Reading With Phyllis in Ottawa

[8-minute read]

The more we read, the bigger the “To Read” pile grows. It’s mysterilicious.

We’ve missed her, but we carry on. This past March, her friends marked a first anniversary, grieved with her husband and family and, oh yes, be very sure of this, a sweet ripe bunch of them felt grateful for her life as they read and reflected on another fine book they’d likely never have heard of without her. And then they did it again in April.

I write here in remembrance of Phyllis Perrakis, a woman I knew only a little, though I felt lucky all the same. It is also a brief history of a book club, full of women, of course, plus one token oddball. (That would be Yours Truly.) I will also offer notes on the BIHE, an educational institution based on courage, justice and belief, but these seeming sidetracks all lead us back to Phyllis, a quiet, unassuming professor of literature. You would not have found her Very Professorial, if that adjective strikes notes for you of bombast or intellectual arrogance, but she surely glowed when she was sharing thoughts about a book she loved. BOOKS. Only now, far too late to learn more from her, do I find out that she was an internationally recognized scholar on the work of the Nobel Prize-winner for literature, Doris Lessing. But to better understand how we came to be Reading With Phyllis In Ottawa, first we need a side trip to Iran…

Once upon an early 21st century time, there was a book. It was written by Azar Nafisi, an Iranian professor of literature who had fallen exquisitely in love with American writers: Twain, Baldwin, McCullers, and the Russian-born Nabokov. It may not surprise you that Nafisi’s prospects for professional advancement in her homeland, after its Islamic Revolution, were bleak, and she has since moved to the United States. But before she did that, she found a clandestine way to share her literary enthusiasms with young women, the ones that she could never engage with publicly in studying “decadent” Western texts. Her book Reading Lolita in Tehran spoke of tense arrivals, a relieved doffing of the hijab upon entry into Nafisi’s home, but above all the rich delights of forbidden conversations among trusted friends about officially banned books, Lolita among them. Nafisi’s account was brilliant and popular and I highly recommend it, but that’s just the beginning.

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Better Read Than Never: THE ALCHEMIST

It’s just a short stroll. Painless, really.

There was a year, back there somewhere in the early oughts, when it seemed everybody was reading Paulo Coelho’s short novel, The Alchemist. First published in Portuguese in a small late 1980s print run, it became first a Brazilian and then an international literary phenomenon. More copies were sold than live in my country (my home country Canada, that is, not China!). Perhaps it was the contrarian in me, maybe it was just a case of distraction, or it is conceivable that something in the breathless reaction some people were apparently having (and the frenzy with which it was bought) that put me off it. Sometimes ignorance and bias aren’t all bad.

I should’ve liked it. It is a story that speaks unabashedly of spirit, of living simply, of pursuing extraordinary dreams, and while I’m no great exemplar of them, I can enthusiastically get with these ideas.

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Barnabus Quotidianus

BQ is a web log that I recently stumbled upon. (It’s written by a guy older than me, which I find encouraging and consoling.) If your grasp of Latin is even shakier than mine, I’ll tell you that it means something like “The Daily Barney”.

But no, worry not, there is no annoying soundtrack and zero appearances by purple cartoon dinosaurs. Barney is a British writer who comments on community and spiritual development, primarily – all the places where social concern, citizenship, faith and activism converge – but he also writes appealingly on a wide range of personal stories and interests. He’s a good read. He manages a fairly difficult thing with ease and style: he can write about matters of religion, for example, with refreshing plainness, sense and even fun.

It’s a personal log, so it doesn’t carry any official stamp, but Mr. Leith is a prominent member of the Bahá’í community of the United Kingdom. So, there is a fair sense of how they approach issues from gender equality to religious discrimination, along with the Barnabus take on technology, media, writing, family and a long list of other interests. It’s a pleasant cyberspace stroll that you might enjoy, as I do.

Paradise by the Carney Lights

Well, maybe not paradise, exactly, but I found a small flood of spirit in the midst of Mammon last night. The Ottawa SuperEx was opening in all its sticky-fingered, gut-heaving glory. The girls had layered on the mascara extra-thick, the boys were gelled and bare of arm, and the same classic rock was blaring from (mostly) the same rides. And I swear that the exact same guys were trying to extract money from my pocket as when I was a flat-bellied kid trying hard to impersonate a Man at the county fair. Can’t win if you don’t spin.

But weirdly enough, just next to the BMX Oooh-Factor Bike Ramp – not its real name – was a stage preparing for a “Joy of Faith” concert. Prayer and proclamation facing down snowcones and kewpie dolls. Hymns and dancing and spoken Word versus the Ferris wheel. It was an odd conjunction but a rather sweet one. The Hindu and Jewish community choirs were in full voice, as were a Mormon crooner and a Muslim rapper who mixed gangsta sounds with between-takes appeals for peace and understanding. The Jain and Sikh communities delighted with colour and dance, and a thundering band of evangelical Christians blended power chords with the Book of Revelations. Bahá’í youth sang and spoke and played in French, English and Gypsy Swing. (Django Reinhardt at the corner of Faith and the Fair! That was better than fun.)

Beside the contrast between the midway and the spirit way, there was an ethic of appreciation for the different ways in which communities express devotion. Some groups were clearly more comfortable than others with this concept of a shared spiritual heritage, seeing unity within religious diversity. But they all came to the table, and they carried something more than caramel corn. I liked it.

Fumbling Toward Creativity

I’ve been working through The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, one of the most intelligent and illuminating personal development books I’ve come across. It’s an openly spiritual (and determinedly non-religious) take on the act of creation, and its message is simple: there’s a Creator, whatever you choose to call Him/Her/That; the world may be material but it is infused with spirit (and so are we); creativity is not some hoarded magic bestowed only on the few, but essential to human life and accessible by the many. The book asks a lot – it’s a 12-week program in “creative recovery” and there’s a lot of work involved in finding that free and open acceptance of our possibilities.

And Carol invited me to talk about art and spirituality at a meditative gathering she does in her home. We prayed, we talked about the forms and the importance that creativity takes in our lives – beauty, order, reverence, making, delight – and then we demolished gorgeously adorned trays of spirit-lifting goodies. Sweet. I’ll do that again, even if the food is not so smacktacular. “Tapping the Creativity Within” was our title; sounds like maple-syrup time. And it was, actually. I was suggesting that we need to provide an outlet for the sweet and juicy stuff that unceasingly flows from our spiritual roots to our intellectual (and hand-some) leaves. Nice. I like this image because it makes art something useful, delicious, natural. Sappy if necessary, but not necessarily sappy.