Archive for 2013|Yearly archive page

Studio notes: a painting dream

In Abstract painting, Dreams, Inner Work, Painting, Relationship with Self on May 18, 2013 at 6:04 am
Alfred DePew, acrylic on paper, 2007

Alfred DePew, acrylic on paper, 2007

In the dream, I sit in front of a large painting of two irregular rectangular shapes. The painting was begun by someone else and appears to have been abandoned. The shape on the left is a reddish mauve. The one on the right is a cerulean blue, lighter than the form on the right. And on its inside edge is a swipe of white that has picked up the blue underneath.

I keep looking at the space between the forms and this interesting edge, until I feel nearly ready to resume work on the painting.

When I look again, I see that a student has painted over the rectangular shapes with burnt umber and yellow ochre. The top part of the canvas is full of a loopy script.

I see that she’s working very fast, moving from this painting to two smaller canvases and back again.

I’m shocked and disappointed.

I had wanted to go into the painting and work on it myself, but it was her painting all along.

I want to tell her to slow down, sit back, and look for a while.

I ask her to imagine a story about a woman and a painting or a narrative from the painting’s point of view. I invite her to write several versions and discover what happens in each.

I wonder what it would be like if in one version, all of a sudden she encountered a magic animal that asked her a question.

When I wake up, I wonder why I am so interested in the original painting and so intent upon working on it myself.

And why does it seem so important to me that the student slow down, stop, and just look? Advice I myself have been given by every painting teacher I’ve ever had.

And what am I hoping we will discover by telling stories about the painting?

And if it were my story of the painting and I encountered a magic animal, what would that animal be?

And what would it ask me?

In Flu, Illness, Influenza, Inner Work, Relationship with Self, resilience on May 18, 2013 at 5:54 am
Illustration from the pulp magazine Weird Tales (October 1936). Source: Wikimedia Commons

Illustration from the pulp magazine Weird Tales (October 1936). Source: Wikimedia Commons

Influenza, a musical word, like belladonna. Beguiling and as full of deadly potential.

Flu is the thing we hope to avoid each winter, and whose vaccine we either get or don’t depending upon our opinions.

Shot or no shot, it can infect us—carried by the air we breathe, the objects we touch, the hands we shake.

It is ubiquitous. Like fear. With a mind and life of its own.

And despite my best intentions and massive doses of Vitamin C, it takes me down in January. Stealthily at first. And then with real insistence, it grabs me like a thief and hisses, “Don’t mess with me.”

I’ve heard it can last from three to six weeks—lingering. It can turn into whooping cough or pneumonia. It claims lives.

So I cancel everything that will require my leaving the house for two weeks, including a business trip back East.

And I go back to bed. I surrender to days of fevered delirium, fitful sleep, and waking dreams—nightmares mostly—of my life in various stages of collapse.

The flu as metaphor.

The flu as signifier.

The flu bearing news that I can hear in no other way.

“Be still and know that I am God.”

Is that it?

Have I been wrestled to the ground by an angel?

I leave one of the window blinds open each night so that I can look out from time to time and see lights in other buildings, other people awake at three and four in the morning.

I manage to conduct interviews and post two stories about the Egyptian revolution on its second anniversary.

Disillusionment. Uncertainty. Exhaustion.

I ache all over.

I can find no comfortable position other than standing in a hot shower. When I lie on either side or on my back or sit in a chair, fiery tendrils radiate out of my tailbone and down my legs.

I read online that back pain is not unusual with the flu—something about the virus enflaming the nerves. I can’t sleep. The Tylenol I’ve been taking is two years past the expiry date and does no good.

I call the nurse’s line and find out that’s the wrong thing to take in the first place. What I need is an anti-inflammatory. My nerve endings are in flames.

So this is what it is to go viral.

St. Vitus’ Dance.

Suddenly I think I understand the experience of the chronically ill who have surrounded me all my life. So this is what they went through. A tease. The swing from feeling “better” to “this will never end.” Dying would be a relief. Abandoned by my own body. Cut loose. Afloat.

What does one pray for in moments like these?

Deliverance? Peace?

“I no longer believe in a peaceful revolution,” writes a friend from Cairo.

Off the record.

Speak the unspeakable, something in me keeps saying. Tell the truth.

I post both stories about the Egyptian revolution.

I cancel a radio appearance on the East Coast.

The pain subsides thanks to Advil, and I can sleep again.

I dream of a wall of pinpoints—each one opens into a hopeless story. Each story says: if you don’t do it perfectly, you die. Then one opens into a story set in Lapland that says the key to survival is staying connected.

I am delusional if I think I know anything about chronic illness. I have suffered three maybe four days. I know people who have lived like this for years.

The fever breaks. I am giddy with relief.

I know what I have to do: resign all my various jobs and read poetry. I must claim the life I have left. Claim at least two days a week in the studio—one day painting, one day writing.

I don’t want to feel like my old self again. I want to remember what I’ve learned these past few days in bed—about letting go—of all of it.

About freedom. Authority.

The fever breaks, and I wake up in a T-shirt drenched with sweat, feeling clammy.

It’s as if the room has been stripped bare and I must choose what I will put back in it, one object at a time.

I wake up, curious and bemused. Slowly, cautiously, I enter something I will one day call my new life because the old way of being has already disappeared.

St. Paul’s Anglican Church: prayer and advocacy in Vancouver’s West End

In Christianity, communities, Realtionship, Religion, Urban living, Urban ministry, Vancouver, Working with the poor on May 18, 2013 at 5:34 am
St. Paul's Anglican Church. Photo by Iota 9 Source: Wikimedia Commons.

St. Paul’s Anglican Church. Photo by Iota 9 Source: Wikimedia Commons.

It’s Palm Sunday, and I’m standing in Nelson Park with parishioners from St. Paul’s Anglican Church, waiting to proceed to the church on Jervis Street two blocks away.

There’s a trumpeter, a trombonist, a few drummers and choir members in robes. A few people hand out palm leaves. After the priest, Markus Dünzkofer, tells us how we will proceed, he adds, “If bystanders ask what we’re doing, refer them to Clare, our seminarian.”

Everybody laughs. Clare looks uneasy.

As people begin to sing “All Glory, Laud, and Honour,” I get the image of a Salvation Army band, and offer a silent prayer that I see no one I know along the way.

I am here, after all, as a journalist, not a churchgoer.

Once inside the church, after the Opening Versicle, the Hosannas, hymns, prayers, the Gospel, and Confession and Absolution comes the Peace, during which we all turn and nod to one another, or shake hands briefly and say: “Peace be with you.”

I know the drill.

But what’s this? It goes on and on. People wander up and down the centre aisle, in and out of the pews, embracing one another and greeting more and more people.

I think: Good Lord, we’ll be here until Tuesday! Let’s get on with it.

The truth is I’m uncomfortable. All of this flies in the face of what I’d come to view as the stuffiness of the Anglican Church. Not that I like stuffiness. It’s just that all this kissing and hugging throws me off balance.

The truth is these people seem to know and care about each other in a way I don’t normally associate with church.

My reaction surprises me. Even more surprising is that I return for Good Friday services and again for Easter Vigil.

“The Anglican Church isn’t the church of your grandmother and grandfather,” Markus Dünzkofer tells me in a phone interview many weeks later.

Apparently, it’s also no longer the Church of the Empire, or the last bastion of British immigrants in Canada, an image that many Anglicans have been trying to change for years now. And Dünzkofer, a German who studied theology in Edinburgh and was ordained in Chicago, is emblematic of that change.

Curiosity and openness

“We’re an ever-changing community,” Dünzkofer explains, “a crazy and wonderful community. There’s an openness at St. Paul’s, a real curiosity about people, a willingness to engage with the divine, with each other and the neighborhood.”

The young woman to whom Markus Dünzkofer wanted to refer questions during the procession on Palm Sunday is seminarian Clare Morgan, aged 27, a self-proclaimed “Christian punk Goth.”

“I’m like normal here, not anybody’s mascot,” she says. “I still consider myself part of the Cathedral, but you come in with tattoos and a weird haircut and people love you, but they’re a little titillated to know someone like you. I never noticed until I was at St. Paul’s that no one here made assumptions. People don’t kind of slot you into something like: Oh look! A young person with blue hair!

“We may look as if we’re all WASPS,” says parishioner Leslie Buck, “but you look a bit deeper, and there’s an impressive diversity: Dutch, German, French, Turkish, Iranian, Japanese, Korean, Russian, Spanish.”

Ordination of women and same-sex marriage 

A British-born, life-long Anglican, Buck came to St. Paul’s in 1993 when he and his wife moved here from Ottawa.

“We do things now that would have appalled people 50 years ago,” says Buck citing the ordination of women and same-sex marriage. He also cites shifts in the teaching.

“There was a time when the message was primarily keep your nose clean and don’t worry too much about what you do at work the rest of the week. Nowadays more is made of the social gospel, issues like homelessness and poverty. Which is not to say that one’s individual relationship with God or one’s behavior is not an issue, but the church is also responding to the world.”

Buck gives me a bit of St. Paul’s history. The church was first formed in Yaletown, and parishioners included Canadian Pacific Railway workers and their families.

As people prospered, they moved to the West End to build mansions. In fact, a friend of mine insists it was Benjamin Tingley Rogers (of BC Sugar fame) who started the trend in 1900 by building his massive stone house on the corner of Davie and Nicola. And when Mr. and Mrs. Rogers moved on to Shaughnessy, the socially ambitious followed suit, which in turn marked the beginning of what the West End has become today—primarily apartments and condos for single people, small families, and pensioners.

The present St. Paul’s was built in 1905, at a time when the West End was still home to Vancouver’s prosperous.

“The original ethos and style remained much the same from 1905 until 1985 when last of the old style rectors retired. David Crawley took his place and started to change things. The church started ministering to AIDS patients. The change came from the rector, but gradually everyone became supportive and more gay people came into the church, which changed the make-up of the congregation.”

Change or close

“After World War II and up to the eighties,” says Dünzkofer, “the parish thought of themselves as the bastion of English. David Crawley gave them a choice: change or close.

He flung the doors open, and people came in: prostitutes and drag queens. It’s heartbreaking reading the records in the mid 80s. There were three or four funerals a week during the AIDS pandemic. People came to think of us as the gay church. I would not use that term. We are the West End church. We reflect the particular make-up of the neighborhood. We put energy into the questions of poverty in the neighborhood, and what it means to be a Christian with social conscience, and how to be a traditional Christian community that’s open to welcome people in, without losing identity.”

“I think the easiest answer is worship,” Dünzkofer continues. “It’s the centre of who we are. I still think it opens ways into the mysteriousness of God—that constant rhythm of prayer. It empowers us to do the work we’ve been given to do. We are very much a praying community.“

In 1995, St. Paul’s established its Advocacy Office to provide information and support to anyone in the community who sought help with housing problems, legal problems, immigration issues, welfare applications, and other access to government services. The office used to see around 1,000 clients a year. Now it’s over 3,000.

St. Paul’s also supports Our House, a recovery house for people trying to break free of addiction to drugs and alcohol.

“We have a grant for a full-time homeless outreach worker,” says Dünzkofer. “The neighborhood puts a high demand on the church. Other parishes have more advocacy resources. We need to be creative in finding more resources for that.”

Some in the community know St. Paul’s because it’s where their chorus meets, or their regular 12-step meeting is. Others know it because it’s church hall houses a labyrinth that one can walk as a meditation.

“The labyrinth program was first established by people in the church,” says Leslie Buck, “but it opened itself up to the community in general, so we find people coming there who have very little to do with the church. Some wouldn’t be caught dead in the church.”

When I ask about St. Paul’s future, everyone seems to point to the past. In other words, they feel they can lean into the reconciliatory history of the Anglican Church, and its stand for freedom of thought and expression.

“The saint of the Anglican Church was Elizabeth I,” says Buck. “She established the importance of common prayer over a confession of faith. And that has persisted. We’re more open to individual interpretation, to the spirit rather than the letter of the law.”

Buck is optimistic about St. Paul’s future.

“My optimism lies in the current situation, on the people who are here and the way in which they go about their business. “In general people here are of good will. The Spirit is among us. If we keep our wits about us and don’t get complacent, I have hope for the future, though I have no idea what it will be.”

Seminarian Clare Morgan says, “I still hold out for a church where we try as hard as we can to stay together as a family, with a commitment to talking and sharing stories. A lot of fundamentalists go and split and form another church and keep splitting. A friend of mine likes to say ‘We’re good at being heretics, but we don’t like to be schismatic.’ So we yell at each other, but we’re all still Anglican.”

A deepening identity, advocacy and community

From Dünzkofer’s point of view, St. Paul’s future includes a deepening sense of identity. “I crave tradition that creates mystery,” he says, “that sense of the numinous. We also want to experience liturgy that meets people where they are. Some conversation needs to happen [about this], and we have great resources to deal with that. It is our tradition—the language of the people—and worship is a common experience. Praying together—that’s how we find out what God is telling us to do.”

St. Paul’s has faced many changes in the past 27 years. And now it faces yet another. At the end of Sunday’s service on October 21, one of the Church Wardens stepped forward to announce that Markus Dünzkofer has been called to be the next rector of St John’s Episcopal Church in Edinburgh, and he has accepted. He will be leaving St. Paul’s at the end of December.

Dünzkofer says what impressed him most about St. Paul’s when he arrived eight-and-a-half years ago was “the intentionality of ministry in this community—in worship and music and the labyrinth. They were intentional about building it and intentional about getting the community involved. It’s the same thing with advocacy.”

One senses that this same intentionality along with discerning prayer and dialogue will be what carries St. Paul’s through its next set of changes.

Why we aren’t happy

In communities, Loneliness, Urban living, Vancouver on April 6, 2013 at 1:26 am
Scene from "The Happy Land" at the Court Theatre, Illustrated London News, 1873. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Scene from “The Happy Land” at the Court Theatre, Illustrated London News, 1873. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Published in the Vancouver Observer news site | August 20, 2012

Circulation: 100,000 monthly readers

In its recent survey of 3,841 people in the metropolitan area, the Vancouver Foundation discovered a “high level of loneliness.” The survey, entitled Connections and Engagement, sought to measure people’s feelings of connection to their friends and family and their engagement in their neighborhoods and metro Vancouver. There’s nothing very surprising about the report’s findings, but what stuck me is the questions it raised about the broader implications of personal happiness and community.

The report found that “Vancouver can be a hard place to make friends; our neighborhood connections are cordial but weak; [and] many people in metro Vancouver are retreating from community life.”

What’s more: “Over a third of us have no close friends outside our own ethnic group. And we generally believe that people prefer to be with others of the same ethnicity.”

And: “Most people believe Vancouver is becoming a resort town for the wealthy.”

All of which raise important questions for our political future. The less connected we feel to our neighbors, the less involved we are in the life of our community. I shudder to think how many Vancouverites I’ve talked to over the last five years who no longer think their vote matters.

I wonder how much this is particular to Vancouver and how much this is a national trend. To be sure, Montreal and Toronto have a different feel. More tension, yes. But with that tension comes a sense of fuller participation. Try getting into a cab in Montreal and remaining disengaged. Impossible.

What we love to praise about Vancouver is its natural beauty, its “quality of life.”

Clearly more laid back and seemingly more focused on personal happiness than cities back East, Vancouver has a weird sense of detachment. And I’m not talking about the spiritual kind. Events beyond the mountains seem very far away indeed. And one is lulled again and again by the mountains and the sea into a drowsy apathy.

I once described Vancouver to a friend as dream-like.

“Nonsense,” he said. “It’s narcotic.”

Whether or not it’s drug induced, the detachment of Vancouverites is unsatisfying. I hear a good bit of complaining about lack of community. The problem is, what can community mean in a world where more and more of us telecommute and are members of virtual teams? What does community mean in a city where no one has a dining room? And where most of overheard conversation in restaurants is about electronic devices, and each table is lit by smart phones?

Again, this drifting apart is not unique to Vancouver, but it’s where I see it happening and where it concerns me.

And I suspect it is just the latest narcissitic iteration of the Me Generation.

A character in Denys Arcand’s The Decline of the American Empire quotes a philosopher who maintains that a society devoted to personal happiness has played itself out. And that’s what I find myself wondering: whether or not as a culture we’re defunct. If, in fact, we are not much interested in connecting to one another or being active in our community and are instead busily pursuing an individual happiness in whatever form it is packaged and sold to us, then the end is surely near. Or one would hope.

But I’m not convinced. And neither is the Vancouver Foundation.

As a step toward involving “the general public in conversations about solutions,” the Vancouver Foundation is hosting a program called “Alone Together: Connecting in the Urban Environment” in conjunction with SFU September 18-23.

For more information, visit:

Take our poll, “What makes you happy?”

Get to know a busker: violist Thomas Beckman

In Vancouver on April 6, 2013 at 1:15 am

Vancouver busker violist Thomas Beckman. Photo by Jose Antonio Madriz

Vancouver busker violist Thomas Beckman. Photo by Jose Antonio Madriz

Published in the Vancouver Observer news site | June 16, 2012

Circulation: 100,000 monthly readers

At first, violist Thomas Beckman was intimidated by busking. Classically trained by a fierce Russian musician at the University of Cape Town, Beckman says he was shy and socially awkward when he was younger. Learning the violin helped him to break free from this. It took him a while to get used to playing outside on the street. And yet he also realized that he could practice, make some money, and meet people all at the same time.

“It struck me as a practical activity,” he says.

He got his start in Vancouver’s busking scene as part of the Sons of Granville, playing what he describes as “rock, folk, funk, with a bit of gypsy high-paced energy and some slow ballad-like songs.”

When I first encountered Beckman, he was playing solo in front of the Broadway/City Hall Skytrain station, and I was struck first by the fact he was playing a viola, and then by the originality of his music—full of a mournful longing that struck me as uncharacteristic of Vancouver. That’s what led me to ask him for an interview.

When I reached Beckman by phone last week, he told me about his new CD called Conception Bay, which was inspired by a road trip he took in South Africa in 2003.

“I was studying in Cape Town, living with my parents, and two German geologists invited me along for a getaway. We drove to Namibia, a fascinating place geographically. We drove for hours and hours on the long open road with nothing, no towns. When we’d see a gas station, we’d fill up completely. You never know where the next one is.

“I realized there is so much beyond the little bubble of the city, so much that lies outside of everything we think we know—so much beauty right there waiting for us. We can always go back to the memory of that place, untouched by humans, and connect with earth and sky and appreciate how gorgeous that is. I was trying to capture the feeling of being free and unhindered, not repressed. I embrace improvisation on many levels, not just musically.”

For Beckman, the trip was a turning point, though he continued to study classical music at the University of Cape Town and at UBC when he moved back to Vancouver, where he was born.

Producing this CD proved to be yet another turning point.

“I learned I can be ten times more fiery in the studio and let it rip,” he says. “I could go nuts with my own creative technique. It was a breakthrough.

“I was always desperately searching for a way to do what my teachers wanted me to do with my bow technique. When I started to busk, I said to hell with it; I’m going to play in my own way. I have no tension in arm when I play. I used to. And no danger of tendentious, an occupational hazard for a musician. It’s not the body; it’s the mind.”

As much as it has been something he has sought to transcend, Beckman’s classical training also comes in handy. Busking takes discipline, and according to Beckman, discipline involves “a higher knowing, above the level where that affects you. You ride the waves of bad weather or people or the odd belligerent policeman and fatigue. It’s not about the money, it’s about the passion and enjoyment, and you get better when you play for hours. It’s almost like a meditation. The outside world can’t touch me when I’m on the inside—enraptured by the music that I’m playing. People feel that and respond to that. It takes fortitude and discipline to get into that state of mind and sustain it for hours sometimes—until I make my quota.”

Beckman explains that his quota is a dollar amount, what he needs to pay his bills and meet expenses. He has also been building community around his work and has collected just under 800 subscribers from the conversations he’s had with people on the street over the last few years.

Beckman started off studying violin as a kid and continued through his first three years of university. But when he heard a recording of Alfred Schnittke’s Viola Concerto, played by Yuri Bashmet, he knew he had to switch to the viola.

“I’d never in my life heard a viola sound like that,” he says, “like a human being, organic, fat, rich and emotional.”

Besides, Beckman says he’d always been too big to play a violin. The size of the viola suited him better.

The busking scene in Vancouver has taken some hits recently. Randy Ponzio’s death had an enormous impact.

“It’s really tragic,” says Beckman. “He was a leader, encouraging, supporting an inspiring person, the most successful of all of us.”

Another well-known hip-hop musician has shifted away from busking because he objects to having to buy a license.

Beckman doesn’t object to the license, but he does object to restrictions on amplification for acoustic instruments. Part of the problem seems to be a lack of communication between buskers and city authorities.

“We were never told we were racking up all these complaints [about noise] or why,” says Beckman. “We had no idea was actually going on.”

Beckman and other buskers called a meeting with the street supervisor and the outside activities people. The problem is twofold. They don’t really understand much about performing music, and they can’t afford to monitor a growing busking scene. The attitude seems to be if we can’t monitor, we might as well close it down.

“We are willing to cooperate to accommodate the complaints,” says Beckman, “but you can’t ban amplification. It would devastate the music scene. Life on the streets, cultural vibrancy is good for business. “Lots of local businesses want street musicians. It makes people happy, creates a sense of buzz and a sense of excitement. Happy people are more inclined to spend money.”

Beckman would like to see the city invest a bit of extra money for a busking program, a committee that includes people who know something about music, and more discernment when it comes to who gets a busking license.

“It’s a privilege to busk,” says Beckman. Not everyone should get a permit.

Though Beckman felt the February meeting with city officials was positive, he’d like to see more regular communication with the committee, so that when people complain, the musicians can know what the complaints are and what neighborhoods they’re in, so they might rotate according to levels of volume and times of the day. Given the difficulty of lining up schedules, Beckman suggest something like a forum on Facebook that keeps lines of communication open.

Are you a busker? Do you live or work near where street musicians play? What are your opinions?


To e- or not to e-(Book)

In Books, eBooks, Electronic Publishing, Internet, Open source on April 6, 2013 at 12:34 am


Published in the Vancouver Observer news site | June 12, 2012

Circulation: 100,000 monthly readers


A well-known Canadian author and I were walking into an event at the 2010Vancouver International Writers Festival. She was trying to identify what she felt was different about the festival that year. The publishers, she said, seemed out of sorts somehow.

I pointed to the Kobo tent, where a long line of people waited to put their names in a box to win a free eReader.

“Do you think that has anything to do with it?” I said.

We looked at each other and shrugged.

Once we were seated inside, the moderator announced a draw for a free Kobo. He made a few uneasy jokes about the disappearance of books. Kobo was one of the sponsors of the festival.

The price war between what was then Canadian-owned Kobo andAmazon’s Kindle had begun earlier that year.

I imagine it this way: while the big box stores and publishing conglomerates are busy fighting it out, somebody looks up to see a mid-air battle of two fire breathing eReaders. Everyone watches, wondering how the outcome up there will affect the swordplay on the ground.

That’s the thing. Nobody seems to know what the eBook means for the future of publishers, writers, and booksellers.

Much less the book itself.

Opinions vary wildly. Some point to the new freedom and independence for writers. We won’t need those pesky publishing houses anymore, doling out piddling royalties or those bothersome editors tightening up our prose. Others outline the seven easy steps to making millions writing eBooks. A few go so far as to insist that the book, as object, will go the route of the DVD—and maybe as suddenly.

Skeptics claim that an eBook will never replace the pleasures of the book itself.  Prophets of doom warn that the eBook is yet another way in which corporations can snatch bread from the mouths of starving writers.

Until recently, I was pretty much in the second camp. The eBook seemed the latest in a series of bizarre events in an industry in which everyone—agents, editors, authors, marketing departments, distributors, and booksellers—is intent on working against each other.

Two things changed my mind. First, a sense that the few remaining doors to traditional publishing had closed to me. And second, a conversation I had with local software developer John Neffenger who has discovered that he can dramatically improve the quality of an eBook by using fixed-format PDFs instead of EPUB with its “reflowable content.” What’s more, these PDFs can fit a variety of eReaders.

What occasioned my conversation with Neffenger was my increasing frustration with the publishing world. In the last 15 years I had searched for a small press willing to bring out a paperback edition of my first book of short stories along with a new collection. The short answer from editors and then an agent who wanted to represent me was that no one was interested in short fiction any more. Everyone wanted novels. And yet I kept seeing really great short story collections being published here and in the US. But even those small presses said no thanks.

I had also written a book of non-fiction, a handbook for journal keepers, which my agent got excited about. “Be still my heart,” began the email she sent after she’d read the manuscript. This is what was going to make me viable as an author—something along the lines of self-help. If I could prove myself in sales, a publishing house just might allow me to bring out a slim volume of literary fiction.


Alas, it was not to be. The editors who saw it said the book was not aimed at a specific marketing niche. They complained that it promised neither health nor wealth in seven easy steps. They were right. Call me old fashioned, but I have qualms about promising what I know I can’t deliver. Besides, your health and wealth are none of my business. What I wanted to offer in book form was simply what I had offered in workshops over the past 20 years—exercises that might enhance people’s journal keeping practice. The results were up to the reader.

I’d begun to think about self publishing and was encouraged by a colleague at the Maine College of Art who wrote books about metalsmithing. He was put off by the poor design of most books on the subject, so he started his own publishing company. What finally convinced me was seeing a book that friends of mine had worked hard to get published by a large New York publisher. The book was poorly designed and poorly made. It looked awful. So I gave Tim a call, and we got to work on what became Wild & Woolly: A Journal Keeper’s Handbook. In the end, we produced a book I was proud of: beautifully bound, with excellent illustrations by Melissa Sweet, printed on quality paper.

Which brings me back to my conversation with John Neffenger, who is convinced that he can create more beautiful eBooks with higher resolution illustrations than are generally available. That’s what got my interest.

“EPUB is popular,” says Neffenger, “because of the disparity of device screen sizes, from 4 to 7 to 10 inches—iPhone, Kindle, Android tablets—it’s all over the place. And the only way to deal with that is to do web pages that are kind of adjustable. Words flow and shift depending on the device it’s displayed on. That’s the problem: sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t.”

The problem with the more fixed-format PDF is that it can’t adapt to the page sizes of different readers. It occurred to Neffenger that it might be possible to create a few different sized PDFs that would be usable on a variety of readers.

“I discovered that the devices had settled on basically three page sizes—phone, eBook reader, and tablet. So it’s do-able. You just make three different PDFs. That got me excited. I like typesetting that’s as good as a book, and you can’t do that with EPUB.”

Which is not to say writers interested in creating eBooks should not use EPUB. Just the opposite, says Neffenger.

“Though you might have to make books available in proprietary formats for the Apple bookstore,” he says, “do the primary copy in an open format like EPUB first. Then do the conversions you need to get your book into proprietary formats like Amazon and Apple.”

This is a subject about which Neffenger is passionate. And it brings up issues that the layperson might not consider, such as authors’ future access to their own material.

Open, non-proprietary formats are important, says Neffenger, “because without these free formats we are locking up the world’s information in formats that are owned and kept by someone else.”

He offers an analogy:

“Putting your work in a proprietary patent-encumbered format is like sticking it in a safe deposit box with two keys—and someone else has the other key. [At some point in the future] you may well have to pay someone to open the box to get into your own content—which is a frightening concept.”

Take a company like Apple, for example, who makes a free program callediBooks Author. Sounds good. Writers and artists love Apple. Some of the advantages include easy inclusion of video and audio files. Sounds very good indeed. But hold on a second. First drawback: the books you produce on iBook can only be read by an iPad, thus ruling out Kindle, Nook, and other eReaders, including the ones used by most libraries.

Furthermore, this “free” program is covered by Apple’s royalties and patents. Apple kindly gives you permission to access your own work. If at some later date, Apple decides to charge an access fee, you will have to pay Apple to retrieve what you thought was yours alone.

“You want to put your valuable creation into formats you can open without a toll,” says Neffenger, “formats you can get into 100 years from now, whether or not the company still exists. Otherwise someone else decides how you can get into that box.”

So I have begun a weird and incomprehensible process:  publishing an eBook—a high quality, high resolution piece of work that I can make available to the websites of independent booksellers as well as Amazon and Google. Not because I want to make a million dollars, but because what’s in the book may be useful to people who keep a journal.

I’ll keep you posted on my progress.

Are you thinking of publishing an eBook? Or have you already? Let us know about your experience in the Comments below …

Remembering American poet Adrienne Rich

In American poetry, feminism, Poetry on April 6, 2013 at 12:26 am

Published in the Vancouver Observer news site | April 26, 2012

Circulation: 100,000 monthly readers

As with many of the books that shaped my life, I encountered the work ofAdrienne Rich outside of college classrooms. In fact it was a friend who first handed me Rich’s Diving into the Wreck in 1973 at Left Bank Books,the St. Louis bookstore she now owns, when it was still on Delmar Boulevard.

Adrienne Rich is one of the through-lines in my life. I have carried her books with me across continents, boxed and unboxed them, added each new published volume to the worn copies of her previous books, reached for them on bad nights when the world seemed no longer viable. Her work entered my mind at such a depth, with such consistency, that it became part of my own history.

Her poems gave me a context, a way of shaping the chaos in and around me when I was an undergraduate and then working in Europe in the mid to late 70s.

In a poem called “Incipience,” she wrote:

To live, to lie awake

under scarred plaster

while ice is forming over the earth

at an hour when nothing can be done

to further any decision

to know the composing of the thread

inside the spider’s body

first atoms of the web

visible tomorrow

to feel the fiery future

of every matchstick in the kitchen


imagining the existence

of something uncreated

this poem

our lives

In 1979, Rich published On Lies, Secrets and Silence: Selected Prose, 1966–1978, a book that helped me to frame my experiences as I struggled through graduate studies in American Literature. To pay tuition, room and board, I taught sections of the university’s first year writing course, becoming ever more aware of the politics of teaching language. We taught the writing process, a process of revision, a process that had far wider implications than polishing up a college essay.

“Re-vision” said Rich, “ – the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction – is for women more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival. Until we understand the assumptions in which we are drenched we cannot know ourselves. And this drive to self-knowledge, for women, is more than a search for identity: it is part of our refusal of the self-destructiveness of male-dominated society.”

Later, when I had moved to Maine to teach in a remedial writing program at the university, I turned again and again to Rich’s essay on teaching in an open admissions program with Mina Shaughnessy at City College of New York. Literacy has always been a political issue. It has been denied minorities and women, justified by all kinds of nonsense, for centuries. Laws forbidding anyone to teach a slave to write go back to the colonial period in the US, and they got stricter after every slave revolt. A people who could not write their own story were at the mercy of others who sought to distort it, or—worse—erase it altogether.

“Whatever is unnamed,” Rich wrote, “undepicted in images, whatever is omitted from biography, censored in collections of letters, whatever is misnamed as something else, made difficult-to-come-by, whatever is buried in the memory by the collapse of meaning under an inadequate or lying language – this will become, not merely unspoken, but unspeakable.”

A woman, a Southerner, a Jew and a lesbian, Rich knew a great deal about being marginalized. As the daughter of intellectuals and a graduate ofRadcliffe College, she knew something about privilege as well.

One whole winter I lived with these lines from her poem “Origins and History of Consciousness” scrawled in yellow chalk on a wall in my apartment:

No one lives in this room

without confronting the whiteness of the wall

behind the poems, planks of books,

photographs of dead heroines.

Without contemplating last and late

the true nature of poetry. The drive

to connect. The dream of a common language.

Poets name things. That’s their job. And in 1997 Adrienne Rich, by refusing to accept the National Medal of Arts, once again put a name to something many Americans were tying to ignore. She wrote, “I could not accept such an award from President Clinton or this White House because the very meaning of art as I understand it is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration.”

Refusing to be mollified by the faux liberalism of her times, Rich continued to tell the hardest truths through physical and psychic circumstances that have silenced many others. Of the poems in her book, Your Native Land, Your Life (1986), she wrote, “I have been trying to speak from, and of, and to, my country. To speak a different claim from those staked by the patriots of the sword; to speak of the land itself, the cities, and of the imaginations that have dwelt here, at risk, unfree, assaulted, erased. …. I draw strength from the traditions of all those who, with every reason to despair, have refused to do so.”

After Japan’s earthquake and tsunami, a shift in values

In communities, Japan, Realtionship, World Work on April 5, 2013 at 7:33 pm
"Green Wave" by Alfred DePew 3/11/11 acrylic on paper

“Green Wave” by Alfred DePew, acrylic on paper

Published in the Vancouver Observer news site | March 8, 2012

Circulation: 100,000 monthly readers

When the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan in March of 2011, executive coach and systems consultant Yuri Morikawa wanted to help. Like most, she wanted to focus on those hardest hit, the people in the Tōhoku region to the north of where she lives. But when she and her family evacuated to Nagasaki, she realized what she had already sensed—that everyone in Japan was in need of help, including her.

“Where I live [Tochigi, the prefecture south of Fukushima] also had high radiation,” says Morikawa. “So my husband and I decided to take our daughter to my mother-in-law’s house in Nagasaki.”

Morikawa and her family were there for a month. She had no real work to do, so she began to research how people in Nagasaki recovered from the atomic bomb. This led her to the grandson of Takashi Nagai, a physician and radiologist who survived the bombing of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, joined in treating other victims, and then spent most of the rest of his life in prayer.

“Tokuji Nagai [Dr. Nagai’s grandson] told me about how Nagasaki recovered,” Morikawa continues, “and he was strong about this—it was not the help from outsiders” that brought it about.

To be sure, there was a great outpouring of compassion and money in the first year after the war, and there is nothing but gratitude for that, but then the foreigners left, “and the real pain and the real disaster started from there and lasted ten years. That was the toughest. Indifference happened. And segregation happened because just saying you were from Nagasaki, people wouldn’t want to marry you. There were afraid you were infected by the atom bomb. There was discrimination and real poverty in Nagasaki, even as elsewhere in Japan the economic recovery was strong.”

“Mr. Nagai said, ‘So Ms Morikawa. You sound like you want to be a helper from outside, and I must tell you it won’t help them much. Just know that. Start from your own family and your own community because you are also the victim. Have compassion for yourself.’”

“I felt like I was being hit by a huge bell,” says Morikawa. “It really shifted my mind from ‘what can I do?’ to I need help too, and so do my neighbors—from saviour or hero to the people who actually need help—including myself.”

Working with the nursing home staff

When she returned to her home, Morikawa began talking to her neighbors and parents of her daughter’s friends, “people I had seen before but never said hello to. I’d put my hand on their shoulder and ask them about what they’d been through. It seemed so natural, and yet so new. People were ready to support each other and to give things they had to those who didn’t have them. To be honest, I had never experienced this kind of unexpected uplift of emotions before. I think this kind of emotional exaltation cannot be without a deep pain and suffering, or awareness of that, or living with it.”

She had tea with a friend who told her stories about evacuating a nearby nursing home for the elderly.

“Amazing, heart-touching stories,” says Morikawa. “People who were on shift and people who were not on shift, once they got their own relatives settled—some of them, their homes were destroyed, but everybody helped to carry the old people, many of whom had Alzheimer’s or were bedridden, walking or by bike 30 to 40 minutes to the elementary school gymnasium. Then they went back to get the pets—goldfish, dogs, hamsters.”

“They were really working as one entity, seamlessly, without any direction or boss leading them. They worked smoothly, collaboratively. They made it happen. I was very moved. I also heard about their fatigue. Several weeks, day and night. They also had families they needed to keep secure. Many seemed to have a pain about that, sort of a guilty feeling toward their families. Some staff were out of town and couldn’t be with everyone when the earthquake struck. They felt guilty and also left out of the circle.”

Listening to her friend that day at tea, Morikawa thought of a way she could help. She proposed a workshop for the nursing home staff in which they could acknowledge one another and tell the stories of what happened on March 11.

“This is a wonderful legend this nursing home will be proud for the rest of its history,” syas Morikawa. “Let’s keep it, honour it.”

On the day of the workshop, they sat in a circle, and Morikawa put a lit candle in the centre. She began by telling her own story of 3/11. She thanked them for all the work they did to save the elderly people in the nursing home.

“Today is a time for gently looking back and telling your stories to one another,” she told them. “There was so much emotion,” says Morikawa. “Many said it was the first time they cried.”

Then she put a large paper in the middle of the room and asked them to put everything they wanted to remember, “everything they wanted the next generation to know. And if future generations encounter a similar tragedy, it will be a resource to them.”

One drew a dog that was saved. Some wrote words. Others drew people from the nursing home who had died before the earthquake. “Like spirits friends or allies,” says Morikawa.

As a professional coach and facilitator, she had many plans and ideas for exercises, but, she says, “I learned that in these times simpler is better, the fewer words, the better. The emotion is waiting for the space to come out, so once I set up, it will happen organically. I told my story. I put some water in the well—to prime it—‘calling water,’ we say— their story was the water of the well.”

Working with the nursery school teachers

Some weeks later, she offered something similar to the teachers at the pre-school where her friend taught. It was more casual. She had proposed a workshop along the lines of the one she led at the nursing home, but she says, the teachers “were tired of being serious and scared and sad. They needed tea and sweets and a chat.”

So one Saturday afternoon about eight teachers gathered at the school for tea. And stories emerged—“how they were busy and still there was a crack in the wall and a broken gate. It started from that. People spoke of what they were proud of—that no children were hurt or missing. Everybody had gotten safely back to their parents. Amazing in and of itself.”

“They said of course the kids were terrified. And the first thing the teachers told them to do was to get under the table but oh my goodness desks were swimming and running on the floor!” says Morikawa. “And the kids were screaming, so the teachers held them and said it’s OK; it will go away.”

As soon as there was a lull in the shaking, the teachers knew they had to get the children out of the building, so they had them line up as if it were a game and even had one class compete with another to see who could get out the quickest and be the calmest.

Some had the children clap their hands in rhythm. If the children focused on that, they could forget about their fear. To overcome their own fear, teachers focused on the children and communicated with each other with their eyes, rather than speaking too much. In addition to the pre-schoolers, there were the babies that had to be brought out from the nursery. They used slides to get from the second and third floors out to the playground with someone catching them at the other end. One pregnant teacher slid down with two babies on either side of her huge belly.

“Slide, catch, repeat.”

“Laughter makes the heart open,” says Morikawa. “And an open heart can let the pain out, and once the pain is out, it can be shared with others, a time of healing.”

How is life different a year later?

“On the surface level, things are getting back to normal,” says Morikawa, “but on a deep level, we are transforming. Change keeps coming like a rush of water. It’s a constant challenge. In Japan’s history, we have very little power to change from inside. We have always needed outside influence to change, a stimulus. This huge earthquake really shook society in a good way and changed people’s mindset from indifference to support for each other and actually taking action.”

“Our values are shifting dramatically,” she continues. “The culture of mass consumption and wasting things—that is not in fashion any more. Young people are moving toward agriculture. People care about what they eat—especially young parents—and where the food was grown. People in their 20s and 30s are forming non-profit organizations [that focus on] environmental support for the North, supporting families to take out the old soil, bringing in new soil, replanting strawberry farms.”

“In Japan,” says Morikawa, “shame is the worst thing you can give or receive. If you stick out too much, you are likely to be expelled from the village mentality. But with this huge natural power [the earthquake and tsunami] we were forced to change. There are stronger bonds in the community, a sense of awareness of who needs support. There is a kind of readiness. When something happens, we can help each other. We are better prepared. People are very grounded, and whatever happens we will face it together.”

Seeing Red: a play about American painter Mark Rothko at the Vancouver Playhouse

In Art, Art and politics, Realtionship on April 5, 2013 at 5:33 am
Jim Mezon as painter Mark Rothko in the Vancouver Playhouse production of Red

Jim Mezon as painter Mark Rothko in the Vancouver Playhouse production of Red

Published in the Vancouver Observer news site | January 21, 2012

Circulation: 100,000 monthly readers

“What do you see?” demands Rothko. “And how does it make you feel?”

These are the two questions that keep pulsing through John Logan’s play about Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko and his assistant. They are the questions that Rothko’s paintings themselves seem to ask, not only about paintings, but also about the world.

What do you see? And how does it make you feel?

I have to admit I went to see Red last night out of a kind of nostalgia for a time when America’s painters were most vital and important (as well as neurotic and self-absorbed and all the rest). And yet that was my fear—that I’d be seeing a period piece.

Me of little faith.

This is Rothko, after all, who stands before us and rails against everything we still cling to—real estate, money, appearance above all—everything bright and shiny—leisure and anything else that indicates status.

And then there’s the problem of a play about a painter in his studio—not exactly action-packed. Pollack, maybe, but these Color Field painters? Rothko himself says, “most of painting is thinking. 10% is putting paint on canvas; the rest is waiting.”

Thanks to Jim Mezon as Rothko and David Coomber as Ken, his assistant, and Kim Collier’s direction, the waiting is charged with tension. And words can’t describe the exuberance with which painter and assistant prime a canvas. Seriously. The play itself is every bit as vital and unsettling to us today as Rothko and his crowd were to New York in the 1950s.

More than once, Rothko decries the “nice-ness” and glib complacency of American life at mid-century, when everything was “fine, just fine.”

“We are not fine,” he shouts. “We are anything but fine.”

When the play opens, we find Rothko caught in a number of absurd contradictions. He is a rebel and an outsider who all of a sudden has a commission to paint murals for New York’s newest and trendiest restaurant. He tells his new assistant that he is not his rabbi or teacher or therapist, and then proceeds to act like all three. At the top of his game, he is most vulnerable.

He is getting old, by art world standards, and young Turks like Frank Stellaand Andy Warhol are on the ascendancy. But there is something about the sparring between master and assistant, the attack and counter attack, the philosophical questions raised, that suggest our own most troubling dilemmas and remind us of the courage it takes to remain honestly engaged with them.

Art = Libération: Automatist Revolution comes to Vancouver’s Baron Gallery

In Art, Art and politics, Canadian painters on April 5, 2013 at 5:23 am
Pierre Gauvreau and Janine Carreau: “La jeunesse est en nous et nous sommes la jeunesse”

Pierre Gauvreau and Janine Carreau: “La jeunesse est en nous et nous sommes la jeunesse”

Published in the Vancouver Observer news site | November 15, 2011

Circulation: 100,000 monthly readers

There are openings where the work seems almost incidental. People have come to schmooze. But last month’s opening of Art = Libération at theBaron Gallery was different. At least for me, if only because I have been obsessed with les automatists ever since I first saw Jean-Paul Riopelle’s massive triptych, Hommage à Rosa Luxemburg, in Quebec City in the fall of 2001. Les automatists and their manifesto, Le Refus global, are generally thought to have been the real beginning of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution.

My dilemma has always been this: I want to like the work of these painters more than I do—at least at first glance. What has me under their spell is their process, not what’s left behind on the canvas. Their real accomplishment was in how they painted, not what. And in the end, an originality and essential energy that has a great deal to say to us today. Especially as we watch what’s happening across North America and Europe in the Occupy Movement.

My other problem is finding a way to talk about this work. My response to these painters has always been intuitive. Somehow I can only get at them obliquely, and often only by using their own methods: automatic writing, free association, spontaneous combustion, deep sea diving … the kind of wakeful dreaming out of which these paintings, poems, dances were made—and out of which many of these artists lived.

On the night of the opening, I noticed I needed a way back into this work, in a sense a way back to Quebec. Four years in Vancouver, and I’ve grown used to the milky quality of light, the soft blue-grey cast, out of which more primary colours pop. My own palette has darkened considerably since I moved here. So when I came into the gallery and saw the work, it all seemed too bright, somehow. And too flat. Like extraordinary (and very expensive) wrapping paper, which begs the question: what, then, lies underneath this bright surface? At first, there seems no way in. I kept being bounced off, and so I snuck upstairs to be quietly with the smaller work. And for me it opened the door.

For if the work of Pierre Gauvreau and Janine Carreau can be said to be “about” anything, it is about the mind that makes it. No, it’s a level deeper—what lies beneath the mind, the psyche, in which we find the glorious chaos of images, words, tribal memories, sexual initiation and heroism. It is, as C. G. Jung kept reminding us, the source of our creativity in art and in all other areas, and it is collective—a shared resource.

It is never—no matter how much money the last Riopelle sold for—about the product. Therein lies the integrity of les automatises. And for me their relevance today.

“Le règne de la peur multiforme est terminé. (The reign of multi-faceted fear is over.)” Paul-Émile Borduas writes in Le Refus global, the automatist manifesto in 1948.

fear of facing prejudice—fear of public opinion—of persecutions—of general disapproval;

fear of being alone, without the God and the society which isolate you anyway;

fear of oneself—of one’s brother—of  poverty;

fear of the established order—or ridiculous justice;

fear of new relationships;

fear of the superrational;

fear of necessities;

fear of floodgates opening on one’s faith in man—on the society of the future;

fear of forces able to release transforming love;


I don’t know about you, but these words never fail to give me goose bumps. When I first encountered them ten years ago, I felt I’d found a whole new branch of my family tree. Allies. Kindred spirits. Where had they been all my life?

And yet, the problem I had with Gauvreau’s work the other night is the problem I’ve always had with the surrealists. I was captivated by their method, but the work itself left me cold. The artists were too self-conscious, as I was reminded during the VAG’s latest show, “The Colour of My Dreams: The Surrealist Revolution in Art.” Instead of being invited into the dream, I was made aware of the cleverness of the artist dreaming.

Once I had spent some time with Gauvreau’s work, as I say, I could enter it more fully. The longer I looked, the deeper it carried me. And where it seemed to lead me was, once again, to the present moment.

From my first encounter with them in 2001, there’s been something about the automatists that felt eerily resonant with the present—as if they had expressed in 1948 something that was wanting to be said today but which couldn’t quite find its voice.

True, there were people who were skeptical about the US election results in 2000, and those who raised troubling questions about the terrorist attacks on the twin towns in 2001. True, there were the usual candle-lit marches against the US invasion of Iraq. But more and more one felt a growing silence and complicity among journalists, Senators, novelists, and poets—with all too few, however notable, exceptions.

What exactly did I see in the work of the automatists that captured my imagination in 2001? Again, it was what lay behind the work itself, the process of making, a shameless and apologetic reliance on dream, spontaneity, random association—a belief in the value of the inner life, the seeming chaos of the psyche—perhaps most important of all: the willingness to be in the process, to surrender to it, to follow it  and to keep following it in the spirit of discovery, always careful not to fall into the reductive habit of interpretation. Instead, these poets and painters devoted their lives to listening and unfolding

If I were to fault them in any way, it would be because in a sense they were too deeply located in themselves, too subjective, and yet, I’m not even sure that’s true. To get at that, I’d need more time and space than I have here. The truth is right from the start, The Global Refusal addressed, history, oppression, the Church and proclaimed an entirely new mode of expression and way of life—from the inside, yes, but always moving out toward others.

“Make way for magic!” writes Borduas. “Make way for objective mysteries! Make way for love! Make way for necessities!”

The self-seeking act is fettered to its author; it is stillborn.

The passionate act breaks free, through its very dynamism.

We gladly take on full responsibility for tomorrow. Rational effort, once in its proper place, will be available again to disengage the present from the limbo of the past.

Passions shape the future spontaneously, unpredictably, necessarily.

Spontaneous, unpredictable, and in some sense necessary—all seem to describe the Occupy Movement, especially in its earliest days. In New York, San Francisco, Chicago, people began to gather without really knowing why. Social media aside, there seemed a deeper dreaming impulse here. In many cases, it was only after they’d gathered that protesters began to discuss why they were there. And in the discussion, they discovered more about what they wanted to see happen. On some level, the convergence of people in  a public place was the whole point. Strategic planning, letters to legislators, withdrawing money from big banks are almost beside the point. What mattered most was the face-to-face meeting of people who were from surprisingly divergent points in the political spectrum.

The issues weren’t at all clear. Even who was to blame was almost beside the point. The “enemy” was an address, a street in Manhattan—also something nebulous—the banks—capitalism—a timespirit of theft and betrayal. Very different from the mass protests of the 60s and 70s, which had clearer objectives: ending the War in Vietnam, for instance.

Here there is an indistinct sense that something (hard to say what) is wrong and has been for some time. And as much as it is outside us, it is also within us—our own blind craving and greed.

Finally, it’s the automatists’ courage to stand in unknowable mystery that I most admire. It seems a skill that is particularly useful to us in 2011.

And whatever else the work of Pierre Gauvreau and Janine Carreau is about, it is most certainly about that.