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Corners of the mind

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

How do we shape our lives, make up our minds where we’re going? Sometimes we act when there is no clear need to act. We make a decision. Or is that the right word? We create situations that make the next step likely or inevitable.

Ten years ago I began to write this monthly piece for The Buzz, writing about anything that I thought might be interesting. The title I chose, The Other Notebook, implies that it was a column for the occasional, the suggestive, the mysteriously memorable. Each month I waited for a moment, a thought, an offhand remark that was resonant, that offered a subject for argument or explication or meditation.

A few weeks ago I found myself in Toronto, and as is often the case when travelling, there were moments that lit up, interesting in themselves, to be developed, perhaps, into something more. A morning visit to the Royal Ontario Museum led me into a display in a far corner, where there were samples of what are called “proverbial coffins,” inventive funeral furnishings created by the Ga tribe in Ghana. One of the coffins was shaped and painted like a huge fish, probably a red snapper. Another was a somewhat miniaturized Mercedes Benz. The coffin-sized sculptured boxes treated death as an opportunity—splendid, half-comic—to sum up a vanished life.

A day or so later I was in the Art Gallery of Ontario. On display was a travelling show of the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat, a black American artist and musician who began as a street artist, building a style out of wall art and graffiti, and died in 1988 from a heroin overdose. He was twenty seven.

By chance I walked into the Basquiat exhibition just after passing by a series of symbolic figures by the Canadian Anishnaabe artist Norval Morrisseau. I was struck by my sense of an imaginative parallel between the two artists, suggestions of spiritual struggle and intense dramatic eloquence, but the treatment of the painting’s surface was very different, Basquiat working his symbolic figures in the apparently disorganized gestures of scribbling on walls, while Morrisseau designed his bright decorative silhouettes in the manner of an accomplished craftsman. Yet both, outsiders in their world, created symbolic portraits of great force.

Is there more to be said? Not right now. Outside the museums and galleries, the streets were frozen, in the grip of wind, ice and snow. It wasn’t the season for exploration, and yet as I went from place to place, I carried with me memories of the city, the streetcars that transported my family downtown back when I was five or six years old, restaurants in familiar districts where I used to meet with friends while I was in town doing freelance gigs. I could remember that I was seven years old when World War II ended, and I tried to organize a parade down the sidewalk of our street.

In attendance at St Stephen in the Fields, where my daughter was being installed as the incumbent priest, I heard a familiar musical setting of a George Herbert poem. It was written by my old friend Bill Barnes who died of complications of diabetes in Kingston, Ontario in 1992.

And then … 

Of course there are more memories that might be written down, the scraps of the past we all carry about, echoes resonating through the aging mind, love and death, the explicable and inexplicable night figures, the way a newly discovered Jewish restaurant recalled another that had moved away.

I have spent nine full and happy years, just starting the tenth, letting these corners of the mind, dark and light, speak their piece here. Don’t overstay your welcome, I’ve always told myself. So I’m closing The Other Notebook. I’ve warned the editor and thanked him for his hospitality.

My thanks also to all those who have made the trip with me.

The Buzz heartily thanks David Helwig.


The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

I’m writing this the day after a snow storm, and given the persistence of the Island winter you may be reading it the day after another. Perception expands and contracts as a blizzard passes by, the intensity of wild wind and snow creating a kind of timeless time with all appointments cancelled, the fierce gusts threatening chaos as they beat against the walls of the house. Then muffled silence when the wind falls and life grows motionless and muted.

Wakeful, we lie in bed and wonder what might go wrong. We get up into a cold room, pull the blind aside and assess the consequences of the night. If the wind is still howling the dog is likely to stare out an opened door and retreat, but as the day grows light, the plows pass on the highway, and a few birds begin to appear at the feeder hung between trees in the middle of the yard.

Yesterday I stared out the window as I assembled breakfast, made coffee, and suddenly realized that among the birds on the ground by the feeder was a small flock of snow buntings. I have seen them in previous winters as they rose from farm fields, flew haphazard across the road and settled into another field, a handful of glittering white, like rice tossed into the sky. But I had never before observed them from close up. 

These days the majority of birds at our feeder are goldfinches, a flock in muted winter plumage, often accompanied by the most common neighbourhood visitors, chickadees and bluejays. In past years we have played host to purple finches, house finches (I can’t tell the two apart), redpolls, woodpeckers, mourning doves, and the occasional crossbill. (Crows also arrive to assert their size and dominance.) Our feeder has migrated from one part of the property to another to avoid the deepest drifts and in the hope of discouraging squirrels, once in an attempt to stop nourishing a sleek fat rat who arrived daily to gobble down leftovers.

The change from house finches to goldfinches must have its reasons, but I don’t know them. The wintering finches come in substantial numbers, and sometimes the impression of a group of them clustered on the ground is of a seething mass of insects. Then suddenly they are in the air and dispersed with an almost magical swiftness.

And to my delight yesterday morning, beside them fed a dozen or so snow buntings, larger birds, with white breasts, brown wings showing a flash of white, a dusting of yellow and pale brown on the head, beady black eyes.

Are these the famous Snowbirds from Gene McClellan’s song? I had always assumed so, but when I went to Google to see what it had to say, I was astonished to discover that the name Snowbird is usually taken to refer to the dark-eyed junco, which arrives at feeding stations early in the winter and vanishes in the spring. Pretty, tidy birds, with a smooth dark back and white breast, they have always appealed to me, but I had never dreamed that it was the junco that shared its nickname with the aging Canadians wintering in Florida. Not to speak of the demonstration squadron of the Canadian Air Force roaring past on ceremonial occasions.

The snow bunting, with its glittering combination of white and colour, white patches on the wing that identity it to a certainty, displays the wonder of its sunlit flight skittering swiftly across the winter landscape. Snowbirds. To me at least. My neighbour David MacInnis tells me he read somewhere that they are predictably apt to arrive with a blizzard. You’d think they must have first rights to the name.

They are the gift of night and storm. And after our most recent hours of whiteout I was accorded the novel blessing of snow buntings seen from our window, rare visitors hopping across the drifts, picking up seeds.

The Vanishing Script

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

You couldn’t exactly call it a system, my way of handling documents that have to do with my profession. I know I should be able to find things when I want them, so I have a pile of folders which contain information about work I did in the past, contracts in particular, signed pages that have to do with what was published or broadcast and who owns the rights.

Sometime in the last year or so I was looking through one of these folders and I found that it was haunted. A dramatic and exaggerated way to put it, I suppose, but there was a strange moment when I found myself staring at a CBC contract for a radio script called Doctor of the Soul. I couldn’t remember anything about it. Nothing. Perhaps, I thought, it had been cancelled at an early stage and never produced.

It was 1980 when I abandoned my tenured teaching position and began to make my living as a full-time freelance writer. To earn what I needed, I wrote all kinds of things, and I suppose it was inevitable that I would lose track of some of them. I have written a monthly piece for The Buzz for nine years; that’s over a hundred columns. While I couldn’t sit down and list them all, I thought I could recall something about each one if provoked by headline or subject matter. But the radio play had vanished.

Well, I thought, that was all thirty years ago. I went back to other things, assuming that the radio play was an idea that had fallen by the wayside.

Then a couple of weeks ago, I got an email from the Seth, the artist and designer who illustrated About Love, my translation of three stories by Anton Chekhov. On an internet site he had been listening to an old series of CBC radio plays called Vanishing Point, and had noticed that I had written a couple of his favourites. One of them was Doctor of the Soul.

Pleased with his praise, I was also startled to learn that the forgotten script had in fact been produced, and so I searched for and found Vanishing Point on the net, and in the list of plays available, there was the mysterious Doctor of the Soul. It didn’t take me long to link up and play it. Pretty good show, really, one of the philosophical mysteries that were a specialty of the series. The phrase Doctor of the Soul (I’d already guessed this) was a reference to a psychotherapist or psychiatrist (psyche is Greek for soul), and the story deals with a weird and inexplicable link that grows up between a young woman and her psychiatrist. She is distressed that her dreams seem to be rearrangements of things that have actually happened, that she can’t break through to anything unique or original. But when her dreams do begin to penetrate to some other possibilities, she is intensely upset.

I had obviously discussed this story idea with William Lane, the producer of Vanishing Point, and he had decided to go ahead with it. With only three speaking parts it was economical to produce, and it made a good fit with the ontological oddities that the series explored. Original music contributed to its strangeness.

It was the kind of story I sometimes invented, and listening to it, I could recognize elements of dialogue that were in my own style. There was only one problem. I still couldn’t remember writing it. There is a contract that will tell me exactly when the agreement was signed and what I was paid, so I have to assume I wrote the script. It sounds like me.


So it’s there in cyberspace, waiting for me, or you if you want to go back all those years. Just google Vanishing Point. The Doctor of the Soul is always on call.

Early Music

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

I love to sing, or at least I did until my voice deteriorated. My mother was known to say that I sang before I could talk. Though she was not given to hyperbole, I could never quite imagine that. I liked the idea, but I couldn’t quite picture it. I can now, thanks in part to new technologies. I’ll tell you the story.

When my partner Judy and I got together a couple of decades ago, we both already had children. She has three daughters, I have two. A couple of years ago, her middle daughter Caitlin, who was living with her husband in San Francisco, decided to start a family. The next thing she knew she was being told that she was carrying triplets.

Last summer, those triplets, two boys and one girl, about a year and a half old, visited the Island. It was already clear that the girl, Ellie, was going to talk before the two identical boys, and she has since piled up vocabulary at great speed. The boys are quieter. Though identical, the two of them have differing personalities, Will the more outgoing, Luke inclined to be shy, though he was very brave on a slide in the park at Tea Hill.

News of the triplets regularly drifts in from California, and one day came the announcement that Luke, though he was not yet speaking, could sing. I was, of course, curious about just how he learned to do it. Soon enough, thanks to the internet, there appeared on the screen a few seconds of a video recording, Luke standing close to the camera, his expression inward, concentrated, as he began to intone “Twinkle, twinkle, little star,” humming the notes to himself with remarkable accuracy.

Simple as that, a child humming, a slight smile on his face as his memory brought back what he had heard his mother sing. So my mother’s story was less mysterious than I had found it. A child who has not yet learned to form words can obviously have an instinct to sound out notes by vibrating the vocal cords. Luke’s mother is musical, has sung in a number of good choirs, and she sang to the triplets, and one day Luke, in a moment of inspiration, discovered that he could make the same pleasing sounds.

The notes of “Twinkle, Twinkle” are elements of the diatonic scale (doh, re, mi, etc), the tune beginning with the crucial long interval of the fifth and working back down the scale to the tonic where it began. Students of linguistics have developed theories about patterns inherent in the brain that have some sort of axiomatic function in the learning of language, and presumably there is also a rulebook somewhere in the brain for music.

Though not all cultures use the so-called diatonic scale; in some cultures the basis of music is the pentatonic (five note) scale. Presumably some Chinese child was listening to his mother sing a pentatonic tune while Luke was hearing “Twinkle, twinkle”—and also hearing the diatonic scale from whatever music was played on radio, record or cell phone.

Somehow or other he heard enough of this music that the tonal intervals established themselves in his memory. One more marvel.

So will Luke be musical all his life? One would guess so, but it’s possible that singing is a specialized form of music. The great Canadian pianist Anton Kuerti once told me that his parents apparently didn’t think he was musical—presumably because he didn’t (couldn’t?) sing—so he had to go to his nursery school teacher and explain that he liked music and wanted piano lessons. In his case the child was hearing music, understanding it, wanting to participate in it, but not ready to reproduce it vocally.

Music is a miracle. No, that’s perhaps not the way to put it. Music is any number of miracles. Luke’s little humming tune is one of them.

Violent Politics

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

Footnotes a speciality: in a column appearing once a month, there’s no way to be up-to-date; however there can be continuing significance in what hasn’t been talked about.

In late October we were all concerned with the events in Ottawa, the killing of an army reservist standing guard at the war memorial in Ottawa. In all the commentary on the history and meaning of acts of violence in Canada one name I was expecting to hear didn’t crop up. Thomas D’Arcy McGee. The name should be familiar; D’Arcy McGee was among those who attended the Charlottetown conference we’ve recently celebrated. And the later Quebec conference as well. A Father of Confederation.

Born in Ireland, McGee emigrated to the United States when he was 17, then returned to Ireland, where he became involved in the 1848 rebellion. Afterward, he fled to the US, worked as a journalist, and ended up in Montreal in 1857, his extremist ideas abandoned. He began a newspaper called New Era, which expressed the developing Canadian nationalism which had become McGee’s new interest. A poet and a fine public speaker, he was elected to parliament, made a member of the cabinet.

Ottawa, April 7, 1868: the House of Commons was holding a night sitting which went on until 2 am. When the session ended, McGee returned to his boarding house at 71 Sparks Street. As he reached the front stairs of the boarding house a figure ran out of the dark, shot him in the head, then vanished into the night.

It’s generally assumed that the murder of D’Arcy McGee had its source in the Fenian conspiracy, the anti-British activities of a fanatical secret society with members among the immigrant Irish Catholic population. The society, which had its largest membership in the United States, was dedicated to winning Irish independence from Britain, one of its factions determined to attack Great Britain by attacking Canada. Irish politics had international consequences. The  invasions were impelled by the passion of those who wished to see Ireland free of British domination. In Canada, fear of the Fenian conspiracy led to the suspension of habeas corpus, a decision supported by D’Arcy McGee, now a moderate who had abandoned the wild ideas of his Irish youth.

In the way of underground movements, the Fenians split into cliques, and their sorties over the border into Canada have often been regarded as no more than pointless raids, though a recent biography of McGee suggests the threat felt very real at the time. McGee, as a committed enemy of the Fenians, was deeply hated by some Irish Catholics though he had a great many admirers and supporters.

The man charged with his murder was a tailor named James Patrick Whelan. No direct link to the Fenians was shown. While there was significant circumstantial evidence against Whelan, there have always been those who believe that someone else fired the gun. After his conviction he wrote a muddled and half-literate letter to John A Macdonald asserting his innocence, but it did him no good, and he was hanged for murder in Canada’s last public execution.

Thinking about McGee and examples of political violence in Canada I was prompted to look up a poem I wrote in 1970. The poem recalls another name out of the past: Pierre Laporte, a minister in the government of Quebec who was murdered by members of the Front du Libération du Québec. The whole poem summons up for me that time and place, the dark days of October, a trip to Montreal by bus, my attempts to articulate a response to Laporte’s death and Pierre Trudeau’s invoking of the War Measures Act.

In both cases the murder of a Canadian politician created a deep sense of shock and uncertainty. In both cases the state was given extreme powers in an attempt to offer reassurance. Were such draconian powers needed? At this distance in time, it seems unlikely.

Cordelia’s Virtue

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

In the past I’ve bought tickets for the Stratford Festival. I’m on their list. So last summer I wasn’t surprised to receive an email advertisement for their production of King Lear, with Colm Feore playing the lead. Attached to their announcement of added performances were video clips of an early scene from the play. I watched them eagerly. Colm Feore appeared to be a convincing Lear, and the video from this new production started me thinking again about what I’ve always regarded as Shakespeare’s greatest work.

The memory of my first reading of King Lear is still vivid, after almost sixty years. I was seventeen, alone in the house I shared with my parents, and reading Lear because it was part of the assigned curriculum for the final year of high school in Ontario. In the earlier years of high school I had studied other Shakespearean plays, two comedies, two tragedies, but I never before had the experience of something so huge, so astonishing.

More than one intelligent critic has argued that Lear is too large, too painful, too crazed and profound and intense for live performance on stage, though Shakespeare was himself a professional actor and shows every sign of having known what would work on the stage of the Globe theatre. Over the years I have seen two great actors play Lear, Kenneth Branagh and Christopher Plummer, but I couldn’t say that either one reached the heights and depths the play demands. In a Canadian TV series called Slings and Arrows (a kind of parody of the Stratford Festival), William Hutt (who was well on in years when the show was made) is cast as an old, sick, addicted, irascible actor who is shown rehearsing a couple of Lear’s great scenes. That performance made me wish I had seen Hutt’s Lear when he performed the play.

The one scene from the play that was extracted and offered on video as part of the Stratford advertisement was a crucial scene near the beginning, in which Lear, about to withdraw from kingship, is enraged that Cordelia, his favourite daughter, will not flatter him as egregiously as her two older sisters have done. Watching the scene on my laptop I had a new thought about its playing. The sister motif is derived from earlier narratives, and its consequence—the good, honest daughter being set aside, her portion of the kingdom given to her two hypocritical sisters—is an effective dramatic device.

Lear’s immediate response to Cordelia’s refusal is a destructive rage. He is abrupt and unreasonable and chaos follows. All his own fault? Well, it can be played that way.

But then, as I watched the video, a new idea struck me. Imagine Cordelia possessed of an impulsiveness as great as her father’s. Let’s suppose she is very young but capable of making sharp judgments. Faced with her father’s foolish whim, his insistence that everyone take part in his script for his abdication—a renunciation of kingship that is probably less than wise and is certainly unprepared—she grows annoyed and refuses to play her role as written.

And chaos follows.

Most productions base their reading of Cordelia’s lines on the assumption that she loves her father and is essentially a good person and a good daughter. She will not offer an exaggerated love, which devalues her true feelings. But isn’t it possible, I asked myself, for a good and loving person to grow irritable when faced with foolish behaviour?

If we have seen or read the play, we know that Cordelia will be one of its victims. But reading backward from this tragic ending and portraying her as always calm and affectionate in her determination, a paragon of virtue, perhaps loses something.

I wouldn’t want to insist too much on this reading of the confrontation between Lear and Cordelia at the play’s opening, but I do think it’s worth a second thought.

What is Proper?

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

As someone who has spent a lifetime writing for publication and who once taught in a university, I sometimes find myself being asked questions about proper English usage. On occasion I know the rule and maybe even the reasons behind it. Other times I have a sense of what is correct but find I am winging it when it comes to explanation. Still, it all matters to me. There are people who like to take apart and rebuild engines. I like to take apart and rebuild sentences.

What is correct in speech and writing is a matter of usage and idiom. To communicate you need shared assumptions. What’s usually defined as correct is what most educated people say or write: the rules of grammar are the assumptions held in common. But the way people talk changes with time and place and situation. There is the old joke about the clergyman helping out on a church building project, hitting his thumb with a hammer and mumbling, “Would a layman please say something appropriate.”

Language is, among other things, a form of behaviour. Often it is a way of placing ourselves socially. Clergymen are expected to be examples of propriety. Soldiers rebuilding a bridge under artillery fire aren’t. A classic joke about a soldier in battle involves a sentence in which a favourite English obscenity appears as every possible part of speech.

Young people tend to have linguistic tics and habits that express their high spirits and assert a link to their own community. The repetitive use of the word ‘like’ is a contemporary example, that little cluster of phonemes whirling and twittering through youthful conversation like a flock of starlings at sunset.

Is it wrong? Well, it would be wrong for me, a more-or-less dignified old fellow, to take up the behaviour of a sixteen-year-old, but for young people this is an appropriate gesture, asserting membership in their generation.

What is awkward and ugly, though not uncommon, to call such people ‘youth’ or worse, ‘the youth’. Why wrong? Because ‘youth’ has a long history of idiomatic use as a singular abstract noun describing a period of human development. “Youth’s a stuff will not endure” goes the line of Shakespeare. The word’s misuse leads to statements that sound both pretentious and empty.

Language has many uses, and there are different sets of rules at play in different kinds of speech. The use of language to create an impression of events (call it the descriptive or artistic use of language) requires imagination. Poets play games with the rules. However the use of language to give instruction requires precision, an obedience to accepted standards so that the information communicated is accurate and comprehensible. Think of those sheets of instructions that come with a new device telling you how to assemble it and written by someone whose trade is not writing and whose first language may be Cantonese or Hungarian.

At least once I have found myself reading instructions to accompany a medical procedure and finding that the words didn’t really tell me all I needed to know. Giving complex instructions is a difficult business. Texts of this sort require what I like to call the Martian treatment. The person writing or editing needs to imagine that the text is to be read by an intelligent Martian, someone, that is, who is smart enough but knows nothing. The expert always knows too much and so takes things for granted, often failing to answer urgent questions, being unable to imagine those questions being asked.

In such contexts any deviation from standard English will tend to increase the confusion or distrust. Significant communication requires language that is clear and idiomatic. The colloquial outburst that evokes what you did on Friday night isn’t suitable for describing what you are hired to do on Monday morning.

So is it all right to say … ?

Well maybe. And maybe not.

Walk This Way

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

Walk as far as you can each day for many days, up and down mountains, past high country farms, through rain and sun, past ancient churches and modern towns. Can you explain to yourself why you’re doing this? Or does it matter? You are doing it. You must, somewhere in your mind or heart, know why, whether you can find the words for it or not.

It’s Friday night, and after dinner at a restaurant in Charlottetown, we take our places and watch what’s playing at City Cinema. We’ve done it most Friday nights for years. Sometimes we know what to expect, sometimes not. Tonight it is a documentary called Walking the Camino, and in the lobby I chat with Derek Martin about the fact that this is the second movie he’s shown about the famous pilgrim journey to Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain. The first, he tells me, The Way—which we saw when it was released in 2010—was a great hit with his audience, a sell-out. It appears the new one will be the same. It played in July and will return in September.

Both movies deal with the pilgrimage from the south of France to the shrine of Saint James, Santiago de Compostela, hundreds of kilometres away. Men and women have been making the pilgrimage for more than a thousand years. Originally it was an entirely religious journey, one of a group of pilgrimages recognized as acts of piety by the Roman Catholic church.

In recent years, the pilgrimage has become celebrated. In 1985, according to Wikipedia, 690 men and women were recorded as having made the journey. In 2010, the number was 272,203.

My sense of what it’s all about comes from the two movies, one a down-to-earth fiction, the other a documentary. The films, more or less inevitably, share a number of characteristics. The story is shaped by the map, by the needs of pedestrian travel. Some of the pilgrims are not Roman Catholics, perhaps not even Christians. Asked at the end why they have made the journey, their answers are often vague and maybe not even true. We observe characters who accept the struggle of the weeks or months of walking, and yet remain uncertain of their motives, or at least unable to express them clearly. In The Way, the character played by Martin Sheen takes up the pilgrimage after his estranged son begins the walk and dies in a sudden storm. One of the characters interviewed in Walking the Camino mourns his wife, travelling with the friend who conducted her funeral. Grief may be one of the motives, or maybe some other kind of personal distress.

Other pilgrims appear to be in pursuit of meaning or an undefined wisdom—enduring an experience of humility and discomfort, to achieve a new kind of discipline. Or confronting strangeness, mystery. The Camino offers an indirect approach to religion, an approach mediated by struggle, and demanding only as much faith as is needed to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Sleeping beside strangers with whom you share only a map may offer a possible revelation.

A friend recently back from a church synod mentioned to me the disastrous falling off of membership in the United Church of Canada. The Church of Rome is closing buildings, has trouble finding priests. And yet hundreds of thousands of men and women want to take the path through difficult mountain terrain to reach the tomb of an apostle. Crowds go to see movies about the pilgrimage. Odd how travel on foot, day after day over a long distance, a protracted sojourn in a landscape of mountainous beauty, should offer such metaphorical resonance.

And serious people, though they may never make the pilgrimage, are attracted to its stories, attend the movies about the Camino, apparently feel some link with the striving souls who are there each day, walking faithfully toward the end.

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