Category Archives: Prose & Poetry

Review: Playing Big: Find Your Voice, Your Mission, Your Message

Playing Big: Find Your Voice, Your Mission, Your Message
Playing Big: Find Your Voice, Your Mission, Your Message by Tara Mohr
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Boy, am I ever glad I didn’t pay for this.

Mohr’s heart is in the right place. She wanted to write a book that would help women overcome a lifetime of socialization and learn to believe in ourselves, so we can pursue our own big dreams and goals. And that is wonderful. But the execution fell apart somewhat.

To begin with, it is pretty well a standard self-help book, with standard self-help advice: make friends with your inner critic, find and follow your inner mentor, step depending on praise or running from criticism, deal with fear, stop undermining yourself, figure out what your big dreams and callings are, chase them down to the ends of the earth. All fine, so far as they go, but not earth-shaking. I’ve read enough self-help books over the course of my life to know that making friends with your inner critic is the first piece of advice offered in almost every self-help book, and whether you call it your Inner Mentor or your North Star or your Peaceful Place or your Future Visualization or whatever, finding it is always the second.

(Aside: I had three stages in my own self-help book journey: 1–I was young and proud and much too good for self-help books; 2–I was older and sad and decided maybe I could use help even if it came in the form of self-help books; 3–I am even older and either through the books I’ve already read or just the process of increasing curmudgeonization, I feel like I no longer need it. The Fuck-Off Fairy has been and gone; now I figure if I do something and it turns out to be ridiculous and everyone laughs at me, well, at least I’ve brightened their days.)

For another, the feminist portion of the book seemed half-thought-out, at best. She acknowledges the reality of discrimination and sexism in shaping our world, our lives, and our personalities, but then doesn’t really consider how that sexism will react to us in our new, fearless, uber-confident and self-mentored-up selves. If we are taught self-deprecation in order not to seem uppity, for example, it stands to reason that when we no longer self-deprecate, the world will not take it well. In my exeperience, one can absolutely expect a significant backlash to any move away from the feminine Norm of Nice.

Most of the research that forms the basis of the book is anecdotal and personal–of course, since this is self-help; one can’t expect double-blind studies and statistical correlations. However, it is less that convincing, particularly when some of the anecdotes are of the “I listened to my inner voice, and it told me to send my first ever written piece to Forbes, and it got published!” variety.

The chapter on fear, though, angered me.

Mohr states that really there are two kinds of fear: pachad, which is the fear of things that don’t actually exist, like monsters under the bed; and yirah, which is the fear felt when we confront the divine or other things larger than ourselves. Pachad we should ignore because what we fear isn’t real. Yirah is telling us we should move forwards.

You may notice that there is a distinct lack of any discussion of the fear of real, present and immediate threats, like sabre-toothed tigers, abusive ex-husbands, or the imminent prospect of foreclosure on one’s house. Both of the kinds of fear she does discuss mean, in her view, that you should move forwards towards your dream; but look, terrible things can happen and sometimes our fears are rational and realistic. The Universe is not a cosmic vending machine and we are not all guaranteed to have our dreams come true if we are nice people who want reasonable things. The worst can happen, and sometimes it does. Sometimes people fail, and it is irresponsible not to even discuss what to do when one’s fears are realistic or even probable, and it boggles my mind that however many people read this manuscript and no one thought to wonder about the whole fear thing.

Here’s my own personal advice on fear:

As yourself three questions: What is the most likely outcome? What is the best case scenario? What is the worst case scenario?

If you can accept the most likely outcome, if the best case scenario is something you truly deeply want, and if the worst case scenario is something you can recover from, it’s a good risk.

If the most likely outcome is not good enough, if the worst case scenario would crush you and you aren’t sure you could recover, or if the best case scenario isn’t amazingly fantastic, it’s probably not worth it.

By all means, do some research or talk to people to figure out what those scenarios are; but just plunging ahead on the expectation that the Universe takes care of people with good intentions is silly and irresponsible.

~~~

There was a time in my life when a lot of this book’s contents would have resonated with me and I would have dragged out my journal and earnestly completed all of the journaling prompts. If you are at that time in your life, I wish you good luck, god speed, and it almost certainly isn’t as bad or as scary as you think. Keep breathing. You’ll get there.

Somehow or other, I did; or at least, I think I did. I did more tagging of pages that I agreed with than tagging of insights–in fact, I didn’t tag any insights. Yep, still scared of things; no, it doesn’t stop me; the inner critic is still vicious but I just smile and nod at her and keep on plugging; praise and criticism don’t tell me what to do; etc. Maybe I’m just a smug and self-satisfied brat. In any case, I’ll be sending this back to the library, where it can hopefully inspire and console someone else.

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Review: This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate

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(sorry for that. i’m going through the tedious process of claiming my blog — yes, it took me forever — and apparently i have to include that in a new post. so)
This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate
This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate by Naomi Klein
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Naomi’s political lens is so focused that it’s blinding. This is less a book about climate change than it is about why climate change is now the perfect excuse to do everything she’s always wanted to do anyway (eg. scrap globalization, redistribute wealth), which is fine, but she ignores any contrary evidence. For example, she has a brief section on the brief flourishing and untimely death of Ontario’s green energy economy, which she blames 100% on the WTO’s decision on domestic content. The waffling and delays of government regulators on applications, the constant changes in direction, and the dead-set-contrarian politics of the mostly rural ridings where wind energy projects were to be sited were completely overlooked, but as anyone who actually went through the process can tell you, the domestic content reg change was the least of any developer’s worries, and came after years and years of frustrations brought about by the public sector.

She spends a great deal of time criticizing anyone else whose political perspectives change how they perceive climate science and solutions, but is much, much worse herself in this book. No information penetrates unless it conforms with her pre-existing beliefs. But the global carbon cycle is not sentient. It doesn’t care how carbon emissions are reduced; it doesn’t even care if they are reduced at all. It does not vote and has no political preferences. WE do; and so it’s up to us to make some decisions about if and how we’re going to turn things around. It should be a mark of deep shame to any thinking citizen in a democratic society that authoritarian China is pulling so far ahead in the transition to a renewable economy.

The flaws with This Changes Everything can be boiled down to two, major, fundamental issues:

1. She acts as if the private and public spheres were diametric and opposed, rather than almost entirely overlapping. A person who works all day in a corporation then goes home and becomes a voter and consumer. People move back and forth between the private and public sector in terms of employment all the time. We are not talking about two different species–the private, evil homo sapiens determined to ruin the earth at a profit and the loving, public homo sapiens trying desperately to save it. It’s all just people.

2. The public sphere is as complicit in this as the private sphere. The reason we do not have a healthy, thriving renewable energy sector in Ontario right now is because the people of Ontario didn’t want it. They had it, and then put the politicians of the province under so much pressure to gut it that eventually they did to save their mandate. The moratorium on offshore wind projects in Ontario is a perfect example: two (small) corporations were all set to do the assessment work necessary to figure out if their Lake Ontario projects would work or not, but the government made offshore projects in Ontario illegal because the voters in Scarborough demanded it.

This is a terrible book on climate change. You’d be better off reading almost anything else on the subject.

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Review: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural HistoryI may have mentioned that 2013 was a steamroller of a year, and that Hibernation 2014 was basically me burying my head in the sands of sewing until I felt like I could look at the world again. After about nine months of denial, I thought I might be ready to test the waters of environmental catastrophe again–and I was right!

Have no fear. We are still mostly sewing here. But also, I read a book about one of the Ends of the World, and I survived, and I think I can even write about it.  So I will.
The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As with all of Elizabeth Kolbert’s writing, it is beautifully written, compelling, meticulously researched, well structured, and absolutely terrifying.

The Sixth Extinction (which is happening now–you can be forgiven for not knowing that, since it is so abysmally reported on) is the tale of the many and varied ways humans are causing this latest mass extinction event. They’re all here: prehistorical and modern-day overhunting; transmission of invasive species; habitat fragmentation; climate change; ocean acidification. In keeping with the evidence, though very much against the preferences of human psychology, the book ends on a despairing note. While humans do expend a great deal of energy in identifying and saving particular endangered species when they are particularly beautiful or otherwise beloved, that is in no way up to the scale of what’s required, and it is very difficult to see how this could be turned around.

From page 214: “‘As a brief aside,’ he went on, ‘I read this news story the other day. A place called the Vermont Center for Ecostudies has set up this Web site. People can take a photo of any and all organisms in Vermont and get them registered on this site. If I had read that a few years ago, I would have laughed. I would have said, “You’re going to have people sending in a picture of a pine tree?” And now, after what’s happened with the little browns [bats], I just wish they had done it earlier.” (This after a chapter describing the collapse of bat populations from White Nose Syndrome, and bat researchers revisiting former caves where bats numbered in the hundreds of thousands, now not able to find any, walking through the empty caverns on a carpet of bat carcasses.)

I wish everyone would read this, or at least become more informed about it; not because there’s anything we can do by becoming more informed (there almost certainly isn’t:  many, and likely most, species will simply cease to exist). But because an event of this significance and caused by us deserves to be marked and mourned while it is happening. A biotic Holocaust is underway all around us, every day, species and families of species being shoved into gas ovens as fast as we can manage it; and outside, we celebrate sporting victories and royal babies and new gizmos to buy. I can think of no more severe condemnation of human nature.

That's a toad, eh?
That’s a toad, eh? Look at those itty bitty fingers!

Frances and I like to catch baby toads in the spring. They are itty-bitty, and they hatch en masse, so if you go to the right place at the right time of year, you will find dozens or hundreds of housefly-sized frogs springing all over the place like rubbery crickets. They’re adorable, and fairly easy to catch, and most children are entranced at the sight of these tiny little froggy things. You can have one perched on a fingernail.

According to The Sixth Extinction, this may not last. Amphibians are the most endangered class of animals globally, right now, due to chytrid fungus, spread from the use of the African Clawed Frog as an early pregnancy test, as well as habitat loss and fragmentation, water quality issues, climate change, etc. Over thirty per cent of amphibian species are at risk of extinction today, and the extinction rate for amphibians right now is 211 times the background rate as a conservative estimate. These are animals that have survived every mass extinction event since before the dinosaurs, but they may not survive us.

When I’m not sewing, or embroidering, or reading (or working or cleaning the house or making dinner or whatever), sometimes I do papercrafting. Not scrapbooking, per se, but it could be altered books or altered photos or painting  or calligraphy or some kind of multimedia project. When I was feeling particularly down about environmental issues last year (occupational hazard when you work in the environmental field), I made this.

PhotoScan-1

At the time I thought I was exaggerating.

But apparently not.

And now maybe we need even more happy sewing talk than before.

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W.S. Merwin as nothing-in-particular

poetry month-12-7This one has no stitching on it of any kind, but I like it and thought it was a fitting way to end Poetry Month (though if I have time, I may squeeze in Dennis Lee as well): from W. S. Merwin:

The Laughing Thrush

O nameless joy of the morning

tumbling upward note by note out of the night
and the hush of the dark valley
and out of whatever has not been there

song unquestioning and unbounded
yes this is the place and the one time
in the whole of before and after
with all of memory waking into it

and the lost visages that hover
around the edge of sleep
constant and clear
and the words that lately have fallen silent
to surface among the phrases of some future
if there is a future

here is where they all sing the first daylight
whether or not there is anyone listening

W.S. Merwin is a nature poet too, at least sometimes, though unlike Mary Oliver he can be a good deal darker and sometimes writes explicitly on environmental destruction. But he does it beautifully.

I took a page I hated from a self-help book, gessoed it, painted it, stamped and stenciled it, then drew the calligraphy letters on with a brush, and mounted it on a bit of backing board to make it stiff. And now it sits on my bookcase, amidst piles of books and mountains of fabrics and notions and quilted blocks.

Something about thrushes seems to inspire poets grappling with finding joy and meaning amidst loss, doesn’t it? And the thrushes have no idea–they just sing.

Mary Oliver as wall art

Even if you don’t think you like Mary Oliver–even if you think you don’t like poetry–you have almost certainly read one of her poems, and you might even have enjoyed it. Mary Oliver is that most rare of all creatures: a poet who makes a living from poetry. She’s a nature poet with an eye for the small details of the world, constantly finding the universe in a grain of pollen. She’s also had her work and parts thereof shared on every social media platform–alone, on pictures, and in video–just about constantly, probably since the internet’s electronic heart first began to beat. And if you still think you don’t know who Mary Oliver is:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

That’s Mary Oliver, from The Summer Day, and if you’re saying you’ve never read it, you’re lying.

However, The Summer Day (much as I love it) isn’t the one I turned into wall art, and neither is What Was Once the Largest Shopping Centre in Northern Ohio Was Built Where There Had Been a Pond I Used to Visit Every Summer Afternoon, though that poem is one of my favourite poems ever.

poetry month-9-5No. The wall art was taken from Mindful.

Every day
I see or hear
something
that more or less

kills me
with delight,
that leaves me
like a needle

in the haystack
of light.
It was what I was born for –
to look, to listen,

to lose myself
inside this soft world –
to instruct myself
over and over

in joy,
and acclamation.
Nor am I talking
about the exceptional,

the fearful, the dreadful,
the very extravagant –
but of the ordinary,
the common, the very drab,

the daily presentations.
Oh, good scholar,
I say to myself,
how can you help

but grow wise
with such teachings
as these –
the untrimmable light

of the world,
the ocean’s shine,
the prayers that are made
out of grass?

This piece is just a sampler, a bit of muslin on which I practiced different kinds of stitches until I had something I thought was pretty. It was fun and not very difficult and, as is common with embroidery, it took forever. I’ve always meant to make another, larger, better-planned embroidery from another Mary Oliver poem, but somehow there is always something else I’m working on. One day, right?

Rilke as bookmark

poetry month-11-6For years, I had these self-help books I dragged around with me through every move. Most of them were gifts (of a sort) from one particular person who shall remain nameless, and they inspired in me an absolute rage; the others, while less rage-inspiring, were quite notable in their absolute inability to help me help myself. They were more like self-unhelp books, or self-trouble.

After the last move, in 2012, unpacking these ridiculous books again, I got angry at myself (self-angering books): WHY was I torturing myself by lugging these horrible, offensive, accusatory, unhelpful, rage-inducing books with me through house after house? Just because they were printed and bound did not mean they were automatically worthy of respect.

If they weren’t going to be helpful–and they patently weren’t–if they were determined not to be useful as a product, then they could become an input.

I carefully cut about fifty pages out of the worst book, gessoed them, painted them, stamped them, cut them, folded them, stitched on them, and turned them into other things.

You don’t want to original text to be distracting but you do want it to show that it was originally a page from a book; I don’t want to be reminded of what I hated so much about the books whenever I see them, but I do want to see what I made of my life and myself out of what the self-help books were supposed to help me with. So it takes forever. But it’s satisfying, too.

This bookmark was one of the first. The lines are from a poem by Rilke, who I love (who doesn’t love German transcendental poets?), and the patterns are from a variety of sources meant to make it look a bit like an old-fashioned sampler. Here’s the full, original poem:

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

My favourite Rilke poem is the 10th Elegy, but it is very very long (about 10 pages in my translation) and has no short pithy quotes suitable for hand-made bookmarks. He wrote so much gorgeous stuff, though. I can only imagine how it must thunder along in the original, with its rhyme and meter intact.

One of the things I love about Rilke is that when he wrote about God, he quite openly and clearly discussed having created him, built him, projected him out into the universe; that God was something we made, and then lived by. And yet the sense of worship and holiness is still there. It didn’t rob God of his meaning or value to have been created by people. It’s a fascinating perspective.

Sara Teasdale in needle-book form

poetry month-3-1I like poetry, a lot. A shelf of my Favourites Bookcase is devoted to poetry books (and there are more in the basement).  I also–as you may have gathered–like sewing and embroidery, a lot. So what better than to combine them?

A few years back, I was in need of a needle-book (a fabric book with fabric pages for storing needles not in use). There was a pattern in an issue of Inspirations magazine that I liked structurally, with its multiple pages and french-knot border, but at the time I was not a fan of stumpwork and wanted something different for the cover art. I took a Sublime Stitching bird pattern (I realize it is not a wood thrush) and combined it with my favourite Sara Teasdale poem to make this little needle-book, which is in more or less constant use.

It has a page for sharp needles, a page for crewel needles, and a page for beading needles, and little endpapers of crazy bird fabric scraps. The needle pads themselves are made out of wool felt, since it holds needles so nicely. The titles are just poetry month-4-1stamped in with regular ink, and the wool felt is held to the pages with regular zig-zag stitch–nothing fancy.

Sara Teasdale was not the world’s happiest poet, though she did win the first ever Pulitzer Prize for poetry. I once spent an afternoon reading a chronological anthology of her work, which became progressively more depressive; unsurprising since she died of suicide in her late 40s. Wood Song is one of her more uplifting poems, and it’s from comparatively early in her career. As you can see, it’s not so much the work of someone who is happy, as of someone who is trying very hard to be happy.

Wood Song

I HEARD a wood-thrush in the dusk
Twirl three notes and make a star—
My heart that walked with bitterness
Came back from very far.

Three shining notes were all he had,
And yet they made a starry call—
I caught life back against my breast
And kissed it, scars and all.

It is gorgeous work, if sad. As much as I appreciate its artistry and the portrayal of having found meaning and solace in an interaction with nature, I also wish someone had been there to hold her hand and offer her some solace.

happy poetry month

Because it’s the one I have with me, and because it’s been stuck in my head for six months. Like a musical earworm, it demands to be spread … er, shared:

Here, in this little Bay
Full of tumultuous life and great repose,
Where, twice a day,
The purposeless, glad ocean comes and goes,
Under high cliffs, and far from the huge town,
I sit me down.

For want of me the world’s course will not fail;
When all its work is done, the lie shall rot;
The truth is great, and shall prevail,
When none cares whether it prevail or not.

(Coventry Patmore, Magna est Veritas)

It’s beautiful, isn’t it?

I promise that future poems shared this month will not be quite so despairing. Look on the bright side: last week, this poem was the introduction to a whole post about those last three lines.

Review: Feral: Rewilding the Land, the Sea, and Human Life

Feral: Rewilding the Land, the Sea, and Human Life by George Monbiot
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am, first of all, so thankful that George Monbiot broke his mold and spent a book writing about something with more hopeful overtones than the end of the world. Not that the end of the world isn’t a worthy subject for a life’s work, but as a change of pace, was it ever nice not to read about death and destruction on every single page. Thank you, George.

Feral is about rewilding. Not conservation, which he equates to a “prison” in which well-intentioned folks try to arrest ecosystems in artificial stages, whether it’s good for them or not. Rewilding is about people letting go of the reigns and allowing nature to do whatever it is that it’s going to do, and as it turns out, in every place it’s been tried so far (whether intentionally or no), it’s led to something good. Go figure. Nature knows what to do without people bossing it around.

Feral is, too, an awful lot about George pulling an Ernest Hemingway, although in wilderness or its closest counterparts rather than in bull-rings or war zones. He gets himself nearly dashed to pieces at sea in a kayak at least a couple of times and goes tramping around in various inhospitable places, looking for danger, and sometimes he finds it. In this, it has tones of a mid-life crisis, but at least it’s directed at something of possible benefit to the biosphere, which was thoughtful.

The one considerable downside of the book was the several chapters George spends (as other reviewers put it) muttering about how much he hates sheep. No doubt, over-grazing by sheep has been enormously destructive everywhere it’s been tried, and it is stupid beyond belief to expend precious conservation dollars preserving landscapes that are the result of sheep eating everything not actively poisonous to them. I really don’t think it deserves the amount of space George gives it in this book, and it certainly reduces the interest and impact considerably for anyone not living in a place dominated by a sheep economy. This is a shame.

Still. Rewilding is a lovely and important idea with emotional appeal for everyone who cares about nature and, when George isn’t balefully staring down sheep, Feral explores it well.

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Review: Banned on the Hill: A True Story about Dirty Oil and Government Censorship

(What happened? Summer. Also, home laptop broke. New laptop working, but would not connect to network. None of these things facilitate blogging.  Hiking and gardening are more fun anyway, yes?)
Banned on the Hill: A True Story about Dirty Oil and Government Censorship by Franke James
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am the first person to mark this book as “read” on Goodreads. I find that a little depressing … but I’m happy to be the first to tell you why you should read this fabulous book:

1. The art. Franke’s illustrations and visual essays are always striking, quirky, and to the point.

2. The number of essays included. If, like me, you’ve been following her work for the past few years, this is a great way to have several of the back-story essays (including “Dear Prime Minister,” “Fat Cat Canada” and “What Can One Person Do?”) as well as the “Banned on the Hill” essay that chronicles her attempted censorship by the fine folks the Department of International Affairs.

3. The information and the stories. It’s infuriating that this is happening in Canada, but since it is, it’s better to know about it than not. And it is wonderful to have people like Franke James so determinedly bringing that message to so many different audiences

There were at least a dozen pages I wanted to rip out and frame. Instead I might scan, print and frame them (solely for personal use of course).

If you care about climate change and the obstructionist position Canada has taken both internationally and domestically on this issue, you will want to read this book. When you’re done, share it widely.

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