lot to say this morning. Yesterday, I came across a photo in the newspaper and felt like I had to respond to it. Because I can now draw, I drew it. I don’t even know how I would write about it. What are the limits of my imagination? The limits of my knowledge are vast. I don’t know the details of what is being shown, except that this photo was taken in Mosul, Iraq. All that seems certain is that these are two people, human beings, a father and his daughter, caught up in the horror of war, which is a man-made horror. “What is happening?” my youngest asked, when he saw this picture. “Their house has been bombed,” I said. “Who bombed them?” But I don’t even know that. According to the caption on the original photo, they live in Islamic State territory, so maybe they’re being bombed by whoever is fighting against Islamic State. Where is evil, in this picture? Where is the enemy? Why is it so easy to destroy, to reduce a building to rubble, to displace lives?
And the question I am most afraid to ask: How is our safety and security linked to this picture?
Propped on my desk right now is a little card on which I’ve written out the Ten Tenets of the City of Joy (I read the Ten Tenets in a newsletter from the Stephen Lewis Foundation, a charity I support). The City of Joy is a residence in the Democratic Republic of Congo that serves women who are survivors of sexual violence (rape is used as a weapon of war in a many conflicts, including in the DRC). You can read more about the City of Joy here.
The Ten Tenets give me something concrete to hold on to when I am feeling despair. Right now, I’m drawn to # 6: Give what you want most. And # 10: Practice kindness. But let me push this reflection further — I am not a victim of violence or a survivor of war. I am, in many ways, the beneficiary of the misery of others; the systems that work for me create disadvantage and disaster for others. And I don’t know how to change that. What would I be willing to sacrifice? I’d like to add one more tenet for myself. # 11: Listen.
I don’t know if this is a good state in which to begin a blog post, while sobbing over today’s newspaper, but I’ve been silent because I don’t know where to begin, not because I have nothing to say, so I will begin here.
This post is written in response to the murder of six Canadian men in a Quebec mosque. It is written in response to Trump’s ban from the US on refugees and people born in seven countries with largely Islamic populations (perhaps temporary, but we shall see; extreme policies are often floated as temporary measures only to become slyly entrenched).
This post is also written in response to the outpouring of peaceful protest that began the day after Trump’s inauguration, less than two weeks ago, and continues today. I was fortunate enough to march in Toronto, in the women’s march, and although I was glad to share the moment with my sister, sister-in-law, and friends, I felt mostly sombre: I thought, this is just the start.
This morning, as soon as the house was emptied of kids, I began to weep, reading the stories of the men who were killed in Quebec City. Ordinary people who lived ordinary Canadian lives, and who believed in ordinary Canadian peace. The attack feels like a betrayal of Canada’s promise. We want to welcome refugees and immigrants. But bigots live here too, violence lives here too.
I am part of a neighbourhood group who has sponsored a refugee family from Syria; they arrived in December. I am fortunate enough to be quite closely involved in their lives here in Canada, helping with ESL, and also, I hope, offering my friendship. They are a beautiful young family, and their project is so enormous — moving to our cold country in winter, speaking no English, two small children, knowing no one — it sometimes overwhelms me to think about it. Yet they appear completely willing to embrace their new reality. I want them to thrive here.
I want Canada to be the promised land, where people thrive. But it isn’t always, is it.
Think about this land. The literal land over which I’m walking. There were people living on this land long before my ancestors (or a branch of my ancestors) settled here as farmers. These people were betrayed by the newcomers, by us, by Canada; not only was the land parcelled up and sold, but for almost a hundred years, residential schools tried to eradicate their cultures, to white-wash and convert and also to outright destroy, a history I learned nothing about in my Canadian education, a history running parallel to the stories we learned, obscured, buried. And this history isn’t past, it continues to inflect our present. When we invite newcomers to Canada, we can’t pretend this isn’t, also, our story: bigotry, violence, destruction, greed.
This might sound small, but I’ll tell you what guts me — the thought that my new friend, new to Canada, could be harassed for wearing her headscarf. I know this could happen — I know this does happen. It happens because of Othering.
I want Canada to be a place where Othering does not happen, where we don’t decide we know everything we need to know about a stranger based merely on how we’ve grouped him or her: according to race, class, gender, religion, sexual orientation, according to the flimsiest of superficial evidence, according to our own biases and blindness, according to our lack of imagination and empathy. I want Canada to be a place where strangers are welcomed because they have the opportunity to become known, for being themselves, complicated human selves.
Trump’s executive orders are Othering a huge swath of humanity: refugees, Mexicans, Muslims. Be afraid of these people, he is saying, they are not like us.
But they are. They are just like us. They are human. We are all human.
If we forget that, if we erase that, if we ignore that, we are doomed to division, to fear, to hatred, to war.
I am looking for hope. Hope seems to me something that you do, and by doing make real. So I’m looking for hope by spending a few mornings a week with a woman who was uprooted from her home by war, by designing and sharing curriculum that may inspire others to create, by coaching youth soccer, by walking and talking with friends, by getting up early to write, by marching, by making music, by meditating, by praying.
I keep looking for more ways to hope. Tell me yours, please.
Greed might rule but it will never satisfy.
These words popped into my head this afternoon, around 1:15PM. Donald Trump is now president, and he says he is going to put America first. Why does it surprise me that greed rules, that greed as an organizing principle would dominate and ascend to power? It makes perfect sense, and yet I am surprised.
I have been thinking about what makes a person happy; we talk about happiness a good deal in our culture, claiming it, acting it out on social media, even while wondering how to get it. I’m not interested in happiness. What I want is to be at peace, to a live a life that is at peace in the world, with others, and with myself. I don’t mean that I want to avoid conflict, though I don’t choose to antagonize without careful thought. I mean that what I want for myself, and what I hope my children will choose, too, is a life that is bigger than the self.
Greed is inherently self-interested. It is voracious. It is never satisfied. It also happens to be the engine of capitalism as it is currently imagined, and we are therefore caught up in it, whether we like it or not. I am not against trade or entrepreneurship or free markets; I believe, naively you may say, that even business could be run in a way that puts others first. But greed is easier to marshall. It’s in all of us. And our greed isolates us, making it easy to stir up envy, fear, paranoia and blame.
Greed is what we are primed to feel, and how we are taught to live—competing against each other for scarce resources, feasting like gluttons, aiming for the top, winning at any cost, fuelled by our desires, never satisfied.
Never at peace.
How to be at peace?
The answer is simple, not simplistic: focus on the needs of others. Not in a servile way, not in a way that denies your own needs, and not in a way that seeks to control or change others, but with an open heart that is present. Listen. Give your attention. Give what you have. Give your time. Give your energy. Give your talents.
What more could any of us hope for, in this life, than to be present in the life of another? To be invited to share is a gift.
It’s also incredibly easy to do. Think very very small. Think of inviting a neighbour for dinner. Think of going for a walk with a friend. Think of kicking a ball with a kid. Think of what you love to do (to cook, to play soccer, to run, to draw, to sing), and do it. Invite someone else to do it with you.
When our focus turns to others, greed vanishes, and in that moment it has no power over us.
artwork by me, concepts by Iain McGilchrist
I will be brief, of necessity.
The concussion is taking its time to heal and screens seem to cause the greatest difficulty. Email is next to impossible, and I cannot compose at length on-screen; please excuse my absence here and elsewhere. In fact, I am approaching this as a gift rather than a curse, and I am writing often in my notebook, and drawing, and reading off the page. I am living offline. This could be a new year’s resolution. But I don’t do new year’s resolutions. Instead, I choose a word of the year.
Last year’s word was PEACE. I loved the word. I used it often. I needed it, but also I lived it. In a sense, my approach to this concussion has embodied my understanding of peace, as I’ve lived it. I haven’t fought what’s happened. I’ve been at peace (largely) with the changes it has necessitated. I’ve been grateful for many small wonders every day. For some reason — maybe concussion-related — I’ve been more sensitive to small changes in light and noise, in ways that I stop and appreciate. Today, I watched as the dim afternoon light that was falling across our dining-room table rippled in rhythm with a helicopter that was passing across the sky, out of my view; I couldn’t’ see it, but I could hear it, and I could see the pattern of its disturbance in the light.
Yeah, that’s probably due to the concussion.
My word of the year for 2017 is STAND. I announce it without fanfare, because the clock is ticking (literally; I’ve put a 10-minute timer on this post).
I’ve chosen STAND because it chose me. Here’s why, I think. This year ahead seems likely to be one that will call for protest, and for taking a stand. I am not brave, as I have said before, and this is not a natural posture for me, but I believe that as a writer and artist my work is to stand for something greater than myself. I believe that my stories, my efforts, must come from a grounded place, and that in order to create I must be solid inside myself “like a plant is solid in the ground.”
artwork by my 14-year-old daughter, words by Rumi
Time’s up. If you’re doing a word of the year, please share in a comment, below.
I am not brave.
All around me, on every side, I see people taking a stand, even against storms of anger and doubt, willing to throw themselves into the fray, defending their beliefs, being harassed and called out and challenged. I see people whose belief is powerful enough to carry them through the storm, they can ride their belief like a winged creature. What would it feel like to believe in something, in anything, with such conviction? I am not brave. I do not have the courage of my convictions. I am ashamed. I stand on nothing, I have no inner core of righteousness, no ballast in the storm, I seem to be blank where I should have rage, faith, outrage, certainty. I have no certainty.
My parents divorced when I was an adult. This was harder than it may have seemed, because as an adult, shouldn’t I have been capable of forming opinions and being strong and rational? I was not capable. I remember pacing in my kitchen, trying to make a very specific decision, and knowing that any decision I made would hurt someone I loved, even the decision to make no decision. Any decision or non-decision, any action or non-action, would be interpreted as taking a side, declaring allegiance, and all I wanted to do was to love both of my parents for who they were, separately, without causing harm to the other. All I wanted to do was to give them both the benefit of the doubt, which is an odd phrase now that I write it out. Pacing in my kitchen, I recognized that whatever I did or did not do, whatever I said or did not say, I could not repair what was broken; I was insignificant, that was part of it, but also, a broken thing could not be put right by the single perfect action of a third party. The realization released me, to some degree. There was no right decision. There was only doing what one must and living with the consequences.
This happened almost a decade ago; but the same paralysis strikes me now whenever I step in between two differing points of view, whenever I become involved in conflict. How can I fix this, how can I help?, quickly turns to, how can I hide myself away from this?
Do no harm. How I long to live by this mantra, no matter how impossible.
Yet I think, I do, that brave people have to be willing to disturb, to trouble, to shake the trees and shout from hills. And maybe this causes harm. Certainly it causes disruption and conflict and pain. It has to, because what else brings about change?
I am sorry. Forgive me. I am not brave.