Wednesday, October 19, 2016

his name is "Jeff"

This morning I put the finishing protective coat on my first painting in at least 16 years. I am not a painter or a visual artist. I have trouble getting images in my mind down accurately on paper or canvas using any medium but words. Yet every once in a while the fancy strikes me - put colour on canvas. Add pigment and light where there is none. And so I try. Sometimes the results frustrate me, and sometimes - as today - they satisfy.

I started this painting a couple months ago and completed it in fits and starts. Being creative is a significant contribution to my recovery from the depression and anxiety that over-whelmed me last spring, but sometimes I forget that. TV doesn't heal; writing, knitting, singing, dancing, loving, painting, exploring ... these are the things that nourish me. I do well when I remember that.

But enough about me; this is about Jeff. This morning I completed a painting. This afternoon I will adventure to a smaller island in the Salish Sea to celebrate the life, love and artistry of my friend Jeff Molloy. Jeff is truly an artist. A creative mind that could look at life and see whimsy and folly and history and culture and wrap it all in a mackinaw or a Hudson's Bay blanket so you saw it too.

Jeff was also a husband - his wife of more than 30 years was my first boss in Victoria and is the kind of passionate, engaged, powerful woman I love to surround myself with and learn from. Working with Kathryn I learned to change the world. Watching Kathryn and Jeff love each other I learned to love and laugh and commit to creating lives worth sharing when you find someone willing to do the same with you.

And Jeff was a dad. He and Kathryn's three children were adolescents and teens when I met them, and the adoration in that family was clearly a five-way street. Those 'kids' are now adults with their own babies, and so Jeff had become Poppa well before he said good-bye this summer.

Yes, Jeff died of cancer. Another good man gone with generations left to mourn him. But that is not what we gather this afternoon to remember. That is not why Jeff is worth celebrating.

Jeff lived a life. He loved well. He expressed what he saw of the world. He celebrated music and encouraged the musicianship of his children. If a rising tide truly floats all boats, Jeff was a tide for the people around him.

As I finished my painting this morning, I thought of Jeff. I thought of his unwillingness to live the expected life (a creative life is always an inspiring act of courage and rebellion), of how he embodied the WestCoast life. I thought of the mischievous twinkle that he always had about him. And I thought, presumptuously no doubt, that Jeff wouldn't mind if I name my playful orca after him. I'm only sorry it's not wearing a mackinaw.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Architect's Apprentice: a book club review

Oh, what a tome. Set in early Renaissance Istanbul, The Architect's Apprentice by Elif Safak reflects the dichotomy I imagine sits at the heart of that ancient and robust city's position at the edge of both Europe and Asia. The story has the deep, dense exoticism of South-­Asian writers such as Arundhati Roy and Vikram Seth and the European refinement of a minuet. Oh sure, I sound like I've never attended a post­-Colonial lit class in creating that dichotomy, but ... it's my blog and I'll be essentialist if I want to. Onward. 

The titular apprentice is Jahan, an anti­hero and unreliable narrator of great intelligence and some heart. Although a roguish and unreliable anti­hero has become a trope, it is one with some charms. Regardless of the accuracy of Jahan's story, the presentation of it is engaging. In many ways Jahan is made more sympathetic through his attachment, as mahout, to a darling baby elephant who is sent as a gift from the Sultan of Hindustan to the Sultan of Istanbul. The elephant and the boy grow alongside each other, and during times when we might otherwise think poorly of Jahan, his love of the elephant redeems him. 

I will admit that perhaps this story plays to a particular audience like me ­- one fascinated by architecture, history, folk lore, cultural developments, personal and corporate identity, and the ways in which societies create and enforce similarities and differences. Istanbul of the 1500s and 1600s is a mosaic as rich as those Jahan and his colleagues create in the endless mosques they built. Christians, Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims, and Jews live alongside each other in relative peace (as long as each remembers their place). Only the Roma truly seem to be outside this culture, and yet they play an important role in Jahan's journey. Then as now Istanbul is a global cross­roads with merchants and visitors coming from Asia and Europe, bringing with them the knowledge and technological developments of those lands, and that's fully represented in the people with whom Jahan interacts.

If there's something I'd complain about in The Architect's Apprentice it's that I expected more description of the beauty of the buildings and the developments of the city itself through the work of Jahan et al. While much time is spent describing the working relationships and intrigue of such, I wanted to know how coloured glass, bright tiles, and sweeping domes were envisioned, created, and placed. That said, it's already a lengthy book, and the plot often drags, so I'm not sure what would have to be cut to make room for these descriptions. 

Once again my lack of focus on plot saved the book for me. If you like full-­immersion reading; if you have an interest in history, culture and architecture; and if you don't mind a story that covers many decades in many more pages, I recommend The Architect's Apprentice

Oh our darling Little E is SO bold. Not only did she host book club and create an amazing Turkish dinner with a three-­year old and a six-­month old afoot, she did it on the night before they left for their first European family vacation. I dearly hope that as I write this she is recovering on a beach in the Algarve. 

Our Book Club seems to have gotten over the mini-­exodus of the spring (our first after 3 years of being together), been refreshed with some great new members, and to be moving strongly forward into fall. We're a busy bunch -­ besides Little E heading to Europe, we had 2 pregnant women at this meeting, and one member who was concerned about leaving in time to finish sewing her wedding dress (she's getting married in 2 weeks ... just as soon as she's done hiking the west coast trail. It's enough to make one feel like they need a big project just to keep up! 

But oh, that Turkish dinner. It started with humus (of course), and grape leaf wrapped things, and eggplant wrapped things, and vino verdi. And then the incredibly delicious onion bhajis (chick­pea flour fritters with the perfect amount of turmeric), and a tomato­-rich chick­-pea stew. The characters in the novel are always drinking sherbets of various flavours (pomegranate sounds delicious; musk not so much). It sounds much more like a refreshing drink than our frozen treat, but frozen treat we did with an almost shockingly flavourful raspberry sorbetto. Man I love a theme dinner - especially one so brilliantly executed! 

Last month I said I was ambivalent about Our Book Club. With the rash of departures and the decided swing towards being a baby club I've not really felt it was the right club for me any more, and yet after three years I have so much history with these women ­- without whom I would never have "dared greatly." I didn't want to leave, but I didn't feel I belong any more. Trust Little E to be the one to change all of that. I really REALLY wish we actually spent more time discussing the books we read - we're sadly lacking in that department, but ... I can find that somewhere else. This is my lady tribe, though this was the first time since I returned from my foray to Jamaica that I've really felt it. 

Thursday, August 25, 2016

A Hologram for the King: a belated book club review

In my previous exposure to Dave Eggers (namely A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) I laughed and loved and sighed from the publication information through all 900 or so pages of the tome. I was therefore pretty excited when someone selected Eggers' novel A Hologram for the King for book club. And while the novel is vastly different from Eggers' much longer memoir (why does a youngish man have such a lengthy memoir?), I still found it intensely satisfying, engaging, whimsical, and thought-provoking. 

Hologram will not be to every reader's liking, but what book is? I relish strong characters, deftly-drawn scenery and clever word play, and Eggers delivers these three things big time. What he lacks (although I hardly missed it) is a strong plot. The plot is mainly about waiting, but that slow-moving train gives so much room for the main character, Alan Clay, to do a slow resolve into mid-life obscurity that any more active plot would be mis-matched. 

Alan Clay, one time high-flying Schwinn sales man to the world, is the prototypical anti-hero. He fears disappointing his young adult daughter with the reality of his fallibility (what parent amongst us doesn't live with that fear!), he lives with the daily impact of poor choices optimistically made (welcome to my life), and he clings desperately to some thought that things can still turn out all right, if only. If only. 

I might be making this all sound depressing, but I found charm and comfort in Alan's predicaments. His obsession with the lump on his neck (serious illness would solve a lot of problems), his awkwardness with the opposite sex (if you're 50ish and dating, no doubt you feel Alan's pain), his aimless days passed with just a thin covering of purpose. I spent much of the book smiling ruefully and thinking, thank the bright heat of the sun I'm not the only one. 

If you're all about fast-moving plots, this is not the read for you. But if you want to spend a few hours with someone who needs a little saving, and to have his story sweetly shared, Alan Clay's your man.

So, this was actually the book club selection from February 2015, when I was volunteering in Jamaica. I had planned to continue to participate in book club remotely, but it just didn't work. Novels are next to impossible to find in Jamaica, and for some reason it never worked for me to Skype in to meetings, so I just gave up after the first couple months.

Still, since I've been gathering the missing books I thought I'd try to do some catching up while I have some extra time. I do remember people saying they thought it was dreadfully slow, but ... I wasn't here so I can't report out on any more than that. 

damn, I did it AGAIN!

I know I've said this before, but one of the best books I've ever read was The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. I read it almost 20 years ago and still find something new in each re-reading. 

The agreements themselves are simple, but they are not easy:
  1. Be impeccable with your word
  2. Don't take things personally
  3. Don't make assumptions
  4. Always do your best
I had the agreements posted over my desk for years. The print-out moved with me from office to office and still lives in my at-home desk - too worn to hang anymore, but still worth seeing regularly. 

I cannot claim to live by any of these - certainly not to the degree I would like - but they are touchstones, and they are something I continue working towards. The one I struggle with the most consistently and feel the least progress with is the second agreement: Don't take things personally.

Today, I got sucked into defending myself against someone who dislikes me. You'd think that'd be a great exception to the "don't take things personally" rule, right? A direct jab from someone who has said (and shown) repeatedly that he doesn't like me seems like the epitome of personal. Only, the truth is that THAT'S NOT ABOUT ME. It's not personal. It's all about him.

His opinion of me is not my business. I wanted to be defended by other people, and knowing (assuming - see #3) there was no help coming I jumped in there and defended myself. I shrank to his size. And I've been stewing about it ever since. It sucks to be disliked (though he's certainly not the only one, and I'm okay with that). It hurts more not to be defended by those who do like me. But the only thing I can control is my response, and it's embarrassing to get sucked in. 

I'm a work in progress, and I'm learning to be more patient with that, but it's disheartening to have a day like today when my own ego proves to be as fragile as ever. I want to be the bigger person. I want to receive insults and jabs and feel compassion for the source of them. But, I'm just not there yet. Maybe I won't rehang the scarred and worn out mini-poster from 2001. Maybe I'll just save this  image as my screensaver so I see it before I go on social media. 

Sunday, August 14, 2016

the high mountains of portugal: a book club review

I love Yann Martel - at least, I think I do. Life of Pi was one of the most moving, thought-provoking fables I've read; his short-story collection The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccomatios changed my mind about the validity and power of short-stories; and Beatrice and Virgil was intriguing and rewarding, especially as a 'writer who reads.' So I was thrilled when Martel's latest novel, The High Mountains of Portugal was selected for a summer book club selection. Unfortunately, the thrill didn't last.

Far be it from me to doubt the power of Yann Martel's writing, but I was relieved when, at long last, I got to the end of this novel. I didn't hate reading it, but it felt like an endurance test. I'm more of a sprinter. The story is presented in three parts, over three separate yet linked stories, and with recurring themes. As always Martel uses humanity's distance from and relationship to animals to highlight the human condition.  And again there were magical elements woven into the otherwise realist story. But, it just never sang. There were spots of beauty, but they didn't occur with the kind of consistency that I need to stay engaged with a story.

My disappointment in this book isn't enough to keep me from recommending it, or from reading whatever Martel produces next. It is enough, however, to dull the glow of my ardour.

I have been so lax about reviews the last while - even book club reviews. I've thought about maybe doing video reviews instead, but I hate being on camera. So, anyway. I don't know if there will be more. I'm fairly ambivalent about blogging, and the reviews, and book club in general. That said, this month we had a phenomenal mini-retreat day trip to Lake Cowichan. Although the total drive time was longer than the visit time, the lake and the food were lovely. There's just something about being offline, out of town, sitting in the breeze off a lake.

Beautiful Lake Cowichan, from the dock

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