the underdog

I’ve always had a bit of a fatal flaw as a historian, and perhaps as a person too. When it comes to the stories that I’m most drawn to and the historic figures I like best, I’m inevitably drawn to the underdog. Perhaps this comes of being of Scottish and Irish decent. Scottish stories are largely about defensive stands against desperate odds. Living next door to such a powerful southern neighbour takes some doing, I can tell you. (As a Canadian, I know this).

As for Irish history, it makes for almost unbearable reading sometimes. “So, things were really, really bad, and then they were horrible, and then they got even worse. And then they got a little bit of a cattle business going and then that was shut down……..”

And it’s only 1720 and I’m already so depressed that I can’t bear to go on.

I do my best to go for history for my lessons. History has a role in healing I believe but only if we tell the truth. And, I can’t be expected to make all of the mistakes myself, (though I take a damn good run at it). I can learn from others!

Anyway, what happened I think is that I developed a taste for the underdog early on … for the Irish and the Scots and the First Nations people here in North America and other people who were conquered and oppressed from around the world. Mary, Queen of Scots v. Elizabeth I? I was always, always on Mary’s side. I didn’t start learning about Napoleon until I was in my twenties and it was quite heady. Winning is so fun!

But what happened I think is that I developed a really ambivalent attitude towards winning and winners. Because viewed through a lens of history, the winners could often be viewed as the bad guys. (As someone of Scots, Irish and French decent that really means = English!).

I’m going through a time where I don’t feel like a winner. I’m not necessarily proud of my life. And I can see that I’ve been creating my life out of fear for a long, long time. There are all kinds of reasons for that but not so deep down there is the unsettled feeling that it’s not okay to win and be successful. That winners succeed at the expense of others. When it comes to history, I’ve always come down on the side of Charles Stuart and Crazy Horse. Really capable deserving people who got absolutely crushed.

But, now I want to be a winner. Can history have a role in teaching me how to do that so that other people can win, too? Who are winners from history who helped and listened to others and made their own times and places and families happier?

I have this feeling that ordinary people, not the kings and queens and halls of great men hold the answers to that.

van gogh’s suicide note

I’ve been working on a number of different writing projects for years: a book of poetry, a history of my region and a couple of novels. At one point in one of the novels, the heroine (protagonist) is going through a time of dissolution. “Van Gogh she still believed in,” I have have written of her (most effective sentence, wouldn’t you say?!!!)

Sadly, on this day in 1890, the great artist ceased to believe in himself, dying of a self inflicted gunshot wound.

There are two possible candidates for Van Gogh’s “suicide note”, his very last painting.

The first is “The Church at Arles” (bottom), a bleak and haunting image with a frowning wrinkled sky. But, my money is on “Wheatfield with Crows”. There are so many elements of a typical Van Gogh: that signature purple blue outlines around things, the familiar blue and gold palette. Missing utterly, though, are any personal symbols from this, the most personal of painters.

In one of his last letters to his brother Theo, Van Gogh says that he fears that his depression is returning and remarks, “I cannot go through this again.”

And so the mind that crafted so much heaven … in fields, in orchards, in flowers, in other people’s faces … could not face its own return to hell.

pilgrim’s progress

I reread The Pilgrim’s Progress for the first time in about twenty years this summer. What an interesting experience to revisit a book that was had such a big influence on Christianity and my own theology as a little girl. Our church had a small library and I would choose a book to read whilst the sermon was going on. I chose Pilgrim’s Progress over and over again.

The stories were written in the 1600s and so there are problematic attitudes towards women and black people as you’d expect. Also, the attitude towards suffering stood out to me. Suffering was not only expected and accepted, but also quite glamourised and I still see this attitude reflected in my friends and family who are Christians today, with even innocent pleasures (and most are) being viewed with hostility and suspicion.

There are however some five hundred year old life lessons that seem pretty solid to me … like not taking shortcuts, what to do when we suffer from despair and being persistent and patient when faced with a challenge.

This seems like good advice too:

“If a man would live well, let him fetch his last day to him, and make it always his company keeper.”

— John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress.

mary morton

I hung out with my great-great grandmother last week. She was born in Dundee, Scotland in 1849 and died here in Calgary in 1924. She was described as a “restless spirit” … I don’t take after her there as I’m quite a homebody. I so wish I could have met her. Her life spanned a period of such change and that which we call “progress”. I wonder what she would make of this world now!

salon des refusés

If you had been visiting the prestigious Paris Salon exhibitions during the 1860s, here are some examples of paintings you would not get to see. The Salon at the time was run by people who wanted art that had traditional framing devices and traditional and instructive subject matter. The artists whose work focused on ordinary moments in ordinary people’s lives, rejected framing devices and were interested in painting out of doors found their work rejected over and over again by the established art world, and by people who were meant to know great art when they saw it. Of course, we know now that a lot of the discarded paintings were masterpieces!

Eventually, tired of being overlooked, the artists decided to have a salon of their own, “The Salon des Refusés” where they could display their work and give the public the chance to make up their own minds. These pioneering artists, the impressionists, went on to change art forever, and now Impressionism is probably the most popular and beloved style of art, seen as beautiful, meaningful and accessible to critics such as little children and people who usually don’t like art!

Do you have a private Salon des Refusés in your life? I know you do, because I have one of my own (quite extensive, if you want to know the true story). At the moment, it’s myself who has experienced so much rejection as far as finding a job that I’m a bit stuck at the moment. I’ve applied for jobs I didn’t care about. I’ve applied for jobs I wanted so badly. I’ve applied at grocery stores and gas stations, museums and schools, libraries and retail stores. I’ve had some interviews but so far! Nothing. And, this has been going on for such a long time.

I do feel discouraged and depressed about this state of affairs and I was thinking about the Salon des Refusés today. Just because you are rejected does not mean that you are not valuable and worthy. And, maybe I will have to make something of my own.

Monet: Women in the Garden, Hotel des Roches Noires, Trouville.
Degas: At the Races in the Countryside
Morisot: The Artist’s Sister Edma Seated in a Park
Bazille: Studio on the Rue Furstenberg
Manet: Women in a Garden

the old pretender

Have you seen a portrait of this man before? Depending on who is telling the story, this is either King James VIII or The Old Pretender, and his claim to the throne was as divisive in the eighteenth century as people like Donald Trump are today.

Ultimately, despite a number of attempts, he did not become the king in Britain, although he was descended from the Stuarts, who were the rulers. He did successfully invade Britain though, and I say successfully because not too many people can say they landed in Britain at all, although many have tried (the Spanish Armada, for instance).

His army did win some minor battles around Perth, Scotland, but to keep the enemy from advancing, it was deemed necessary to set on fire a little village in which the poor inhabitants probably didn’t care one way or another who the king was. It was wintertime, so destroying the houses meant certain death.

I’ve always thought that this man had kind eyes. When you read his letters, they display a sensitive person who felt so responsible for the risks that others were taking to help him, and the innocent people caught in the middle. Unlike the ruthless men in the army who without thought would obliterate anything that was in their way, he worried about the people who would be affected, even if they were commoners. I can’t help but think that he would have been rather a good king.

“It is crushing to me who would have thought myself to some degree content if I were alone in my misfortune but the death and misfortunes of others of which I am the innocent cause pierces my heart.”

— James Stuart