A Story About a Raven

What’s in a tattoo?

I don’t have a tattoo myself, but I respect them (well, perhaps not so much those late night drunken ones). Most people who get a tattoo put some serious thought into itgiven it’s one of those life decisions that stays with youpicking symbols that hold deep personal meaning for them.

That’s why it strikes me as curious that there has been very little talk about the rather obvious Aboriginal tattoo that Justin Trudeau, Canada’s freshly minted Prime Minister, has on his left shoulder. I mean, people have certainly been focusing on his hair. I mean, come on, doesn’t a tattoo at least mean more than one’s ephemeral hairdos? But no, people have been fixating on the hair. As pictured below though, Trudeau himself seems to like it enough to display it brazenly…

Mediaball Image

What does Justin say about his tattoo? Remarkably little:

He neglects (at least to the extent of my own research skills) to say what the tattoo’s symbolism means to him. And, when you try to Google what it means, you get things like this National Post article talking about how the Liberals will want to downplay the tattoo.

Winston Churchill had a tattoo, but it was a simple anchor graphic on his arm; pretty standard decoration for a former First Lord of the Admiralty. Mr. Trudeau spent some time in B.C. once, so he got a massive Haida raven covering his shoulder. Another famed political offspring, Caroline Kennedy, is able to credit her embarrassing butterfly tattoo to the unruliness of youth, but Mr. Trudeau got his ink just two years ago, to ring in his 40th birthday.

Seriously?  Churchill’s tattoo is standard, but Trudeau’s tattoo is slammed just because he “spent some time in BC once”? This is a knock not just at Trudeau, but at BC, and also at the obvious First Nations symbolism of the tattoo itself, so a knock to indigenous peoples.

This is not a fly by night “embarrassing butterfly’ tattoo. This is something different. And, the fact that JT got it to commemorate his 40th birthday should make us even more curious about what it means.

Shouldn’t it?

So the new leader of our country has this huge symbol on his arm. A brand. Something he stands for. But, nada about it. Maybe, like Justin Bieber’s owl, this raven has a secret meaning for JT that he feels no one else needs to know…

But, when you enter politics, certain things, like the tattoo you proudly show, become public, so I think we can do better than that.

So I’ve been digging.

Trudeau and British Columbia

Unlike the above quote would have us believe, yes, Mr. Trudeau “spent some time in BC”, but rather than being trivial his roots go way back. As Justin Trudeau mentioned in his last election campaign speech earlier today in North Vancouver, his maternal grandfather, James Sinclair, was an elected representative in Vancouver North for 18 years since 1940, and it is his political style that JT said today, and has said before, that he would most like to emulate. (Interestingly it appears that his grandfather’s Sinclair family has ties that go back to MacBeth in Scottland, but let’s not go that deep into the gnarly roots.)

Justin’s wild, fleet footed mother also, because of her father, had ties to North Vancouver, where she and Pierre Trudeau had a hushed wedding in 1971. Justin himself lived in BC while he attended UBC for his Education degree, graduating in 1998. Following that, he taught at West Point Grey Secondary and Sir Winston Churchill (where I went myself back in the day) high schools for a few years. Trudeau also has sad ties to BC, where his brother died in an avalanche in Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park in 1998.

Long before Justin Trudeau lived in BC as an adult, he had a particular experience in the ‘supernatural‘ province that he himself says had a profound effect on his life, that directly ties into our friend, Raven.

In 1976, Justin Trudeau, then just five, visited Haida Gwaii (aka the Queen Charlotte Islands) with his father and mother on a political visit. There are several different renditions of the tale easily found online. They involve an interesting fact that has escaped the media, that young Justin Trudeau, along with his family, were adopted into the Yaghu’laanaas lineage of the Haida First Nations tribe:

Adoptive relationships are formalized in front of witnesses, with a feast and giveaway, often taking place as part of a larger potlatch. They come with feelings of obligation, responsibility, and often affection. They are used to normalize, formalize, and reaffirm Haida kinship as the dominant social institution on the islands. (Krmpotich)

What kind of impression would this potluck party and naming ceremony make on a five year old boy? The tattoo makes me wonder. It appears that Haida Gwaii was a favourite destination of the Trudeaus. It also appears that the family stayed there other times at the Copper Beech Guest House, in the Habour Master’s Keep. You can rent this room yourself, which is advertised as the “love nest” of Pierre and Maggie when they stayed there. In Trudeau’s own words, from these early experiences, the significance of Haida Gwaii and the raven start to emerge:

I grew up with a tremendous amount of awareness of Haida Gwaii because of the impact it had on my parents when they visited. Because…we knew from the time when we were young that we were children of the Raven, that my father had been adopted and named and my mom as well. It was just something that was for us, it came to symbolize the entirety of the relationship between our family and First Nations in Canada. (HG Observer; emphasis added)

So, the tale of the raven on JT’s arm is starting to come together. The image itself, can give us more clues. Here is the original art, by Robert Davidson, that was the inspiration for the tattoo design that was chosen by Trudeau.

Raven Bringing Light in the World by Robert Davidson (click for source)

The Tale of Raven, Who Stole Back the Sun

So, what is the mythic narrative of the Haida Raven? As most experts on myth acknowledge, myth has elements of truth from reality, and, if you have ever encountered a raven in close proximity, you will soon see why this bird made an impression.

Living here on the west coast, I’ve been fortunate to have run into a few ravens. These are memories that stand out. Here is a shot of an old man of the mountain raven that I encountered last summer hiking up in Jasper. He flew down by the side of the road before we went up to go to a hike, so, in the old tradition of mutual exchange, giving something to the forest before you get something out of it, I made him a small offering for good luck.

Old man raven

Old man raven of the mountain inspecting my gift. ©MariaLavis

My most recent raven encounter was in early September, when a I was hiking with a friend up to the Bowen Lookout at Cypress Park, pictured below (unfortunately my camera died on me after taking the shot below, so I never got a pic of the birds…).

The view from Bowen Lookout at Cypress Mountain

The view from Bowen Lookout at Cypress Mountain ©MariaLavis

While we were enjoying the view, two ravens flew flew over from the next mountain, calling loudly, and then perched in a bleached tree top. After yelling at us, they decided to come down and take a closer look, swooping down and scaring the bejeezes out of me. I had never had a raven decide to come so up close and personal before. (They usually prefer to lord over you from a nearby tree.) One of them was the biggest raven I had ever seen in my life, and when it hopped within three feet of me, its beak alone as long as my hand, and its body bigger that many of the bald eagles I’ve seen around here, I was definitely on my toes. I didn’t want to get on his/her bad side, and in that moment, a new understanding of Raven as a trickster you don’t want to mess around with crystallized for me into a new kind of understanding based on experience.

But enough about my story. Back to Trudeau, and the old original story of the Raven and the sun.

The Haida believe Raven is “a complex reflection of one’s own self. Raven can be a magician, a transformer, a potent creative force, sexual deviant or ravenous debaucher but always a cultural hero.” (Wiki) Well now, given the colourful tales of the Trudeau clan over the years, these sound like rather apt descriptors for a good roast.

There are several iterations of the traditional tale about how Raven, though a a wily trickster to keep an eye on, is at the root a Promethean hero.  In one version of the tale, the foe is a “mean old chief” who tried to hoard the light of the world for himself. In another rendition, the foe is “Gray Eagle”, who has stolen, not only the sun, but many other precious things from the people:

Gray Eagle was the guardian of the Sun, Moon and Stars, of fresh water, and of fire. Gray Eagle hated people so much that he kept these things hidden. People lived in darkness, without fire and without fresh water.

Well now. If that doesn’t smack of a Harper analogy, I don’t know what does. It has the grey hair, him being in a position of power as a guardian of special resources, the appropriation of the common good of energy, and the secrecy and sordid darkness of it all. Several versions of the story also have fun with Raven, describing him as transfiguring into an obnoxious black-haired baby in order to trick the old chief. Something of an upstart brat, with an agenda.

Hmm… that also sounds like the common depiction of a certain junior Trudeau, who most people thought was too young, and not ready for the job of restoring certain things to the people of Canada from the clutches of a certain other grey haired chief. I, for one, would like to believe that the narrative that lingers behind his tattoo hints at Justin’s own private agenda (an agenda doesn’t have to be bad, let’s remember) for the management of our shared commons. An agenda that actually is in his stated public agenda for his party, his #realchange slogans, and an agenda that I would (mostly) back up. (So, about that #TPP, Justin, we are watching you…)

If anything, the title of Justin’s recent book, Common Ground, affirms that this upstart Raven Boy might actually share some of the values of  citizens who care about about responsibly managing the amazing natural capital of our country in a way that considers what will be left seven generations down the line, equity in sharing benefits of its bounty, and not unfairly penalizing some with the negative externalities (like so many small communities dotted across North America face with resource development), while a few elite reap the lion’s share of the benefits.

If anything, this tattoo tells me that if there is any weird, secret agenda (unlike Harper’s strange thing about Israel and Armageddon that his evangelical church believes) that Justin holds, it’s that he actually IS Raven Boy, of the Raven clan, the Canadian version of the boy Hercules, who will steal the sun back from the colonial powers to restore its bounty back to, yes the haggard middle class, but also, the indigenous peoples of this land, who have suffered in the collective shadow of colonization for so long. The democracy that most of the European settlers, and more recent international immigrants, of Canada have enjoyed, has never been their democracy.My bet is that what is behind this tattoo is that, if any Prime Minister will finally make good on the injustice of the historic cultural (and other) genocide done to the Aboriginal peoples of Canada, this will be the one.

And so, before I wrap up, I’d like to mention another interesting element in our little tattoo detective story, which is how this obviously Aboriginal tattoo ties into Justin Trudeau’s true stance on indigenous rights and First Nations issues in Canada. To me (as someone with indigenous roots clouded by a colonial past), his tattoo choice of a raven spoke to me, not as cultural appropriation as I’ve seen some people call it online, but rather an actual tribute to something in the indigenous tradition of the Haida Trudeau actually identifies with, with more social and environmental connectivity than meets the eye than the fact of his parents adoption into Raven clan. I would venture that this tattoo is not just a trivial matter of aesthetics, but speaks perhaps more clearly than other clues as to Justin’s real commitment to make good on his party’s platform pledges regarding Aboriginal people in Canada, and the beautiful land that theyand wecare so much about.

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau and his son Xavier Trudeau help raise the Gwaii Haanas legacy totem pole in Windy Bay, B.C., on Lyell Island in Haida Gwaii on Thursday, August 15, 2013. The 13-metre totem is the first monumental pole to be raised in the area in 130 years. It was carved to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Gwaii Haanas Agreement, a document that allows the government of Canada and the Haida Nation to co-manage and protect the region. Darryl Dick, The Canadian Press

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau and his son Xavier Trudeau help raise the Gwaii Haanas legacy totem pole in Windy Bay, B.C., on Lyell Island in Haida Gwaii on Thursday, August 15, 2013. The 13-metre totem is the first monumental pole to be raised in the area in 130 years. It was carved to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Gwaii Haanas Agreement, a document that allows the government of Canada and the Haida Nation to co-manage and protect the region. Darryl Dick, The Canadian Press

Gwaii Haanas legacy pole, designed by Jaalen Edenshaw Click for more information

Given the above, my suspicion, is that, at the very least, the wily black-haired Raven Boy will have a few more tricks up his sleeve to surprise us besides stealing the election to become (if I may) “PM Raven Hair” (ok, I’ll finally acknowledge that hair) to that tribe of people we call Canadians. Let’s hope his tricks going forward will continue to be of the kind that leave most of us pleasantly surprised. Not the kind that will further etch the political cynicismthat grew steadily throughout the era of the “Old Grey Chief”even deeper into the Canadian psyche.

Even if PM Raven Hair, plans to make good on his platform promises, it wont be easy, because it’s highly likely that there are many in parliament who  are more of the same ilk of what we’ve seen in Canadian politics with Harper, who represent special interests, not what is best for the people. So not only will PM Raven Hair need a few more tricks up his sleeve, we will also have to continue to have his back. Watching, voicing, acting as an engaged electorate. And in case the point comes where  ol’ PM JTRH becomes as ‘hard of hearing’ as the Old Grey Chief, well then, we will just have to get our act together and vote for change again like we did yesterday, remembering that what wethe peoplecan bestow of power, we can also take away.

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Slow Writing. Slow Reading.

Renoir – “Two Girls Reading in the Garden”, 1890. Click image for Renoir gallery.

The Slow Movement

Some things are worth the time it takes to make them. Like slow food.

Case in point. The croissant. There is nothing quite like a croissant fresh from the oven, made lovingly by hand with prime ingredients. The slow food movement has taken this idea, that there are some things worth taking the time to produce them, and built out from its origins in Italy to spreading to about 150 countries worldwide, including my own backyard here in BC.

This taking it slow concept is part of a wider slow movement that translates over to other areas as well – like writing and reading. And the slow thinking that goes with it. Even as I write that sentence I realize that ‘slow thinking’ brings up negative connotations, of being a dullard.  But, just like tai chi makes for a more mindful and skilled warrior when push comes to shove in real time, I’d argue that slow thinking, reading, and writing makes for a more skilled reader and writer when the heat is on and you have to produce on time and on budget.

A Slow Blog

This taking time to do something is part of the impetus of this blog, as a bit of a mindful experiment in slowing down to write again, not on time, and not on any budget. I am as guilty as anyone in recent years for becoming too busy for my own good. There was a time where I meditated more often, did yoga more often, even just sat doing nothing in the sun more often. There was even a time where meditation pulled me out of some pretty tight spots, so I’m quite aware of its merits. However, in the last few years, things have sped up, mostly in my work life, and I’m seeing the need, for my health and well-being (and those around me who have to put up with me!), of taking up some practices I’ve left by the wayside again. So this blog is a place where I can put on the brakes, not necessarily to produce perfection in writing, but to delve into aspects of writing I haven’t had the time to investigate in a while now.

There are so many blogs and news outlets that give fast, pithy bits and bites of info, and like many people online, I scan and read them myself when I get a chance to stay on top of my corner of the information deluge that we face every day. My own twitter feed is an example of this.  I find many of these fast thought sources lacking thought. They provide info bites. Great. Now I’m more informed. But of what? Even blogs on zen and yoga I find falling sway to form over content, such as in the “Seven steps to enlightenment, including one weird trick, that anyone can master!’ approach, which seems to be spreading like a virus across the interwebs. Sure, we are generally busy, and don’t typically have time to wade through long thought pieces, and efficiency, clarity and a punchy hook and sinker to a blurb/blog/book have all have their merits.  However things like – Definitions. Word smithing. Context. Original. Content. Value. – these are important, too.

I’ve found that there are few things as refreshing as taking the proverbial breath and practicing slowing down my own thinking to focus on one thing at a time. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Instead of always multitasking we must learn to unitask. Mindfulness needs some training.” (Art of Power)

So, one thing at a time. I try. At least sometimes. Aside from general mindfulness I do this in my reading, taking time to delve deeply into some poetry or literature I’ve been safe guarding on the shelf. Taking time for reviews and definitions of the same. In my writing, this is about ceasing neglecting some ideas I’ve kept stashed in the back of my mind, and giving them a bit of fresh air, researching and reflecting on them. And this blog is a place where I can record some of how this approach unfolds.

Of course there are the classic arenas of slow writing. Books, for example. Books are ideal vessel for a coherent body of information. Journal articles are also essential to a systematic, high quality approach to research topics. Sure, some of these are produced in a hurry, but the classic notion of the writing process is of the author or scholar taking the time out in order to produce such work.

Yet, sometimes I find myself wanting something in between, that is thoughtful, careful, and engaging, but in a manageable size. Perhaps like an old newspaper editorial from the 1970s (I’ve seen some from my local paper that were a full 2-page spread with hardly any ad content – crazy), or like the work of the old essayists. Yet, also not necessarily with the fully polished, packaged, popping arguments behind the central thesis approach either. Rather, tracking the exploratory ground to get there in the first place, while hopefully enjoying the ride along the way. Journaling, does this, but I find journals usually a bit messy for show and tell.

So, something in between then.

Slow Writing & Slow Reading

A few Google searches reveals that I’m not the first by far to think up slow writing by any means. Here are some other articles on the topic:

The words of Reuben Brower below from Reading in Slow Motion above are remarkably contemporary:

In the age of the New Stupid (a term Aldous Huxley once used for the age of mass literacy), nearly everyone has a reading habit of some sort. Everyone runs through the morning newspaper or Time and Life strictly as a matter of daily or weekly routine. Each social group has its “great readers,” a term of admiration used to cover a wide range of activities that have little more than the printed page in common. There is, for example, reading as anodyne, and reading as extended daydream. There is reading as pursuit of fact or of useful technical know-how, and reading that may or may not be useful, when we are interested solely in understanding a theory or point of view. Still more remote from immediate usefulness comes reading as active amusement, a game demanding the highest alertness and the finest degree of sensibility, “judgment ever awake and steady self-possession with enthusiasm and feeling profound or vehement.” Reading at this level–to borrow Coleridgean terms a second time–“brings the whole soul of man into activity.” Coleridge was speaking of the poet and the power of imagination, but his words describe very well the way we read when we enter into, or rather engage in, experiences of imaginative literature. I say “amusement,” not “pleasure,” to stress the play of the mind, the play of the whole being, that reading of this sort calls for. I am hardly suggesting that literary experience is not a “good,” that it is not in some indirect and profound way morally valuable. But if is to do us any good, it must be fun….Active “amusement” is the reading habit I am concerned with here…”

– Reuben Brower’s, Reading in Slow Motion

Chinese scholar in a meadow. Song Dynasty.

Brower goes on to discuss the role of the teacher in fostering this kind of experience of ‘active amusement’ in his or her students. His essay goes into lofty Platonic realms and language that may ring rather elitist today, but the main point is quite humble. That, for a practice to stick, there must be a sticking point. And I agree with Brower, that for engaging with the written form, it is that sense of play, or amusement, or full engagement, that is the guiding light to whether you’re on the path or not here. The experience, the satisfaction itself, when you’ve got it right, makes it so worth taking the time.

But to obtain the experience, you need to take the time in the first place to cultivate it. But the question is, how much time?

Some in the bullet links above argue that taking time for slow writing is actually a luxury that normal people can’t really afford. Something that the nobility of old enjoyed on the backs of labourers toiling in the sun. Like the aristocrats of Jane Austen in their lavish sitting rooms or lounging in the garden while the servants do all the meaningful work. Or the scholars up on the hill, taking the time to gaze into their navels all day, on the dime of other people, doing real work.

The social political argument is well taken. And let’s not get too nostalgic about it all either. But if nobles had too much time to engage in slow pursuits, does that mean that these should then be then deprived to everyone as a bad thing? I would argue that while the aristocratic and scholarly classes of old may have indulged in such activities, such pursuits were also inequitably denied to those in the service classes, making having the time for such pursuits as even falling within the realm of a human right. The right to take the time to sit in the meadow and read a book, or dilly dally on the porch to mindfully write. At least sometimes. Daily? Weekly? Monthly? How essential is this to your life? Is a life without such pursuits, for those who have managed to cultivate a taste for such things, as worthwhile?

So, what balance seems to work for people between taking the time to recharge our slow writing and slow reading batteries, and then going on zipping about again?

In Defense of Carving Out the Time Required

There certainly is an argument for time being necessary for some worthwhile endeavours. Time is needed for the yeast to rise in the croissant. Time is generally needed to establish trust between friends. Time is needed to train ourselves to do our professions. Time is also needed for children to learn. This learning can include connecting with nature through meaningful, extended, unsupervised play in nature, as espoused by Richard Louv in his book Last Child in the Woods. The value of a child taking this time was also recognized by the poets of old, like Whitman, who’s poem starts Louv’s book:

There was a child went forth every day;
And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became;
And that object became part of him for the day, or a certain part of the day,
or for many years, or stretching cycles of years.

The early lilacs became part of this child,
And grass, and white and red morning-glories, and white and red clover, and the song of the phoebe-bird…

– Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, 1900

This object of the lilacs, and the grass and the clover that a child beholds, then becoming part of the child, is similar to what Brower speaks to in the above quote. It is the experience, the spending time with, that connects the child to the experience of the thing, through “the play of the whole being” as Brower puts it. And, in this way, the external thing goes from object to subject, and becomes encoded as part of that child’s own thinking, their very physiology, their very heart.

Modern research is catching up with the perennial wisdom of mindfulness. Studies indicates that we do, in fact need downtime from the information torrent and interruptions that meets us on a daily basis. In particular, our children are, in their developing state, vulnerable to deficits from the lack of this kind of time.  And we adults need to take more downtime ourselves in order to even perform basic tasks of committing new thoughts to memory. Our very ability to think, and recollect the past, needs time and attention.

Verdict?

So, what is the verdict? I noticed that in spite of the several articles listed above on the merits of slow writing for instance, and initiatives to start a slow writing movement, that slow writing is still not included on the list of various slow movements around the world.

Is slow writing just a recent gimmicky word for what is actually an already recognized and  perennial practice? Or is there something distinct in the concept of slow reading and writing that we could benefit from focusing more on in our modern lives?

I for one know that regardless of syntax, there is some sort of a value add here for myself, the process being intrinsically motivating. I am working on making an effort (even when I don’t have it, like tonight as I burn the midnight oil) to carve out, even just a little bit, of time and space for mindful thinking, reading and writing. I don’t know though if I would say that I would classify this value as primarily ‘amusement’ that motivates me, in the way Brower does. Engagement? Yes. Focus? Yes. Lingering spaces in between to connect the dots between thoughts? Yes. Satisfaction. Definitely.

I find that, even if I lose a bit of sleep, in the long run, that taking the time for a slow reading and writing process is more than just worthwhile. It appears to recharge a battery that I had left latent, and then proceeded to forgot how important it actually is. Because of this, I may even be in the camp that would say that life without slow writing and reading, just wouldn’t be the same, and would actually be somehow less. Like a world without birds. Or a world without children with the time to play in grassy fields and develop eyes to observe them and wonder what it is to fly.