The story of Paul & Pauline
Theirs is a winter union – they met in their advanced years on Bowen Island. They were drawn to one another, yet they argued a lot. He’s a scientist, she is an artist and their views seemed to clash over almost everything. Until they sat down, turned on a tape recorder and held artist-scientist dialogues that changed their story. In a presentation and workshop on March 8, Pauline LeBel and Paul Fast share their experience of coming together, combining their respective narratives to make something beautiful: a brave new story that can change the world.
Right at the beginning, Pauline takes charge of the interview with a storyteller’s skill of engaging the listener. Paul contributes mostly affirmations.
“Ours is a very Bowen story because I met Paul on the island in 2002,” Pauline begins. She explains that, at that time, she was active in the Bowen Island Lifelong Learning Society (BILLS) and had become “hot into the cosmological story” by Brian Swimme. “It really appealed to me because this is a scientific story of the universe and why we are here. It reflects the eastern wisdom and the wisdom of traditional people about how we are intimately connected to every living and non-living thing,” Pauline says. “Then I got Paul involved.”
“Paul was a scientist before he retired but he never talked about the science,” she continued. “I was invited to conferences in Berkeley and Hawaii. Paul came along and met other scientists.” Pauline noticed a change in him right away and told him, “You found your science brain again.”
“I started to get that he’s got that science background and he wants to measure things. But he keeps himself at a distance, the typical impartial scientific observer,” she says, adding, “Well, I think that’s a lot of hooey.”
Paul nods his approval, “Now I think so too.”
Pauline says that, for her, it’s all about deepening connections. “I’ve been an artist all my life,” she says. “I’m completely aware of how my environment affects me. For instance, I was coming to Bowen and the muses started to scream at me.”
From the realization of having such different world views, the idea of holding artist-scientist dialogues was born. “It was amazing – I recommend it to anyone,” Pauline says with a laugh. “Even if you are both artists, or scientists or business people - it is a great exercise in listening to the other person and learning how they see things.” Pauline added with a laugh, “And I really got to vent.”
Pauline had harboured a growing frustration with science and what it’s done and, at first, their sessions were very confrontational. “My first question to Paul was: ‘What’s so good about science?’ And he said, ‘Well, we study things. We learned how to split the atom.’ And I replied, ‘So science gave us the atomic bomb, thank you very much,’” Pauline recalls.
The conversation then turned to the topic of making plastics (“You can imagine my response to that,” Pauline says), then to the space program. “Even in the early 60s, I was furious about the space program and all the money that was spent on it,” Pauline said. “Why are we going to the moon; why don’t we address what is wrong here on the planet?”
She cannot suppress the irritation in her voice, the passion she feels about science’s not-so-wholesome contribution to today’s society that, in her view, still continues.
But the dialogues unearthed positive points as well. “And then Paul said what science has done is give us a bigger picture of the world,” Pauline recalls, “and I thought, OK, I get that because that’s what an artist hopes to do as well.”
She clearly influenced Paul’s views but says that the scientific world still drives her nuts.
From the dialogues came the desire to work together and an opportunity presented itself last year. “Paul and I became Suzuki Elders and were asked to participate in the Eldercollege at Capilano University,” Pauline said. “Of a six-part series, we did number 5. We called it Telling a Better Story.” Some of the topics in the series revolved around peak oil and technology, but it is Pauline’s belief that a solution to environmental challenges has to go beyond that.
“We are not going to think our way out of this because it’s thinking that got us into this,” she says. She believes that to really tackle the issues that we face in today’s world, our stories have to change. “We have to look at the stories we have been telling ourselves, the 18th century science stories, the 19th century religious stories, the 20th century psychology stories, the big business stories. And what are these stories telling us? They tell us that we are separate isolated individuals in competition with everybody else for scarce resources,” Pauline says. “As long as we’re telling that story, we are going to have a lot of fear,” Pauline said, adding that at the same time, she was asked to write a book with a similar focus. It is called Becoming Intimate with the Earth and will come out in a couple of months.
What followed was a lot of research about good new stories. “Some of the good new stories are scientific stories,” Pauline said. “Some of them are coming from neuroscientists about how we are wired to cooperate and care.” The couple’s presentation at the Eldercollege was so well received that Paul and Pauline decided to take it on the road. “And Bowen is our first stop,” Paul adds.
Pauline explains the format of the workshop. She starts by singing and telling the universe story, inviting the audience to sing along and make the sound of the universe. Then Paul talks about how ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.
“It is embryology,” Paul explains. “We look at how we develop in the mother’s womb and compare it to the way life developed over the last 3.5 billion years.” Paul calls this part of the talk “four billion years in nine months” and has prepared a slide presentation that shows different species at the same embryonic stage. “All the different fetuses, from duck to pig to fish, look so similar,” Pauline interrupts and Paul adds, “You can hardly tell the difference between humans and fish.”
The images Paul shows include slides of a cell of an egg dividing into two, and a human egg with sperm attached to it. Pauline calls them “fantastic visuals.”
She clarified that the presentation will take up the first hour and will be followed by a one-hour storytelling workshop. “The idea isn’t just to tell any story, the idea is to tell a story about our relationship with nature,” Pauline says. “If we don’t tell new and better stories about our relationship with the earth, we are going to continue trashing it.”
The purpose of the workshop is to get people to look at the stories they tell and prompt them to tell stories about deep connections with the earth.
“It’s not just that we are connected to the earth but we come out of the earth,” Pauline says. “I don’t just drink water – I am water. I don’t just breathe air – air is constantly flowing through me.” It’s been a learning process to recognize that level of connectedness, even for Paul, and Pauline says, “Although he learned all the science, he never connected it to his life. In our artist scientist dialogue, we talked about atoms and he kept pointing outward.”
They feel good about having created a common understanding as well of a way to pass it on. And that is something they both have, the passion to work for a better, more sustainable future. And they have fun doing it. “If I can sing and dance, I can be part of the revolution, to rephrase Emma Goldman,” Pauline says. And Paul emphasizes that the new story they are telling - that we are connected, rather than separate - is a powerful one.
“I have a benchmark for what is a true story. I ask: Is this story helpful and supports to me in living a wholesome and connected life to nature and people? If it is, then it’s a good story. If not, it’s not a good story,” Pauline says, adding that she will give advice on what to do with those kinds of stories.
Telling a Better Story will be held on Friday, March 8, at 7 p.m. at the Gallery at Artisan Square. Admission is by donation and the proceeds will go to the David Suzuki Foundation.