“This quality of beholding”: Guest post

The following arrived as a response to the previous post in which I mused about adding more words to the “tsunami” of words already out there. It came from my friend and fellow writer Leona Dueck Penner, whose rich life has included working with Mennonite Central Committee in Africa, being a correspondent for Canadian Mennonite, and engaging in ongoing writing of various kinds including poems (one example here) and short stories. Those of you who follow comments here will know that when she responds to something she adds wonderful reflections of her own. This time I asked if she’d let me carry them as a guest post. I’m pleased that she agreed, and here they are, under a title from the quote on Rilke below.

“This quality of beholding” (Leona Dueck Penner)

Thanks so much Dora, for sharing your learnings through your blog, especially that quote by Nadine Gordimer and the link to the interview which I really enjoyed and was challenged by. I put her Telling Time book of essays on hold at the library right away!

Gordimer is a favourite writer whose books taught me so much about what it meant to be human in South Africa during the years that we worked/lived in the region prior to and just as apartheid ended in that beloved country. And her interview taught me some more about what it means to live there now. For example, I like her suggestion, nay demand, that the rest of the world cut SA a bit slack. After all, it’s only 16 years ago since their first democratic elections, while North America and Britain have had “hundreds of years of working towards democracy and are still not perfect; you’ve still got poor people; you’ve still got xenophobia.”

But back to your post. I also appreciate the quote by Gordimer re discovering our humanity through the process of writing, and how this can send a writer “falling, falling through the surface” of his/her own social context. That reminded me of the forward to a book (discovered at McNally’s of course!) which P. and I are reading together in the mornings just now:  A Year with Rilke: Daily readings from the best of Rainer Maria Rilke (translated & edited by Joanna Macy & Anita Barrows) which states that:

… perhaps the most distinctive aspect of Rilke’s poetry resides in his fearless confrontation with the fact of suffering. His capacity to embrace the dark and to acknowledge loss brings comfort to the reader because nothing of life is left out. There is nothing that cannot be redeemed. No degree of hopelessness, such as that of prisoners, beggars, abandoned animals, or inmates in asylums, is outside the scope of the poet’s respectful attention. He allows us to see that the bestowal of such pure attention is in itself a triumph of the spirit.

This quality of beholding–taking into oneself what one beholds –is to Rilke the central task of our being. From the outset, our engagement with the world around us is presented as reciprocal: ‘All becoming has needed me. /My looking ripens things /and they come toward me, to meet and be met.’

So … if a writer remains true to this high calling to the best of her/his ability, perhaps it’s no wonder that they are often feared, ridiculed and silenced by the structures that govern society, whether in apartheid South Africa, or in right or left-wing “dictatorships,” where power and/or money may be put at risk if writers advocate for the poor (including our environment) too strongly.

Why add to a tsunami of words?

Last evening, we attended a reading at McNally Robinson Booksellers. It was the launch of Home Place 3, a Prairie Fire publication featuring Manitoba writers living outside Winnipeg. We enjoyed hearing samples of work, quite varied, including lovely “wilderness” poems by my friend Fran Bennett, poems by J.L. Bond whose work also appeared in the MB Herald some years ago and by well-known poet/professor Di Brandt; fiction by accomplished short story writer Lois Braun and by Paul Krahn, who once taught our sons at MBCI (his was a delightful excerpt about shopping at an MCC Thrift Store); and much more.

All well and good it was indeed, but there’s something about being at McNally’s, that amazing emporium of words, that pulls me two ways. As a reader, it’s heaven — I mean of the kid-in-the-candy-store variety: all this, available for me? As a writer, it’s overwhelming too but with a little anxiety to boot. So many hundreds of books seeking readers, mine on a shelf among them, one voice in a massive chorus of them all bleating, “pick me, pick me!”

In the latter frame of mind (I imagine the question hits most writers some days: why am I doing this, why do I persist?), I found two of the pieces posted at today’s Arts and Letters Daily encouraging. Alix Christie asks why, in light of the odds, in the midst of “this tsunami of freshly published words,” anyone would bother writing a novel. She sets the angst up well, quotes Mario Vargas Llosa that “fiction is an art of societies in which faith is undergoing some sort of crisis,” suggests it’s about courage, “an act of faith.” She provides something of a pep talk.

Then, an interview with South African writer Nadine Gordimer offers additional reasons to write. “For me, all writing is a process of discovery… the process of what it means to be a human being.” She makes a helpful distinction when she says it wasn’t the “problems” of her country that set her to writing (such writing would be propaganda) but rather, “it was learning to write that sent me falling, falling through the surface” of South African life. Great image that, and true: writing can send one “falling, falling” through the surface of things.

Last night, surrounded by books, we heard from established and beginning writers. Many of them will persist, as I will, in spite of the odds. I don’t generally like to talk about the discouragements of those odds. (Everyone, after all, no matter what they work at, has their challenges, and if there’s grousing to be done, it’s best done with colleagues in the same business. Enough to admit one has such moments.) Today I’m grateful for these two pieces of writing at Arts and Letters, for yesterday’s showcase of writers, and for the readers each of us finds for the words we add to the flood.