Existential flittings

Not a black capped chickadee on a branch, but a bird of sorts, willing to have its image captured…

I have been searching for an existentialist rationale, and all I can come up with are intersecting rubrics:

  • Imagine me a square circle, and I will say you have attained freedom of a sort.
  • Imagine me a point beyond infinity and I will say you have fully expanded the possibilities of consciousness.
  • Imagine me the end of time, and show me its position on the rim of a clock, and you will have put a full-stop to the question of eternity.
  • Tell me what kind of universe can exist without a mind to think it, and I believe we will understand our reason for being.

There! Now I can watch the black capped chickadee in the branch of the naked tree outside my window and marvel at its version of freedom.



Made a mistake? Learn from it!

Failure isn’t an end; it’s an experience

I’m one of those people who beats himself up when he makes a mistake. Natural perhaps, but self-flagellation as a learning experience is only effective if it’s followed up with self-improvement, and that process of growing through our anguished moments only begins when we stop writhing, forgive ourselves, and get on with the job of repairing the damage while figuring out ways to avoid making the same mistake again.

Forgiving, of course, isn’t the same as forgetting. Rather, it’s the deliberate act of putting our errors into context. I’m human; I make mistakes. That’s the basic equation. To beat myself up for more than a couple of seconds over a typical faux pas becomes counter productive – I’m so busy grinding myself into dust, so concerned about making another mistake, that I’m afraid to do anything. It’s when we are able to step back, analyze a mistake the way a sympathetic coach would, then consider how to slingshot out of it, that we are able to grow.

Growing – as in the phrase ‘growing up’ – is not a process that ends with puberty. In fact, the most enriching phases of growth and self-improvement can come late in life, when we have learned how to grow. We’re not plants, or insects, or mammals bound by instinct. We’re never completely adult, in that sense. Humanity’s niche in the spectrum of life is as thinking, adaptable spirit. We are the species best able to figure out ways of succeeding in almost any environment, and discovering new possibilities. Making mistakes is an unavoidable part of the human condition.

Scaling that statement down to the personal, I have to ask myself what types of learning outcomes I can possibly derive from a misstep? It’s important to understand what kind of signals I’m receiving via the ouch-loop, or in the ‘Gawd no!’ reflex that smacks me on the forehead when I’ve made a more serious blunder. I can think of two obvious decisions to be made based on the cumulative evidence of my errors: I can decide I have to learn to do something I want to do better; or I can learn I’m not meant to be doing something I thought I wanted to.

Of course there’s a million shades between, but those two considerations lay at the root of my decision-making process moving forward – whether the process is triggered by the pain of error, or the blaze of a wahoo! inspirational moment.

To scale things back up again, those are the trial and error questions we as a species need to ask continuously, if we want to survive and achieve a sustainable, equitable and expanding future. For me as an individual, embarrassment and social castigation are the most likely outcomes of any slip-ups I might make; for us as a species, the stakes are much higher, and our ability to overcome collective pride and anguish so that we make good decisions requires Herculean exertions of leadership.


Nanaimo-North Cowichan Candidates square off

Alana DeLong (Liberal), Anna Paddon (Independent), Doug Routley (New Democrat) and Lia Versaevel (Green) aired their positions on the issues, as identified by citizens in the Chemainus, Cowichan Valley area Monday, April 3.

Organized by the Chemainus Residents Association and the Chemainus-Crofton Chamber of Commerce, the showdown wasn’t so much a shootout at the OK Corral as an orderly trap shoot where the pigeons (none of them made of clay) were sent into their sights by area voters.

The candidates talked about homelessness, assisted living, climate change, forestry, health care (with an emphasis on the Duncan Regional Hospital), the economy in a broad ranging conversation with voters.

Those who enjoy B.C. politics as a blood sport would likely want to head out for a raw steak to satisfy their craving after this event. The format gets the candidates sticking very close to the issues and avoids the sparring and rancour that make for reality TV.

Election Day is May 9. For voters in the Nanaimo-North Cowichan riding the April 3 discussion is a good introduction to the candidates and their positions on issues of interest to citizens.



Expanding the creative cycle

I still have a long way to go learning to produce online clips that are a cut above amateur, but some of the techniques used in this video can be effective elements of a book ‘trailer’ – just one of the avenues to explore when it comes to promoting books in the digital era.

If you’re like me, you’ve separated the act of writing from the promotion of your work: the one is art and inspiration, the other a necessary ordeal. This aversion to the nitty-gritty of getting out there and selling leads to a sort of ethereal approach to publicizing the material you’ve laboured over, sometimes for years – an if you write it they will come attitude, buttressed by the notion the there’s value in the act of writing even if it isn’t brought to life in the mind of readers… self knowledge and improvement and all that, a better understanding of my corner of the universe.

This aversion to getting out and pitching goes so far as to deride those exuberant souls that do. They’re seen as brash, self-serving, too commercial, name your poison.

Well, it’s time for me to look in the mirror and fess up. There’s nothing wrong with being enthusiastic when it comes to promoting books; and all the explanations I’ve used to devalue it as a legitimate aspect of the writer’s life – and it is a life we lead, a vocation – are nothing more than insidious versions of cowardice. Worse than that, my fear and loathing when it comes to promotion is an implicit admission that I don’t have enough confidence in my own work to stand on a podium and present it to the world.

There! I’ve beat myself up sufficiently over 40-plus years in the closet; now it’s time to act on my literary epiphany and build promotion into my creative cycle.

To start with, I have to gain a more fulsome understanding of why it’s important to ‘sell’ my stuff – and here I will hazard a few points of distinction between the goals of an artist and those of an ardent capitalist or insurance salesman. Yes, I need to make money to sustain myself in my chosen vocation – or rather, the vocation that has chosen me! The equation is quite simple: the more money I make writing, the more of my life’s energy I can devote to creating stories. When readers buy my books they enable me to give more of myself to writing.

But that’s not the main motivation for a bit of Barnum & Bailey in the soul. The heart of the matter is much more exciting. Truth is, my stories only live in the minds of readers. A book on the shelf is nothing more than a slab of pulped wood with a title on its spine; or in this digital age, a sequence of binary on some server or hard drive. Only when a reader opens the cover and begins imagining the events and scenes encoded on its pages do my stories live… and the story is everything! That involvement of audience as creative participant is one of the central strengths of writing, it’s why literature will always have its devotees even in this booming, gaudy SFX world.

So, if the story is everything, is it not incumbent upon me to do everything I can to make the story live? And isn’t the best way to expand the scope and diversity of the story to encourage people to read it? And if I claim to be a writer, isn’t it my job to expand the creative cycle to include promotion and sales of my work?

First Nations’ reverence for nature

I have been researching the culture of Coast Salish people’s for the writing a short story called The Cape, which will be part of my work-in-progress, The Mural Gazer. Central to this story-within-a-story will be an account of the art of weaving a cedar robe, as described by a boy of European ancestry.

In Northwest Coastal culture the cedar was called the ‘tree of life’ because it was used for so many things, from long-houses, to canoes, to bentwood boxes, to clothing.

What strikes me, though, is the reverence of First Nations peoples not only for the cedar, but for all of nature, and the interconnectedness of their world-view in both the physical and spiritual planes. I have included the video above – The Story of Cedar: Cedar hat weaving & Bark Pulling – because it describes so well this holistic mind-set of Coast Salish peoples.

It’s an enlightening half-hour, which many of my non-aboriginal friends and colleagues will not have the patience to watch from beginning to end.

As I was still thinking about its significance, I suddenly found myself confronted by the disturbing and utterly contrasting idea of trophy-hunting. In the one case, nature is thanked for the sustenance it provides, and every care is taken to ensure the tree is not destroyed in the harvesting of its bark; in the other, men intrude upon nature and kill magnificent creatures, only to take their heads to mount on their walls as ‘trophies.’

The First Nation hunter-gatherer thanks ‘Mother Nature’ for sharing some of her bounty, and celebrates the spirit of the forest; the trophy hunter from the so-called developed world kills for sport in a wasteful, bloody display of hubris.

Off the Wall – Chemainus Mural Stories

The Steam Donkey At Work, which is located at the corner of Willow and Legion streets, was painted by Frank Lewis, assisted by Nancy Lagana in 1982.


Off the Wall – Chemainus Mural Stories will bring readers and listeners into the scenes depicted in 44 works of outdoor art, created by renowned painters commissioned by the Festival of Murals Society over a 35 year period.

Following the adventures of a teenage boy and his curmudgeonly grandfather, who both have the ability to enter the murals and witness scenes and events through the eyes of our forebears, the stories will be an entertaining blend of adventure and education.

The murals are a major attraction to this community of about 4,000 on the east coast of Vancouver Island. The stories will bring the scenes to life, transporting audiences right into the action, exploring First Nations, pioneer, forestry and mining histories of the region.

Off the Wall will add literary and dramatic dimensions for Chemainus area residents and visitors alike. If you would like to receive updates about Off the Wall as the tales develop, please subscribe to the CSW email list (be sure to check the box that indicates you are interested in the mural tales).

Talking on air – Online readings


The world where our stories live is increasingly made up of streaming bits, bytes and pixels; this writer feels he has to get a handle on digital ‘dissemination’ if he wants his stories to reach an audience (the notion of ‘readers’ is no longer a broad enough). Podcast readings will be an essential part of future authors’ storytelling mix, I believe.

Even if you find the prospect of taking to the digital airwaves daunting, take a deep breath, and read on. Most won’t have the equipment or skill-set to launch into it right away, but for any of you who want to, or have a moderately tech savvy partner to help, the technology is inexpensive and the techniques easily learned.

There are four things you need to consider if you’re thinking of getting into digital readings:

A good digital recorder – On the recommendation of a film-maker friend I ordered a Zoom H1 ‘Handy Recorder’ online. It cost less then $200, including some accessories. Bundled with mine was a program for editing and adjusting audio files. The Zoom H1 records in stereo and produces crisp, rich-sounding audio files. It’s absolutely essential to get a good digital recording device and mic. Your mobile’s or camera’s built in unit won’t be good enough.

An audio editing program – I use Adobe Soundbooth, but there are other programs out there. You need a program that will allow you to see the wave forms so you can: zoom-in to eliminate extraneous sounds; cut flubbed takes and paste together the rest of the narrative; make audio adjustments. I’m a newbie when it comes to editing audio, and don’t know what half the buttons and dials in Soundbooth are meant to do, but after less than an hour’s fiddling, I was able to learn the functions I need to produce reasonably good audio… as for the of the whistles and bells, I’ll learn as I go.

A place to post and link audio files – I have discovered WordPress has a very well designed module that allows you to upload audio files and display them for visitors to your site. The main features of this user-friendly platform are: it allows you to display the audio files on your page like you would indexed chapters and episodes in a book; and the files in each chapter will auto link and open to the next episode, without the listener having to do anything. Go to the audio edition of my online novel The Boy From Under to see what I mean.

A dramatic voice – Everything hinges on your having a good story and being able to deliver it in an engaging voice. Again, many of us have to stretch and learn here. What I’m learning is that dramatic delivery not only increases your hold on the listener, it also gives you as author new insights into the characters that people your stories. I’m finding myself editing as I read, and getting into the story in a new dimension. It’s a great new take on my work.

That, in brief, is all there is to online readings of your work. For anyone interested in learning more, or participating in an online reading workshop, contact me. I’d be happy to set something up, and am sure it would be a fun learning experience.


Reconciliation begins in our hearts

Like many Canadians I don’t know what to do about reconciliation. But as a writer I know ‘doing nothing’ constitutes a dereliction of duty.

As I said to a First Nations acquaintance over coffee last week, there are many people of European descent who are as troubled and perplexed as me when it comes to reconciliation: people who acknowledge the devastating assimilation that was perpetrated against aboriginal peoples in North America; and the unchecked occupation and pillaging of indigenous territories and cultures that had been established over thousands of years.

Acknowledging those atrocities is an important first step, but it doesn’t bring us much closer to an understanding of what is expected of us, and what we as individuals can do to help set things right. So I decided to go see Carey Newman’s Witness Blanket, on exhibit at Vancouver Island University’s View Gallery in Nanaimo until Nov. 30, thinking I might discover something in the 40′ display of residential school artifacts that would give me insights.

I wasn’t expecting any sort of revelation, rather, I wanted to quietly examine my thoughts and feelings in response to this work – I wanted to discover in the human scale of Witness Blanket, if what I already knew might coalesce into possibilities for meaningful action on my part. While I can’t say I’ve found a personal road-map, I have come away from the exhibit with a collection of ideas that might help me find a way.

As I studied the fragments of residential school history compiled in the Witness Blanket, I thought “I did not do this.” And asked, “Why should I apologize?”

It’s natural to look for a way out when we are confronted with something that looks like ‘blame.’ Then it occurred to me that apologizing is about more than accepting blame, it’s also about taking responsibility for the effects of grave social injustices that are still impacting the lives of tens of thousands of Canadians today.

As a nation, we do inherit the blame for our ancestors’ actions, and if we do not apologize in that sense, who will apologize and begin the work of healing. As importantly, by apologizing, we accept as individuals our responsibility to make right as best we can the wrongs that still weigh heavily on so many people in this land. Both facets of apology must be made and continue to be sincerely offered for as long as it takes to establish trust and achieve reconciliation.

Apology must be more than words, too; a sincere apology emerges out of genuine soul-searching and personal reform. To apologize in that sense means becoming aware of our own prejudices, and correcting them over time. It means respecting the people and cultures of First Nations – of any social or cultural group for that matter – and making room for them not only on the land, but in our hearts.

Guilt will not help us achieve reconciliation, but if we don’t devote ourselves as individuals and as a nation to the task, we will continue to be gnawed by guilt. When you become aware of an injustice, and take action to fix it, you do not need to feel guilty; but guilt becomes unavoidable if you do nothing. The most obvious sign of guilt is prejudice. When we cannot justify ourselves based on integrity and action, we rely on devaluing those we wrong and blaming them for their circumstances. A vicious cycle of scapegoating our victims distorts our perspective and shrivels our own humanity.

I came away from The Witness Blanket with an awakened sense of purpose. As a writer what I contribute to my world is words, strung into sentences, conveying meaning and encouraging action. Words, of course, are just squiggles on a page, ideas that have to be created anew in the minds and souls of the people who read them. I offer these words in that spirit, and will be looking for opportunities to talk, think and write more about reconciliation in the future.