Why Do We Work For Nothing?

I received a call inviting me to join the board of directors of Lakefield’s Morton Community Healthcare Centre. It’s the sole medical centre that serves our small Village and the surrounding rural area. My first question to the caller was why do you want me but the first question to myself was why would I want to do this? Indeed, why do any of us work at certain tasks for nothing?

People working for nothing are the smiling folks in bright T-Shirts at the various fairs and festivals we enjoy so much. Without them, those events simply could not happen. More often, though, we don’t see those working for nothing at all. They serve on all the boards that oversee those events and all the other organizations that make our communities what they are.

I, for instance, am the Chair of the Lakefield Literary Festival. It is a terrific little 24-year-old annual festival that brings authors from across Canada to read from and discuss their books one evening every April and for a weekend in July. Dozens of volunteers make the events happen and eight of us work all year to pull it together. None of us makes a dime doing it.

Boards like that exist in every community. Think of Hospice, Children’s Aid, hospitals, race relations, United Way, agricultural fairs, libraries, social planning councils, Lions, Kinsmen, Probus, YMCA and YWCA, and on and on and on. Think not just of all the coaches in the rinks and on the sidelines keeping kids active and out of trouble but all the folks who run the leagues. Unlike corporate boards that pay members handsomely, the people serving on these boards, and the many more like them, all volunteer their time and talents. They work hard and they work for nothing.

I believe that we should pay for that from which we draw benefit. I would never enjoy a restaurant meal and then leave without paying. That would be theft. Similarly, I would never consider enjoying life in a society where people are educated by schools, protected by police, and helped by hospitals without paying for it. That is why I don’t grumble about paying taxes for those things despite the fact that I am not in school, and have not called a cop in years or been admitted to hospital since I had my tonsils out at age four. To enjoy the benefits of a society where those and things like them exist without paying would be theft as much as a dine and dash.

In this vein, picture a community without all those organizations made possible by the work of volunteers. Our community would be poorer if they were gone. We would be poorer. So we pay for the benefit of living in a civilized society by contributing to those organizations we can with our time –  we work for nothing.

Why Do We Work For Nothing?

So yes, I said, I would be happy to serve on the Morton Community Healthcare Centre Board. I will need to learn a lot. I will be out a couple of evenings a month and be doing other work to prepare for those meetings and to address actionable decisions but that’s OK. I look forward to the experience. I look forward to working with others who also see the value in such work. I look forward to knowing that in doing what little I can to help, I will be adding just a tiny bit to my community. I look forward to working for nothing. I urge you to do the same.

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A Nation of Festivals Making Us Better

We are a nation of festivals. There are film festivals, poetry festivals, rib festivals, art festivals, and every conceivable genre of music festivals. They are fascinating in like a conch blowing silently but convincingly through the ether they gather those of similar interests to form a temporary community. Festivals offer revelry in the acknowledgement that our particular passion is shared. My favourite are literary festivals. They intrigue me because they shouldn’t work.

Canadians read. Canadians read more books per capita than nearly anyone. A lot of folks enjoy books on tablets but most are sticking with the physical kind, the kind you can hold, smell, feel the joy of cracking for the first time, hold in bed without hurting your eyes, drop without breaking, and then shelve as a friend to share your home. Ok, I’m biased.

Canadians write. A generalization that is generally true is that all novels ask the question, “Who am I?” and all non-fiction asks “Who are we?” That Canada is blessed with so many talented writers asking both questions and so many readers reading all that stuff it is little wonder that we always seem to be in a state of existential angst and renewal. That’s a good thing. A reactive society is one of division and anger but a reflective society enjoys more consideration and compassion. Is this Trump versus Trudeau? Maybe that we read so much leads to our fighting so little.

The thing is, though, and the source of my fascination with writing festivals is that both writing and reading are solitary pursuits. Margaret Atwood once observed that you know you are a writer when you are typing away in your office in July about a winter scene and look up and out the window and wonder where the snow went. As an author, I know that feeling. Writing my history books often transports me back to the era that I am investigating and I quite honestly sometimes have trouble getting all the way back. I’m alone in my research. I’m alone in my writing.

But then, whatever I have written is released to the world. It is like I watch a young bird leave the nest. I wish it well. I always know some will like it. I always know some will attack it. I always hope the world will not just ignore it. It is up to the readers. Readers, of course, then buy what writers have spent so many hours silent and alone creating and devote more hours silent and alone to absorbing. Watch someone reading. They are not really there. They’ve been transported. Books are conduits of ideas from one solitary person to another.

The notion of two solitary experiences coming together for a community group hug is the source of my fascination with writing festivals. Writers blinkingly emerge from their writing dens with their pallid skin and reeking of coffee and wine and are suddenly before large groups and asked to talk about what they wrote, how they wrote it, and why they wrote it. For many, it’s like asking a fish to describe water. Readers emerge from their solitary reading spots to quiz the authors and each other about books and ideas. The isolation ends.

A Nation of Festivals

(Photo: Lakefield Literary Festival)

Festivals, like book clubs, lay out ideas to be examined as a community exercise. They remind us that books are like paintings and songs and any other art. Their meaning is only partially controlled by the artist. The rest is up to the experience and mood of the beholder. At festivals, the readers and writers both learn more about the books and ideas in question and about themselves. I am always intrigued when asked questions about my book that I never considered.

I have attended many but my favourite is the Lakefield Literary Festival. I am biased, of course, because I live in the Village of Lakefield. It is the Ontario community in what city people call “cottage country” consisting of only 2,400 people. Lakefield was once home to sisters Catherine Parr Trail and Susanna Moodie who were among Canada’s first writers and much later to Margaret Laurence who was among Canada’s best.

The Lakefield Literary Festival began in 1995 as a one-off banquet to celebrate Margaret Laurence but it became an annual event. It is now among Canada’s premier literary festivals, this year to take place over the weekend of July 15. It draws writers and readers from across the country to enjoy the campus of Lakefield College School and ideas and books and each other.

I will be at the Lakefield Literary Festival in a couple of weeks both speaking and teaching a writing class. I’ll be at Saskatoon’s Word on the Street Festival in September. I know I will enjoy both. I know I will enjoy meeting people who share a passion for writing, reading, books, and ideas. All those writers and readers at these and all the other literary festivals will emerge from their isolation. They’ll contribute to our national conversation by reflecting upon who we are as people and as a broader community. Perhaps all that isolated writing and reading and then all those festival conversations will play a role in making Canada a better place for us all.

If you enjoyed this column, please send it along to others. I hope to meet you in Lakefield in July or Saskatoon in September.