Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Power of Story

Last night I was at home flipping through the TV channels. The two Law & Order shows that were on opposing channels were repeats. In between was PBS. As I have been prone to do I started to watch Bill Moyers Journal. The person being interviewed was Maxine Hong Kingston. Up until that point I had never heard of Kingston. I almost didn't "tune-in" when Moyers and Kingston started reading verse. There is something about people reading from books on TV that inexplicably I don't like.

However, I came back to the interview and began being caught up in what was said. Kingston is a writer. She has been using the power of story for nearly 15 years by leading writing-and-meditation workshops for (American) veterans and their families. Although not a veteran myself, I have as a reader of history a certain affinity for veterans. Personally I know so few, especially of the "greatest generation" -- those who fought in the Second World War -- that I could say I know none. Their faces are largely unknown. But, through story their sacrifice is familiar. The generations change, but the cost is usually the same. The dead experience peace. The living bear the wounds forever of what they experienced, and of what they did. And it has been through Kingston's workshops that some American veterans from the Vietnam era and including the present are finding a balm that is repairing their psyche.

I borrow an excerpt from Moyers' blog that gives reference to one veteran's writing that shows just how dramatic an exercise this can be:

Poem for Tet
by Ted Sexauer, medic, 173rd Airborne

Lang Cô village, Viet Nam
Lunar New Year, 31/1/1995

This is the poem
that will save my life
this the line that will cure me
this word, this, the word word the one

this breath the one I am.

(more from "Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace")

In probably one of the most personally gripping parts of the interview Moyers asked his guest this next question:

BILL MOYERS: What is it about the power of story to change the human psyche? Why do stories do that?

MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: I am trying to come up with a good answer. You know, I keep saying it's magic. Let's see whether I can say it in so many words. Story has a form that brings a certain order, you know, the shape of a finely made story has the same energy as sexual energy, or life energy. It's like the tide, you know, the tide that Sandy Scull wrote about. Of the ebbing and flowing of tide, and of storms. I think this goes through our bodies, it goes through our psyches. And the shape of story takes that same cyclical form. And we are in story, we are able to communicate with another being, another mind. And--

BILL MOYERS: Sometimes within ourselves, right?

MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: Yes, you communicate with yourself, yes.

BILL MOYERS: Well, some of these people-- you-- you-- when I read them, I think they're writing the story for themselves, although they wanted us to see. But it's primarily they're communicating some dead self, that is resurrected by this, what you say the force of sexual energy or psychic energy or the energy of the imagination?

MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: I know that they are writing for themselves but I always held it up as a standard of an ideal that the writer's job is to communicate. And, I tell them, "No diary writing", "No, private writing." These are public acts of communication. And you must tell the story so that you can give it to another person. That you can-- you-- and when you read it aloud, there's mouth to ear transmission. And, we are communicating. And, this way-- we make connections with others and, we also build the community around us. These soldiers come out of war alienated from everyone. They're alienated from their families, from our country, from themselves. And, this communication helps then build a community and a family around them.

(excerpted from the May 25, 2007 transcript. The emphasis shown here are mine - dd.)

As noted there are four concepts that stand out here. The first three:

  • story has energy
  • story has ability to heal
  • story needs to be told
Since from about Grade Two I have been a reader. It is my boast that by two grades later I was quite a proficient one. I could clean off several Hardy Boys stories by Franklin W. Dixon in a month. My taste for history began about then, and hasn't decreased an iota. I have tried writing, and admit that as communicator of non-fiction I am good (so I am told). The creative pen is a hard pen for me to hold and use.

But story is fascinating. I agree that it can transcend and heal. The Bible is one book that does just that. It can be read as story. Indeed it can be explored for the drama it holds as examined by Craig G. Bartholmew and Michael W. Goheen in The Drama of Scripture
: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story. However, as a Christian it has more to it than just being a good read. Its a teaching tool. It's inspired writing. Inspire meaning "breathed in." The concept is that God breathed into Adam, and gave him life. That life still exists within the pages of the Bible today by the power of the Holy Spirit. Although, to me its a fascinating story, its not the main point I am trying to make here. It is only one example. I examine my bookshelf I see Carol Off's The Ghosts of Medak Pocket. Children coming through schools today are being taught about Canada's role in Afghanistan. Five or ten years ago few Canadians knew that their army had been engaged in a firefight in Croatia. As a nation we were stilled mired, still angry and embarrassed in what had occurred in Somalia to take any pride in our Armed Forces. Yet, this incident and the forces of history and politics that lead to that firefight needed to be told. Although I have a copy of Shake Hands with the Devil by Romeo Dallaire, I haven't read it (frankly I am a bit afraid of what i might read and what images will be left with me). Now that was a story that needed to be told and serve as a call to action against modern genocide.

I think, and this fourth concept is what I went to bed with last night, that for myself this forum I have created should be used to tell my autobiography. In fact, the title of this blog began as the introductory sentence to a testimony I gave when I joined Covenant Christian Reformed Church in Calgary. I am a prairie boy. I grew up primarily in the streets of Saskatoon. Before that I was a son of a farmer and a widower. Before that I was held by a woman who knew England and tasted the salt of the Atlantic as she came to Canada for the first time. I am a survivor. I am an optimist. I am a story. There will never be another one like me to pass through this period again.

Going back to Moyers interview with Maxine Hong Kingston:

MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: ... And we are in story, we are able to communicate with another being, another mind. And--

BILL MOYERS: Sometimes within ourselves, right?

MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: Yes, you communicate with yourself, yes.

I have experienced trauma over the course of my life. Those who know me can be my witnesses. I am doing fine now, and I have no need to revisit what has occurred. I have also experienced some happy moments. I am sure if i were to compare the two they would balance out. If the current situation of being divorced and unable to have children continues what will be left of my story?

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

An Acre

While the world is largely metric, except for the U.S., it came to my attention today just how an acre (.4 ha) of land was originally measured. Aecre is an Old English word, in whose time it denoted how much land a yoke (i.e., two oxen) could plow in one day. It equalled 4,840 square yards or relatively the same distance from the goal line to the visitor's 10 yard line on an American football field (don't ask what that is in CFL terms!).

Seeing that I used to work on a farm cultivating land it may come as a surprise that I had difficulty visualizing what an acre looked like. I, more or less, relied on the distance shown on an instrument in the tractor cab. Although that became somewhat improved when one day another farmhand and I had to measure out a quarter-section (160 ac) into strips. Strip farming (see picture)
is done in Southern Alberta to combat wind erosion that can occur due to the high Chinook winds that frequent this region. If fields are cultivated using regular fallow techniques all your good topsoil just ends up in Saskatchewan. So strip farming breaks up the topography of a field, alternating between crop and fallow. The crop creates a windbreak. Anyway, to measure out each strip required using a rod triangle, which is essentially a triangle frame constructed of two wood arms along the sides to the apex, and joined at the base with a 8.25 foot metal rod. I tried to find a picture on the web, but with no joy. You'll just have to imagine it. To measure the breadth of an acre meant pivoting this frame (end-to-end) across the strip you are measuring eight times (twice gives you a measure of a rod; 4 rods gives you the width of an acre). You could do well with a measuring tape, and I am sure many do so. But, there is something about tapping into old farming techniques that gives me some satisfaction.

Something else that gives me satisfaction is reading the Oxford Canadian Dictionary. This is where all this info about an acre got its start this afternoon.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Went on a Hike

On Saturday May 19 I joined a group from the University of Calgary Outdoor Centre for a hike in Kananaskis Country west of Eden Valley I.R. This was a paid hike, which not something I have done before. But, I can say the experience was worth it. I wanted to get access to an area i had never been (check); I wanted to meet new people (check); I wanted to determine if I was up to hiking at the advertised level -- moderate -- (check). I met all of those objectives and had a really fun time. We saw a lot of Prairie Crocus (my chiropractor jokingly said today that they were "mountain crocuses." Funny. On trail we also saw deer, elk and maybe some black bear scat. On the latter we weren't certain because it was kind of elongated and full of berries. Do wolves eat berries, we asked. I did take a picture, but my better judgment prevents me from posting it.

The views were tremendous. Here is a photo taken by Mai B.
She was also gracious to take a picture of me. I got caught with with my eyes closed. This is not the way you should hike in the foothills of Alberta. Here are some other shots I took before my camera crapped out.

I have excluded the name of the hike because it is largely unknown but to a few. Frankly, i would like to see it kept that way.

Monday, May 14, 2007

I Gotta Bro

I gotta a bro, and we're tight. He lives a long way from me, back in Saskatoon, but we're in touch quite regularly. It might not be that a whole lot of words are exchanged. Indeed, lately its been a lot of Youtube links for bands like Queen and Aerosmith. That's cool. I don't alway have time to watch all the vids he throws my way, but I am grateful he sends them anyway. At least he is thinking about me. Besides we're guys. According to the latest gender literature that I have read the difference between the speaking behaviour of guys and dolls is that guys don't need to be face to face to communicate. A grunt will do. (smile)

Gabba has done a lot for me. He was the first kid I sat behind when I came to King George School in 1969. How many of you can say you have a bud who has stuck by you for that long? He stood up for me right then and there. Some kid made an uncouth remark about me. Gabba didn't debate whether he liked me or not. Heck, I probably didn't even say anything but hi to him, and he accepted me and took up my defense. He didn't ask me for anything after that either. And there probably have been many times that he did the same thing over without telling me through grade school, and through high school.

We stood up for each other at our respective weddings, both in the same year. Mine's over now, his...

In the vein of that Ray Charles song, I Gotta a Woman -- I gotta friend and he's good to me.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Happy Mother's Day

I have just returned from a Mother's Day dinner at a friend's home. It was a good time, except for the swearing, and that's a whole other story.

I grew up largely not knowing my parents. I lost my mother and a sister when I was about two years old. My dad died when I was twelve. It was my step-grandmother who raised me from age nine until adulthood. In the years since I have seen the pictures of my mother holding me. But any memory that I ever may have of her is long gone.

The relationship I had with my grandmother was not a touchy-feely kind of relationship. There were no hugs. So while what I feel for my grandmother now is love, there has been little motherly love coming my way in a very long time.

Which leads to my friend, Leona. Here is the exception. Since coming to know Leona, who is now in her eighties, I have become her "adopted" son. Sonship is special, not to be taken for granted. A mother will have unconditional love for you, whereas you father may have expectations. A mother's hope for you is never ending, even when you have done wrong, while a society may very well write you off and throw away the key. Leona has done much to welcome me into her family, and made sure that there is a gift waiting for me under the tree at Christmas. I cannot tell you how much that means to me. Why Leona even bought me my first Bible that I still have.

So today I was with her family again. But I couldn't help to think of what it would have been like to have spent time with my own mother on Mother's Day. Well I don't know if that will ever happen in the spirit in heaven. Some Christians believe that we will recognize family in our heavenly home. If. If I could talk with her; smell her -- they say mothers recognize the smell of their babies years after they are born. Does it work the other way around too? Of course, if she was alive, that would have changed a lot about my life. Would I even be here in Calgary had that occurred?

As for the swearing -- you know some people adopt a way of speaking that makes them ignorant to the sensitivities of others. Sometimes when you are the sole person in the room who doesn't talk that way it can be a bit intimidating to speak up to that sensitivity. Leona picked me to be her son, I just didn't get the right to pick my brothers and sisters.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

I Post Once a Year

Well, it would appear I am a reluctant blogger. If you were to judge by the frequency of my posts. Unremarkable. I don't know if its lack of discipline or I have nothing interesting to say. I have tried to keep a written journal at home. I get off on a good start, but I usually lose interest or I miss an entry or two. Then it snowballs into I can't be bothered.

I am also doubtful that there is much interest by anyone in what I am writing. I have only had one person comment on any of my postings in the nearly two-years i have had this blog going.

Maybe there is a some need for a change...