The Importance of Folklore

Tonight I’m reading Simon J Bronner’s The Practice of Folklore. Essays toward a Theory of Tradition. I want to rant about the importance of folklore and folkways to our lives. They help us reach out to people and share. They are also magically important in novels, which is why I’m researching the theory right now.

In a chat somewhere online a few days ago, someone stated very firmly that they had invented a fantasy world and that what we knew of this world didn’t apply. In theory, this is true. In practice, however, we (human beings) have things that connect us to the world., In novels, storylines that kinda reflect what we think we know are easier to read. If we think that very green grass means much rain and wonderful grazing (I’ve been dreaming of Ireland) then if we have a wet climate with much grass and a character walks out onto it and it’s hard and dry and fractured, like the Australian outback during a drought, it will be really hard to envisage the world. If we talk about living in houses and how deep the foundations are and then show those houses floating, foundationless, in mid air, we will be fretted and want to find easier reading. One way that some of the bets writers hold worlds together while still challenging what we think we know is to use folklore, popular culture, and folkways. Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union does this rather wonderfully from one direction and his The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay does it just as wonderfully from another.

And yet… most folklore studies are descriptions of folklore. I have a pile of photocopied jokes from my father and I used it when someone asked me for a piece on folklore, twentysomething years ago. I described the collection and gave some examples of the jokes. That was my father’s folk collection. My own is food and foodways. I have a rather nice little collection of community cookbooks.

These descriptions and studies are tremendous for writers. They are such vast resources. Nevertheless, it’s studies such as Bonner’s that teach us how to use folklore most effectively. I’m reading Bronner’s book now in order to better analyse fiction, but I own the book as much for my own writing as for my analysis of others.

The more we understand the role folklore, folkways and all their related subjects play in our lives, the more fuel there is for writing and the more joy there is in reading. And now you know what I’m working on for the next three months. Folklore and folkways in just one writer’s work. It’s part of my big project, the sequel to my Story Matrices work. And it’s so much fun. If I can understand theories of tradition, just think of what it does for my own novels, how enriched my worldbuilding will be.

There’s one single extra big and very important component. Nancy Jane Moore reminded me that I promised a post today and told me that it was Juneteenth. Juneteenth is very alien to me, culturally, because I’m Jewish Australian. Australia’s colonial heritage is very different from that of the US. When the US was enmeshed in civil war, we were still a bunch of British colonies. We have our own history and our own days that are equally difficult, but none of them are Juneteenth.

When I find something that foreign and that interesting and that holds that much historical importance, one very good way to explore it is by understanding the folkways and folklore associated with it. It’s a part of cultural respect.

I can’t tell you what to do or think about Juneteenth, but I can tell you that if you want to understand it, you look at the words and the traditions of those whose day it is. That’s step one in learning to tell stories about people from different backgrounds to ourselves. It’s not a matter of learning a date and noting that it’s important, it’s a matter of finding out why it’s important, how it’s important and what cultural fabric surrounds it. Bronner’s book doesn’t talk about Juneteenth at all, but his chapters on other subjects help give me a path to follow as I respectfully start learning.

Schroedinger’s Dinner Works Out

We have survived the holidays (they were actually lovely). But this year they required (administrative) flexibility of the sort generally associated with yogis and exotic dancers. Welcome to life in the time of COVID, and do let me know if any of this sounds familiar.

Every year–until 2020–we have traded off Christmas holiday dinner with my sister-in-law and her family in Sebastop0l. This always involves a certain amount of negotiation in terms of what will be served and who will bring what. As the dietary requirements of the family are, um, complex (various allergies, food sensitivities, and at least one part-time vegan in the mix) this is really where the negotiation part comes in. But my sister-in-law and I are old hands at this, and dinner–at whichever household plays host–is always festive and delicious.

And then we have 2021, the year in which we had Schroedinger’s Dinner. Continue reading “Schroedinger’s Dinner Works Out”

Where Gillian is Peeved

Every time I am invited to a Christmas party, I have to decide whether I should go. If it’s a friend asking me to share their celebration of their Christmas, I accept with joy. If it’s a public or professional event that’s called a “Christmas Party”, one of the implications is that if I don’t accept Christmas as a part of my life, then I am not really acceptable as I am, with my own views and culture, in that environment.

Not that the organisers articulate it in this way. Recently, when I asked a professional group what they meant by “Christmas” they explained that it was secular. While this was perfectly acceptable for them, they demonstrated that a secularised version of a religious celebration was seen as acceptable for all shapes of religion and belief because they explained to me (and they know I’m Jewish) that it was secular for me, too. This tells those of us without Christian backgrounds that there is a certain way we should live our lives.

How the lead-up to Christmas is depicted in Australia is related to this. There is an “Advent” book box being advertised right now. It takes the word “Advent” (which refers to a very particular coming birthday) and one can open one wrapped book a day from 1 December until Christmas Day. I’m told it is, also, not religious. But there are never any book boxes for the festivals of other religions. Instead, we are all asked to accept the redefined religious words for Christianity.

Whether these explanations work for me, for you, for someone else, depends on our background.

For me, it creates a disjuncture between the home and the outside world. The values in my home are Jewish, and my parents taught me that I should not celebrate others’ festivals for myself. Why? It’s an acceptance that their religion takes precedence over my own. In their homes, that’s a sign of respect. In my home, why don’t my own traditions and belief take precedence? In public events and shared places, explaining that a thing is secular not only sets the Christian festival as something that is shared by everyone (when it, frankly, is not) but it also rubs it in that my views do not matter.

The fact that someone explaining Christmas to me as secular shows how they set their own atheism in a cultural context. It also demonstrates that they’re not listening to people who have different contexts.

Cultural respect and religious respect involve understanding how the person we’re talking to sees the subject we’re talking about. This entails accepting multiple interpretations of an event. Do you leave someone out of a group because they can’t eat peanuts? Or do you make sure that there is shared food everyone can eat?

This is my annual rant on the subject. Shorter than usual because it’s 1 am here and bed beckons.

I shall skip the Christmas party, because I’m not convinced the person organising knows much about Christianity. Also, I won’t buy the books. Instead, on the day of the party, I shall tell anyone who wants to hear my two favourite miracles for St Nicolas (the children and the bones, for anyone who has had to suffer my tale-telling) for the party is on his holy day and he’s the bloke who became Santa Claus. I need to practise what I preach, in other words. If you who want to hear about the pickled children and how they are Santa’s backstory, please ask.

On the book-front, I’m doing my own thing. I will send book parcels on behalf of anyone who wants to give presents to friends and family in Australia. This is actually not my response to the religion issue. It’s my response to books being a bit difficult to buy and to international mail being a lost cause. If you know anyone wants to give presents to anyone in Australia over the next few weeks, check here: https://gillianpolack.com/sale-until-18-december-or-until-the-books-run-out/

I have nothing against presents (I adore presents), after all. My objection is to people who insist that my own background doesn’t matter a jot.

Everyone Hold Hands, All Together Now

Is it the last Friday of the month already?  Shit. It is.  The holiday season is in full stride, Hanukah in the rear view window, Christmas heading out the back door, and Kwanzaa upon us, and yep, there’s New Year’s Eve waving from the end of the driveway.

It’s inevitable that in this Year of Covid, we’ve been looking toward, if not anxiously anticipating, New Year’s Eve.  And, more specifically, New Year’s Day.  Goodbye 2020, PLEASE let the door hit you on the way out, hello, 2021.

God knows, that’s true for me:  2020 began, literally, with a call to tell me that my mother had died, and is ending as I recover from a concussion.  In-between…well, we know what happened in-between, worldwide and locally.  A few bright spots, a few not-inconsiderable wins, but overall… yeah.  And the veil of plausible deniability was pulled away from the arrogantly deadly stupidity of too many people, some of them people we respected, trusted, or loved. We’re going to be cleaning up after this year for a long time.  So it’s entirely reasonable and expected for people to start with the year-end chants of, “next year is gonna be better.”

And I cringe, as I do ever time I hear it.  Not because I think we’re jinxing ourselves, although, that, yeah.  But because if the past few years have taught us anything, it’s that what’s coming doesn’t HAVE to be better. And it won’t be, in and of itself. The universe bends toward the least amount of effort, and it takes effort for good things to happen (don’t ask me Why, that leads to theological and thermodynamical questions I don’t have the stamina for, because 2020).

But I do believe that we need to be optimistic.  First and foremost because if we don’t have the belief that there is better coming, the urge to stay in bed and let other people deal with shit becomes overwhelming, until we’re all in bed and nobody actually is dealing with shit (or, if they are, they’re not the people you want left in charge of anything, see: 2020).  But secondly and just as importantly, because it’s been my observation that sustained effort is driven by equal parts optimism and irritation, the kind of attitude that doesn’t say “it will magically get better” but rather “fuck you, universe, I’m going to make it better.”

This year – every year –  be punk-ass optimistic.  Be annoyingly punk-ass optimistic, because nothing annoys naysayers and doomfuckers like optimism.  But… maybe this year we don’t shout it from the rooftops.  Keep it quiet in your breast, and warm in your hands, and hidden from Fate.  Or, as a caution appeared in my social media scroll this week:Nobody claim 2021 as "your year." We're all going to walk in real slow. Be good. Be quiet. Don't. Touch. Anything.

Everyone, hold hands (virtually, for now) and on the count of three, step forward.

Oh yeah – and Happy New Year!

Practice Makes Project

It’s the holiday season, or so I’m told. I have signally failed to organize present-giving this year–to the point where my husband and I were yelling “I dunno, what do YOU want?” at each other from different rooms Saturday afternoon. The one thing I have done is to make some books as gifts. This is utterly self-serving: I found a couple of bookbinding projects that I wanted to do, and thought: who would like the end project? And there you go.

I am not a bookbinder. I have very few of the tools (I do have a bone folder, which is a multi-use tool and utterly invaluable). I have ambition but no indurated skills. And yet. I work in a museum of bookbinding, I know enough to talk about the history and craft, and sometimes the urge to make something with my scanty knowledge overwhelms. And Hey!, it’s the holidays! Continue reading “Practice Makes Project”

Finding Thanksgiving

It’s Friday, November 27th.  Traditionally known in America as Black Friday. The Day After Thanksgiving. Food Coma Recovery Day.  Raise your hand if you shouldn’t have eaten that last [fill in the blank].

*raises hand*

The past few weeks here in the States, most of the conversation not dominated by Things Political  has been focused on the War on Thanksgiving, aka  “Life with Covid-19.”  Medical authorities and science-aware politicians have asked – begged – people to stay home, telling us that it’s better to miss this one Thanksgiving than to miss all the ones to come, and other words of caution.

Too many people, feeling either that they know more than medical professionals or simply not caring, ignored the warnings.  We’ll see, in a few weeks, if they’ve cost us lives, and the winter holidays, too.

Those of us who heeded the warnings may have gone into the holiday feeling like we did, in fact, “miss” Thanksgiving.  I certainly felt that way – not only was I not able to fly back east to see my family for the first time since my mother’s funeral in January, I couldn’t even gather with local friends.  And hey, those feelings were valid.  2020 has been, you should pardon my language, a shittastic fuckery of a year.  Even if you didn’t start the past twelve months with major surgery and the hanging sword of cancer like I did, it’s not like 2019 was anything to write home about either, and WHAM hello Covid-19, like the shitty kicker to the Trump regime.  Losing Thanksgiving was pouring salt into the wound of insult added to injury, and it was entirely reasonable to be grumpy, if not downright angry.

But something funny happened, at least here.  As we cooked, and baked, and plotted zoom sessions, and arranged for drop-offs and pick-ups of food; as we teased each other about not getting out of our pajamas all day, or having to clean the house for company, we also had time to look around, and see, in the shadows of what we’re missing, the light of what we have.

Caring.  Connections.  Community.

We didn’t miss Thanksgiving.  It was right here, waiting for us to notice it again. Not the whitewashed historical story we were fed as children, but something better.  Thanks. Giving.  Taking a breath to be thoughtful, thankful, and mindful not just of what we have, but what we’re able to give.

And maybe next year, when we gather with our loved ones without fear of pandemic, we’ll be able to remember some of that, and build on it.

Maybe.  That’s up to us.