For World Philosophy Day- An Ode to Wee Thinkers

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Today is World Philosophy Day (cue the “every day is philosophy day” jokes). I usually do some sort of love letter to philosophy for this occasion, a show of appreciation for this way of thinking, to the many ways it’s made my life better, and to the many more ways that it can potentially fix a whole lot of problems worldwide.

This year, my gratitude is directed somewhere else. I want to thank and show appreciation to children, in my community and beyond. The most wonderful and inspiring thinkers I’ve worked with this past year have been completely without degrees or titles. They’ve had no publishing history or accolades. In most cases, they’ve had no idea what philosophy was, let alone that they were doing it.

Over the course of the pandemic, children have had to eschew each other’s company and bounce back and forth between in-person and online learning. They’ve missed out on holidays, celebrations, rites of passage, and important milestones. They’ve been the last to have access to vaccines, but the first to be sent into risky environments. Mercifully, they haven’t been as vulnerable to this miserable virus as some, but a non-trivial number of kids have still had to struggle with it, some long-term. Let’s face it, kids haven’t really been able to fully be kids for a while now.

If that weren’t enough, they’ve had to put up with us big people and our bumbling around with important decisions. We’ve made common sense solutions into political head-butting matches. We’ve put off important changes because they were annoying or inconvenient. We’ve opted out of vital discussions. We’ve flipped out and lost our cool over dumb stuff. Adults have not been shining paragons of philosophical reason.

And yet, without fail, kids have kept learning, being curious, and asking questions. They’ve been sensible and open-minded, concerned about the state of the world around them and compassionate towards those who are suffering. Time and again, I’ve finished an online session or had a chat with a youngster and thought “God, I wish you were conducting things right now.”

They’re running circles around us in the thinking department.

So, to all of the little thinkers out there, I humbly bow. When the dust settles, you’ll have boo boos to take care of, just like all of us adults will. This past year and a half has been really, really hard, and it might not get easier anytime soon. But I want to tell you that I’m in awe of your resilience, your perceptiveness, your willingness to throw “Why” and “Why not” on the table, and to be serious about discussing them. You care about diversity and inclusion, about protecting the environment, about fairness and kindness and beauty. You don’t run from the big, difficult ideas, and you call people on their sloppy logic. You have philosophical grit the likes of which I’ve never seen in an adult.

You need to know that your thoughts are important. The fact that you don’t drive or vote doesn’t change that. There are questions, huge questions, that need to be asked, that are the key to fixing many of the things that are wrong with the world. In many ways, you’re better at asking them than anyone else.

It is my honour and my pleasure to create for, teach, and work with child thinkers. If I had one wish for you, it would be that you never grow out of being the kind of philosophers that you are, and that the world learns to celebrate your gifts.

Happy Philosophy Day!

Making It Through With Metaphor

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A song from the musical “Avenue Q” cheekily asks “What do you do with a BA in English?” I’ve been asked this question since I graduated, you know, back in the day when people did research from actual books. It’s a fair question, I guess.

Okay, for starters, I’m a pretty good speller. I can write meaningful prose in short order, and I can scan text for useful nuggets like nobody’s business. I’m a source of interesting quotes, and I’m comfortable using words like bildungsroman. I like to think I have a reasonable understanding of the human condition, although it will forever be a work in progress. These are all useful things, in one way or another.

But none of them have had the impact on my life, none of them have contributed to my mental health, my well-being, heck, even the development of my career like my understanding and appreciation of…

Metaphor.

That’s right. Metaphor is considerably more than just another item on a sheet of literary terms in grade 10 English. The creative practice of indirect comparison between two unrelated things is and has been my superpower.

There’s the obvious application- I’m a writer. A big part of the job is finding connections in weird places, seeing one thing in another, and wrapping all of this up with ribbons of pretty words (see what I just did there?). Maybe there are writers out there who don’t use metaphor, but I don’t think I’ve met any of them.

Metaphor has also been a huge part of my life as an educator. Planning lessons around it captures people’s imaginations, and reframes difficult material. It humanizes the person at the front of the classroom too. Metaphor makes me a human being who’s just trying to figure things out, just like they are. Metaphor works with wee little learners, and with seasoned, grown up scholars too.

A surprise to me, virtually all of the success I’ve had as an entrepreneur can be traced back to metaphor. Everything I’ve learned about building and sustaining a business, I’ve learned on the fly, and metaphor has kept me from crashing and burning.  It’s helped me get my head around sales strategies, decide who to hire, and land new clients. Sometimes it’s the biggest, most important thing I have to contribute to an important discussion. The people I work for have come to rely on my for it.

As essential as metaphor has been in my professional life, it’s been a cornerstone of my personal life. It’s been the lens through which I’ve seen love, and loss, and figuring out who I am.  It’s been instrumental in my life as a parent (holy cow, do little stinkers ever respond to it). It’s built into the décor of my house, and a centerpiece at practically every holiday.

And it’s gotten me through the fog of the past year and a half. Let’s be honest, it’s been part of everyone’s pandemic ethos. It’s allowed a lot of us to understand how a virus works, and how we keep a society going through stress and isolation. It’s been our comfort, popping up in the movies, tv shows, books and music we’ve consumed while we waited for the world to open up again. I’d wager it’s been part of how we see each other, and how we see ourselves in the emerging “new normal”.

Words matter, even the fluffy, sentimental poetic ones. Metaphor has been my constant companion since I figured out how to read and write. And now, as I dip my toes into the outside world and a new reality that I never thought I’d have to wade through, I’m counting on it to help me keep my head above water.

See what I did there? 🙂

Big Fish and Little Fish

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I must have been about 7 or 8 when I saw it. A bunch of us soggy, sunburned kids had been paddling in the shallows for what seemed like hours, and I spotted a moving shadow nearby. I saw shadows like it all the time, but this one didn’t refocus or dissipate when I reassured myself that it was nothing. Nope, this one was real, and it was getting a lot closer than I wanted it to. Being the skittish kid that I was, and seeing how “Jaws” was popular at the time (yeah, I’m that old), I assumed the worst, screamed “SHARK!”, and pretty much ran on top of the water back to the dock.

It wasn’t nothing, but it wasn’t a bloodthirsty, vindictive Great White either. Just a lonely, wayward carp who decided to swim closer to shore than it normally would. We watched it slink along the rocks, then turn around and head back to the deep end.

Fast forward a few decades, to a couple of weeks ago, and I’m paddling in the shallows again, this time with my own little water rat. She refuses to stand still for more than a few seconds, lest her toes be peeled clean by a school of minnows. I stick up my pinky finger as a unit of measure and reassure her that nothing this close to shore is any bigger than that. I smile as I remember my encounter as a kid, and explain that the big fish live in the middle of the lake, where they can hide from noisy human pests like us.

And then an hour or two later, I watch as a hawk expertly swoops down at the shoreline and nabs a snack, a specimen considerably older and heftier than the wee things we were chasing away earlier. The fish in the shallows are much bigger than I thought.

It’s been a year and a half of these kinds of experiences.

There are things that we may have once considered “minnows” (potentially annoying, but tiny and nothing of great consequence) that have turned out to be big. This past year, we’ve had a forceful reminder that germs and viruses are not insignificant. They can’t be brushed off or stomped through like schools of small frey. As we’ve seen with our efforts to deal with these invaders, our everyday choices and our actions are not tiny, unimportant details either. We are all swimming in schools, and the way we behave around one another, the way we relate to one another, can have profound and lasting effects.

This applies to people as well. Lots of  individuals we may not have otherwise noticed, have stepped up and shown us new ways of doing things. The small businesses and organizations that have stayed afloat have shown incredible determination and ingenuity. Scores of people in service industries have kept us fed and supplied. A whole lot of medical professionals, emergency workers and educators have marched us through the worst of the worst. For the most part, we didn’t know their names, or anything about them. They haven’t received the recognition a “big fish” would have commanded, but they have been taking on the responsibilities of one.

On the flip side, an awful lot of “big fish” have turned out to be tricks of the eye. Huge, seemingly impossible things have happened much quicker and much more easily than any of us could have imagined. We’ve been able to bring entire countries to a screeching halt. We’ve learned and we’ve worked from home, often with a million distractions around us. We created, tested and distributed a vaccine, in the span of a year. Okay, all of these things are still “big fish”, but they have not been the impassable leviathans we once assumed they were.

It seems like we’re also changing our perspective on people and institutions that are “big fish” too. Somehow being wealthy, famous, and powerful means little if it involves causing the suffering of others. Being “big” is no longer enough to keep you from getting cancelled, being slapped with criminal charges, having your statue toppled. It is by no means easy to pull a big fish out of the water, but I see us being less intimidated by them. We’re starting to realize that the shadows they cast can be deceiving.

For so long, we’ve been looking at things as if they were beneath the ripples of a lake. We’ve become accustomed to distortion, to being afraid to get a little cold or soggy in order to take a closer look. Little fish can sneak up on us in great numbers, and they inevitably grow bigger with time. Big fish are not nearly as likely to swallow us whole, to pull us into the undertow as we’ve feared. The trick is neither to dive in blindly, nor make a run for the dock. Moving forward involves putting on goggles, putting our faces in the water, and taking a good long look at what’s actually there- swarms of new little fish who are capable of big things, and who will find big problems waiting for them when they swim in open waters.

 

 

Living the Examined Life On Canada Day

79C41D3A-BE48-42F0-8E9F-FA2B673F2243There are different kinds of birthdays. Some years, a birthday is a blur of cake and presents, music and dancing, happy, crazy delirium. Other years are about sleeping in and giant cups of tea, a chance to read a book in peace or go for a long walk. Sometimes, a birthday is just another day at the office, maybe something nice for dinner and a handful of congratulatory emails. If you’re lucky, you’ve experienced some mixture of all three.

Some birthdays are a little more complicated. Some years, we spend this particular day taking stock, making plans, and even though we don’t really want to, coming to terms with some of the things that didn’t go as we’d hoped. Once in a while, a birthday is more like a day of reckoning, of brutal honesty, a day of “I can’t believe I’m still standing.”

I think this year, Canada is having one of these birthdays. We were undoubtedly due for it. Despite our squeaky-clean, unassuming image on the international stage, we’ve done our share of messing things up. I don’t need to give a laundry list of our trespasses here. Suffice it to say, there have been many, some of which still linger and take giant, crooked bites out of who we hoped we were.

Maybe it isn’t surprising that these transgressions are just now coming to light for many. A whole lot of us have been holed up in our cubbies for the past year or so, and we’re just starting to find our feet again. It’s been a year to sit and think, at least metaphorically. There really hasn’t been an excuse to not do so. Think of all those fellas in Plato’s allegory of the cave, their eyes watering and burning in the light of what was actually “out there”. The truth hurts. A lot. But it’s still the truth.

And here are a few truths:

  • The truth is, July 1 isn’t really even a proper birthday. Human birthdays are for celebrating when someone arrived as a someone, when the universe hit play on their personal history. Papers were filed in 1867, but that’s not when Canada started being a someone. That all happened sometime about 12,000 years ago, when a bunch of brave people crossed a glacier (a glacier!) and learned to make things work here. I want to celebrate that far more than I want to pay homage to a legal document being signed.
  • The truth is, you can love, love, love something, and still be critical of it, still see all the little thorns sticking out of it, the ways in which it sometimes sucks. You can see everything that’s gone before, acknowledge that you didn’t make the mess yourself, and still want to help clean it up. You can hold the “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” in your head and your heart simultaneously. This is how I love most things, and most people, and how I love the country that raised me. Being aware of flaws doesn’t diminish true love, it validates it. I love Canada enough to want it to be better.
  • The truth is, Canada isn’t done. Never has been, probably never will be. Perhaps we all got too comfortable resting on our laurels as “the good guys”, and settled into the idea that this was the way things would always be. History has shown, in many cases, that entities that get stuck, that don’t change, tend to die off, or worse, get caught in a pattern that’s detrimental to many living within it. There’s absolutely no shame in being a work in progress, as long as there is actually progress.

The very best news, I think, is that we have what it takes to actually be “the good guys”, not perfect, but good. Mixed in with some shameful acts have been triumphs. We have innovators, inventors, artists, poets, and humanitarians in our midst- lots of voices and minds, and there is room for so many more. We have breathtaking natural beauty that’s just waiting to be praised and protected. Canada is home to the biggest multicultural festival, the biggest pride festival, and the biggest film festival. For the love of Pete, we produce over 80% of the world’s maple syrup. We can get there, to a place where we actually live up to the sunshine-and-rainbows reputation we’ve been pinning to our backpacks for a long, long time.

So, it’s going to be one of those birthdays this year, and that’s okay. If you’re lucky, those birthdays mark turning points, motivational sparks. We can have our red and white frosted cake, wave a few flags, and spend some time thinking of real, practical ways that we can be more aware, more peaceful, more inclusive.

More Canada.

A Plague of Otherness

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Our brains are set up to notice “otherness” in a simple, basic sense. It’s how we distinguish between things we cuddle and things that will eat us, things that will nourish us, and things that will poison us. Our ability to distinguish this from that is part of what’s kept us alive this long. It allows us to appreciate new and interesting things, to learn from and adapt to the novelty that comes our way. It’s kept existentialists like me busy for about a hundred years.

Just as humans have evolved, “otherness” has changed over the years. This new version has gotten us into heaps of trouble.

Recently, humans have been so “other” to each other that they find reasons to stop each other from breathing, to take children from their parents, to run people down with their trucks, to volley bombs across borders, to deny many the right to love each other, or to have control over their own bodies.

Of course, this amped up, extreme version of “other” isn’t new. It’s been making us sick for thousands of years. “Other” is behind all manner of atrocities. It comes in so many varieties, dressed in “isms”, sometimes raging and sometimes nearly silent. Open a history book, close your eyes, and randomly flip to any page. There’s a story of “other” there somewhere, of someone (or rather, a lot of someones) who didn’t, couldn’t, or wouldn’t get past “other”. It’s a long, long way from the version of “other” that once allowed us to survive.

Perhaps it’s just because for the past year or so, we’ve been distanced in a very physical, tangible way that “otherness” feels closer to the surface lately. As we’re finally starting to get a handle on a virus that’s kept us apart, it’s becoming apparent just how detached we’ve been all along. There’s a lot of “I didn’t know it was so bad” and “I had no idea people were going through that.” Even in the most seemingly peaceful and prosperous parts of the world, people of colour do not feel safe going about daily activities, women are still paid less for equal work, worshipping in your chosen way might get you attacked, the elderly are neglected, the 2SLGBTQ+ community doesn’t have equal access to healthcare, indigenous groups struggle with basic needs, those with disabilities are often unaccommodated…there’s more. So much more. And this is in the digital age, when the sum total of human knowledge is there, in our faces, all the time.

Yeah, it’s that bad, and yeah, a lot of people are going through it.

As I type all of this, I am so overwhelmed with “other”, with the weight of the past year, with awareness of my privilege, with anger and loss, with a nauseating lack of surprise at all that’s happening in the world, I don’t know where to put it all. But, as Henry Rollins once said, “My optimism wears heavy boots and is loud.” Dear readers, I am an optimist, and a fixer, and a hugger, and a humanist. I do what I do for a living because I’m a keen student of human experience, because, from the bottom of my heart, I want to know what it’s like to be all kinds of “us”. I promise to keep challenging myself and anyone else who’ll listen, to question assumptions and to think rationally about our relationships with fellow humans. I will keep learning more about the world outside my bubble. I will call “otherness” what it is, and not make excuses. I will refuse to be reduced to an “other”, and I will endeavour to catch and correct myself whenever I “other” someone else. I will screw up sometimes, and misunderstand, and speak out of turn on occasion, but I will try.

Here’s the thing about doing away with “other”: it doesn’t hurt. It’s work, for sure, probably work without an end, but it’s actually a relief. Being angry and fearful, living with the conviction that “others” exist only to make us miserable and to take things away from us…it’s exhausting. Once we face up to the idea that this extreme version of “other” isn’t a real thing, that it’s a jagged, hard shell we construct and maintain at tremendous cost to our well being, we can spend our time and energy doing something else. You know, like coexisting. I still get to be me, and you still get to be you, but we don’t dwell in a vacuum anymore, hidden from each other’s sight and each other’s understanding.

A number of years ago, I taught comparative religion classes to college students. It was only a 14 week class, with only 3 hours at a time to cover an entire faith, but we still got to take at least a small peek at the “why” behind beliefs and practices. Our classes were made up of a diverse range of learners, and more often than not, someone in the group belonged to the religion we were discussing, and added their own thoughts and experiences. Learners who elected to take those classes were genuinely curious, about all kinds of ways that faith is expressed, and about how their own fit into the mix. There were a lot of “aha” moments, and I like to think that in some small way, we chipped away at “otherness”. I’d do a whole lot to see more moments like these, outside of the classroom, to find space for these little sparks of understanding.

So, here’s a place to start. If you’re reading this, please turn to the person to your right and introduce yourself. Then the person to your left. Talk, listen, breathe, repeat. If you don’t understand something, ask politely for clarification. If you disagree, do it respectfully, with reason. If you don’t like each other, that’s okay too, just be in the same space as fellow human beings. With seven and a half billion versions of us out there, this should keep us busy for a while.

An Anniversary, And A (Sort Of) Love Letter To Writing

As of today, I have been a published children’s author for a decade. What started as an idea I had while I was teaching big kids to ask big questions is now 13 books (with #14 in the works), 14 apps, a bunch of videos, and a big pile of parent/teacher resources. Along the way, there have been conferences, workshops, and a handful of awards. It’s been a good ride.

I’ve got 10 years of learning, and deadlines, and fretting over typos. I’ve got a 10-year stockpile of stuff that never quite fit into our plans, and stuff that should never see the light of day. And yes, I have 10 years of friendly, writerly, publisher-ly advice to give to anyone who’s willing to listen.

After some careful thought I’ve distilled it down to one key thesis, with a handful of footnotes. There’s one thing I need you to know about this line of work.

Making books is really, really, really hard.

I’m not interested in turning anyone off the act of writing, but there’s this weird and, quite frankly, damaging mystique around it that is just begging to be dispelled. I’m not sure if there are very many professions that are quite as misunderstood. So, as a show of reverence and respect to wordsmithing, I’m going to take this anniversary as an opportunity to throw in my two cents.

First things first: a writer is someone who writes. You don’t have to be paying your rent with your words in order to be a writer. You don’t have to have critical acclaim. You do, however, have to do it on a regular basis. You are not a runner if you don’t run. You’re not a chef if you don’t cook. A writer isn’t someone who has an idea for a book, or who thinks it might be cool to have a bestseller on their CV. “Writer” is not an honorific or the expression of a wish. “Writer” is a verbal snapshot of someone in the act. This may sound pretty obvious, but I’ve had to explain it to a lot of people over the past 10 years.

Admittedly, writing is something you can do without a specific degree or period of professional training. There are some excellent writing programs out there, but it can be self-taught. This does not, however, mean that writing is easy, or that anyone who wants to can do it on a whim. Writers, good ones anyway, are able to produce evidence of their skill, some sort of credentials. If someone walked into a law office and announced that they were certain they could be an excellent lawyer because they’d gobbled up a TV series, they’d be shown the door. No one gets to do surgery because they’ve always found blood and guts fascinating. Airplanes are not piloted by people who think it might be fun to play with a big metal toy. Like any profession, writing requires study and practice, and if you’re looking to be taken seriously by anyone in the industry, you need to be familiar with the process, well-versed in the lingo, and able to cough up some work. Good work.

It’s also essential to recognize that a finished piece of work is not the same as a good piece of work. A great deal of any writer’s portfolio is garbage, and will/should never see the light of day. All writers need to be honest and brave enough to let some things go. Everything we write is useful practice, but it’s not all worth sharing. I have a giant backlog of old writing, and I see most of it as a collection of souvenirs. Been there, done that, got it down on paper, cried a bit and said some grown-up words while trying to make it work, moved on.

Over the last decade, I’ve been in both a writer’s and a publisher’s shoes, and I need to share a very important insight. The publishing industry may be mean and nasty, but publishers themselves (as in the people who make decisions) really aren’t. I used to stare at each rejection letter (and there are always plenty, by the way), and try to picture the face of the person who wrote it, so I could imagine the sorry so-and-so who turned down my masterpiece. I wondered what a complete stranger could have against me and my work. Now, I’m over it. This book stuff is more expensive, and time-intensive, and mind-boggling than anyone outside the industry could ever imagine. The powers that be don’t have the resources to publish every good piece that comes their way. In the case of indie publishers, it might be one or two things a year. Success means being really picky and focused. That’s the reality, and it sucks. No one’s trying to be a snob or a jerk. Pinky swear.

I sound like a royal downer, don’t I? The truth is, I’m sharing all of this because I love books. I love reading them, I love writing them, I love publishing them, and I love transforming them into other stuff. It’s a common affliction for writers that they can’t not write. I don’t feel like myself unless I’ve got my hands somewhere in the process. Kafka wasn’t kidding when he said “A non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity.” It’s this profound affection, this ever-looming insanity, that makes me desperate to have others understand the mad, loving scramble that goes into producing each work, the complex tangle of tasks and ideas. It would be such a disservice, maybe even a betrayal of my profession to let anyone think that it’s easy, or that a book just shows up. This or that book didn’t have to be here. In fact, in the grand scheme of things, it was pretty unlikely that it would be written, let alone polished up, noticed by someone in the right place at the right time, and then published. Knowing all of that should take our breath away.

So here I am, a decade in. I’m a little scuffed up in spots, a little bit proud, admittedly a little bit smug, but still enamoured and in awe.

Given the chance (and I hope I’m given decades’ more chances) I’d do it all over again, with minimal revisions.