Classroom Doors, Open to the World

In keeping an ongoing record of our class’ experiment in becoming globally connected and networking learners (teachers most humbly included), I will be occasionally sharing examples of student blogs along the lines of various assignments as a means of both celebrating and sharing exemplars of student blogs and writing, as well as inviting the reaches of my own personal learning network into the students’ opinions, writing, and learning.

To that end, our study of Alistair MacLeod’s “To Everything There is a Season”  has made its way to the discussion of students’ theme statements for the story, which I asked them to impart, express or defend in the form of a blog post that would become – in my words – an informal essay. Tell me what you think the theme is, and why.

My intention in describing the writing this way may seem to hasten and encourage the informal chatspeak of MSN, text-messages, and email (with its uncapitalized i’s, non-existent commas, and rampantly incongruous uses of semi-colons). But as our students come from several middle schools around the district and everyone has had a different experience with essays, arguments, and the criticism of literature, I wanted to see what would arise without laying out the forms and norms of formal writing (which I think can tend to intimidate and stifle the natural creativity and confidence necessary to write about literature).

Well, here is what happened (if you haven’t read the story, spoilers will abound below):

  • Reflect upon the past, look forward to the future and remain in the present – Donya (grade nine) has concocted an original organizational structure to lay out her supporting evidence according to the various time frames addressed by the story’s characters.
  • “Every man moves on, but there is no need to grieve. He leaves good things behind.” I love how Jenna has cribbed the last lines of the story to be included in her own closing argument for the story’s theme.
  • Believe in that tiny light ahead, it might just wait for you. Louise creates a very thorough and engaging argument for theme built out of her own experiences and relationship with the character of Santa Claus.
  • At the beginning of the story, our protagonist is trying to figure out whether or not he believes in Santa Claus. Andrew does a great job at retaining some of the formal conventions in writing about literature, and manages to make a personal argument without the use of (too many) unnecessary personal pronouns.
  • What is comforting is not always true. Liam makes an eloquent personal appeal for his theme that addresses human nature and our natural affinity for order, stories, and their salvation.

But these are merely the highlights of the posts I was able to digest before the assignment’s due date. Out of fewer than ten early submissions, there were at least eight examples worth sharing with the class, our school, and now the world. To tune into our conversation, follow our shared Google Reader feed here, as well as our comment feed here. The rest of our class blogging information (links to each student blog, our comment and blog RSS, as well as Twitter hashtags and Delicious bookmarks) is supplied for you here.

Don’t be a stranger! Stay tuned for highlights from next week’s creative pieces, and a term, semester and year of outstanding student expression. I am looking forward to it!

The Ethic of the Link

Hyperlinked writing is the most powerful form of writing.

So begins Wesley Fryer’s excellent (linked) post in defense of the importance of learning to write using hyperlinks. Citing Shelly Blake-Plock’s hosting of the talk by Jay Rosen, entitled The Ethic of the Link.

Check it out:

When I first started using Wikis in my classes two years ago, I stressed repeatedly the density of text created with hyperlinks – especially as a means of  ‘pointing’ to supporting evidence or details (even to humourous effect). I agreed – and agree still – with Rosen, when he says that good blogging means “giving you more than you expect, every single time you visit my blog. More knowledge than you expected. More links than you bargained for. More nuance. More depth. More education.” Loaded words.

At the time – long before I came upon this video, or read this New York Times article, brimming with linked supporting detail – I even went so far as to produce this essay rife with linked details and post it on my class’ SharePoint site:

“Through music the passions enjoy themselves.” Frederick Nietzsche

Every so often it seems that culture converges, or coalesces out of its myriad pieces into movements which are capable of shaping history. One need look no further than the progression of modern pop music to appreciate that the will of the masses is able to correct the derivations of the few with regularity.

When rhythm and blues invaded nineteen fifties white America, the influence was not to be denied — despite television producers not showing Elvis beneath the waist — and the commercial jingles of the day were replaced with the birth of rock and roll, in Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash, to name a few.

The fifties though, were still dominated by the conservative parentage that had seen the world at war, and perhaps the Great Depression, and there was wide distrust of this Rock and Roll, which seemed to make their children crazy. The hysteria spread across the continent, and the Atlantic to England where was born the decade of the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Who (also Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and always, out there on the margin, Bob Dylan). What followed was a decade in which culture converged around an idea (whether opposition to the war in Vietnam, or ideas of free love and an eternal now), and a new generation had asserted its will to change the (music) world.

These upwellings in culture are irrevocably followed by periods under which, now that the passion of the movement has died down, the diverse motivations of people displaces the harmony of events which led the series of changes in the first place. During the seventies – after the Beatles broke up – rock and roll became the deluxe, glossy likes of the Bee Gees, and the Eagles. This is not meant in any disrespect to the many accomplishments of Don Henley and the Brothers Gibb; it merely cannot be said that the seventies were noticeably shaken by the wizardry of Hotel California. This distinction, that of culture overtaking the system which precedes it, belongs to the birth of punk rock. Patti Smith, the Ramones, Sex Pistols and the Clash managed what the blues had managed two decades earlier: to give voice to those who did not feel represented in the dominant culture, those who always outnumber the few at the helm in times when culture seems to sleep, waiting to wake in revolution.

The seventies succumbed to the gloss and pop of the eighties, when Michael Jackson reigned – no, really, he did once – alongside Motley Crue, and Poison (though it can be said that Guns and Roses remained reasonably faithful to the mold cast of the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin) in the arena of rock. When it seemed that radio-friendly had finally ruined the prospect of music ever even being good again, in the eyes of many purists, Nirvana and Seattle exploded with grunge, and the modern apostles of rock in Chris Cornell, Eddie Vedder and the late Kurt Cobain. Only recently, indie rock, building on the permeation of the Internet as familiar language and environment among youth culture, has “rescued” music from the likes of N’Sync, the Backstreet Boys and Spice Girls.

Even at this very moment, as major record labels find themselves consolidating and merging with one another like victims of a shipwreck clinging to the warmth of others, the collective will of the music-loving masses, in the wealthy populism of the Hype Machine, Limewire, BitTorrents and a host of other peer-to-peer music sharing websites, stand on the steps of the Bastille, beginning to write the opening salvos in the New Music. And the precursor this revolution in technology has given music carries more weight in the exponentially shrinking world young citizens will grow to inherit. Those who will thrive in the new world will be those who are able to assimilate the divergent voices amidst the vastness of the present’s static: The Guru of Google?

RSS Subscriptions for English & Socials 9/10

This week our English & Socials classes begin this year’s effort in networked learning, and have spent the last week co-ordinating and connecting accounts on Delicious, Twitter & Google Reader. Now we begin.

We are starting by casting RSS nets to cull and sort information relating to the subjects covered in our class: English 9, 10 and in some cases 11, as well as Social Studies 9 and 10. Beginning with the Prescribed Learning Outcomes from British Columbia’s Ministry of Education, students will be seeking out resources to suit the upcoming curriculum, and sharing the results in blog posts modeled after this one.

A cental motivation in both my ideas about utilizing Personal Learning Networks in the classroom, as well as our gifted students program’s ethos grounded in George Betts’ Autonomous Learner Model, the role of learning facilitator (an amendment to the traditional vision of a sage-on-the-stage teacher)  involves a means of teaching through modeling. And I see blogging, and utilizing my own networks to guide my learning – not only about my own teaching and personal research and writing projects, but as a student myself of the subjects we are undertaking together – as an extension of the behavior I attempt to exude as the sort of teacher who is a student first.

To that end, here are my RSS feeds for English, Socials and an area of interest, as assigned to the class.

For English:

  • Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac: When I lived in Arkansas, I became a devotee to National Public Radio, and spent a good many summer Saturday’s driving the endless highways of the Ozark foothills listening to Keillor‘s rambling, rich and ribald Prairie Home Companion (my favourite being the classic News from Lake Wobegon). The Writer’s Almanac offers a daily poem and the stories behind the day’s date, whether they be notable authors’ birthdays, or anniversaries of the Great Works’ publications.
  • Yann Martel’s What Is Stephen Harper Reading? Every two weeks, Yann Martel – Canadian author of the classic Life of Pi – sends Prime Minister Stephen Harper a novel, and posts his attached letter (a passionate and articulate defence of each novel or collection of stories as a worthwhile work of art and valuable evidence of the human condition) on this blog. The result is a steadfast case for the literary arts, and a hefty introduction to classics, hidden treasures and contemporary fiction by one of our country’s leading literary voices.

  • New York Times Review of Books – Like asking Roger Ebert what he thinks of movies, the New York Times supplies the best of literary and popular fiction (often including first chapters in their reviews of awaited works), poetry and essays, as well as short stories and discussion of trends and themes emerging in literary news and current events.

For Social Studies:

  • The TyeeThe TyeeAn updated-daily independant magazine serving BC since November 2003. Since then, reports their website, “The Tyee has attracted some of the best journalists in B.C. We’ve published viewpoints banished from corporate media and shined a light on corners of the province Big Media ignores. We’ve provided a showcase for young talent and a forum for readers who post their opinions after our stories. The Globe and Mail has said we publish “some of the best investigative reporting in the province” and when the Senate Committee on the status of Canadian news media came to Vancouver, they invited Tyee editors to share their vision of improved media democracy.”
  • The Guardian | World News – Britain’s largest independant newspaper (unique in that it is owned by a foundation, rather than a company) provides in-depth reporting on global events often neglected in North America’s mainstream media. Coverage of middle-east developments are especially more balanced than the talking heads on many news networks, as well as a much greater depth in coverage of the world outside of North America in general.
  • Macleans Magazine – The Macleans Magazine feed delivers a steady stream of quality Canadian-focused news, detailing politics (from the House of Commons and coverage of our neighbors to the south) and international events, including popular culture and the blogosphere.

 

For My Own Interest:

  • Teach Paperless – Though this blog, maintained by Shelly Blake-Plock was begun to “help teachers create paperless learning environments,” Shelly blogs every day and runs a vibrant community of educators (who even meet on Friday mornings – 10am EST) to engage in a weekly ed-chat) through his comment-feed, as well as on Twitter (http://twitter.com/teachpaperless).
  • My Life as a Foreign Exchange Student – Gleneagle’s 2008 Valedictorian, Carolyn has traded Canada for Japan for the coming year, and is blogging about her experiences while away. A gifted member of Gleneagle’s Broken Wing Theatre, an actor in addition to a successful playwrite and director, her reflections on life after graduation are among the best (and perhaps most relatable) on the web.
  • Freakonomics New York Times Blog – Their book Freakonomics has sold 4 million copies worldwide. This blog, begun in 2005, is meant to keep the conversation going, and covers the same varied, quirky topics as its 20th century counterpart. Recurring guest bloggers include Ian Ayres, Robin Goldstein, Daniel Hamermesh, Eric Morris, Sudhir Venkatesh, and Justin Wolfers. Annika Mengisen is the site editor.

The class will be posting their selections for English, Socials and personal interest Feeds this week (September 28th). You can view the public feed of the class’ blogging here:

http://www.google.com/reader/public/atom/user/12194173047228092373/label/TALONS Blogs
Join the conversation: add your own Best Feeds for English, Socials or General Interest to the comments below. Our class will be richer for your joining!

The Long Way Home

Highway

As a means of solidifying many photographs and words written long ago (2002), I will be posting subsequent chapters to this initial endeavor here.

The summer I graduated from University, my younger sister and I worked at a Boy Scout summer camp in the Ozark Mountains, where I had interned the previous year. With the stowed paychecks of six weeks work in our backpacks, we went to Toronto and bought a car, took the train to Montreal, and visited Niagara Falls’ misty fury before heading west. Having taken root in the heart of the South for five years, the trip across our country was a fitting homecoming and definitive personal culmination of many things. This is the record of that voyage, and what I thought it meant at the time.

One

Two

Three

Four

Five

On Thoreau's Birthday

Between 2003 and 2005 I spent three consecutive summers working in the woods of the Ozark Foothills in Arkansas at a summer camp, living in tents alongside sixty some young instructors huddling our lives around the idea that the indulgent experience of nature could provide some truth. We would wake with the dawn and attend daily meetings in our staff cabin where daily scribbled on a slate blackboard would be a quote that solidified or represented the philosophy of our idealistic enclave. More often than not the board would be adorned with the words of Henry David Thoreau, who today celebrates his birthday.

“Simplify. Simplify. Simplify.”

Walden 1854

The quotes indulged a romantic literary bent in many of us (I was at the time a 22 year old creative-writing student at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock), and gave way to discussions about Matthew Arnold, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Hemingway and Conrad as we paced the dewy grass on the way to the flag plaza for daily pomp and ceremony. With soil under our boots, and a day’s toil in sweat and filth that would last satisfyingly until after dark for six running weeks (day’s off from noon Saturday till Sunday), the transcendental words of the late poets and authors confirmed our suspicion that we had truly left nothing back in the cities of Little Rock and Conway, Vancouver or Coquitlam, and that we were pursuing something elemental, in the woods, something vital.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

Walden 1854

As with any evidence supporting an individual (or collective) belief, the details of such arguments are not checked into fully, and the lustre of Thoreau’s mythology was not fully tarnished by the truth surrounding it. I commented to a coworker that we seemed to be using many of Thoreau’s words on a daily basis and that this quotability amounted to a different appreciation for his works than might have otherwise been the case. “Which was probably by design,” my friend commented, something that has stuck with me in interpreting the writer’s legacy, not only of Thoreau, but of a wider sample of authors.

As noted in Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac which pays tribute to the author’s birth today, we are familiar enough with the ridge-poles of Thoreau’s biography:

“Born David Henry Thoreau in Concord, Massachusetts (1817). He grew up exploring the woods and fields of Massachusetts, encouraged by his mother to learn as much as he could from nature. He went to Harvard, but he didn’t like it very much — he refused a diploma since it cost five dollars. He worked for a while in his father’s pencil factory, and as a public school teacher, and he became close friends with Ralph Waldo Emerson.

“In 1841, the Emersons invited Thoreau to live with them and work as a handyman and gardener, and he helped take care of their children, taking them on nature walks and telling them stories. Thoreau stayed with the Emersons for two years, and during that time he worked on his writing, and through Emerson, became friends with many of the Transcendentalists. In 1842, Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife rented some property from Emerson and moved to the area. When he first met Thoreau in 1842, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote in his journal: “Mr. Thoreau dined with us yesterday. He is a singular character — a young man with much of wild original nature still remaining in him; and so far as he is sophisticated, it is in a way and method of his own. He is as ugly as sin, long-nosed, queer-mouthed, and with uncouth and rustic, though courteous manners, corresponding very well with such an exterior.” The two became good friends, and Thoreau planted a garden for the Hawthornes and did maintenance work for Ellery Channing and his wife.

“In 1844, Emerson bought land on the shore of Walden Pond. Walden Pond was a pristine, 61-acre pond, surrounded by woods, and Emerson agreed to let his friend live on the land and build a cabin there.”

The Writer’s Almanac – July 12th, 2009

To us there could be no greater icon of the wilderness and self-reliance we felt ourselves ambassadors for six weeks every summer, and his words were capable of propelling us out into our diverse corners of the camp to instruct daily lessons in canoeing, outdoor survival, orienteering, cooking, and on and on, despite an awareness of the flaws in the conventional Thoreau Story. Keillor continues:

“People often assume that Thoreau went out into the wilderness to write his famous treatise on nature, but in fact, he was living less than two miles from the village of Concord. He had regular dinners with friends, continued to do odd jobs for the Emersons, and had frequent visitors.”

The Writer’s Almanac – July 12th, 2009

We were not the only ones. Thoreau’s influence among authors, thinkers and political leaders is as ranging as any of his period or area of writings:

Mahatma Gandhi, President John F. Kennedy, civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr., Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, and Russian author Leo Tolstoy all spoke of being strongly affected by Thoreau’s work, particularly Civil Disobedience.

Wikipedia

Gandhi even went so far as to remark:

“[Thoreau’s] ideas influenced me greatly. I adopted some of them and recommended the study of Thoreau to all of my friends who were helping me in the cause of Indian Independence. Why I actually took the name of my movement from Thoreau’s essay ‘On the Duty of Civil Disobedience,’ written about 80 years ago.”

Webb Miller

Though Thoreau did (technically) put his money where his mouth was, and refused to pay taxes he believed would be used to support a war he opposed, landing him in jail, he was bailed out by friends after only a night (albeit against his will) there is the same asterisk which accompanies the author’s paeans to nature: is having imagined and arranged such moving words as to call others to action more worthy an act than living out such creeds? As history bends to those who record it, one would nearly suspect that writing such ideas is much more powerful an act than singly living them. Disconnected from the imperfections and realities of the real authors of our quotations, we can strive to achieve the heights of their words’ promise.

According to Howard Zinn, Ralph Waldo Emerson visited Thoreau during his night in prison. Emerson opposed the war as well, but did little to protest it, and asked his friend, “What are you doing in there?” The legend says that Thoreau replied, “What are you doing out there?”

This anecdote need not be entirely truthful, I doubt. As it was not crippling to the theory’s validity that America’s founding fathers owned slaves while they wrote “All men are created equal,” Thoreau need not be living example of his words, as it takes some time for history, for reality, and truth lived to catch up to truths expressed. If not for those who first express them, would we ever realize such dreams possibilities?

Marquezologue

As part of my summer course work finishing up PDP at SFU, I took an eight-credit Designs for Learning Language Arts course with Dr. Carolyn Mamchur – to this date one of the most intelligent, warm and inspirational people I have yet encountered – during which each student was to study their favourite author. Since declaring English as my major some five years earlier, I had “belonged” to several authors: Wordsworth, Hesse, Hemingway, Whitman, Coupland, and even John Krakaur. But by the time of my course with Carolyn, I was enthralled by both Bob Dylan and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Each’s obsession with magic and the ethereal nature of their art absorbed me that summer to the extent that I wrote a short novel during those months with characters who lived at the corner of streets named Zimmerman and Gabo in homage.

One of the projects I was to undertake as a final assessment for the Mamchur course was an address as Garcia Marquez, a daunting task given the ability of his writing to somehow encapsulate all of man’s experience on earth: sadness and joy, nostalgia and exaltation, death and birth. Below is the text of my speech, which I delivered along with slips of paper sporadically given out to the members of my class. To date it is the last university assignment I have completed, and one of my favourite pieces of creative writing, even though many of the best phrases are stolen (with credit given – though something has happened to some of the footnotes…) from the master.

Marquezologueþ

We all must end up here, where the light of the day dissipates and congeals, and we are separated from our memories, taken from this life. Many people survive on the thought that they will avoid this moment somehow, that through certain actions or words life might spare them a death filled with abject horror. I count myself among those who have wished that this were not the truth of living, who have asked to what end I have been sequestered here in an absurd fear, and in many ways I have generated my life as if perpetually facing this final scene. I have sought to see the world from a place outside of time, for it is our brief lives which are responsible for our obscured view of the truth. From a simple desk, with its wide surface and view of the sea through the brass-fit framed window, I have tried to touch this death where memory is stolen from us, committing myself to paper and ink as a means of final survival.

For years now many people have assumed that I have given more to my vocation than a commitment to the long patience of creation. My name is seldom mentioned without the epithet of magical, or fantastic, and to those outside my immediate circle of family and close friends I am no doubt seen as something more than a man who spends his time alone with his books. People do not want to believe that I have made my work the act of sitting behind my desk for the longest of hours, smoking cigarettes end to end – addicted as I am to the sensation of inhaling the same smoke, over and over again, until I die – scribbling with pens and variously typeset keys. They have always supposed that there has been something unreal behind the work spaces – collectively known to my family as the Caves of the Mafia – I have etched into each of my homes. It is a very human unwillingness to see the words of a page and assume them supported by nothing more than a man at his desk, filling pages with combinations of the letters. As if the lack of magic in a piece of artwork or moment in life would not be the utmost fantastic!

I should confess though that as a young man I had dreamed the life of a writer to be so many other things. By the age of twenty-five I had followed Hemingway to Europe, along with the romantic idea that I had somehow already achieved a literary immortality (in the brief run of daily newspaper columns that amounted, really, to nothing). I had just dropped out of the faculty of law after six semesters devoted entirely to reading everything I could get my hands on and reciting from memory the unrepeatable poetry of the Spanish Golden Age. I had already read, in translation, and in borrowed editions, all the books I would have needed to learn the novelist’s craft, and had published some stories in newspaper supplements that had won the enthusiasm of my friends and the attention of a few critics. The month before I was to turn twenty three, I had passed the age of military service and was a veteran of two bouts of gonorrhea. Every day I smoked, with no foreboding, sixty cigarettes made from the most barbaric tobacco, sleeping with the best company wherever I found myself at night. What more could I have wanted?

For reasons of poverty rather than taste, I had anticipated what would be the style in twenty years time: untrimmed moustache, tousled hair, jeans, flowered shirts and a pilgrim’s sandals. In a darkened movie theatre, not knowing I was nearby, a girl I knew told someone: ‘Poor Gabito is a lost cause.’

But I already did not belong to that same world as was attempting to grade my successes. My wardrobe and carousing of those days spoke to the fondness I had begun to hold for George Bernard Shaw’s declaration that, From a very early age, I have had to interrupt my education to go to school. As the acquaintances of my youth and law school began to pull away into the shadows of financial and romantic security, I only continued to withdraw, along with several inseparable friends, living on essentially less than nothing, preparing to publish a radical new magazine. The desperation of each action in those days gave my life a sensation of vitality, and if you will excuse the expression, integrity. To the immense disappointment of my parents, I could have no more returned to my studies than I would have been willing to sacrifice my very soul.

My mother and I journeyed during this time in my early twenties to sell the house of my grandparents, where I had grown up until the age of eight. When she met me in the company of my friends, she mistook me for a beggar, and spent the balance of the trip urging me back into law school at the behest of my father, whom I had not seen in several months. On the returning train, she realized I was not asleep, and asked me: ‘What are you thinking about?’

‘I’m writing,’ I answered. And I rushed to be more amiable: ‘I mean, I’m thinking about what I’m going to write when I get to the office.’

‘Aren’t you afraid your papa will die of grief?’

I eluded the charge with a long pass of the cape.

‘He’s had so many reasons to die, this one must be the least fatal.,’ I said, though it was not the most propitious time for me to attempt a second novel, after having been mired in the first one and attempting other forms of fiction, with luck or without it, but that night I imposed it on myself like a vow made in war: I would write it or die. Or as Rilke had said: ‘If you think you are capable of living without writing, do not write.’

‘So what shall I tell your papa?’

Tell him I love him very much and that thanks to him I’m going to be a writer.’ Without compassion I anticipated any other alternatives: ‘Nothing but a writer.’

It had begun six years earlier, when I had read Kafka and been struck as if by lightning. As Gregor awoke from unsettling dreams one morning, he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin. He lay on his hard, armorlike back and when he raised his head a little he saw his vaulted brown belly divided into sections by stiff arches from whose height the coverlet had already slipped and was about to slide off completely. His many legs, which were pathetically thin compared to the rest of his bulk, flickered helplessly before his eyes.

I had set out just like that, after reading The Metamorphosis, at eight o’clock the next morning, to find out what the hell had been done in the novel from the bible on up to what was being written at the time. For the next six years, I dropped out of studying. I dropped out of everything. Kafka had written a novel that opened the door to the possibility of a singular literary voice, the idea that with a long enough patience, new literature could still be contributed. Years later, when I would be months into the initial drafts of One Hundred Years Of Solitude, I was buoyed by the naïve confidence that in my dreams I was inventing literature.

At twenty three though, what can one know about motivations? I couldn’t conceive of a direction for my ambitions – I merely suspected that I was the master of my own destiny, and if I would declare that I was fearless loudly, it was to ward off the prospect of encountering my greatest of fears in truth and reality. On the trip with my mother, to sell my deceased grandparents’ home, I would encounter my own mortality in the vision of a crumbling house and decaying town, a realization so decisive that the longest and most diligent of lives would not be enough for me to finish recounting it. Now, with the sum total of my hundred years behind me, I know it was the most important of all the decisions I had to make in my career as a writer. That is to say: in my entire life.

‘I’ve come to ask you to please go with me to sell the house.’

My mother did not have to tell me which one, or where, because for us only one existed in the world: my grandparents’ old house in Aracataca, where I’d had the good fortune to be born, and where I had not lived again after the age of eight. More than a home, the house was a town, hosting several sittings of each meal throughout the days that would end with a cocoon of hammocks struck up and upon one another in the courtyard.

But in those memories of my pre-adolescence, I was much more interested in the future than the past, and so my recollections of the town were not yet idealized by nostalgia. I remembered it as it was: a good place to live where everybody knew everybody else, located on the banks of a river of transparent water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point. Every year during the month of March a family of ragged gypsies would set up their tents near the village, and with a great uproar of pipes and kettle drums they would display new inventions. First they brought the magnet. A heavy gypsy with an untamed beard and sparrow hands, who introduced himself as Melquiades, put on a bold public demonstration of what he himself called the eighth wonder of the alchemists of Macedonia. He went from house to house dragging two metal ingots and everybody was amazed to see pots, pans, tongs and braziers tumble down from their places and beams creak from the desperation of nails and screws trying to emerge, and even objects that had been lost for a long time appeared from where they had been searched for most and went dragging along in turbulent confusion behind Melquiades magical irons. ‘Things have a life of their own,’ the gypsy proclaimed with a harsh accent. ‘It’s simply a matter of waking up their souls.’ Œ

I never thought it legitimate that life should make use of so many coincidences forbidden literature, and this thread of my appreciation for the mysteries of the world is often what is attached to my writing as surreal, or – that wicked title again – magical. I owe this sense of wonder to the tutelage of my grandmother, solely, who was seized by the feeling that there was a man bigger than all of us walking through the plantations while nothing moved, and everything seemed perplexed at the passing of that man£. She was a credulous and impressionable woman, in whom the mysteries of daily life struck much terror. She saw that the rocking chairs rocked alone, that the scent of jasmines from the garden was like an invisible ghost, that a cord dropped by accident on the floor had the shape of numbers that might have been the grand prize in the lottery, and her influence peopled my reality with the silent stirrings of another world.

I left Aracataca at the age of eight and did not return for fifteen years. Though my parents had experienced the brief encounter with history that the town enjoyed – the result of a banana plantation which lasted until just before my birth – I grew up in a village from which the wider world was already in retreat. Ignorant of the erosion the place would see in my displaced years, my childhood home began to crystallize into gems of nostalgia I would take to be the truths of my life until many years later. The sensation of having survived on rations of so many false memories became the thriving current of my life, and I have become indebted to afternoons such as when my grandfather paid the thirty reales and we were led into the center of a tent, where there was a giant with a hairy torso and a shaved head, with a copper ring in his nose and a heavy iron chain on his ankle, watching over a pirate’s chest. When it was opened by the giant, the chest gave off a glacial exhalation. Inside there was only an enormous, transparent block with infinite internal needles in which the light of the sunset was broken up into colored stars. Disconcerted, knowing that children were waiting for an immediate explanation, my grandfather ventured a murmur: ‘It’s the largest diamond in the world.’

‘No,’ the giant countered. ‘It’s ice.’Œ Œ

During the two days I would spend in Aracataca with my mother, I reencountered the streets of my lost youth, gripped in the endless haze and heat of its eternal siesta since the banana company’s departure some twenty five years earlier. The exodus had left the town in the fearful whirlwind of dust and rubble being spun about by the wrath of a biblical hurricaneŒ. It was as if there had been a fearful dry storm of volcanic thunder and lightning and the awesome polar wind which had turned the bowels of the sea upside down and carried off an animal circus set up on the square of the former slave port where for weeks afterwards men caught elephants in casting nets, drowned clowns and giraffes hanging on trapezes from the fury of the tempestæ.

In the heat of that first dusty afternoon it was as if we were also seeing that the sea had also been stolen, including not only the physical waters visible from our window to the horizon, but everything that was understood by sea in the broadest sense. The flora and fauna belonging to the water, its system of winds, the inconstancy of its millibars, everything. I could never have imagined that they would have been capable of doing what they did to carry off the numbered locks of our old checkerboard sea with gigantic suction dredges, and in its torn crater we could see appear the instantaneous sparkle of the submerged remains of the very ancient city of Santa Maria de Dareien, laid low by the whirlwind. We could see the flagship of the first admiral of the ocean sea, just as I had once seen it from my window, identical, trapped by a clump of goose barnacles that the teeth of the dredges had pulled out by the roots before we had time to order an homage worthy of the historic importance of that wreck. They carried off everything that had been the reasons for our wars and the motivations for our power and left behind only the deserted plain of harsh lunar dustæ that was my first encounter with the immediate weight of death. Until then, I had conceived of death as a misfortune that befell others, other people’s fathers and mothers, other people’s brothers and sisters and husbands and wives, but not my own. I was at the time a person whose life was slow, who did not see myself growing old, or falling sick, or dying, but now was someone who would disappear little by little in my own time, turning into memories, mists from other days until I would be absorbed into oblivion. Œ

Each thing, just by looking at it, aroused in me an irresistible longing to write so I would not die. I had suffered this on other occasions, but only on that afternoon did I recognize it as a crisis of inspiration – that word, abominable but so real, that demolishes everything in its path in order to reach its ashes in time. Standing in the room in which I had been born, scorching in the stillness of the afternoon heat, I examined the room with the clairvoyance of my last days and for the first time saw the truth: the final bed, the pitiful dressing table whose clouded, patient mirror would not reflect my image again, the chipped porcelain washbasin with the water and towel and soap meant for other hands, the heartless speed of the clock racing toward the unelectable appointment on my final afternoon. I crossed my arms over my chest and began to hear the radiant voices of the slaves singing the six o’clock salve in the mills, and through the window I could see the diamond of Venus in the sky that was dying forever, the eternal snows, the new vine whose yellow bellflowers I would not see bloom on the following Saturday, in the house closed in mourning, the final brilliance of life that would never, through all eternity, be repeated again.

In the light of that August afternoon began a period where I wrote down everything I thought, everything I knew, writing on pieces of cardboard that I would tack behind the toilet, writing down the few things I remembered to make sure that I would never forget them. I wrote down signs which would seize me on the yellow ledger margins that I would roll like cigarettes and hide in the most unlikely chinks in the house where only I would be able to find them in order to remember who I was when I would no longer remember anythingæ. Which is where I find myself at this moment, in the spilling purgatory of death, where so begin to erode my monuments of words, written over the past fifty years with only the most selfish of intentions: to steel myself against the natural ravages of time, and to enjoy during the brief course of my life a dialogue with those pieces of myself many people would ignore or otherwise take for granted. In the course of my many years I have learned that Life is indeed not what one has lived, but what one remembers, and how one remembers it in order to recount it. My youth, dreams and grim nostalgia which compose my soul and which will now dissipate in the swells of time have taught me that there might be no other village, nation, or universe except the one I could create in my own image and likeness, where space was changed and time corrected by the designs of my absolute willæ. I have only ever sought to achieve this experience in the effort of establishing a solidarity with the people of my home.

I have written so that upon my departure, the people of Macondo will hold their breath for the fraction of centuries my body will take to fall into the abyss, so that they will not need to look at one another to realize that they will no longer be all present, that they never will be. But they will also know, in this, my most personal of fantasies, that things will be different from then on, that their houses will have wider doors, higher ceilings, and stronger floors so that the memory of Colonel Aureliano Buendia might go everywhere without bumping into beams, and so that no one in the future would dare make disparaging remarks against either Florentino Ariza or Fermina Daza, because they will paint their house fronts gay colours to make the memory or Ursula Inguaren eternal, and they will break their backs digging for springs among the stones, and plant flowers on the cliffs so that in future years at dawn, the passengers on great liners will awaken, suffocated by the smell of gardens on the high seas, and the captain will have to come down from the bridge in his dress uniform, with his astrolabe, his pole star, and his row of war metals, and, pointing to the promontory of roses on the horizon, he will say in fourteen languages, Look, there, where the wind is so peaceful now that it’s gone to sleep beneath the beds, over there, where the sun is so bright the sunflowers don’t know which way to turn, yes, over there, that’s Gabito’s village£.

 July 30th 2006


þ All works cited are those of Gabriel Garcia Marquez unless otherwise noted.

Living to Tell the Tale

Kafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis

Living to Tell the Tale

ΠOne Hundred Years of Solitude

£ Leaf Storm and Other Stories

Living to Tell the Tale

ΠOne Hundred Years of Solitude

æ The Autumn of the Patriarch

Love in the Time of Cholera

The General in His Labyrinth

æ Autumn of the Patriarch

£ Leaf Storm and other Stories: “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World”

 

Happy Birthday Walt Whitman

Whitman

Near the end of a sunny weekend I have spent immersed in Shakespeare, Orwell and words written physically on a page (somehow becoming a strange thought for this literature-teacher), I am called back to the stillness, soul and freedom spoken by the great poets.

In Arkansas I had a friend who taught me about flyfishing and with whom I enjoyed many summer mornings at a summer camp in the Ozark foothills who told me that his grandfather had written into his will that B. must read every word that Walt Whitman ever wrote. Struck by the power of such an urging, I immediately invested in a hardbound copy of Leaves of Grass and was transfixed by the American Bard’s greatness and also simplicity: as Shakespeare must be thought of as a man in his twenties carving out a life in scribbled pages, so is Whitman a more-than-mortal (though quite-less young) man bent on the explorative expression of his honest self. As it turns summer, and the bloom of life in the local woods and mountains increase their invitations to adventure, it is good to think of Walt Whitman, on what would be his 190th birthday:

I exist as I am, that is enough, If no other in the world be aware I sit content, And if each and all be aware I sit content. One world is aware and by far the largest to me, and that is     myself, And whether I come to my own to-day or in ten thousand or     ten million years, I can cheerfully take it now, or with equal cheerfulness I can     wait.

From today’s Writer’s Almanac:

It’s the birthday of Walt Whitman, (books by this author) born at West Hills, Long Island (1819). When he was four, his family moved to Brooklyn, and he spent much of his youth and early manhood there. He loved to ride the ferry between Manhattan and Brooklyn, and wrote about it the journey in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” The words of his poem are now etched into a fence at the new Fulton Ferry Landing pier.

Whitman hung out all over New York City, in clubs and pubs, including at a place called Pfaff’s Beer Hall, on Broadway near Bleecker Street. The place to drink was in the cellar, and to get down to it, Whitman and his fellow carousers had to navigate down a set of uneven stairs. Inside, the bar had high ceilings, was poorly lit, and was always filled with thick smoke. Whitman spent many nights there. He even wrote a few lines of verse about the place:

“The vault at Pfaff’s where the drinkers and     laughers meet to eat and drink and carouse;                                                while on the walk immediately     overhead pass the myriad feet of Broadway.”

Whitman worked as a journalist in Brooklyn and roamed the streets on foot, carrying around a polished cane, people-watching, and seeking out story ideas. He also wrote editorials decrying the area’s various problems. He felt that the place was dirty and disorderly, and wrote in the Brooklyn Evening Star: “Our City is literally overrun with swine, outraging all decency, and foraging upon every species of eatables within their reach. … Hogs, Dogs and Cows should be banished from our streets.”

He had several homosexual relationships in New York City (though the term “homosexual” was not in use at the time), mostly with young men in their late teens and early twenties.

In 1855, Whitman self-published the first edition of his Leaves of Grass. It contained 12 poems and was 95 pages long.

“Song of Myself” begins: “I celebrate myself, And what I assume you shall assume, For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.