By admin on February 23, 2012 in Blogs

Today is All Saints Day. Everything is closed, the churches are full. The sun shines above in a cloudless blue sky. Being in Portugal has brought me back in touch with the role of the Bible and Christianity in Western life. Here holidays and the Church are still taken seriously and the contrast between secular Toronto and religious Ponta Delgada reveals that though one may consider oneself an atheist, the language one uses is flooded with words that have sacred pasts. Take a simple advertising phrase like “indulge your senses” from a chocolate company. From the Latin to be courteous and complaisant, the word was usurped in Medieval Europe by the Church which sold “plenary indulgences” to raise funds for its wars against the Muslims in the south and for internal politicking. The stigma of sin was attached to the word even its secular context simply because of its history.

Words accrue meaning and continue to change as time passes, in that they are living and breathing members of the community of language. Some words die out, others are born out of the marriage of previous words. There is an ecology of language, populations of words that have characteristic accents, local meanings. Words migrate and are punished and praised. They even take on ornaments in modern society, a cedilla here, an umlaut there (think of IKEA). In a way, a writer is much like a shepherd (another Biblical image) trying to corral words into meaning between two cardboard covers, a little bible (from the original Greek meaning book) that tells a story, many stories. Perhaps it might have readers, maybe even believers. The evolution of the book, like its words, is unpredictable. What rules shape the changing morphology of language or taste? Which book written today will continue to resonate through time? Can Darwinian rules reveal the shifting nature of art? Only time will tell.

October 18, 2010, Ponta Delgada

I am a reluctant swimmer. Never learned it as a child, and there is another blog/PSA about teaching the value of swimming to immigrants in Ontario (who have the highest rate of water accidents in our province of abundant lakes). In this post, however, I want to discuss a more personal lesson. For several weeks now, I have been a regular swimmer at the harbor in Ponta Delgada. In the summer the water was calm, warm and the swimming pool busy with people. Now a rainy autumn has brought with it a roiling ocean (the ferries stopped running a week ago) and the harbor pool is almost deserted. Only the regulars come, and I know I am one because the lifeguard makes a point of saying “Asta Manha” to me every day. Me and the other retirees who use the pool every afternoon. The water is still warm (20 degrees Celsius) but two to three foot waves break into the harbor and send a fair bit of foam splashing along the walls and the rocks.

When I first began swimming in this harbor, the boundaries of the pool marked out with a line of buoys seemed quite far away. It took me a quite some time and energy to make it around the edge. But as the weeks passed, the pool gradually shrank in size. I know it better now and can reach its ends faster. So easy had it become to swim, to dive down to the rocks at the bottom, and to chase after the numerous fish that I began to wonder if the challenge had gone out of swimming in the sea. But the autumn winds blew that confidence away. My proficiency is gone, and the waves have given me back the earlier excitement of swimming. The waves bob me up and down, pitch saltwater down my nostrils and force me to the surface gasping for breath. The rhythm of motion is lost in gasping for air, and I am once more learning to swim. I struggle through the waves and currents to the other side of the pool and walk up the steps to dry land with a sense of achievement. Safe in the harbor, my glasses restoring vision to my eyes, I gaze upon the water and the sight is a strange disappointment. From outside, the water looks neither scary nor exciting. In fact it even manages to look docile with the ripple of undulating waves moving back and forth. The heroic struggle is revealed to be passe.

The same lesson holds for my writing. When I am in the library, I swim among words and ideas. Thoughts crowd me, push up against characters and emotions, squelch the very breath of narrative as they all seek to have their voices heard, their actions played out. It’s thrilling and tiring. But once I am out of the writing mode and I look upon the pages, I notice only the ebb and flow of text. What was all that fuss about? I wonder.

Then I think of those writers who are not swimming in a sheltered harbor behind the protection of breakwater. Those proficient swimmers who are out in the ocean swell where words can sweep you away for miles, pitch and turn you a hundred times over in one spot. How do they do it? Did they all start out in a small harbor or a lake? Did they learn to swim downstream first before deciding to turn against the current? Or is it just that some of us will swim the Atlantic, cross the channel, while others never to leave their backyard pools and shallow ponds? The world is full of swimmers, not all are champions.

In the harbor of Horta, many years ago, a sailing boat berthed. Nothing quite unusual about this. For centuries the harbor has seen sail boats arrive from Brazil, from the Americas, from Africa and Asia. But this boat came with a crew that painted a square patch of the concrete breakwater. Today every bit of the harbor’s exposed surface is marked by emblems, drawings, markers of the visiting sailboats. Some are retouched to reflect return visits. The harbor is famous for this “tradition” and to some the sight is colorful to others unsightly. This brings up the next question for writing: If everyone made their mark on the wall, then the wall would have no distinguishing mark at all. Or would it?

October 12, 2010, Ponta Delgada

My morning walk to the library skirts the southern end of the campus of the University of the Azores and passes by a primary school. The primary school has high walls and a gate guarded by a porter’s cabin. Not unsual but still a bit of a surprise. What is unusual is that the university campus is also gated and fenced in. And on Sunday, I noticed that someone had carefully chained the gates shut. At a primary school, one assumes that the gates and walls are as much to keep the children inside as strangers out, but to lock up the grounds of a university, what purpose can that serve?

The University of the Azores has two campuses, one here in Ponta Delgada and the other in Angra on the island of Terceira. It serves the islands and is the reason for why Ponta Delgada has so many young people youth in its downtown core. My apartment building houses a young couple, a tall and reedy young man with curly hair and a friendly young woman with straight brown hair. I’ve seen her at times with a child’s backpack and him wearing a garbage bag with blue fuzzy ears and rabbit tails stuck on it. We haven’t actually met in the stairwell so I imagined them to be primary school teachers. The Azores tends to get young, inexperienced teachers from the mainland who come, gain experience for a couple of years and flee to their own towns and cities on the continent for…who knows for what? But then I walked by the campus and saw others dressed in similar outfits. Trash bags adorned with paper cutouts and bits of toy fur. Groups of university-aged men and women engaged in some form of elaborate gaming exercise that now goes by the moniker of “team building” at companies and other organizations. Their faces are intense but gleeful. Their attention split between the clues on the paper and the sights and sounds around them. Some spy on the other groups making their way through the campus and city streets to gain clues. But for their sizes and the cigarettes in their hands, they could be schoolchildren in a playground.

Maybe there is a reason for gates and wrought iron fences around this university after all.

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