Rhoda’s Ocean: A story about love, creativity, and the stories that remain, even as memories begin to fade…. read it. you’ll be glad you did.
Rhoda’s Ocean: A story about love, creativity, and the stories that remain, even as memories begin to fade…. read it. you’ll be glad you did.
Take a peek over here: troutriverloghouse.com.
Paul Cutting has dedicated his life to documenting and restoring old Norwegian houses in Iowa. Most are a century old. All are falling apart, forgotten spaces, imagined by many as blemishes on the landscape. But in his photos, Cutting honours their histories, their heritages. He celebrates the buildings and the stories they have to tell. In his hands, they’re not just decaying structures; rather, they are places filled with memories….
Early in his book, Place: A Short Introduction, Tim Cresswell writes:
“…place is not just a thing in the world but a way of understanding the world….But place is also a way of seeing, knowing and understanding the world. When we look at the world as a world of places we see different things. We see attachments and connections between people and place. We see worlds of meaning and experience…. To think of an area of the world as a rich and complicated interplay of people and the environment – as a place – is to free us from thinking of it as facts and figures…..At other times, however seeing the world through the lens of place leads to reactionary and exclusionary xenophobia, racism and bigotry. ‘Our place’ is threatened and others have to be excluded. Here ‘place’ is not so much a quality of things in the world but an aspect of the way we choose to think about it – what we decide to emphasize and what we decide to designate as unimportant.” (11)
I’ve started thinking a lot more about space and place recently. I think it’s related to my thinking through questions of nation and nationalism and imagined community, and all that messy stuff about inclusion and exclusion.
I’ve already been thinking of embodied identity and corporeal virtue in relation to my current SSHRC project, but as I further develop my ideas, I find myself moving into new terrain, terrain that won’t make it into my current book project, but that needs to be explored in a new field.
That’s both exciting and overwhelming.
But where I’ve come to has me thinking about what Sandra Whitworth, when she was here earlier in the fall, referred to as “narratives of national identity”; that is, the stories that nation-states tell about themselves and what those stories mean for those who make their homes within the boundaries of the nation-state.
Canada’s official borders, marked by territories and by degrees of latitude, define a space of gargantuan proportions. But the place that is Canada is much smaller. Shaped by histories of colonialism and later, by mass migration (both voluntary and forced), it is a place that resists easy identity making. There is nothing simple about the stories that make up Canada as place. Perhaps this is true of all national places, but it seems particularly pertinent in the case of a settler society.
What is it that transforms this massive space into a place to call home? And in the telling of our stories, our histories, our struggles, our joys, which stories do we tell, and why?
In elementary school, place-making came in the form of the “multicultural mosaic.” We defined ourselves by our interest in hyphenated others, by the foods and traditions that came together in Hawrelak Park on sunny August holidays, and in opposition to the American “melting pot.” There is much to critique about the implementation of multiculturalism in a Canadian context, but it is also true that a multicultural framework has allowed for the articulation of some stories that would otherwise never have been told. But increasingly, Canada-as-place is shaped more by its exclusions – by those who have not been granted the right to belong – than by its inclusions. The imagined community is growing narrower and narrower by the day.
Whose stories become part of a national identity? Which ones are left out? By what mechanisms are such stories suppressed? And what might this mean for those whose stories are ignored, silenced, forgotten?
Anyone who knows me knows that I am an infrequent, thoroughly unskilled, but generally enthusiastic sewer. That is to say, I take out the machine twice a year and stitch up something that requires nothing more than straight lines (and even that is too much, sometimes) over a few afternoons. My “repertoire,” if you will, runs to gift bags and pillows.
That said, I’ve also managed to make a bedspread, and last summer, gathered together a bunch of colourful fabric in reds, pinks, oranges and greens to make a wall hanging. And so, emboldened by my summer success I drafted a Christmas project for my sister and brother-in-law.
As you can see from the sketch, I didn’t venture far out of my comfort zone. In what I call my cubist period, I’m focusing on rectangles and straight lines, relatively restrained variations on what I have seen in various places online as a ‘lego’ quilt. [disclaimer: in the event that my sister reads this before she gets her Christmas present and has a heart attack when she sees this, I’ll note in advance that I haven’t chosen nearly as bright colours]
So what is it?
I wanted to do something that really reflected my sister and brother-in-law (S and BL for short). And to do that, I needed to engage the idea of nature. S and BL find their passion in the natural world, their bliss in the shape, feel, touch, and sound of the land. Nature is their source of joy. A source of comfort. A source of generation. The mountains, the forests, the waters… the Land… this is what they call home, and this is where they seek inspiration, knowledge, and the source of life itself.
My project needed, somehow, to reflect this passion. It needed to tell the story of the S and BL that I knew; the story of how they understood themselves in the world and what the world meant for them. And so, I imagined a forest. A deeply wooded space. The sun poking tentative beams between leaves. Wind moving, shifting. A space that is constantly in motion.
I drew my inspiration from the writings and paintings of Emily Carr. In Carr’s visual world, trees are alive with energy and stories. The trees move. They overwhelm a space. They envelope a space. For Carr, trees have personalities and characters all their own. They are close friends with whom she communes, spirits in and through whom she finds her peace.
Though visiting painters assumed that her beloved British Columbia coast was unpaintable, Emily Carr proved that it wasn’t. Listen, watch, wait, and learn… her trees seem to say…and nature will tell you her story. She will tell you how she wishes most to be painted.
I’m no Emily Carr. But I wanted to capture, somehow, the idea of a welcoming forest. Of the rooted energy of trees and of the wonder of the natural world. If you look closely (and use your imagination and squint a bit to make it blurry), you might get a sense of what I was after.
So off I went to Value Village to hunt down fabrics to make this work. And then I sat myself down at my borrowed Singer Genie 354 (it’s got orange daisies on it!) and set to work [as an aside, the Singer Genie is a step up from my previous machine, a Black Singer with a knee pedal]. It started out quite well. As the afternoon progressed, I started to see the pattern take shape.
Things got more challenging closer to the end, when it became abundantly clear that a straight line was beyond my scope of abilities. Suddenly, my forest scene, my towering trees and deep blue sky, was…well… askew. lopsided. crooked. bent.
Something had gone completely awry.
Interestingly, however, things looked much better if I gave up my dream of a vertical tree scene and turned the whole thing 90 degrees.
So much for my careful Emily Carr-infused musings.
What I needed was a shift in perspective. It was, in many ways, still the same story – the story of two people who find their bliss in the landscape – but I needed new details and a new narrative. I needed … quite literally… a change of scenery.
So I screwed up my eyes. And I squinted. And I used my imagination. And I thought of S and BL and their beloved dog, C, getting ready to work their way from Southern Alberta through the many blizzardy mountain passes towards their Christmas destination on Vancouver Island. I thought of snow-covered evergreens and snow-filled clouds. I thought of lonely highways winding through British Columbia before finally reaching the ocean. And I thought of land giving way to water, and of waves rolling onto wild shores. And in that moment, a new narrative was born.
My horizontal tree trunks became glacial striations. Or they told of layers of sedimentary history. Perhaps there were dinosaur bones embedded somewhere within. The rootedness of the tree gave way to the evershifting land. And as I looked through my new narrative gaze, the tree leaves became grasses and flowers, the marshy open spaces of Delta and Tsawassen that are home to so many different birds. And the blues of my sky melted into the ocean depths of the Georgia Strait, flowing around the many little islands between the mainland and Vancouver Island.
This was still my sister’s story. It was still a story of nature, of land, of water, of skies, of grasses … In some ways, it is a better narrative than the one I had originally imagined.
All it took was a change in perspective and a different way of seeing.
I am reminded of Virginia Woolf, who, in her provocative essay, On Being Ill, argued that the experience of illness was one that required a fundamental shift of perspective. Illness, for Woolf, is a horizontal – rather than vertical – way of engaging with the world. And that makes all the difference.
Happy Christmas, S and BL. I know it’s not perfect. But I still hope you like it.
I’m on a roll. Two posts in a single day! It’s clearly the end of term. I’m also avoiding a paper I have to read because I know it will make me think too hard. That said, I think the time I’ve spent thinking through the new translation of the New Testament into what the Montreal Gazette refers to as Jamaican patois was worth my effort.
So, without further ado….
I read in the paper yesterday that the New Testament has been translated into Jamaican patois, the Creole language developed and spoken by slaves.
I was struck by the layers in the story. First of all, there is the unsurprising – but disappointing – resistance to the project, resistance based on the language’s presumed “unsuitability” for Biblical translation. According to both the Gazette article and a Jamaica-based publication called The Gleaner, critics have argued that this translation would “water down” the text. This translation would bring an oral tradition into a highly revered written tradition. It would substitute “street talk” for the poetry of the King James Version. It would bring the language of the poor, the working classes and the illiterate into contact with the language of the Anglican elite.
Class, race, education, colonialism. A tangly mess, to be sure.
There are more than a few ironies here. The only reason the English (and other) versions of the Bible exist is because a range of religious activists felt strongly that “the faithful” should base their faith on a personal relationship with their God, a relationship unmediated by a priest, but rather, developed through personal reflection and consideration of the biblical texts. How, I might ask, is this project different? Did Wycliffe’s and Luther’s critics make similar arguments?
And yet, we take the act of Bible translation for granted today. I don’t read Greek. Do you?
But there’s a second irony. Language exists within the culture in which it is used. Language is alive. It’s constantly shifting and moving. Its meanings shift and change depending on the context in which language is used. Translation, too, is a tricky, chameleon-like art profoundly shaped by the translator’s place, history, sex, class, race, etc.
The King James version first appeared in 1611. It’s widely recognized for its poetic approach; it’s not nearly as well accepted for the accuracy of its translation. That’s not surprising, really. It was created four hundred years ago. The social, cultural, and political context in which it was written, and then published, is long gone. We’re in an entirely different space; our frames of reference shaped by completely different experiences. So why is the King James held up as the “standard” against which which the Jamaican version is being measured?
Finally, while I fully appreciate that religious belief plays a strong role in the formation of identity, and while I can accept the centrality of Christian faith in the lives of many Jamaicans, I can’t help but consider the whole Bible project itself – King James or otherwise – as a colonial project. Let’s not forget that colonial projects often started with Bible translation. How else to control the “savages” of newly colonized lands?
That said, in the context of Bible translation, I don’t at all see this translation as problematic. I’m actually surprised that it took so very long. Audre Lorde stated famously that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” She had a point. And certainly, when she spoke those words, they were a necessary rallying cry. But tools change when they’re used by different hands. This tool, too, a book used to oppress, subjugate and erase; a tool designed – in a Canadian context – to “kill the Indian in the child,” can also, perhaps – when imagined, written, spoken and thought in new words, new grammars, and new languages – lead to new understandings and new ways of believing. Fingers crossed.
Not that this is news to anyone who thrives on stories and storytelling, but researchers are “discovering” that the brain is powerfully affected by the act of reading.
Stories fire up the senses in myriad ways, building connections across different regions of the brain. Moreover, this research confirms what I was told many years ago – the brain does not distinguish between a ‘real’ or an ‘imagined’ event. Those of us who read know that literature takes us on all sorts of adventures, journeys of exploration and discovery in which we learn as much about ourselves as we do about the world around us.
I could get into a rant about how something is only ever accepted as “true” if it’s granted credence by ‘science,’ but perhaps that’s a rant for another day. For the moment, it’s nice to see that science has finally caught up. As Ann Murphy Paul writes:
These findings will affirm the experience of readers who have felt illuminated and instructed by a novel, who have found themselves comparing a plucky young woman to Elizabeth Bennet or a tiresome pedant to Edward Casaubon. Reading great literature, it has long been averred, enlarges and improves us as human beings. Brain science shows this claim is truer than we imagined.