April 30, 2014

All Good Things Come to an End

The Agassiz Tulip Festival is done for another year. Yesterday was our last day. Due to a couple of days of heavy rain this past week, the flowers took a beating; damaged flowers invite disease, so it's 'off with their heads!' to protect the growing bulbs. The field workers will now be left in peace to tend the fields (and turn their tractors around without waiting for someone to move their tripod), and the First Nation community that owns this land will return to normal life once more.

I love working at this festival. Thousands of people flock from the nearby cities to enjoy the endless colour and scenery. As they paid their entrance fee their shoulders would visibly relax and their faces open in a wide smile as they exclaimed at the sight. They would often be so distracted by the rainbow of flowers that they would ignore the many, many strategically placed signs around the forty acres instructing them to stay out of the rows, to refrain from picking the tulips, and to watch for machinery. Field staff in yellow hats were kept hopping as they tried to keep people from trampling the tulips in their quest for the perfect photo. I'm not sure how many times I repeated the 'Field Guidelines', told the story of the life cycle of a greenhouse tulip, gave directions to the washrooms or told visitors where to park their cars, but that is what a host does, she treats every visitor as if he is her first.

As to be expected I am beyond exhausted today. I am also wondering if the four women who spent an hour at the festival on Wednesday, a rainy, freezing cold day, wearing high heels and light jackets are suffering from pneumonia. While the crew and I struggled to stay warm in layers of wool, polar fleece, and gore-tex, these women posed for each other, smiling and laughing. I remember watching one woman in particular from the shelter of the tent. She stepped, in suede pumps, nylons and mini-skirt into a muddy opening at the front of a row of yellow tulips, removed her leather jacket to reveal a short sleeved red silk blouse, and posed, head cocked to one side for her photographer friend. The crew and I looked on in amazement and shook our heads. Crazy city people.

Last Sunday, our busiest day, I was dropping off my daughter's friends at their farm. Their father Henry, and his father before him, has been working that dairy farm for decades. It was my day off, but I had just come from the tulip fields where my son was entertaining the crowds with his violin (and making piles of money in tips, I might add). I exclaimed to Henry about the thousands of visitors that sunny day. "What are they all coming for - just to see a bunch of tulips?" he asked shaking his head in disbelief.
"Think about it," I said. "A lot of these people live in apartments in buildings made of concrete, steel and glass, and linked by asphalt roadways. To them, this is Nirvana out here. You should see how excited they are."
"I guess so," he said, still incredulous. "But I still don't see what all the fuss is about."
Crazy country people.

The photos above are mine:
1) Monte Carlo double tulips
2) a rogue red among the Leo Visser tulips
3) the view East
4) looking back on my way home from work

I wrote this post back in 2010, but much of it still applies this year as we come to the end of another great festival. The crowds this year doubled last year's and we are having to continually make crowd control adjustments. 

April 18, 2014

Art Projects

I never considered myself an artist. I had dabbled all my life in drawing and painting because, rather than an Easy Bake Oven and Barbie's Dream House, the children in my family were often given art supplies as gifts and my mother supplied an endless stack of drawing paper, even if it was just the backs of photocopied documents from her work. At school I favoured band and jazz choir over art class - somehow one had always to choose between the two - but by Grade 12 I had decided that I would make room in my schedule for art class. That class became an oasis for me and stands out as a memorable time full of colour and the meditative, expansive work of making art.

I did not go on to become a visual artist, but I did learn a great deal from my teacher, Ms. Konkin. She was a pretty, round-faced blonde woman with striking blue eyes. She was calm and honest about our work. I only remember being enthusiastically congratulated on one piece, which was a drawing of a glass of water with a spoon in it. I suppose I had captured the visual effect fairly well. I no longer have that drawing, but I do have a painting I did as my major project. I was studying dance at the time and was completely in love with that particular art form. I had a poster on my bedroom wall of a female dancer in a black dress leaning back and kicking one leg out. Her strong pose created a beautiful line. I decided to paint her balancing on the moon with a backdrop of a city scape, while kicking her foot into a blazing sun. The end result of the painting was certainly not technically brilliant. Against Ms. Konkin's advice I chose it from all my work to enter into a district student show down at the mall. The work was being judged by a famous local watercolour painter, Les Weisbrech. He didn't think very much of my painting, and when I looked at my painting through his eyes its faults glared painfully at me. Some time later I brought my painting home and showed it to my mom. She happened to love it, which took me by surprise, so I gave it to her. It hung in her bedroom for at least twenty years. She gave it to me and it now hangs in my bedroom. For all its faults I love it now. It seems to contain all the wonderful naive optimism that youth holds about the future. I truly thought the world was my oyster back then, and I was ready to take it on like my 'Stepping Out' dancer. Now, she reminds me of the beauty of innocence and to embrace life.

As part of our study that year in Art 12 we worked with clay. I particularly enjoyed working with the delicate porcelain clay, making pieces of jewelery and a teacup, if I remember correctly. We learned to throw pottery on the wheel and to my surprise all the skills I had learned making bowls with our old family friend Carol when I was little had vanished. One assignment was to make a free form sculpture with clay. We could not use the wheel, but we could use as much or as little clay as we liked. As I played with the lump of clay in front of me and listened to Ms. Konkin's guiding words about the options before us, a figure seemed to speak to me out of the clay in my hands. I had worked hard in high school to defy labels. If one day I spiked my hair and wore a man's suit and tie, the next day I wore a trendy Benetton rugby shirt and jeans, but by Grade 12 I had given up the fight. I was starting to mature and to relax into myself. If people wanted to label me I no longer cared so much. I took one lump of clay and formed it into a cross about eight inches tall and four inches across. I took another lump of clay and formed it into the figure of Jesus with his arms extended and his head falling slightly to one side. I placed him on the cross and added a crown of thorns and tiny nail heads in his hands and feet. Ms. Konkin came around to check on our progress. I believe she was stumped when she arrived at my place at the secular high school table, and out of the corner of my eye I saw one of her eyebrows rise. But, to her credit she said nothing critical at all about my choice of subject, and I offered no explanation. All our pieces were fired in the kiln and mine survived the oven despite its delicacy. I carefully wrapped it in paper and put it on the top shelf of my locker.

A few weeks later It was the end of the school year and I was cleaning out my locker. Somehow the clay crucifix fell to the floor and broke into six pieces. I gathered them up and was looking at them sadly when my friend Rachel with whom I had gone to school since we were in Grade One at St. Joseph's offered to fix it if she could keep it. I said yes. Years later I went to visit her, and there was my little mended sculpture hanging on her kitchen wall. "I love it," she said.

Yesterday I found out from a friend that Ms. Konkin who had also been my Home Economics teacher in, I think, Grades 10 and 11 is retiring. My friend posted the news on Facebook and as I read through the thread of comments my year with Luba Konkin as my art teacher came flooding back. Like so many rooms where the arts are taught in schools, Ms. Konkin had provided a space where creative and often sensitive souls could relax and feel appreciated and encouraged to do what came naturally to them. Teachers around the world who do the same are worth their weight in gold.

April 9, 2014

Humility, the Underrated Virtue

I was talking recently with an artist at the reception for his show of folk art at our local public art gallery. I commented on the fact that one of the themes he was exploring with his art was The Seven Deadly Sins (lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, pride), and their antidotes, The Seven Heavenly Virtues (chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, forgiveness, kindness, humility) - other virtues exist, like faith, hope and charity, but he had not included them in this particular set of works. One painting listed the virtues in various shades of pink. Another listed the sins only in black and white. Some of his works featured all fourteen sins and virtues in a jumble of blocks of colour painted on handmade wooden benches. Several of these benches were distributed around the room and he invited me, as he and his wife themselves had done, to sit down on one of them while we chatted. He told me he found the subject of the sins and virtues of great interest and he hoped with his art to encourage people to talk about them more. I took that as a cue to do so because a thought occurred to me recently that the virtue of humility is greatly underrated in our world today. I told the artist that I believe many of the societal problems we suffer could be prevented if we only came at things with a bit more personal humility. And because I love a good philosophical discussion.

I gave the artist an example of what I thought having humility meant: say we find ourselves in conflict with someone, perhaps a spouse or family member. Our first reaction may be to find fault with them. Having true humility would cause us to look into ourselves first, to ask ourselves, what might I have done to cause this conflict? Or at least to contribute to it. The effect of humility in this situation would be an automatic decrease in the level of blame we might put on the other person and a desire to resolve the conflict in as peaceful manner as possible. If we are the first to apologize, we can also be a good example to the other person, causing them to try to resolve any future conflicts peacefully, too. We don't have to be doormats, we just have to desire peaceful, functional relationships with those we spend the most time with and realize our role is often to give them the benefit of the doubt. Which means being humble and not always having to be right.

One definition of humility I found was this: a modest opinion or estimate of one's own importance. Humility is a tough concept for many of us. We in the western nations are taught to be individualistic and to be on a constant and relentless quest for personal material comfort and security. We sometimes push our own agenda in order to elevate ourselves above the next person, because we see our needs and wants as more important than theirs.

In my husband's position at a 300-plus room hotel, hearing a wide range of complaints is part of his job. However, the stories he sometimes comes home with are astounding. People are often so quick to lash out, to blame, to scream at the staff if they are unsatisfied. They are sure that their needs are the most important thing in the universe at that moment and that everyone within a 200 meter radius needs to hear about it. Perhaps they were ignored as children and have an inner conviction that volume, anger and bullying is the way to get attention, or perhaps they learned as children to scream and yell until they got what they wanted because that tactic wore their parents down, and it has continued to work in their adult lives. And yet other people, when they have a grievance, share it with the staff in a way that is polite and respectful and not at the very top of their voice. Perhaps when they were children they were taught to ask for the things they wanted, but learned to accept the occasional disappointment as part of life. 'You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you get what you need,' may even have been sung to them from time to time. Humility is acknowledging the respect due to one human being from another. Humanity is in essence ironic. Although we are all lowly beings on this planet, we mere specks in the universe also have great power and responsibility to try and make things better for each other, or else life is endlessly cruel and competitive. Unfortunately, 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,' is often forgotten in the service industry because the idea of having people at our service seems to give us a heightened sense of our own importance, however fleeting, and thus, the one rendering the service a lower status in our estimation. Else, why would we feel free to scream at them for making a mistake on our bill or bringing us the wrong sandwich?

Humility also naturally increases empathy. When I see someone begging for food on a city street or scoping out the ditches and public garbage containers for bottles and cans to bring to the recycling depot in order to get a little money for their needs I try to imagine how many degrees of separation actually exist between them and myself. The line between their standard of living and mine is fragile and I am perfectly aware of that. I have inner resources to draw upon if I ever found myself alone and cut off from the present comfortable income I am priviledged to live on, but life holds no guarantees for any of us. Everything we cherish could be taken away from us at any moment and the idea of that helps to keep me humble, and it helps me to look upon the homeless and the needy with empathy because with a little stretch of the imagination I can put myself in their shoes. I know how hard it would be to maintain some sense of dignity. The same goes for my fellow humans living in poverty and/or under oppression around the globe. The awareness of my great fortune in being Canadian humbles me enough to want to do what I can for those who rely on the generosity of others in order to put their children in school and food on their table, as well as making sure I am paying attention to what is going on in my own backyard to make life fair and equitable for all citizens.

Since talking with the artist while sitting on his benches decorated with the sins and virtues, I have had much to ponder, so I suppose his aim worked with me at least. I know I have some stuff to work on, but the great thing about virtues like humility is that they are achievable. Practise makes perfect. We just have to start small and take gradual steps toward being more human. Humility and human start with the same three letters, which is no accident. The Latin root word 'hum' means in English, 'ground'. The way I see it is this: if we approach life from the humble ground up we will realize we are all deserving of love and basic human respect from each other no matter what our status or gifts may be. If we act on this realization not only will our immediate circle benefit, but the ripples of our seemingly small actions will move out beyond us and into the world, and our collective actions will achieve great things.