Thursday, October 20, 2016

Daily beauty and joie de vivre

When Veronica and I exited the Jean Talon Metro Station, we knew almost instantly that we were close to the Jean Talon Market.  Young people strolled towards us with granny baskets full of produce, a shock of leeks or the fringed tops of carrots suggesting what was underneath.  Middle-aged women carried African baskets woven of colourful grass and filled with produce.  One lovely woman strode toward us carrying two enormous mounds of chrysanthemums, each pot circled by an arm.  

In his book on beauty, Roger Scruton deals with a topic most philosophers don't consider:  everyday beauty.  He begins his discussion of everyday beauty, not surprisingly, with gardens--with our attempts to bring the world's fundamental beauty, that of nature, into our own lives and into our daily experience.  He argues that "This attempt to match our surroundings to ourselves and ourselves to our surroundings is arguably a human universal.  And it suggests that the judgement of beauty is not just an optional addition to the repertoire of human judgments, but the unavoidable consequence of taking life seriously, and becoming truly conscious of our affairs" (82). That second sentence is a bit of a leap away from the first, but it does reflect the observations of many thinkers about beauty.  Let me offer this example as an illustration.  You're getting a quick dinner ready so that the kids can get to their soccer practice and their music lessons.  Do you set the table just so, or are you simply satisfied with getting everything on the table--the chips still in their bag, the mini carrots hastily poured into a cereal bowl, knives and forks within everyone's reach?  But when you arrange a table for a dinner party--and Clarissa Dalloway can tell you how important parties are for making connections between people and creating conversations that will doubtless delve at some point into what is important to us--the upcoming election, the latest film, the city's plan to bulldoze some houses to create another park--beauty is at the forefront of your concerns.  You understand, without thinking about it, that a beautiful setting is required for an evening when we not only enjoy wonderful food--another everyday beauty--but revel in the chance to have meaningful conversations, to take the culture's temperature, to 'take life seriously.'

The Jean Talon market was full of people who took life seriously.  Veronica and I wanted a couple of apples to go with our baguette and cheese, and approached a table where the orchardist had an enormous variety of fresh, local apples.  I went straight for a Honeycrisp, but Veronica was hemming and hawing about an Empire, a Lady Apple, or a just-picked Mackintosh.  Instantly he had a knife in his hands and was quickly but carefully cutting slices of apples for us to try while also handing out samples to other people who had approached his stand.  We weren't going to be a big sale, shlepping back a bushel to our hotel, but he saw that choosing a single apple was important.  We met the same response later in a cheese shop where we found a dozen varieties of goat's cheese.  The very young woman, not much over sixteen, was happy to describe the special qualities of each creamy round.  Sadly, I don't remember the name of the one we bought, but it was very, very good with the baguette and apple, just as she said it would be.

An enthusiastic sense of joie de vivre permeates Montreal.  On Saturday night, Veronica and I went to hear Les Violons du Roy perform some experimental music--a concerto for strings and electric guitar--as well as Beethoven's Fifth, which I've probably heard hundreds of times.  Yet conductor Anthony Marwood found something entirely new in the score, and the audience leapt to its feet at the end.   Montrealers wear their scarves with insouciance, gather among China Town's gaudy lights on Rue de la Gauchetiere to study the windows of the cheap but excellent patisseries and the tiny shops with their teapots and graphic blue and white bowls.  As we walked that afternoon, we found a lovely wool shop where women collected on Saturday afternoons to knit.  There were lovely tea cups on the table, along with myriad knitting projects.  The shop itself was full of wonderful colours, as well as these shelves of jam jars full of tiny iridescent beads for working into complicated lace.  Montrealers' sense of joie de vivre is infectious.

You can manufacture joie de vivre.  After two or three rainy days, we will eat dinner in front of the fireplace, trying to absorb from the fire the light that our days seem to be withholding.  I make quilts for several reasons.  One reason speaks to the human need to feel competent, so my ability to cut and sew carefully and to skillfully to produce blocks where all the edges meet fills a definite need.  But choosing fabric for a block and seeing the pieces come together gives me a small hit of joie de vivre.  

I have a feeling our pets give us is joie de vivre.  I am listening to my friend Katherine tell the stories of the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel puppy who has joined her household--who makes her laugh several times a day, even during difficult times.  I have realized how much I appreciate Twig's undramatic joie de vivre:  as he moves from twining around my legs to his food bowl, I can hear him thinking "Yes, I'm an old cat who sleeps a lot, but life is good."

Joie de vivre, I suspect, is tied to beauty, to the world's willingness to hand us, gratis, a beautiful sunny day or a glorious puddle of golden light that dances around the roots of an aspen.  We can manufacture it with a lovely dinner or a vibrant quilt block, but when nature is withholding, it's harder.  Then, it's culture's turn to kick in and remind us that part of "the good life" is being enveloped in the present moment, in the people and spaces that have conspired to hold our attention with their beauty and vitality and give us an energizing hit of joy.  Montrealers are practiced at this.  Maybe those of us who live on the prairies could learn from them.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The ambiguities of nature's texts

"Red sky at night, sailors' delight.  Red sky in morning, sailors' warning."  As long ago as Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis, we've referenced this adage.  We now have an explanation of why it's true.  The colour of the sunset indicates that the sun's light is passing through quite a lot of dust and moisture, which indicates high pressure, or stable weather coming from the west.  When the sunrise is red, the high pressure system has already passed, given that weather generally moves, in the mid-latitudes, from west to east.  We have probably observed this since time out of mind, thus creating the little rhyming mnemonic.

In a similar vein, D.H. Lawrence has written "Birds are the life of the skies, and when they fly, they reveal the thoughts of the skies," in a prose poem he put at the beginning of the bird section of his book of poetry, Birds, Beasts and Flowers, a passage which Jonathan Rosen has used as the epigraph to his fascinating The Life of the Skies:  Birding at the End of Nature.  But we were reading the birds in the skies long before Lawrence.  One of the ancient methods of divination called augury was first recorded among the Egyptians in the 14th century B.C.  Cicero was one of the early augurs.  The augur marked out a templum and then watched to see which birds flew through which part of his space. 

Weather reports are an attempt to read nature.  We all know about how well that goes.  Apparently if weather forecasters say "Tomorrow will be just like today," they  would be more accurate than they are when they try to predict how fast a storm will move and along which path. 

I was reminded of how we read nature when I spent four days with my oldest friend, Liz Read, on Cape Cod.  Liz, who walks on the beach and swims every day, has the tide charts on speed dial.  Two hours either side of low tide is good for walking; two hours either side of high tide is good for swimming--or at least you don't have to walk a mile before you find enough water to swim in.  The picture below was taken from roughly the same place as that above.  You can see two tiny walkers toward the right side of the picture and can imagine how far you might need to go beyond them to find a place to swim.

When the tide was coming in, the sand looked like this:

I am guessing that these poetic runnels are the advance fingers of the surging tide, but I really don't know what causes them.  Perhaps the tide doesn't only come in at the level above the sand; perhaps those waves are preceded by water below the surface. 
On the other hand, when the tide is out, the sand looks like this.  Liz and Istared at these hiero-glyphics for quite a while until we figured out they were the tracks of sand crabs who were looking for a good place to hide out when the low tide made them vulnerable.

The fact that these marks looked like writing in the sand made me think more carefully about how we should read nature as a text.  But unless we're doing scientific research--on bees for example--and study the way their complex dances give other bees clear information about the location of flowers or a good place to swarm--I don't think we see nature as something we need to read.  Recently, though, scientists have concluded that dolphins have a language that leads to conversations.  Listening carefully, scientists could hear groups of clicks that seemed to be words because they occurred in larger, sentence-like structures that came to an end.  After a small silence, the other dolphin answered with her own spaced clusters of clicks.  Uncovering language in animals, in chickadees or among elephants, encourages us to read nature differently.  If we think we're the big guys with the brains that have led to culture, we need to think again when faced, for example, with an elephant attempting to console and feed a sick comrade or to comfort a baby.  (The American election is seriously making me reconsider whether we're the ones on the planets with the complicated, clever brains.  I'd vote for a dolphin before I'd vote for Donald Trump.)

In fact, we don't fully understand the way our own brains work.  My wonderful psychiatrist, Dr. Stanley Yaren, used to distinguish between brain and mind.  Brain was the hunk of meat with all its synapses and hormones like seratonin, dopamine, or cortisol.  Mind contains experience, memory, and thought. We are just beginning to understand the way these two systems talk to one another, resulting in depression, suicidal ideation, ecstasy, and love.  Can someone who has been safe and loved his whole life be depressed?  Do all people who come from chaotic beginnings become depressed or violent?  Well, no.  We're just beginning to study resilient children so we can understand what allows them to remain hopeful even in the face of adversity.  There's a lot of talking going on in your skull between brain and mind that we don't understand.

Much of nature's mystery comes from the fact that we can't read her processes.  We recognize the beauty of fall foliage, but we don't entirely know what causes it.  The planets in our solar system and beyond are all but unknown and lead to a much larger question:  are we alone?  If so, why?   Much of nature's danger also comes from the fact that we are only beginning to learn to read her.  Imagine how much safer we would be if we could read the coming of earthquakes.  Or simply had reliable weather reports that gave us enough time to protect our homes against torrential rains or flooding rivers.

Reading nature is like learning a second language.  Do you remember the first time you tried to read something in another language that was too hard?  You'd read a sentence and grasp onto the words you knew and the syntaxes that made sense.  Then you'd stop before reading another.  Getting half a dozen under your belt, you might go back to the very beginning with a hint about the passage's context or topic, knowing just enough so that you could guess a few more words.  Second languages widen our world view, give us access to whole other ways of thinking and to other experiences.  So too with reading nature. 

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Solastalgia and the asynchrony of fall

In the last days of August, I was hammered by the blues, by the sense--created by a vacuum where my diaphragm should be--that all was not well.  I took the usual inventory:  relationships?  All seemed well.  Work?  Well, I was feeling stymied by all the reading I was doing for the Literary History of Saskatchewan essay on creative nonfiction I needed to write by the end of September.  And I wanted to get to my own work.  But that didn't seem enough for the near-grief I felt.  Was I getting enough exercise?  Yes, in addition to trips to the gym with Bill I was also walking.  Fun?  I was into a rhythm with the applique I was doing for a quilt Nikka wants.   

(Here it is with the first two borders; I have two longer borders to do, and am half done with the first of these.  The blocks are called "country crossroad."  The applique is my own design.)

So I did what I do when my mood is at the bottom of the well and there is nothing I need to fix:  I distracted myself.  When the cold water surged over my head, I would look up and find (as I do now) the squirrel hanging by his toes filching seed from my bird feeder, or the chickadees and nuthatches zooming in for their afternoon snack.  I'd see six sparrows hiding from the rain in the lilacs outside my bedroom window in a stillness I didn't know they could assume.  I'd see a whole landscape in transition:  leaves losing their suppleness and transparency, then some of them bleaching ever so slightly while others took the plunge and turned gold almost overnight.

And then I had an odd suspicion.  In one of those moments that makes readers believe that cosmic irony and paradox are an integral part of the human condition, I suspected that the sometimes austere, sometimes brilliant changing beauty that I looked to for comfort was also what was causing my depression.  I found that for the first time since I retired I actually missed the energy burst that comes in early September--the real new year for academics and other life-long learners.  Despite challenges with parking, I found two excuses to be on campus yesterday, and walked through the halls with the eager students, listening to the little snippets of conversation that I have often found were part of my belief that the human race is actually okay--at least when we're not jockeying for power or money. We're curious.  We're excited.  We're making human connections.

But by then the depression had lifted as mysteriously as it arrived, and as I thought about the preceding couple of weeks, I concluded that in part I was not ready for the seasons to change.  Maybe I felt solastalgia--the word that attempts to capture our nostalgia for the way weather and planet used to be.  We hadn't had a couple of dry August weeks that often prime us for the turning year.  It was as if we'd gone from July to September in a breath.  We were outside place and time.

But I also suspect that it was simply change.  Change in the weather and the landscape that I wasn't in tune with.  I still have quite a bit of my essay on the nonfiction written by Saskatchewan authors, and I've realized how complicated Soul Weather is going to be.  I had wanted to start serious work on my novel by now, but circumstances were conspiring, and I felt out of step and frustrated.

Yet change in the weather is one of the things I love.  What keeps us here, with Saskatchewan's weather extremes?  Why don't we move to Florida, where it's hot and hotter?  Or to Vancouver, where it's rainy and rainier?  I find that the changing seasons challenge my visual paradigms or my expectations or my sense that I know the world I live in.  In full summer, we are surrounded by the lushness of trees, particularly in Regina.  The green world embraces us.  In the winter, we need to come to terms with a more minimalist world--with an architecture or a blue print for "tree."  The spareness of our great prairie landscape is inescapable.  The changing seasons, by defamiliarizing our daily world, by challenging assumptions, keep our minds and souls supple. 

Thursday, September 1, 2016

September Miscellany

The light is changing.  It's not only that the days are obviously shorter, but that light comes into my house in places I had forgotten it reached.   It is far enough south that it peeks in under the large pine trees in my front yard and streams through my south-facing living room window, irradiating whatever I'm reading for a few minutes every sunny afternoon.  The trees have changed as well:  gone is the supple transparency I wrote about in mid-July.  Now their leaves are a dustier green and they susurrate and whisper drily.  Perennials have nearly finished their second blooming and are no longer using their energy to make seeds or attract pollinators but to store it underground in dark root caves.  We see senescence all around us, as if the summer's sunshine were suddenly translated into the trees that are turning golden.  It is a time of transformation.

For the first time since I retired, I regret not getting back into the classroom.  This is partly because I worry about becoming an old fart without each generation of new students helping me grasp their view of the world.  It is also because (in spite of my tremendous poetry group) writing is lonely, and at the same time you are engaged in making something that is as close to your vision as possible.  That's really the only way it can be, for the first couple of drafts.  Unless you have startlingly generous friends who will read and reread a 450 page manuscript on Woolf's aesthetics, you send the third or fourth or fifth draft off to a publisher for judgment.  The first two years of my retirement were incredibly productive:  Virginia Woolf's Aesthetics of Engagement and Visible Cities have both gone off to publishers.  I have no idea what readers will think of them.  Yet in that uncertain frame of mind, I'm supposed to start another couple of projects, my next novel, Soul Weather, and some poems that are slowly cohering around a couple of themes.  In the classroom, I got feedback straight away, and if it wasn't enthusiastic I had many other strategies in my pocket.  Teaching, I knew where I was; writing, I have no idea where I am.  But that's the point, isn't it:  that terror and exhilaration of parachuting your mind into new territory. 

Because I'm missing teaching, perhaps, I've been tuned in to thoughts about that radical act.  (At least, it ought to be radical.)  So here's my September Miscellany.

Soul Weather is starting slowly after the revision of the first handful of chapters I wrote in 2011.  Fortunately, I have a lot to learn about my young characters' intellectual lives, so in a sense I am creating some classes for myself.  One of my young characters is writing her honours paper on Simone Weil, so I have begun by reading her biography.  Yet there I ran into another reason I miss teaching in Francine du Plessix Gray's description of one of Weil's favourite teachers whose pen name was "Alain."  Alain thought that doubt was the most direct route to enlightenment.  Part of my job at U of R was to teach "critical thinking."  The first step in the process was always to define what we meant by this oft-touted practice.  It doesn't mean simply to be critical.  Perhaps Alain's belief is helpful:  critical thinking means keeping doubt nearby.  If  doubts don't arise, by all means move onto the next step in critical thinking: figuring out how an argument has been built and what its consequences are.  But starting with doubt is no bad thing--in a classroom or an election year.

Alain's view of what education is is also helpful: "Alain's high-minded view of education... was to turn schools into 'centers of humanity' that could fight against prejudices, violence, and injustice.  The conversations sometimes lasted until the bistro closed down at 2 a.m., and occasionally the friends moved on and saw dawn come up at a cafe in the Halles market" (27).  Only in Paris, perhaps?  If I didn't actually tell my students that their imaginations were their most powerful ethical organ, I at least taught that way.  Our task in reading almost any text is to teleport ourselves into the mind, attitudes, and experience of the writer in order to enlarge our own perception of the world and the myriad humans in it.  One hopes that this experience implicitly fights "prejudice, violence, and injustice."

Education also finds its way into writing about the economy.  As I have said to anyone who will listen, the often discouraging group of students who inspired me to retire came of age in The Great Recession, when their parents told them not "You go to university and get an education," but "You go to university to get a job."  In a parallel response, universities have been emphasizing and giving more support to faculties that turn out "job-ready graduates," like Business or Engineering.  As a result, Faculties of Arts are finding that they are barely holding their programs together.  But not so fast.  The flexibility you learn in the Faculty of Arts is not useless.  It gives students a couple of advantages they might not find elsewhere.  They can frame and solve problems; they can do research; they can write clearly.  And they have learned how to live.

Last year about this time, Atlantic Monthly published an article written by Derek Thompson entitled "Technology Will Soon Erase Millions of Jobs."  Thompson describes the closing down of factories and the cultural breakdown in communities like Youngstown Ohio.  He suggests that the age of union-protected, high-paying industrial jobs is over.  The group of affected people, mostly young men, need a couple of "skills" taught by Arts.  They need to know how to live.  They need to have an idea of what the "good life" is.  When their pay cheque no longer guarantees their status, they need to know how to create meaningful lives, volunteering, or making something.  He witnessed those skills in Youngstown, where one of the factories was turned into a "makerspace":

"You don’t need any particular fondness for plasma cutters to see the beauty of an economy where tens of millions of people make things they enjoy making—whether physical or digital, in buildings or in online communities—and receive feedback and appreciation for their work. The Internet and the cheap availability of artistic tools have already empowered millions of people to produce culture from their living rooms. People upload more than 400,000 hours of YouTube videos and 350 million new Facebook photos every day. The demise of the formal economy could free many would-be artists, writers, and craftspeople to dedicate their time to creative interests—to live as cultural producers. Such activities offer virtues that many organizational psychologists consider central to satisfaction at work: independence, the chance to develop mastery, and a sense of purpose."

Karen Schubert, a writer with two master's degrees now working as a cafe hostess, describes the disappearance of traditional work this way:  "The evaporation of work has deepened the local arts and music scene, several residents told me, because people who are inclined toward the arts have so much time to spend with one another. We’re a devastatingly poor and hemorrhaging population, but the people who live here are fearless and creative and phenomenal.”

To end my nostalgic miscellany about education, let me simply tell you this.  People who read books live on average 23 months longer than people who don't.  First, that figure already accounts for things that affect health outcomes like gender or socioeconomic status.  Second, that's books.  Not blog posts.  Not FaceBook.  Not newspapers or magazines.  Books.

You know the writer's fantasy:  that he or she will change a life or save a life with a book.  Now I can!  So back to the loneliness of writing.

Monday, August 22, 2016

The patience of nature; patience in nature

Yellowstone National Park is a busy place. This is partly because of its geography.  At its centre is a giant caldera or basin, part of which  you see here.  The mountains around the basin were created by massive volcanic eruptions that occurred 2 million years ago, again 1.3 million years ago, and then again 640,000 years ago.  After the last eruption, the centre collapsed, creating a plain or basin.  Visitors to the park are treated to the scenery around the caldera, where roads have been paved through the mountains.  So there are very few roads for a lot of people.

You meet a few of these people at the numerous overlooks that allow you to get out of your car and take a longer look.  You meet even more of them at some of the highlights like Tower Falls, where large tour buses stop.  Visitors come from everywhere in the world--you hear a veritable spice market of accents and languages as you patiently wait your turn to come to the railing that gives you an unobstructed view of the falls.  And of course, if they have come from Korea or Eritrea, they want to take a photograph of their family with the falls in the background.  This is where one of Bill's practices came in handy:  seeing a family being photographed by the person who is never included in the family album, he always offers to take a picture of everyone, and is greeted with delighted gratitude.  His gesture takes some of the impersonality out of the crowds:  for a moment, you are part of other people's experience and desires. 

But the crowds themselves are extraordinarily polite.  While for the most part we do not make eye contact--looking instead at the landscape--people did not push or shout or let their children--finally released from the car--run wild.  Interestingly, while I heard some crying children, who sounded frankly exhausted, I heard no shouting or fights, saw no wrestling or impromptu games of tag that used tourists as hiding places or barriers.

Part of it is that we are simply gobsmacked by nature, by its near-incomprehensible sublimity.  Shouting or wrestling or pushing here would be like shouting, wrestling, or pushing in a cathedral.  The calm crowd is doubtless an effect of the kind of people who choose to visit Yellowstone, rather than N.Y.'s Times Square, on a vacation.

But part of it is also nature itself.  My friend, Katherine Arbuthnott, has put together a brief synopsis of the research relating to our relationship with nature.  She notes that "a growing body of research consistently shows that contact with the natural environment improves our physical, cognitive, and emotional health."  Time in nature lowers blood pressure and decreases surgical healing time.  "Two large studies, one in Canada and one in the UK, showed that mortality rates from all causes decrease with more access to natural areas."  Time spent in the natural world has a positive effect on our emotional health, decreasing stress, anxiety, and depression, and, frankly, making us happy and enthusiastic.  Spending time in the natural world also "improves childrens' school performance, reducing ADHD symptoms."  Adults who spend time in nature are more creative.  Now you know why writers take all those long walks. 

So we weren't simply responding aesthetically and imaginatively to the grandeur around us.  Something inherent in nature shapes our response, which can be prompted as much by prairie grassland as by Yellowstone National Park.

 But I also like to think that we were also channeling nature's patience.  On our final day we visited "The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River." While the canyon is certainly deep, that fact that Yellowstone consists largely of yellow stone--the colour of the lava--and its much smaller size, makes it less spectacular than the Grand Canyon in Arizona.  Yet two stunning, massive, and powerfully noisy waterfalls illustrate a process that has gone on for eons and continues:  water eroding rock.

Here we see something as fluid and elusive as water shaping an environment, like a blind sculptor carving stone over millennia.

I like to think that we were also influenced by metaphor.  In the Norris Geyser Basin or at Mammoth Hot Springs (we didn't drive as far south as Old Faithful), we had a chance to see earth's inner life come to the surface in steam and liquid. 

You can't see it through the steam, but this pool is bubbling at a boil.  Although there have been no volcanic eruptions here for thousands of years, there is lots of activity and pressure under the earth's crust.  Maybe it hasn't exploded because it lets off steam a little at a time--a lesson my mother (and probably every other fifties housewife) could have benefited from.  And maybe all those well-behaved kids jumped on the beds when they got back to the hotel or ran rings around the picnic table while dinner cooked over the fire.  At least I hope so.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016


Bill and I have just come back from an intensely wonderful holiday in Montana and Wyoming that ended with two days in the north end of Yellowstone Park.  Thanks to Google Maps, we took one route down and another one back.  The direct route to Bozeman Montana took us along what we kept calling the "ghost road," because although it was excellent two-lane blacktop, we met almost no other cars until we got close to the small rural centres that the road threads together.  The landscape was endlessly interesting on this route (not so much when we took the expressway back), looking a lot like the Qu'Appelle Valley, except there was no "valley" and no "table land" that marked its edges.  It went on for miles and miles.  It was as if some enormous hand had reached down and wrinkled and scrunched and crunched paper or linen into crags and slopes and hills.  Then at other points, there were miles of surreal round hills that looked like a pot on full boil.  Once we came on a literal forest of slowly twirling wind turbines perched on top of hills--I counted at least seventy--serenely aiming north and each turning at its own speed.

I didn't know how to read this landscape, which was often fenced in but shouldered no crops or cattle.  I realized that "readable" landscapes have a purpose that is clear to humans--which is a little anthropocentric.  That use might be to provide examples of the sublime in all its glorious denial of our puny human purposes--but it's still use. As for fencing in the sublime....

Every small town in Wyoming has its brick heritage buildings, and after we had been thoroughly charmed by Bozeman's Main Street, with an artists' cooperate named "Cello," a yarn store called "Stix," and a co-op restaurant, we went to Three Forks State Park searching for the beginnings of the Missouri River--you know the one called "The wide Missouri."  The river begins with three shallow creeks coming together.  It originally flowed north until an ice age turned its route south.  You can see in the photograph above how modest its beginnings are and how it is hemmed in by the gentle hills Gallatin Mountains.  Yet when we crossed it on the eastern side of the state on our return home, it is indeed "the wide Missouri."  By the time it joins the Mississippi River, it has become the longest river in North America.

It made me think of patience, of the quiet, humble determination that flows on in so many of us, suddenly coming to full fruition in a painting, a poem, a photograph, a letter or a garden.  What we wanted to capture--that elusive element of our experience or thought that seemed so far from reach or expression, just at the edge of our imagination, or in the corner of our eye--after drafts and sketches suddenly arises, surprising us with its graciousness, its willingness.  Too often we don't see that it is the creation of our own dogged patience.

I saw patience as well in the stones.  As anyone who has been in my workroom will tell  you, I've brought back stones from a lot of vacations.  I can't do this any longer, not only because I am running out of room (or things would get so crowded that my room wouldn't be serene any more) but because I now see that if everyone took a stone it would bugger up the landscape.  So my answer was to take photographs of stones.  These too make me think of patience.  Each of these was doubtless part of the mountains that cover Montana.  In fact, Montana is so crazy with mountain ranges that they finally called one of them The Crazy Mountains.  Lava explosions; uplift.  Then something violently tears, pounds, or knocks a small piece away from the mountain and gives it to water.  Who knows how much later it is brought back to shore, rounded and smoothed?

After our time in Three Forks State Park, we tried to find the beginning to a circular route I'd planned through the Pioneer, Highland, and Tobacco mountains, but we couldn't find the minor road that was its beginning.  Instead, we found the Lewis and Clark Caverns.  Bill loves caves, so in spite of the fact that it was a two mile hike, the first three-quarters of a mile outside up a treeless mountain nearly a mile above sea level and at 32 degrees, the second 1 1/4 miles underground involving over 600 steps up or down, some of them through narrow passages that forced you to walk up or down stairs bent over, we took it on.  (I was clearly the oldest person on the trek, but not the last one up the first 3/4 mile.  I did just fine on the Beaver Slide, a passage so narrow that you have to slide through it on your bum, turning half way down.)  I don't know what initially creates these underground spaces--more uplift, I'm guessing--but once the space is there it takes time for the minerals in the soil above the cave to dissolve in water and come slowly dripping down, creating stalagmites, stalactites, remarkable columns where the two meet, flows of stone that look like waterfalls.  It takes about a hundred years for a stalagmite or stalactite to grow in inch.

Here, I thought about layers.  How, at its best, our experience of people and the world is layered, how we manage sometimes to carefully peel away peoples' public personas or our own preconceptions about how the world works to see the crystal underneath.  And how we imagine the layers under that, the complexity that has its own order.  How art is layered:  how we build up those layers as we draft or paint or compose an image or a tune, and how the audience or reader takes delight in the complexity we have created. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Violence, kindness, and beauty

Last Saturday, "The National" asked Dr. Peter Lin, a member of their medical panel, to comment on the way the unrelenting stream of bad news might affect our mental and physical health.  Lin pointed out many challenges to viewers watching Philando Castile's and Alton Sterling's deaths, or of the footage that came out of the attack in Nice, noting that where once we might read a small piece in the newspaper about such deaths or attacks, we now get almost instant coverage, making us feel we are there, in that time and place.  This, in turn, triggers the mirroring neurons that normally help us in our lives.  These neurons encourage us to mirror the expression on the face of someone who is talking to us about grief, about loss, about the hundred things that challenge our sense of self in daily life, from our body image to another person's cruel and dismissive treatment of us that makes us feel less human.  When we mirror our partner's, our child's, or our friend's facial expression of joy or sadness, we are reminding ourselves what that hurt or angry or joyful person feels like.  It's one source of compassion.  But when these motor neurons react to news stories, the result is anxiety and anger:  a pounding heart, depression on behalf of a planet gone mad.

And we should be angry and depressed.  We should be angry at the death of Philando Castile, killed by a policeman while he's getting out his "permit to carry," or at the stunned Alton Sterling, when policeman sitting on top of him imagines he has a gun and shoots him to death.  We should also be angry at the deaths of policemen in Dallas and Baton Rouge, at whatever motivated Mohamed Lajouiayej Bouhlel to drive a truck into crowds of families watching fireworks on a holiday in Nice.  Or at the attempted coup in Turkey and the inevitable, brutal backlash.  Erdogan has considered bringing back the death penalty, and certainly freedom of expression will be compromised.  I've even considered getting angry at Stephen Pinker, except it turns out that he's still right, even in the context of the latest horrific news cycle.  The planet is a safer place--for some of us, anyway.

But being angry about anger?  About young men who are angry?--because it is primarily young men, regardless of how politically incorrect it may be to point this out.  (Yet I don't think we'll solve the problem until we say this out loud and acknowledge the way the "knowledge economy" and the robots used in manufacturing give many young men fewer opportunities for work.)  Being angry about anger?  How does that work?

Lin also talked about research that offered people two different kinds of news to read:  good news and bad news.  He said people overwhelmingly chose bad news.  I suspect this choice is motivated in part by voyeurism--that rubber-necking we do on busy highways when there's been an accident--the rubber-necking we do that says "there but for the grace of God go I," even while it makes all of us less safe.  Lin also suggests there are advantages to our interest in bad news.   If we learn about the Ebola or Zika viruses, we can decide to avoid travel to places where there are epidemics.  If we know that there have been attacks in Brussels lately, including to the airport, we might decide to fly in to Europe somewhere else.  African-America mothers report telling their sons that if they are stopped by police, they should do exactly as they are asked and if shoved down to the ground to lie on their faces so there can be no mistake about their intentions.  Bad news lets us feel in control, as if our knowledge will protect us.

I thought about all this Sunday afternoon as I did something I haven't done in years:  lie on my back under a tree and watch leaves and sky and clouds and a trio of robins.  But I didn't think about it very long.  I watched one robin spread out his wings and sun his back while the others groomed themselves, and I wondered about birds and desire, about birds and pleasure.  Tiny brains; so much liveliness!  How does that happen?   I noticed how transparent leaves are, how the light comes right through them, so that if you are staring up through a tree you watch a pas de trois between sunlight, the bright transparent leaves and their shadows falling on other leaves.  Music made by wind and sunlight.  I felt the wind on my skin and thought about how friendly the world could be.  And then I thought again about anger.

Henry James has said "Three things in human life are important:  the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind."  Our response to the anger that is both far away and near by should be kindness.  Kindness is a kind of moral imperative in an angry world.  Who knows what kind of a dent we can make in anger with random acts of kindness?

Kindness to ourselves and to the wider world can take the form of beauty, of noticing beauty.  I had a startling experience on one of my rare forays to the U of R campus.  Because I go so rarely, there are lots of things to attend to, and the time had felt chaotic.  As I was striding through the ground floor of the North Residence on the way to my car, I was stopped by the tiniest white flower put out by a spider plant, a flower about the size of the stem that winds your wristwatch. Who knew spider plants bloomed?  Who knew such tiny flowers could be effective means of creating more spider plants?  I had a swift and sudden sense of order in the world, order that I could see through beauty.  There is much disorder in the natural world, from cancer cells to tornadoes, but nature doesn't get very far without order.

What do we do when there are these tragic deaths?  We light candles and lay piles of flowers.  In doing so, we promise to remember--because I can't imagine laying flowers at the sight of a tragedy and ever forgetting that moment or the tragedy that prompted it.  In promising to remember, we give to the victims' families the only comfort--insufficient as it is--that we can:  we promise to remember.  But we also create beauty.

Our sense of what is beautiful marks us out as individuals as much as our sense of anger at being disenfranchised in the modern world.  But beauty, as philosophers have been pointing out since Kant, has a second interesting quality.  If I am respectful about your sense of what is beautiful, I do not insist that you share my judgments, no matter how powerfully I believe that I am right.  But I hope that you will.  And if you do, I have started a community.  Such communities spring up around a garden, a Leonard Cohen concert, in an art gallery--where you find yourself speaking to someone you do not know because the Monet or the Mary Pratt before you is so astonishingly beautiful, the Leonard Cohen song so deeply moving.  Such communities have uncertainty at their core--unlike any fundamentalism--because its members can neither insist that anyone share their experience nor can they explain exactly what makes something beautiful for them.  Perhaps we lay flowers because they defy rage and certainty, creating among the others who have also been here and laid flowers a sense of community in the shared attempt to create a moment of beauty.

Thursday, June 30, 2016


Three weeks into my life after Woolf, I have gotten my writing vehicle into third gear.  I've been mostly appliquing, reading philosophy and poetics, revising some stories and a handful of poems to send out--pretending that I'm a real writer--but the plan this week is to do research.  

The most suggestive reading I have done is Levinas's Totality and Infinity.  A Jewish philosopher who spent much  of World War II as a prisoner of war and who lost close family to the Holocaust, Levinas focuses not simply on being-in-the-world attentively and purposefully, but on being-in-the-world ethically.  Totality occurs during war, when the State claims the individual's allegiance, labour, and life in behalf of the State's survival.  In complete contrast, we approach infinity with our desire to understand the "Other," a desire that in practical and metaphorical terms is prompted by the face (as both our experience of curiosity about the stranger walking down the street toward us, and as phenomena or concept). I want to use Levinas' ideas to consider our relationship with nature.  Climate change threatens the world as we know it and even threatens our existence here, and I think that one step we must take--all of us who feel we have to change our ways of living--is to understand more of the natural world that is at risk.  We need an ethical relationship with nature like Levinas' idea of the ethical relationship with the Other.  Nature as Other wasn't a stretch, but the idea of the face brought me up short in a useful way:  what is nature's 'face'? Is it the birds at my feeder right now?  Storms?  Flowers?  Oceans?  Air?  Plants?  Animals?

Or trees?  I  realized that I wanted to do something about the parts of trees we don't notice:  about their bark and trunks, about the form of their branches--so different from species to species, but also so different from one tree to another.  So one of my major research projects for this week has been to read David Suzuki's and Wayne Grady's marvelous book, Tree:  A Life Story.  They have chosen as their tree a four-hundred-year-old  Douglas-fir, but in the process they have explored the way knowledge about nature has developed and the way a single Douglas-fir is attached to its complex eco-system.  

An example will show what they mean.  Plants need nitrogen, but finding enough in the soil is difficult.  It turns out that there is nitrogen in oceans that is brought back into the forests by spawning salmon who are eaten by bears--600 or 700 hundred salmon a year.  Bears like to eat privately, so they bring their "catch" back into the forest, and only eat the parts they really like, brains and bellies, leaving the rest for beetles and slugs.  Bears bring the ocean's nitrogen to the soil through the salmon, through their scat, through the carcasses that are eaten and digested by insects that are in turn eaten by birds who also...  You get the picture.  The rings of a tree record the years when the salmon run was unusually plentiful.  

The way trees are interconnected underground to one another, or to the mycorrizal funghi underneath or to the insects and birdlife in its ecosystem, is simply astounding.  Trees use their hormones to warn one another about infestations.  Their intertwining roots take nourishment from the larger trees to feed the small ones growing up on the forest floor, in part because of the many ways that growing together benefits them.  While in the West we spend a lot of our time and ego proving how autonomous we are, nature spontaneously makes the most of its interconnections.  Perhaps I have found nature's "face" in these interconnections, but if I have, I have no idea how to express it.

Of course, reading Tree has spawned a long list of other books I need to read, everything from Virgil's Georgics, to John Fowles' The Tree, to Emerson's Nature, to almost anything by Gary Snyder or Don MacKay, to Guy de La Brosse, who created Paris's Jardin des Plantes in the sixteenth century.  The point of all this reading is an imaginative immersion,  observing other writers' content, form, perspective, thoughts, experience, until I am so suffused with this that I can no longer be self-conscious about it--until it becomes hopeless to be self-conscious any longer.  That's when I'll discover what I want to do with nature and Levinas's idea of the face.

Because on Monday, July 4 I'm going to shift into fourth gear and start working on my novel, Soul Weather,  I'm also reading the notebook I have kept since 2011.  This process is comforting, terrifying, and intimidating in about equal measure.  On one hand, I can see how much I've already thought about this book; on the other translating one's thoughts about character, ideas about theme, plot, and motif into a novel anyone wants to read is another task altogether.  I also realize how much research I need to do there.  

My characters are a group of young university students renting a house together, so I need to understand their disciplines--all of which relate more or less closely to the questions I'm asking about how we are at home in our historic moment, our relationships, our futures, our skins, the planet.  My main character, Lee, has just graduated with her MFA in ceramics.  When I was in my early exploratory days, I learned as much as I could about pottery, and even took a couple of classes to see what it felt like to try to make something out of mud on a potter's wheel.  I'm a terrible potter, but I know what it feels like to have something slippery and wet grow up under my hands--though everything I threw was always higher or wider on one side.  I have the seeds of Lee's character growing in my mind-garden, and understand how her work with ceramics interconnects with a couple of the novel's questions.  But I have a young man, a Ph.D. student, who is studying animal languages:  I've got a lot to learn there, though I've found a special issue of  Current Opinion in Neurobiology (2014) devoted to the latest research on animals and language.  Another of my major characters it anorexic.  I'm not sure I have the right to write about anorexia--just like I don't think I have the right to describe what it is like to be an Indigenous person, but I'll read and talk to people and I'll give it my most sympathetic imaginative attempt.  She is doing her honours degree in history, with her paper about Simone Weil.  More reading and discovering. 

 Too often, creative writing teachers tell their students to write about what they know.  It is perhaps more useful to take the advice of John Gardiner, who taught at the Iowa Writing Workshop, and write what you like to read.  This is true partly because if we write what we like to read, we might at least have some of the generic conventions ready to hand.  This is also true for two other reasons:  none of us knows enough about the human condition or the world--though some people are more observant and more curious than others.  "Write what you know" suggests that creative work simply consists of telling people in one way or another what you know.  Interesting work is different in two ways.  Having to do research keeps us humble, digging more deeply into what we understand about the world and the human condition; this humility is more likely to help us dig beyond what we know.  Second, much of the best work it isn't based on what any of us knows, but on what we are curious about or have questions about.  

But even so, recalling what we know--in my case, what I've learned from 66 years of a fairly observant life--is sometimes daunting.  Most writers need rituals that mine our memories.  Mine is walking.  So on Monday I started what will be a long series of walks.  I began by walking down back lanes from Athol to Elphinstone, and pondered the secret places in cities, the back routes only the residents and dog walkers and the people on bicycles who recycle our parties for us know about.  Turning toward the Seniors' Centre, I saw two women talking who at a distance were dead ringers for two of my aunts, and that started a cascade of memories of childhood, particularly at my uncle's farm where I chewed mint leaves and ate carrots plucked right out of the ground and merely wiped off on my  uncle's khakis.  In one's lifetime, one has to eat one's peck of dirt, after all.  Smells.  I picked up newly-mown grass, which is just next door to alfalfa, both resonant, comforting summery smells that sound down the corridors of memory.  

On my way back, I took a sandy path closer to the creek, at one point hearing plupplupplupplup, only to see about six ducklings hitting the water with their mother--reminding me that nature is often frightened of humans--with good reason.  I saw a pair of dogs that looked like the little foxes Bill and I saw on a countryside ride years ago--and how much delight we took in those drives, how they were closed in while opening out as we made conversation in the car and feasted our eyes on the world beyond.  At the edge of the creek, there is a little building housing a pump, I suspect, whose steps reminded me of several cottages and a neighbour's small playhouse I spent time in as a child.  She had a wondrous garden.  The playhouse and cottage memories going to take me some time to unspool.  Then the bridge over the creek reminded me of the bridges I've walked and driven across--the Mackinac as a child, the covered bridges of Michigan I drove over with my first husband, the bridges over the Charles River in Boston, some of which always confused us and spit us out in the wrong place.  As I walked, I also realized I was seeing--and not seeing--the interconnections of nature, and remembered a childhood ritual that has probably imprinted me.  

My father grew up near Newago's Croton Dam, and every spring we could go up to the dam, and then turn off onto a nondescript dirt road.  Dad would simply decide to park where there was a space to get out of other cars' way, and then we would take off through the forest.  We'd pick trilliums and cowslips and bloodroot on our way.  (Now I am deeply ashamed of all the trillium I killed.)  Using markers I could never make out, my father always fetched up on the Croton River near an eagle's nest.  We'd sit on some dead logs and have our picnic while the eagles became more agitated and flew in tight circles over their huge nest, making cries that puzzled us in their feebleness.  In some twenty-first century way, this seems disrespectful and even harmful, but we were celebrating nature's continuity, syncing nature's renewal with our own. Awe and intimacy combined in one gesture.  Perhaps with this memory I have fetched up in the spot on the river where creativity happens: in awe and intimacy.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Generosity in Contemporary Canadian Literature II

In mid-March and early April, I wrote about generosity, arguing that we watched "Downton Abbey" because most of the characters were, at bottom, generous.  I also looked at Lawrence Hill's The Illegal, his insightful political critique of racism, tribalism, and dictatorship in two fictional countries off the east coast of Africa, Zantoroland and Freedomland.  I promised one more post on generosity, one that I had hoped to write at the beginning of the evacuation of 88,000 people from Fort McMurray.  Canadians' generosity in the face of this disaster was remarkable:  the last figures I can find on the internet indicate that Canadians donated $67,000,000 to help people cope with their lives during evacuation and to help rebuild the city.  Canadians proved my point:  that generosity is alive and well in the twenty-first century.  Unfortunately, I was up to my ears in my book on Virginia Woolf, and the post simply didn't get written.

This week, I seem to have caught a less persuasive news cycle:  the worst mass shooting ever to occur in United States.  Omar Mateen killed 49 people at Pulse, one of Orlando's most popular gay clubs and a safe haven for gays.  We don't seem to be able to decide what kind of crime it is:  is it a hate crime, an example of gun violence?  Is it another case--one of many that I've seen--where mental illness, in this case homophobia complicated by self-hatred, takes on the cloak of Muslim extremism?  If you feel profoundly that you are an outsider, you might be comforted to know that there's a whole group of you that is misunderstood and under threat.  The "religious" nature of Muslim extremism gives you that kick of righteousness that excuses what you are about to do.

Forty-nine people.  Not the 130 killed in Paris. Not the 2,996 who died on September 11.  Yet consider the outpourings, the demonstrations, the solidarity gatherings of gay and straight to affirm everyone's right to be safe while they let their hair down and have some fun.  For some people, the attack proves a startling and frightening fact:  that homophobia is alive, well, and has access to assault weapons.  But the response to the attack also proves something:  that in most of North America homosexuality and all the complex choices individuals make to live as they feel is firmly under the human rights umbrella. 

So our response to the destruction wrought by "the beast," the fire around Fort McMurray, and to the Orlando shootings has been...generosity.

Here in Canada, Marina Endicott is one of the most stalwart and insightful commentators on generosity.  This is particularly true of Good to a Fault, where Clara Purdy learns quite a lot about being generous to an itinerant family facing their mother's cancer diagnosis.  Clara "does the right thing," and asks the father, grandmother, and three kids to bunk down in her house while Lorraine undergoes treatment for her cancer, initially out of guilt:  her left turn catches an old beater racing through a red light--and the beater was the family's home. What she quickly finds is that her efforts to help are frustrating and meaningful, in about equal measure.  She also finds that generosity is not always met with gratitude, that it can also spur resentment.  After Lorraine is finally cancer-free, she naturally wants her children back and she resents having to be thankful to Clara, to a woman with more privilege and education than she has ever had and who portrays some sense that she has done a better job than Lorraine ever could.  (Side note:  when I was part of the all-day Paradise Lost reading, I found it interesting to find that one of Satan's complaints against God was that he had to be grateful all the time.  How tiresome!)  Good to a Fault has, as its central question, the benefits, the limitations, the frustrations, and the complex ethics of generosity.  

I read Close to Hugh last fall, and then when Twig was sick and later when he had a relapse, I would get in bed with it and let it fall open to any page and begin reading.  It was profoundly comforting.  Why that should be the case might seem something of a mystery.  Hugh's mother Mimi spends much of the novel dying, often in pain or in drug-induced confusion.  The mother of a young child cannot climb out of her post-partum depression and so pulls into the garage with her son and the groceries, closes the garage door, and leaves the car running.  Her husband, Gerald, is the novel's most haunted ghost:  how do you get "closure" (those are ironic scare quotes) after such a loss?  Hugh's closest friends, Della and Ken, are having marital difficulties, caused largely by Ken's despair over the years he's spent handling a sexual abuse case.  Hugh's closest friend is Neville, a very successful gay actor who lives in Peterborough only part of the year.  Neville's former mentor, Ansell Burton, has come to Peterborough to run a theatre workshop in the high school, but Neville generously offers his home as a place for Burton to retire.  Burton is a man with toxic anger and jealousy; though he formerly gave Neville enormous help by showing that homosexuality was normal, he has become churlish as he ages and has less power and fewer opportunities in Canadian theatre.  And this is just the older generation:  the novel's teenagers are negotiating their own sexuality, trying to make their own choices and judgments about friendship and the future--largely without much useful guidance from adults.  There's enough conflict and baffled desire here to fuel several tense plots.

Comfort?  Well, I found it in Hugh and Neville, as well as in Ruth, who played foster parent to Hugh and Della and Neville when they were young and their parents were unable to parent.  And in Ivy, an actress who is beginning to forget her lines and who has come to town to help Burton with the intensive drama class.  These four are the problem solvers, the people who see others with generosity and curiosity, rather than judgment and rage.  Perhaps because Hugh spent much of his childhood rescuing his adored mother, rescuing people has become habitual.  Although he bears good-sized debts himself, at the novel's opening he takes at $10,000 cheque, an inheritance from a father he never knew, to the antique dealer next door who is possibly in even greater difficulties than Hugh.  When Ruth goes to the neighbourhood thrift shop to buy a jacket she's been admiring for quite some time, Hugh follows her and slips a hundred dollar bill into the jacket's pocket just before Ruth pays for it.  

Ruth is generous, but she is also one of Hugh's challenges.  Knowing that social insurance is not giving her nearly enough money to live on, Hugh employs her at his art gallery--in spite of the fact that she can't manage to answer a phone with the formality appropriate to an art gallery.  Ruth is also racist; yet she has a network of people who will do anything for her, and spends quite a bit of time watching at Mimi's hospice bed as she dies.  Finding her there early one morning when Hugh goes to visit his mother, he thinks "Her woes can be fixed with a little cash, now and then.  Hugh can do that.  What is always holy:  patience.  The swallowing of selfishness, the gentle tapping of your teeth" (247).

L is the daughter of Della and Ken, a young artist that Hugh helps by taking a couple of pieces out of her basement installation, "The Republic," to an art dealer in Toronto who can give L more help than he can.  (More of Hugh's generosity, even when it is at a cost to himself)  L has her own difficulties; she is often angry with both of their parents, her father for absenting himself mysteriously and her mother for her blind anxiety.  Yet L can think about the world this way:  "The terrible part is, the thing about equality, that everybody knows is a lie--it takes away from the true part--that everyone is a human being, a soul, and deserves to be--kinded" (301).  I love that:  "kinded" as a verb. 

If Good to a Fault is a case study of generosity, Close to Hugh looks at generosity in a larger scale as it examines a community's struggle with generosity in the face of death, relative poverty, jealousy, fear, avarice, and anger.  I loved both novels, but Close to Hugh, to be frank about my biases, more closely matches my own sense of how our half-empty-half-full world works.  Shit happens:  it happens to individuals and it happens to communities.  And, as Ivy observes after Hugh's mother has died, "no matter what good thing might happen it will never be enough to make up for death" (418).  We see clearly that no generosity will alleviate Gerald's pain and loss.  Yet when generosity is simply part of one's way of being in the world, as it is for Hugh, Neville, and Ivy, if the generous people simply go about their lives looking always for the moment when their gift is needed, it's possible to effect a great deal of change.
And what are roses doing in this blog?  Nature was very generous to Saskatchewan and gave us a mild winter.  My roses and the daisies around them are in turn being generous.  I've never seen them bloom like this.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Improvising a life after Woolf

Blame it on Virginia.  I've gone 46 days without posting here.  My manuscript on her aesthetics needed what I call a final proofreading:  checking for readability (clear sentences, clear logic) and scholarliness (bibliography in order and every possible quotation from other scholars, her 6 volumes of essays, 5 volumes of diaries, and 6 volumes of letters shoring up my argument).  I would read a couple of paragraphs and realize that she'd said something in one of her essays to support my startling conclusion, or that she described her creative process as she wrote To the Lighthouse fully in her diary, and I'd go off hunting.  To keep the hunting at a minimum, I stored as much as possible in my head.  There was room for nothing else, except some gardening--and even then I got my carrot and lettuce seeds in late.  Now that the bibliography is included, it is 144,226 words and 449 pages long.  You see why I did nothing else?

My old psychiatrist would describe my mood the last week as the result of the "after the prom effect."  So much preparation!  (Learning about the autonomy of art and re-reading Woolf's complete and large oeuvre.)  So much time choosing a dress!  (Developing lines of argument based on an enormous body of evidence.)  The make-up and the hair!  (Writing, writing, writing.)  All you writers
know the drill:  now you wait, usually for a few months.  And in the meantime, there's this gap in your sense of purpose.  Having retired, I have been getting up to "Where did I leave off yesterday, and what problem do I need to solve today?"  Now so many things clamour for my attention--things of course that I put on hold, like planting the pole beans and painting the front steps--that I feel more, if differently, overwhelmed.

I needed to acknowledge that I was making up my life as I went along, and that for a little while at least all the second guessing that had gone into Virginia Woolf's Aesthetics of Engagement was no longer necessary.  So I turned to the practice that seems to keep my life in balance:  quilting.

Normally I work in fairly traditional forms with fabric that would also be called traditional.  If you'll stop looking at the gorgeous cat for a moment, you can see the traditional Massachusetts Cross and Crown on the right, rendered in indigo, white, and ecru.  When you spread it out, the blocks create light and dark stripes that make large Vs on the quilt.  The quiet quilt on the left is simply a nine patch with a puss in the corner, and it is indeed quiet.   The "puss" is literal and figurative.  There's the cat, yes, of course, but those four little square on the outside of each block are called a puss in the corner.

But I found that I needed something different in my quilting practice, a kind of antidote to the months of deliberation, questioning, writing, revising, staring at the computer screen willing my brain to think harder about what Woolf means when she uses this odd form--, say a series of very long letters, to argue that if societies want to be less warlike and violent, they need to support women's education and women's professional lives, rather than impede them.  (And unlikely as this argument seemed to her fellow Bloomsberries, she's recently been proven right by Steven Pinker.  He identifies a general feminization of a culture as one of the major causes of decreasing violence.)  A letter 214 pages long with with 46 pages of densely packed footnotes?  And running through it all a discussion of the role of art in our everyday lives?  Why?????  That was one of the easier questions I asked myself.
I need to admit that right now I am making up my life as I go  along and that I need a few weeks without the constant second-guessing that comes with any project when you hit the revision phase, and dress your ideas in a garment presentable enough to be seen in public.  So I turned to British quilter Lucie Summers and her book on improvisational quilting.  Then I threw in the funky fabric choice of Australian quilter Kathy Doughty.  You see the results at the top of the post.  I made four of Summers' basket weave blocks in various colour combinations, though I cheated.  Summers uses the same fabrics in the same order for all the squares that stripe vertically and a different set of fabrics, also in the same order, for the squares that stripe horizontally.  instead, I made up colour rules for each of the four blocks--only cool colours for the lower left-hand corner block, with very pale pastels in the horizontal squares, or only pinks and oranges with a touch of lime green or turquoise for the bottom right block.  But after that, I did what I wanted, ending with my decision to use two different border fabrics and to create an asymmetrical border.

How wonderful to be immersed playfully with colour--delighting one's senses and leaving one's analytical twin at home.  And then, instead of the exact cutting that makes every triangle of the Massachusetts Cross and Crown meet the other triangles in exactly the right place, I would cut a 5-inch stripe the width of which reflected how much I wanted of this particular colour in a block.  I worked by instinct: second-guessing was not allowed.   Then as I sewed them--the easiest sewing I've done in decades--I thought about creativity.

While I worked on Woolf, I did not write anything else, but I read a great deal.  One of the things I noticed in work I admired, like Jeanette Lynes' Bedlam Cowslop, was how free she was with grammar and syntax.  A mere phrase might stand on its own--an impression, not a subject and a verb.  A rhythm or a sound that echoed other rhythms and sounds or evoked a frame of mind on their own--not always a sentence. 

Visible Cities has been called a very cerebral collection, and certainly there was a discipline to thinking about cityspace and about how the photographs captured the places more than half the human population now lives in.  There was also a discipline in keeping myself entirely out of the collection as a voice or persona.  As well, my practice has always been to go for subjects and verbs--clear sentences.  Since the work dealt with ideas, I didn't want to lose readers with careless grammar.  I wanted them to know what I said so that they could work out what I meant.

But now I need to do something different.  A new adventure. 

I don't know if I will ever quilt my wild basketweave quilt, though I suspect Bill is about to claim it for his office.  As I worked on it, I learned more about colour than all the colour wheels and colour theories have ever taught me:  I know what works in theory, but it's apt to be a bit languid and obedient--though maybe on a king size bed, that's what you might want.  But it doesn't matter if anyone wants my wild quilt or even if I turn it into a quilt.  It was valuable as a draft, teaching me to colour outside the lines.

I fully believe Sherwood Anderson's quip that inspiration comes when you fasten the seat of your pants to the seat of a chair.  But I wish someone would come up with a sharp quip for drafts.  How they are the lightning of the possible.  How sometimes all you need to do is make yourself clear to yourself--at least in the first instance.  Once you get that far, you can find ways to invite readers in.  How they are experiments, hypotheses, trial runs.  How they can go nowhere, but how the writer certainly goes somewhere in struggling with them--gaining some insight, seeing another path through the forest, learning to play and experiment, if nothing else.

Yesterday I began reading Julian Barnes' latest novel, The Noise of Time.  He takes a common anecdote about the Russian composer, Dmitri Shostakovitch--that for a while he spent his nights in the hallway of his apartment with a small suitcase so that Stalin's men came for him, the goons wouldn't wake his wife and daughter--and so far he's turned the situation partly into a meditation on art.  Literature in the age of Google sent me looking for a phrase Shostakovich uses:  that artists are "the engineers of human souls."  Apparently, Yuri Olesha used the phrase when he met Stalin at the home of writer Maxim Gorky, and this idea became part of Stalin's ideological vocabulary.  As Shostakovitch stands in his hallway, he thinks that two things are problematic about the grand, Stalinesque phrase.  First, most people don't want to be engineered by the art they look at, the music they listen to, the books they read.  As I've argued at length (and perhaps ad nauseum) in Virginia Woolf's Aesthetics of Engagement, people want to maintain their autonomy in the face of a work of art.  They'd like to have a conversation with the artist. (Which is why Woolf wrote  Three Guineas as a letter:  you can always answer a letter, and Woolf received a record number of letters over Three Guineas, all of which she answered).  Woolf thought of her readers as "accomplices" who maintained their own freedom by making their individual contributions to the text.  But Shostakovitch's other question is also important:  who engineers the engineers?  What is the source of the ideology the artist/engineer infuses his or her work with?

One way we avoid being engineers is to claim every freedom we have as writers or painters or composers.  There are different freedoms for different occasions.  Visible Cities gave me the freedom of keeping myself out of the poetry I was writing, to immerse myself in a poetry of ideas.  I suspect that the next poems will need me to be free of verbiage and analysis--to let what I am seeing simply be.  As well, there are other kinds of freedom that all art needs to claim:  freedom from conventions, from banality, from safety, predictability, common received ideas, dogma, ideology.  At least that's what I concluded as I made my quilt.