Monday, January 15, 2018


On November 17 and 18, First Nations University at the University of Regina hosted "Land and Imagination," a symposium on "Sustainable ways to Inhabit Rural Saskatchewan," largely the brainchild of Sheri Benning who is now teaching creative writing at U of S.  Writers and visual artists came together to share their artistic practice and to create a dialogue about how art helps us understand the natural world and our place in it and about how our art can encourage its audiences to engage with the environment.  Presenters of papers that were provocative, angry, playful, insightful, challenging, and often guilt-inducing included Jesse Archibald-Barber, Heather Benning, Lori Blondeau, Terri Fidelak, David Garneau, Trevor Herriot, Tim Lilburn, Randy Lundy, Sherry Farrell Racette, and Jan Zwicky.  I'm not sure the symposium's subtitle reflects what actually happened that day, which seemed to variously--and rightly--triangulate between Indigenous Issues and art practices, environmentalists of a variety of stripes, and the way the making of art can bring us all closer to a just engagement with the natural world.  Because Bill still was not entirely well, I attended only about half of the symposium--and perhaps that's all my brain could have taken in.

At one point, when the guilt had gotten particularly thick, Jan Zwicky provocatively said that the best thing she could do for the planet was to volunteer to be shot.  Interestingly and appropriately, this led us all to ponder, via Zwicky's reference to one of Plato's Symposia, 'what is enough?'  How much stuff do we really need?  To put this question in context, let me cite an article in The Guardian on November 28.  The production of clothing produces 1.2 billion tons of greenhouse gases a year--more than international flights and shipping combined.  World wide, a truckload of clothing is taken to the dump every second of every day.

Curiously, I was reading two very different books that could contribute something to our conversation:  Tolstoy's War and Peace and Thoreau's Walden.  Two books that couldn't be more different both have something to say about this issue of "enough."

Tolstoy was born to an aristocratic, land-owning family, but toward the end of his life became an anarchist and a pacifist; his ideas about nonviolent resistance informed those of Gandhi and Martin Luther King.  Even before his conversion, he believed his privilege and his responsibility went hand in hand, so that in years when there was famine from which agricultural workers were dying, he and his family opened up countless soup kitchens.  I love the image, from  Alexandra Popoff's biography of Tolstoy's wife, Sophia, of her scouring the streets of Moscow for someone who would donate a railroad car full of onions:  high in vitamin C, they would prevent scurvy among the starving peasants.  

Toward the end of his life Tolstoy's ideals became more extreme.  Tolstoy wanted to earn no money from royalties and to give away all his property.  He had a Christ-like idea of purity in mind that he felt he couldn't achieve laden with material wealth.  Sophia--who took a lot of abuse from Tolstoy--pointed out that they had brought 13 children into the world, 8 of whom survived.  How were they to be educated if the family decided to live in poverty? Popoff's wonderful, award-winning biography makes its easy for us to see how difficult Tolstoy made her life:  how Sophia was faithful to him--even copying a manuscript that put her in a bad light--even while attempting to balance between Tolstoy's extreme spiritual needs, the needs of her family, and her faith in the integrity of his work.

War and Peace is an earlier work begun in 1862 and finished in 1869 when Tolstoy was 41.  Sophia copied out no fewer than 7 complete drafts of what is generally believed to be one of the longest novels ever written.  Although its composition predates Tolstoy's more extreme beliefs about the evils of property and ownership, Tolstoy does not fail to critique the generation of aristocratic landowners who lived between 1805 and 1814--the years of the novel's events.  

The two heroes of War and Peace are Prince Andrei Bolkonsky and Count Pierre Bezukhov, both in their early twenties when the novel opens, both of whom have liberal leanings.  Prince Andrei regards the well-being of the serfs who work his land as part of his responsibility.  He sees to it that their children are educated and that everyone has the medical attention they need.  All this is done without fanfare, and although it works efficiently his serfs are not exactly happy.  In a sense, he's trying to be an enlightened slave owner, so his serfs' dissatisfaction is understandable.

We first meet Pierre Bezukhov, the illegitimate son of a count, at at party where he reveals himself to be a well-informed young man with ideas.  Having spent his late teens and early twenties largely in France, he is full of the revolutionary and philosophical rhetoric that imbued late-eighteenth-century Europe.  When he inherits his father's estates and title, he plans to carry out reforms.  Tolstoy lets us see that in spite of Pierre's good intentions, each of his far-flung estates is run by a steward Pierre barely knows and certainly should not trust.  At one point, Pierre observes that he actually had more money for himself when he was a poor student:  now the incompetence and corruption of stewards and the requests of distant family members seem to require far more money than he actually takes in.  At the end of the novel--two wars with Napoleon later--Pierre marries Natasha, the novel's heroine, who keeps a well-run, efficient house.  Pierre, who has sold most of his land, realizes that running his private finances well is more cost-effective than trying to manage estates that are several days' travel away.  (Pierre is not the only one who discovers this; Natasha's father, Count Rostov, is nearly ruined by his greedy steward.  His finances are only rescued when both his oldest son and middle daughter marry well.)  Like today's CEOs, Russian aristocrats are too far away from their sources of their income to understand what their serfs need or how their income is derived.

While much of the information about the characters' relationship to money is offered by the characters themselves, Tolstoy clearly suggests that the Russian aristocracy has more than enough and often uses that excess very badly.  Many of the novel's most vital moments in characters' lives occur in moments of great privation--as when the Rostov family is on the road out of Napoleon-occupied Moscow with several cart loads of wounded officers, staying in mere huts. If you are dying, as Prince Andrei is, Natasha's loving, open, patient heart is enough.  Similarly, Bezukhov spends several months nearly starving in prison, accused by some of Napoleon's officers of being a spy, but it is here that he learns how little is enough if there is food for thought and reflection and if he can maintain his curiosity about his fellow prisoners, one of which is an uneducated peasant who is nevertheless very wise and  who knows the answer to the question Bezukhov has been puzzling over since the novel began:  why does one live and how does one live well?

In some ways, Henry David Thoreau's Walden couldn't be more different from War and Peace, though the two authors' lives intersect chronologically, Thoreau born in 1817 and dying merely 45 years later in 1862, Tolstoy born in 1828 and living on into the twentieth century until he was 82.  At least three different Thoreaus inhabit the pages of Walden.  There's Thoreau the purist, who is so delighted that he can make bread without yeast out of simply grain, water, and salt (though he admits pensively that no one ever comes to eat with him). Somehow that bottle of yeast that he carries all the way from Concord to Walden Pond is just too much--heavy, profligate, unnecessary and "trivial" as well.  I feel as if the purist in Thoreau, in paring down to "enough" has eliminated some things that many of us would consider important to a good life. His first (sometimes annoying) chapter is called "Economy," where he argues that all we need is food, shelter, clothing, fuel.  Oh, yes, and a few tools with which to build a house and hoe a bean field.

The purist in Thoreau makes me want to growl.  He seems unaware of the fact that his Harvard education--supported by Harvard's large library that he made excellent use of--forms the foundation of his thought and accompanies him in the woods.  Where's the simplicity in that?  He doesn't see the cultural richness of the few physical books he takes with him, nor does he consider what has gone into the paper he writes on or how books are made, transported, and sold.  Like many purists, he cherry-picks his ideals, ignoring those that don't quite fit. It's good to remember--just in case your New Year's resolutions embraced some absolute idea--that purity is entirely ideological and cultural:  you can't prove its presence or its absence except by appealing to ideas.

One of the babies he throws out with his ideological bathwater is man-made beauty--except insofar as it is  inevitably present in the books he reads and in the book he writes and rewrites to describe his time here. As he carefully describes his hut, I longed to have him mention a beautiful quilt to keep him warm or a beautiful bowl to mix his bread in.  Perhaps the taste of the day for "gewgaws" had sullied his ideas about domestic beauty.  Yet if we must have a table, a plate, a glass, a bed covering, why not have one that is beautiful?

Then there's Thoreau the philosopher who, like Bezukhov, wants to know what the good life is.  For him the good life contains enough time to be self reflective and time to observe the natural world.  The good life--in contrast to what it means now:  a life of wealth and power--can be had rather cheaply:  "Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul" (221).  Rather, one should "Love your life, poor as it is."  With a bit of blindness about what real poverty is, Thoreau observes that "You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poor-house.  The setting run is reflected from the windows of the alms-house as brightly as from the rich man's abode; the snow melts before its door as early in the spring.  I do not see but a quiet mind may live as contentedly there and have as cheering thoughts, as in palace" (220).  It is the phrase "a quiet mind" that reveals Thoreau's shortcomings:  at least in the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries, the poor and homeless seldom have quiet mind, struggling as they do with mental illness. In another sense altogether, Thoreau is reflecting on the fact that the beauty of nature is available to most of us.  (And even here, I want to argue with him: I doubt there is much nature in the "projects" we have built to house poor families.)  Nevertheless, Thoreau's image of the good life proceeds from the age-old tradition of self-knowledge:  "Explore thyself.  Herein are demanded the eye and the nerve."  A life that is pared down to 'enough' makes this easier:  "In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, not weakness weakness."  Simplifying life gives one time for reflection and observation which we don't have when we are glued to our cell phones or our 24/7 jobs.     

And then there's Thoreau the naturalist, constantly and closely observing the natural world--and gobsmacked by the order, ingenuity, and beauty of what he sees. His very reason for trimming his life down as much as he could was to afford him unencumbered time to wander the natural world, observing, keeping records, indulging his curiosity.  Thoreau kept daily journals between 1837 and 1861 which give us a sense of the shape of his days; many of them begin by outlining where he walked to in the afternoons. 

 The tie between simplifying his life and his observations of nature are clear throughout much of Walden, but particularly potent in his comment on watching spring arrive;  "One attraction in coming to the woods to live was that I should have leisure and opportunity to see the spring come in.  The ice in the pond at length begins to be honey-combed, and I can set my heel in it as I walk.  Fogs and rains and warmer suns are gradually melting the snow...I am on the alert for the first signs of spring, to hear the chance note of some arriving bird, or the striped squirrel's chirp, for his stores must be now nearly exhausted, or see the woodchuck venture out of his winter quarters....I am affected as if in a peculiar sense I stood in the laboratory of the Artist who made the world and me."  

I have been to Walden Pond and have seen a replica of Thoreau's 10 feet by 15 feet house there. He had a bed, table, desk, bookshelf, and three chairs (so he could have company).  It bears quite a bit of resemblance to the rooms at Sage Hill or St. Peter's or Banff--or to a dormitory room, for that matter.  There are times in our lives when a monastic cell is the perfect form for us, the smaller space ironically liberating us into creating the inscape that can now dwell in our unassaulted brains.

What the conference on "Sustainable ways to Inhabit Rural Saskatchewan," War and Peace and Walden have in common is that they urge us to think about "enough."  Pierre Bezukhov's concept of "enough" will seem an excess to many of us, while Thoreau's might seem a little sparse.  But if we all think about "enough" in terms of both time and money--how much time on our cell phones is "enough?" how much wardrobe is necessary? how much income? I suspect we would find two things.  One is that our environmental footprint would shrink.  The other is that we would be happier, more engaged with the important people and the beauties of our everyday lives.

The Manchester Guardian's essay on how wasteful our relationship with clothing is can be found here.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Light, darkness, and shadows

I don't think it was a coincidence that Bill and I took our first "sparkle tour" (his lovely phrase) on the winter solstice. Bill always drives; his car has heated seats.  It's my task to store in my head the map of neighbourhoods and streets where people go all out.  (Elliott Drive off Broadway east of Winnipeg is a small crescent in which nearly everyone decorates to the max.)  Driving Regina's streets in the dark and admiring the way people have decorated for Christmas while we have unusually rich conversations has been an annual ritual for us for some time.  Perhaps because 2017 was so dark in so many ways and because the weather gave us several reprieves that let us get organized to put up lights, people seemed particularly keen this year to drape lights on trees, to outline roof line, to adorn walkways with red candy canes or to prop sprays of lights in a hibernating garden.  As well, by the solstice, most people have their Christmas trees up--trees they have placed in their front windows, despite the amount of furniture moving required.

Why do we do this?  The Christian Christmas is certainly a season of light, marked as it is in the telling by the light of a brilliant start and the sparkling songs of angels of light.  But for many of us, Christmas is a time when families gather for wonderful meals and an opportunity for generosity we may not usually feel for our second cousin or for a child who has learned the habit of begging for every new toy.  I think this practice is really much older and is founded in a whole host of anxieties we feel about the shortening days.  My old Chaucer professor, Leo MacNamara, once confessed that every year toward the winter solstice he experienced an irrational sense that the days would just continue to get shorter and shorter until the sun was absent altogether.  Many of us who cope with Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD don't express what we are feeling quite so dramatically, but we struggle nevertheless.  Something happens to my sense of self:  I don't worry about the sun disappearing altogether but about friends abandoning me one by one.

So when we move the furniture so the sparkling Christmas tree is in the window, we are sharing light, celebrating light.  Our homes speak to the streets through the gardens we put in, through the pots and boxes we fill with flowers.  Particularly on the prairies, where summers are relatively short, we celebrate colour--the antithesis of the white winter.  But there's something more intimate about putting a Christmas tree in the window: for a brief moment people are invited into the light at the centre of our living rooms.  Home owners who never leave their curtains open after dusk have suddenly thrown caution to the winds and let us see their Charlie Brown tree, their artificial tree, the tinsel and white tree they've had for years, the seven-footer Fraser Fir that they wrestled in the doorway.  There are little stories lit up in all those living room windows.

But one of the things I love about this time of year is that the low light coming from the south illuminates parts of my house that light never glimpses and that it comes with shadows that are complicated enough for a brief woolgathering study of them.  I have lilacs in the south facing front garden of my house, so that even if light came through my southern windows in the summer, the leafy lilacs would blot out a most of it.  But now their branches are bare, and the low sunlight casts their tangle into my dining room.

This has been a dark year:  I don't even want to elaborate on that sentence.  Each of you can do that his or her own way.  But there's a difference between darkness and shadows.  Shadows only exist where there is also light.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

In Praise of Cats and Surgeons

Two events have coloured this autumn for me.  The first is the arrival of two new kittens on September 2.  They came from Regina Cat Rescue and they came with stories.  Tuck, the black cat, had a feral mother who visited one of RCR's feeding stations.  They gave her a safe place for the birth of her kittens and when she was finished nursing spayed her and let her go back to the way of life that was comfortable for her.  We have called him Tuck because early in his time with us he was quite shy and tucked himself in the most improbable places.  But I have wily patience and taught him that playing is more fun than hiding.  Once he was more comfortable, he was more likely to "tuck" his face under your chin or in his brother's fur.  He remains an introvert who seems to spend some of his time just observing the world, curious about how it works.  He is a large, gentle guy who, I predict, will become a philosopher cat in time.

We named Lyra after a bright constellation because he is a bright, outgoing, curious, smart.  Lyra and his siblings were found under the stairs of a business on Roleau without any mother in sight.  Either they had been abandoned or their mother had been grabbed by a coyote or a hawk.  After waiting four hours to see if their mother would return, they called RCR, which has a volunteer whose particular gift is help animals without mothers get a toehold in this world.  Kittens who are fed "by hand"--which is to say cuddled by a person and fed with a syringe for quite a few weeks--tend to be very cuddly and affectionate, and this is borne out by Lyra's personality.  Lyra's world contains some fairly deep puzzles.  If I pour water into his upstairs bowl, it stays in the bowl.  But when I let water run in the sink, it goes away.  When I drink out of a clear glass, it disappears into my mouth.  Why, if there is a sink full of water, can't he put his paw in on the edge and pull it toward him--like every other toy in his world?  And then there are mirrors.  One day he sat up on the vanity in the bathroom and looked at his reflection.  Then he looked over at my reflection.  He looked at his again, then at me, and then again at mine.  I could see the mice turning the little exercise wheels in his brain:  if that shows me Mom, then this must be me.

Tuck and Lyra are not siblings but they are brothers.  Having been fostered together, they developed an early bond that is remarkably strong.  They wrap their arms around one another or wash one another's faces--until that turns into what I call "lick, lick, lick, chew, chew, chew"--a kind of safe rehearsal of self-defense.  There's no growling, but a lot of posturing,  lots of chasing that then turns into play with one of the catnip mice we've bought for them.  They are half joy--joie de vivre, really, and half love.  I frequently wake in the morning to stereo purr--one cat on either side of my pillow purring away, a cheek next to mine or the top of a head pressed into my hair.  They may be the most affectionate kittens I've ever had.  Or it may be that being retired and having been taught by Twig about the inner lives of cats, I'm simply more attuned to their moods, habits, and needs.

They came into our lives about a week after Bill's time in hospital that I wrote about in "Bittersweet."  In some ways that was fortunate:  he was still home, gaining strength, and he could learn their personalities, be distracted by them, laugh at their antics, and cuddle with them a lot.  They were obviously still here about a month ago when Bill had a second episode that called for major surgery (three hours of it) in the middle of the night.  It's still his story to tell, so I'll simply say that there were a couple of things that could have gone very wrong but that didn't, thanks to the extraordinary skills of the surgeon who happened to be on call that night.  Bill is on the mend, but has a ways to go before his energy is back to normal and he can return to work. 

One common denominator between kittens and recovery from surgery is mindfulness.  When you are raising wonderful, playful, cuddly kittens and are still learning about their personalities, you pay attention.  I still set aside some time after dinner and dishes to play with them.  While part of that play is laughter and delight, another part is attention.  What arouses their curiosity?  What challenges do they like to add to their play?  Similarly, when you are taking care of someone who is trying to build his stamina after surgery--someone who isn't all that keen to eat, but who must eat, you pay attention.  When does he need a nap?  Does he look comfortable?  What food might tempt him to eat a little more?  The surgeon told us to walk every day--not far, and certainly not quickly at first--and our slow late-afternoon walk down the back lane became a time to pay attention to changes in Bill's energy and to the waning autumnal light.

The second common denominator is gratitude.  I am so grateful for the little guys who seem so happy to have joined my household.  And I'm obviously grateful for every little change in Bill's sense of well-being and energy.  Gratitude, I find, is always a good foundation to build on.  But what I've found is that having a life right now that is infused with gratitude has changed me.  In some ways, I'm a very patient person.  In other ways I'm not:  if someone is wasting my time, I get edgy and even cranky.  But early in his time home, Bill had some questions about his progress that he could put neither to his regular doctor nor to the surgeon, both of whom were away.  So we spent 3 hours and 45 minutes at a walk in clinic with a very thorough doctor who did lots of tests, who took x-rays, and who was informative.  While all this was unrolling for Bill, I was sitting in the waiting room reading Salman Rushdie's new novel, The Golden House.  (I dunno.  I love Rushdie, but the jury is still out on this one.  It's great political satire on the present moment, but I have a feeling it's not built very carefully.)  I'd need a break, so I cleaned out my wallet.  Back to reading Rushdie.  A break to read The Leader Post.  Back to Rushdie.  It never even occurred to me to be impatient.

Bill and I have an equal opportunity household.  We've divvied up the basic household tasks between us with attention both to our strengths and preferences and to how much time each of us is  contributing.  But he can't lift over 8 pounds for the next several months, so I'm doing a lot more than I used to.  He usually cleans the house, but that is obviously falling to me.  And to make matters worse, Lyra is not afraid of anything--not afraid of vacuum cleaners or dust mops.  He's curious about why I'm moving everything on a table or why I'm looking under a chair.  Am I going to find a toy?!?!  As a matter of fact, it helps to have a catnip mouse in my pocket, but it also helps to let his sense of curiosity and fun infect me.  Yesterday, I decided to move all the chairs out of the dining room so I could do a thorough vacuuming.  (I'd been giving that room what my mother used to call 'a lick and a promise.')  Each time I moved a chair out of the room, Lyra jumped up to take a ride.  He did the same thing when I moved the chairs back.  When we were done, I laughed and he wrapped his arms around my knee and jumped up and down like a puppy asking to be picked up.  He purred in my ear.

Could it be that gratitude makes it easier to "go with the flow," to see the whole of the situation before you and to foreground what you're grateful for--Bill's growing energy or the way Lyra's playfulness puts house cleaning in a different light?  There have to be limits to gratitude--principles I haven't thoroughly worked out yet.  I'm certainly grateful when I hear good news stories about climate change, but those stories don't outweigh everything we're not doing.  People in Puerto Rico don't seem to have much reason to be grateful for U.S. aid in their recovery, though I'm sure there are many human-scale moments when they help one another out and when they are grateful.  But that doesn't excuse U.S. negligence.  There are wrongs in the world--injustices and meanness, greed and stupidity, abuses of power.  But if the down side is just the down side, the half empty glass, and not something you need to get mobilized to combat, taking a moment to think of what you might be grateful for is not only prosocial--grateful people are kinder, more empathetic, and more generous--but healthier for you and those around you.  I hate swimming upstream.  Gratefully going with the flow leaves me with more energy to fight when I need to.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Strands of cultural DNA

I didn't do any significant, meaningful work for a week after Donald Trump was elected president.  In the months following his inauguration, I became a news junkie, watching CBC news channel with my breakfast and my lunch.  Then dear Twig died, and I began spending my time much more fruitfully, out with the sparrows, chickadees, and nuthatches who came to my feeder and who learned I was no threat.  I haven't done that much since Tuck and Lyra arrived; instead I've found myself reading back issues of literary magazines over breakfast and lunch.  The New York Times daily briefing keeps me up on the American stories I might be curious about, and I catch the Canadian stories in The Globe and Mail.  There are two take-aways from this shift.  One is simply about habits, about how we can fall into them unthinkingly and maybe need some event--though preferably not the death of a lovely old cat--to prompt us to query them.

The second comes, naturally, with two quotations.  Though I no longer have my copy of Alice Walker's The Colour Purple, I well remember a conversation between Celie and Shug in which one of them complains about how hard it is to get men out of our minds:  they're even on our boxes of grits.  I only need to walk to the bookshelves in the next room for me to cite two similar passages in Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, one where Woolf's narrator draws the picture of the angry and unattractive Professor X who is angry in part because he is unattractive.  Later in that same chapter, Woolf's narrator (I make this pedantic distinction because I believe the voice we hear is not exclusively Woolf's) goes to take tea after her hard work in the British Museum, and while she is waiting for her meal to come glances over the newspaper:  "The most transient visitor to this planet, I thought, who picked up this paper could not fail to be aware, even from this scattered testimony, that England is under the rule of a patriarchy.  Nobody in their senses could fail to detect the dominance of the professor.  His was the power and the money and the influence....With the exception of the fog he seemed to control everything.  Yet he was angry....Is anger, I wondered, somehow, the familiar, the attendant sprite on power?"

I find it interesting that Woolf sees how angry and unhappy the powerful men are.  Have you ever seen Donald Trump smile?  Or perhaps I should be more precise and note that when he does smile it's what psychologists identify as a "chimp smile."  That facial expression isn't about joy or happiness, it's about power, about having more power than the individual or institution being smiled at.  (Come to think of it, I've never seen Melania Trump smile either.)  There simply isn't enough money or power to make Donald Trump smile.  Do you remember early on when he complained about how the framers of the Constitution cheated him?  If he's not all-powerful, it's not fair. 

For Mother's Day this year, Veronica bought me the three-volume boxed set of Lord of the Rings, which I began reading in late summer.  The family copy--which she has claimed in any event--is falling apart.  I have read Lord of the Rings out loud at least twice, but I've never simply read it to myself--which was a very different reading experience. Reading it out loud, I just keep moving forward, and I foolishly gave the various characters voices, so I had to concentrate on being in character.  (I'm quite proud of my Treebeard voice, which is very like the one in the film.  I've also borrowed his mantra often, partly because it's got musical vowels and consonants:  "Now don't be hasty.")  But this reading was different for yet another reason:  it was impossible not to think about Donald Trump when I read about Saruman or Sauron.  Prophetically, Tolkien's villains are also destroyers of nature--which is not only one of Trump's qualities but one which pervades Neo-Liberalism.  'Nature?  No--forget about nature.  You've got to get product on shelves and stocks into the market.  Nature is a figment of your imagination--or at least something you don't need to worry about.'

But Tolkien was even more prophetic about the way a desire for naked power distorts the men who relentlessly seek it.  Reading LOTR in Trumptime is a different experience.

Except that wise old Tolkien infuses the novel with characters who critique the values of Sauron and Saruman at every turn.  I still remember fruitlessly trying to convince my mother to give herself treats and pleasures occasionally because "pleasure is moral."  This idea was simply not part of the ideal of self-sacrificing womanhood prevalent in the fifties.  But it seems to me that people who laugh joyfully at children playing and watch sparrows, people who make bread and who take a few moments to eat a warm piece and stare out the window to considered how it is with the world and with themselves, people who have fruitful conversations with members of their book club or who watch birds are good people.  My useless example--useless only because my mother had never heard of Lord of the Rings much less Hobbits--is of course Hobbits.  Why would a pair of Hobbits be the only ones who could return the ring to Mount Doom?  Because they have their priorities straight:  friendship, elevenses, pipeweed at the top.  Frodo and Sam are particularly susceptible to beauty and nature.  Sam, when he is tempted to take over Frodo's quest just after they have entered Mordor, rather than try to rescue his "master," realizes that though he'd love to be in an Elvish song sung by Hobbits to come, he really only wants his bit of garden and the hands with which to work it.

This reading I was struck by a motif that recurred in the chapters on the Fellowship's stay in Lorien.  Haldir, the Fellowship's guide into Lorien points out that they can see "Dol Guldur, where long the hidden Enemy has his dwelling.  We fear that now it is inhabited again, and with power sevenfold.  A black cloud lies often over it of late.  In this high place you may see the two powers that are opposed one to another; and ever they strive now in thought, but whereas the light perceives the very heart of the darkness, its own secret light has not been discovered.  Not yet."  Similarly, when Frodo looks in Galadriel's mirror and sees the eye of Sauron, which is searching him out, Galadriel comforts him somewhat by observing that "I say to you, Frodo, that even as I speak to you, I perceive the Dark Lord and know his mind, or all of his mind that concerns the Elves.  And he gropes ever to see me and my thought.  But still the door is closed!"  The good, the wise, the kind see the evil in their world, whereas the evil doesn't see the forces for the good.  Yes, yes, I know that Trump complains about everyone who criticizes him.  But do you really think he sees them?  I don't think narcissists see anyone but themselves.  I was going to write "stupid narcissists," but that seemed redundant.  I've never met a really smart narcissist.

Tolkien's elves have given us good advice for living through greedy, intolerant, and self-aggrandizing periods of our history.  It is even more important now that we keep on doing what we are doing:  being kind to one another, making beautiful things like the cloaks Galadriel and her ladies weave for the Fellowship, taking time to reflect, considering the lives of those whom society has marginalized, remembering to answer generosity with gratitude, using our imaginations as a guide to beginning to understand the lives of others, being curious rather than judgmental.  I could say this is especially important for Americans, but I don't think Canada is free of racism and sexism, given last January's  murder of Muslims at prayer,  the plight of missing and murdered aboriginal women and their families, the new Quebec law that prevents women who wear a niqab or burqa from receiving public services like mass transit or to work in public institutions, or the rise of Alt-Right groups in Canada.  On some days, I think that Steven Pinker has failed me, but I know that his data is accurate.  Maybe our intolerance for intolerance is a good thing. 

Each of us carries important strands of our culture's DNA and expresses it in our actions and our values. This is the element of ourselves that the power-hungry can't and don't see.  Our every act--from a smile at a stranger to a hug given a struggling friend, from the books we buy to the concerts we attend--is an expression of both the values our culture has encouraged in us as well as of the thoughtful, considered choices we have made about the way we want to be in the world and the world we want to live in.  That cultural DNA morphs through time, undergoing evolutions encouraged by both the world outside us and our relationship with that world.  Pinker, for example, notes that one reason the world has become less violent is that feminist values have begun to have an impact on how we think about....power and its attendant violence--whether that is manifested in bullying or in combat.  Sometimes we let ourselves go with the flow and suddenly find ourselves on the edges of social movements that are anything but social.  But it's everyone's job right now to protect that strand of cultural DNA that she or he carries, and to think clearly and carefully about any evolutions the current zeitgeist might encourage in us.  It's what we protect from the blindness of power.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017


I have been living inside a bittersweet frame of mind since about the middle of August when Bill was in the hospital for five days.  Why he was in the hospital is his story to tell, not mine, so you can imagine whatever scenario you find convincing, as long as it involves a fair amount of pain and uncertainty.  Yet living right beside the pain which so worried me was the care the nurses gave and the helpful questions they asked.  In my heightened frame of mind, I could see each of them making the world better one patient at a time.  I would drive home from the hospital at the end of the day and notice the sunsets, which were spectacular because of all the smoke in the air from forest fires.  Since two summers ago, when Saskatchewan had its bad run of forest fires, I've been aware of that bittersweet paradox:  that the destructiveness of fires in one place created beautiful sunsets in another.  One Friday evening as I drove home down Elphinstone a worker was putting the final touches on a brick structure made to hold the new sign for the beautiful new Connaught School that would be opening soon.  The juxtapositions were myriad:  beautiful sunset created by forest fires, work on a Friday night, craftsmanship, young students returning to school.

Sometimes I came home for a while in the middle of the afternoon so Bill could nap or zone out on his iPad.  Then I would sit in the dry back garden and watch the sparrows before I got up to start hauling watering cans full of water--again--to my vegetable garden in the back where the beans were languishing, the tomatoes bountiful, and the carrots mere matchsticks because June had been so cold.  I'm trying to write elsewhere about watching the sparrows, so I'll simply say here that after Twig's death that's what I did.  He hated having me outside and would complain at the door or the window, so while he was alive I didn't spend much time outside except to work.  But this summer, I took breakfast and afternoon tea with sparrows, nuthatches, chickadees, and house finches, just simply watching them eat or take dust baths about two metres from where I sat.  They had become, over the summer, completely used to my presence.  Chickadees would fly into the crab apple tree not two feet from me, eye the bark carefully, stuff in a seed and begin to crack it open.  Nuthatches flew close enough over my head that I could feel the air their wings displaced.  A pair of adolescent nuthatches--their feathers still rumpled--would play hide and seek with me from the far side of the bird feeder, cracking open seed, and then darting their heads around the feeder to see whether I was still there or had come any closer.

I find it hard to describe the sight of a couple dozen sparrows under the feeder searching for fallen seed or taking dust baths.  There ought to be a metaphor, but if there is, I haven't found it.  It's helpful, though, to note that sparrows move their heads as if they have been designed by outdated cgi software.  Their heads move constantly as they look for seed while also keeping an eye out for signs of danger--but each movement is sudden and jerky.  Then add to this the fact that sparrows do not walk but hop and bounce, and perhaps you get a sense of the bubbling of brown feathers under the feeders.  In a part of the garden where my ground cover has not yet spread, half a dozen sparrows would be taking dirt baths.  In the dry soil they would create visible divots that cupped them and then they would flutter and wiggle with a quickness that made my head spin--faster than any pianist can trill.  Pure joy it was to watch them.

But in the background always was the faint smell of smoke and the dry susurration of trees that had not felt rain for nearly two months.  Sometimes during those days when Bill was in the hospital the wind was unnerving.  In that sound of the wind and dry leaves I heard the march of fall.

Like most academics, I love fall.  It's a second new year.  I was always aware of students starting a new chapter in their lives, and I was excited as well by new classes or new approaches to old classes.  And then the fall season for new books would begin and I would feel there was simply too much excitement in the world for the few hours in each day.  This fall I made the last of the changes to the text for Visible Cities and returned my revised manuscript of Virginia Woolf's Aesthetics of Engagement, so while I was not even in the classroom, I felt the newness of the year.  I had new ideas to explore, new projects in mind.  I could shift from the disciplined rigor of revision, where you are largely facing what  you have not done well enough, to crafting something new while knowing that it in its turn would need revising.  But something new!  An engagement with a fresh idea or observation!  Yet in some ways it was terrifying.  It sent me spinning again into those questions that always pepper new years with their existential significance (if we choose to give them existential significance, and I do):  What mattered?  Was it just being--what I perceived and experienced in my daily life and how those things made me feel and think?  Or was it doing?  Was it what I wrote?  Was it how I took care of others?

For some reason, I decided to finally read Lark Rise to Candleford, a memoir by Flora Thompson set in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  As I read, I realized that it was less a memoir than about life in the rural hamlet of Lark Rise--how its inhabitants managed on thgeir agricultural wages, how they turned or re-made coats sent to them by relatives in service, how they kept bees and dealt with their swarming, how they kept pigs and gardens, expressions pronounced with broad accents, distrust of Laura's love of reading.  It's a book almost without event, an anthropology rather than a memoir.  Yet it seemed exactly the right thing to be reading at the turn of the seasons, perhaps this yearly turn echoed by the turning centuries of Lark Rise.  The minimalist make-do, hard-driven life has something almost autumnal about it, partly because she is indeed writing about waning ways of life and traditions, but also because those lives provide an analogy or a metaphor for what we in the north do emotionally or psychologically at this time of year:  pare back to simpler, less expansive lives as the weather gets colder.  We turn our emotional coats, trying to see how the old patterns of wear can be hidden so we can present respectable selves in the coming months, though we feel neither respectable nor selves. Somehow it captured a fact about myself:  how the waning daylight can lead to Christmas shopping, family meals, parties.  But also how it is for me a walk down a hallway that gets darker and has fewer and fewer open doors.  I feel at its dead end that no one would think me a respected writer, that it  is not possible that people even link the word "respected" with my name.  My self thins.

I love the beauty of autumn--and I'm not simply talking about the time when the leaves begin to change and you can walk down a street of elms under a canopy of gold, but also the time when things are getting bare.  The trees in my back yard loose a sense of depth:  they become like the rather decorative Norwegian paintings that inspired the Group of Seven where the lines and spaces have an exquisite rhythm aside from their representation of late fall.  On one of those later days, Bill and I drove out to Condie where all was gold and grey and brown--mostly gray and brown.  Yet lines of shrubbery outlined the shapes of the hills around Boggy Creek.

We take in summer's green with a kind of entitled glance:  'this is all mine right now' we feel without exactly thinking about it.  We probably spend little time distinguishing one tree from another,  but gulp greenness down whole as a prophylactic against the monochrome of winter.  In fall we see differently, searching out detail and beauty, noticing as I did at Condie that the leaves of the wild roses are a soft red among the pale golden grasses that susurrate around them.  The sere Wolf Willow is decorated with a dozen silver oval coins, looking like something a Japanese brush painter would love to capture.  Birches hang on to only half their leaves showing us their architecture, showing us how each leaf flickers in an uncertain wind.  I feel an uneasiness in autumn that is like living inside bittersweet:  a profound sense of a beauty that demands and rewards my attention nestled alongside an equally profound sadness.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

In Praise of Cats

On a misty October Saturday in Boston, my first husband and I drove to a cat sanctuary we had been told about.  At the back of the house was a large concrete storage building with several large cages, one holding only an old Siamese who was too aggressive to spend time with other cats and who had been given up by its owner.  The other cages held cats of various ages:  there must have been twenty.  We were there for a kitten to keep me company on the nights when Dan had orchestra rehearsals up in Portland Maine or when he had graduate classes.  I was working for a social science research group at Brandeis University, editing articles and books; back then, no one wrote more badly than social scientists.  Nights I was working my way through Russian literature.  We knew one couple in Boston, and most of my colleagues lived in Boston's suburbs, so I was lonely.  Since we lived in married housing, a dog was right out, but we thought we could hide a cat from the super.

The room full of cats was overwhelming, partly because I really knew nothing about cats and partly because so many creatures and their stories had fetched up here and might never leave.  I had wanted a black kitten because I thought the feline shape was beautiful and showed most clearly in black cats.  Our cicerone surveyed the cages before her:  no black cats.  And then she confessed that she had found a small box on her doorstep that morning that she hadn't yet opened.  The string off, the flaps of the box raised, there sat my first cat with a black and white sibling.  We called her Blackberry.  But we had no idea how impish kittens are, and so we were soon using an expression that I'd picked up from British fiction and clearly didn't know the meaning of.  I thought "bugger" was someone who was energetic and annoying, so we began calling her simply "Bugs."  But she had a fondness for War and Peace and Dostoevsky, and was happy to curl up on my chest in the evenings while I read fat novels.  We soon figured out that in a studio apartment with only a single door, there is no way to keep the cat from sleeping with you.  So Bugs slept every night of her life on my pillow, sometimes climbing over the back of the hide-a-bed to watch the pigeons roosting on the fire escape outside, then getting cold and racing under the covers and then back on my pillow.

She remained, all her life, a tiny black fire.  She was particularly fond of attractive men and people who didn't like her or who were frightened of cats.  (She loved Ken Probert.)  She was dangerously fond of me.  When I'd return from school or work, I could hear her meowing at the door.  So once we had settled in Winnipeg, where Dan played with the symphony, we decided she needed company.  But we also realized that she had too much attitude to welcome a second cat.  So we borrowed the un-neutered Siamese belonging to composer Victor Davies, turned the humidifier on high, closed the bedroom door, and let them have at it.  Misty was an enormous cat, but he was also completely overwhelmed by Bugsy's attitude; nevertheless, he got  his job done.  As the birth approached, we did everything the little guidebook told us to do, setting up a nice quiet "queening box" for her to use.  One winter night, when Dan and the orchestra were on a run-out for an out-of-town concert, Bugs started trying to lead me toward her box--meowing, walking a little way down the hallway into the bedroom, looking to see if I was coming, meowing again--a feline Lassie trying to lead me somewhere.  Nothing seemed to be happening, so I climbed into bed with a book, and she climbed into my lap, which was where she had her kittens.  We kept two, naming them Ivy (she was a clinging vine and climbed up my pantlegs--thank heaven they were wide in the 70s) and Niagara (who liked curling up in the sink, watching the water drip on her, or tumbling down the bedclothes).  It is hard to say exactly where my adventure with cats began, in that shed of abandoned animals or with a birth in my lap.  But with three cats, you are committed.  This is no longer a desperate, lonely choice but a realization that, in spite of growing up with dogs, you find cats suit you.

The three black cats lived between 19 and 20 years.  When only Niagara was left of our original family, we took in two young males, Nutmeg--a ginger-coloured long haired cat with eyes like nutmegs, and Ariel, his grey tabby brother who seemed to have the attendant sprite's insights into people's moods and needs.  Ariel, for example, knew when Niagara, who was slowly succumbing to failing kidneys, didn't feel well.  He would follow her around the house, wait for her to get comfortable somewhere, and then curl up behind her and put his arm over her shoulders.

Not long after Niagara's death, Deborah Morrison arrived at my door one summer day with a kitten she had rescued from the murderous Rottweiler who was killing the barn kittens where she boarded her horse.  "Kate, can you take him?" she asked about the kitten already fastened to Veronica.  "We'll see what the guys think," I told her.  Nutmeg and Ariel thought bringing up a kitten was delightful, and so Twig entered the family.  Ariel and Nutmeg died far too young, Ariel of bone cancer and Nutmeg of congestive heart failure, so we soon added another orphan, Sheba, to the household--wild loving Sheba who went beserk after a series of infections that seemed to have nothing to do with the dramatic changes in her behaviour, breaking my heart with the mystery of her death.  Wednesday, Twig, his heart and lungs worn out, Twig the foodie who had stopped eating, was ferried over the Styx and I am catless for the first time in nearly 45 years.  This is not going to be easy.  The house feels like a vacuum, as if there is some immense silent hole at the centre of it.

Cats are a a balm, an antidote; they are guides and nature's comedians; they are philosophers.  They are the perfect companions for reading, especially if you are having trouble concentrating and are tempted to get up and do something else.  You simply don't want to dislodge the warm, sleepy weight from your lap, and so you keep on.  And they are limpid companions for the insomniac.  Niagara was the first cat who understood my sleepless nights, and she would simply wedge herself between my body and my arm, her head on my shoulder, until I went to sleep.  Nutmeg, who was too big to be a lap cat, nevertheless made himself into one on sleepless nights, if I got out of bed to come downstairs.  Or he would simply curl up next to me on the bed and not stop purring  until I went to sleep--and as a large cat he had an enormous purr.  We called him the "insta-purr majesti-cat" for his huge and generous purr.  All you had to do was to walk into the room where he was to set him purring.

Two of my cats, Ivy and Sheba, have fetched.  All of them have thought that I arrange quilt blocks on the bed only as a backdrop for their beauty or curiosity.  Sheba and Twig have been particularly good writing companions, Sheba curling up next to the computer and often putting her head on the back of my left hand as I typed.  Curiously, after her death Twig took over the job of guard of the thesaurus and companion of the order of writer.

Two of my cats have both understood and invented languages.  I took my first sabbatical in 1998, when Veronica was in her first year at McGill.  Until then I didn't know what it meant to be middle-aged and to think hard all day.  So at the end of the day, I'd sing-song my invitation to Ariel and Nutmeg, telling them it was nap time! in the same tone of voice every day.  They cheerfully piled on the bed.  But one day I said to Nutmeg, matter-of-factly, without my sing-song voice "Well, are we going to go upstairs and have a nap?" only to watch him get down from his chair and lead me upstairs.  Nutmeg also recognized questions, and if you asked him one, he would reply.  Otherwise, conversations with him were one-sided.  Twig, in contrast, rarely talked, which made me sad until I learned that cats do not use their voices to communicate to other cats, but only to clueless people, to whom they teach their language.  I wondered if he had so few desires or whether he thought expressing them was pointless.  Then I noticed that he "talked" to me by where he stood in the room or with the expression on his face.  If he stood just inside the kitchen door, he was reminding you it was meal time.  If he looked at you searchingly, he wanted you to sit down somewhere so the two of you could have some quality time.  He frequently tried to herd me onto the sofa or the bed in the spare room by looking meaningfully at me and then walking off, his ears swiveled backward to ensure I was following his lead.

Of my seven cats, two have been philosophers --Niagara and Twig.   Either the percentage of cats who are philosophers is very high or I have been gifted.  After Dan and I separated, I brought home a tall bookshelf, knocked down, in a compact, heavy box.  Apparently when the door caught the long box, I accidentally dropped it on Niagara, because when she didn't come for her dinner, I found her under the bed with a bloody mouth:  I had dislocated her jaw and cleanly broken her mandible.  Back at home, after surgery, she curled calmly in my lap to get well--forgiving me and teaching me that pain is best thought of as something you are enduring now, not something you foresee continuing on into a faraway future.  She was also attentive to my moods, and in my dark times she would sit crosswise on my lap, not facing away from me as she usually did.  Though small and black like her mother, she was slender and long, almost the shape of the cats found in Egyptian art.  She would look at me meaningfully:  "See how beautiful I am?  Stroke me.  Isn't that better?  And if I am beautiful, you will be fine in a little while."  In many ways, she taught me the calm that becomes endurance.

Twig was also a philosopher cat.  His whole life and demeanor reminded me that happiness doesn't require drama or excitement, but is made of daily habit and love.  He was the antithesis of the drama queen.  "The good life," he taught me, is created in part by attention to the life we are living.  The slowly reflective moments of stroking a purring cat and stopping to look up and notice how full of love and joy your life is both create and appreciate the life you are living.  As well, he taught me gratitude after I thought I had lost him 18 months ago to pancreatitis, but which he and his wonderful vet, Dr. Jinx, managed to subdue.  Since then I thanked him almost daily for gracing my home, for simply being beautifully alive.  Such a practice has resonated through my life because its reminder was fully, affectionately alive.

Philosopher cats?  I don't know if they do indeed experience the wisdom I ascribe to them.  But I do know that when you open house and heart to someone so entirely different from you, you are bound to learn something.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Open Letter to Neo-Liberal Politicians

The Saskatchewan 2017-2018 budget handed down by Finance Minister Kevin Doherty on March 22 is cynical and short-sighted. It makes the assumption, which is broadly challenged by economists, historians, and social scientists, that successful societies gather as much as possible of the their privileges, goods, and services in the hands of individuals and corporations. That unexamined Neo-Liberal agenda led to the 2008 meltdown, and we all know too well how that worked.

I'd like to take some of the assumptions behind your budget, particularly your cuts to schools, universities and libraries, along with your decision to sell the PFRA lands, to their logical conclusion.  While the portrait I create of a future Saskatchewan may seem fanciful, it nevertheless follows logically from the ideology that dictated your budget.  Much of my vision is based on sound science and wide reading in economics.

First, attracted by the lowered business taxes, businesses will indeed have moved to Saskatchewan.  But in two or three years they will have left again.  This is because an anti-intellectual Saskatchewan government, like those in the deep southern United States, will not have an educated workforce for the knowledge economy.  Moreover, new industries dedicated to renewable energy sources, industries that provide good jobs, will have left because the government continues to put all of its support behind expensive carbon capture and storage facilities. 

Lacking a bus service, small towns become unproductive silos and a drain on health care dollars when people can no longer get to the larger urban centres to manage their health conditions and only go when they are in crisis.

There are three simple things that seniors can do to stave off dementia:  read, ensure that they can hear and interact with the world around them, and exercise.  As an unintended consequence of the budget you tabled in March, a future Saskatchewan will have more demented seniors in institutions because the government has cut subsidies for hearing aids and local libraries.

The landscape will be dominated by roads, Global Transportation Hubs, and football stadiums, which will have the whiff of scandal about them with respect to the buying and selling of land, interspersed with enormous agribusiness fields of grain that are not doing very well.  That is because the government's failure to establish an informed policy on climate change will have numerous unintended consequences.  Selling off the PFRA pastures to agri-business and oil and gas companies means that the province has lost one of its fountains of biodiversity.  When the grains that farmers grow are buffeted by extreme weather, we will have no hearty grasses in the Palliser Triangle to help us develop new breeds.  As well, the amounts of fertilizer necessary for agri-business will have killed off bees and other crucial pollinators.  As a result, food production will plummet.

The Saskatchewan Government will have felt morally compelled to accept refugees from Syria and other hot spots around the world.  Those refugees will have quickly migrated to Alberta, where even the Medicine Hat News notes that cuts to Saskatchewan libraries have a disproportionate effect on immigrants.  

...Leading me to a digression.  Clearly Education Minister Don Morgan spent no time in libraries before he cut their budgets, and didn't consult with anyone in the library system who knew what the modern library looked like or who could tell him about the current circulation patterns in our beautifully-integrated and envied library system.  His ignorance is patently clear.  He also didn't know that the Provincial Government is indeed currently not in the brick and mortar business of housing libraries; municipalities provide that space. His solution for many small communities, to meld the collections of the public library and the school together, was clearly not thought through:  he didn't realize the cost of such a project nor the danger to students if strangers were roaming through their school on the way to the public library.  Nor does he realize that e-resources, while important, are not a panacea; in any event, these are only available to people whose families earn enough to pay for internet access.  So cutting libraries cuts services to the most disadvantaged among us.

This year the Regina Public Library hosted 7,000 programs that involved 130,000 participants.  (I would recommend that the Education Minister read the RPL fact sheet that can be found at  Library use has increased 13% over the last five years and RPL had 1.5 million visits in 2016.  While their circulation statistics are impressive--they checked out over 2.2 million books, DVDs,eBooks, eAudiobooks, and magazines--they are much more a place to take out material.  

Back to the newcomers.  Libraries help them acquire literacy and update their resumes.  There are after-school reading programs that immigrant children can attend, letting them develop their English at the same time they become more familiar with Canadian customs and values.  Libraries help people apply for citizenship.  When those immigrants have migrated to Alberta,  you will find many of the basic services they kindly and patiently provide for us have fallen off.  The kind of intellectual and economic innovation you get when cultures collide won't occur.

I've got a lot of complaints about your budgets, but I keep coming back to libraries.  Why?  They welcome everyone, regardless of age, race, religion, social status, and wealth.  They provide support groups for breast cancer survivors.  They link a lonely woman from Afghanistan who was a skilled weaver with the Saskatchewan weaving community.  She has made a meaningful connection and now her English is coming nicely.  They provide career coaching.  Seniors knitters meet in libraries, knitting scarves and toques they festoon Victoria Park with in early winter, so that everyone who needs a hat can have one.

Libraries are at the centre of our democracy and our well-being.  They are where we learn to manage the planet better.  (No avid reader would tell you climate change is a hoax.)  They are where we connect with one another on equal footing.

Neo-Liberalism emphasizes the individual--the individual's accomplishments, the self-made man.  But it does so in a vacuum, as if he stands entirely alone, proudly tall in the midst of the prairie.  But it manages to ignore all the crucial things we share in common:  air, water, sunshine, roads, greenspaces, educational institutions.  Much of the land that individual stands tall on would not be as healthy as it is but for all those things we share in common.  

As a writer, I spent a lot of time thinking about what the "good life" is.  I'm thinking of good ethically and psychologically.  What good actions do people take to make good lives for themselves?  What elements of their lives feed and nurture their inner sense of well-being?  I suspect that if you think about those questions, one of the first things that comes to mind is relationships you have with other people.  Your wife or husband.  Your children or grandchildren.  That old friend you have coffee with every couple of months who reminds you who you were as a teenager or a young adult.

So why are you building economic policy on the shoulders of the sovereign individual and not in the hands of two people in relation, shaking hands, giving a hug, sharing a story?

Here are a couple more things you might like to read:

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

What is the good life?

I suspect that any artist will tell you that creativity has its rhythms. The first is that of creativity itself:  the spark of an idea, question, query, insight.  Then the playful fleshing out until you feel sure enough to begin drafting, drafting, drafting.  Then revising, revising, revising.  And the process isn't linear:  as you draft, you accidentally-on-purpose or unconsciously put in something unexpected and find that it resonates beautifully.  So you have to re-think, re-draft, re-revise.  You have to be willing to go around in circles if you are going to be a creative person. 

But the projects themselves have their rhythms.  I'm circling around in a little whirlpool right now.  Not an unpleasant whirlpool, mind you.  It's simply that most of my energy must go to revising my book on Virginia Woolf's aesthetics.  And I've found that undertaking to revise and cut a book that would be 500 pages if typeset today means diving in and staying underwater as long as you can.  You develop momentum, your principles remain at least partly coherent, more of your complex argument stays stuck in your brain so that (let's see if I can stay with the water imagery) you aren't swimming upstream all the time.  But that doesn't mean that other creative projects, like my work on another collection of poetry I'm calling Aides Memoire for the moment, and Soul Weather aren't on my mind.  It's that two things happen.

First, you can't stop thinking about them, so you are constantly scanning inward and outward horizons for ideas, little touches of the human you can use, for new perspectives, new details, things you had never noticed before.  I suppose it's like living on high alert.  Second, you realize that this hiatus from your creative projects can actually be good for them.  When you are drafting, it's easy to get caught up in an entertaining scene and not realize that while interesting it has nothing to do with the core questions you are asking.  So trying to see the landscape you are studying from a mental hilltop is quite useful.  And of course, almost everything you read is put to this purpose in one way or another.  You learn a bit more about characterization.  You consider how effectively this writer has exploited a plot with extreme highs and lows, twists and turns, and consider whether it's something you want to do--which of course will mean completely rethinking your project.  Hiking a little higher, you wonder what it is you are doing and why.  Why are you driven to create?  Why has this project stuck to you like a burr through half a dozen years already (although those years were very full of almost everything but work on this project)?

For me, the most successful art asks questions, explores questions, provides themes and variations on questions, opens up a whole world of questions.  I don't need art to tell me one thing about the world--no matter how wise or powerful it is.  I want the artist to be my co-conspirator, someone who is willing to guide me through the labyrinth of a particular question by marking some of the intersections, some of the surprising turnings.  In turn, each culture at any given historic moment has questions that are so extraordinarily pressing that many artists find themselves immersed in them.  How do we construct and view a post-9/11 world?  How do we rediscover freedom and ethics after Nazism and the Holocaust?  What does a world look like when young people suddenly have a disposable income and a voice--the question of the sixties and seventies?  What is freedom--also the question of the sixties and seventies?  What does the working world look like after the 2008 market meltdown?  How can I be safe?--the question asked by women everywhere, by civilians and soldiers during any war, and by Muslims and Jews in far too many parts of the world.

But there's one question that writers keep coming back to.  George Eliot asked it, as did Jane Austen.  Virginia Woolf pondered it for much of her life, as did Henry James and Ernest Hemingway.  It is at the centre of a handful of extremely varied novels that I've read in the last little while:  Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See, Lawrence Hill's The Illegal, Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Jonathan Safran Foer's Here I Am, Julian Barnes' The Noise of Time.  Two American novels, one Canadian novel, one French novel, one British novel.  One novel by an American Jew and one by a African-Canadian.

What is the good life?  And how many meanings of "good" are there?  Perhaps I have been drawn to see this question everywhere because, at bottom, this is the question my four young twenty-somethings and one newly-separated forty-something are asking themselves.  And its corollaries:  how do I get there?  In the context of racism, sexism, capitalism, in the context of poverty and wealth, in the context of a world that is heating up all too rapidly because perhaps we were sold a concept of the good life that's not very good--for the planet, anyway, how do we achieve the good life?  What...?

Here I came to grief.  There were just too many questions, while at the same time I thought my question was simply too big, too general to have any meaning.  Because I keep the house cool when I work, I crawled under a quilt; Twig piled on, made a nest, and began to have a bath.  As I watched him wash behind his ears, I thought.  How hard it is to be human!  A bundle of contradictory inner needs at the crossroads of innumerable social forces.  And let's not think about genes and physics.

I need to work this out, so I think I'll let it be my puzzle while I'm revising Virginia Woolf's Aesthetics of Engagement.  Next time, I'll think about those novels and see what they have to say about this question of questions.  Until next Tuesday....

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Dear Jane III: Quilts and converstions; Art and conversation

When I posted Veronica's nearly-finished Country Crossroads quilt on Facebook just before Christmas, gifted ceramicist Jeannie Mah kindly wrote "Lovely! Your border is especially wonderful and flowing, a wonderfully exuberant touch to frame the detailed geometrics in a subtle range of red! and then some stitching on the white (which I always love!!) Well done, Kathleen.  Beauty!"  

The quilt is in conversation with itself:  the simple but heavily quilted white blocks balance the geometric, busier blocks, and as Jeannie noted (though I'm not entirely  happy with it), the border's flowing vines and rounded shapes, like the pomegranate at the centre of each border, contrast the geometry of the piecing.  As well, for each block to work, the contrast between colours, but even more between dark and light, has to be dramatic.

One of the reasons why I have long admired the "Dear Jane" quilt but never made any blocks was that each block seems a little lonely.  All of the blocks use a single fabric and muslin.  There's no conversation going on within the block as there is with my Country Crossroads.  But as I make more blocks, I can see that they are in conversation with one another.  Some of them largely involve calm squares, while others are made of triangles bursting off every which way. Some are made of dozens of tiny pieces, while others are made only of a few (I'm thinking of the blue and gold X here).  Muslin dominates in some, where others give a fanciful nineteenth-century reproduction fabric pride of place.  Some are busy; others are calm. 

I'm not sure I'm going to make all the blocks; it can take an entire afternoon to cut and piece a single block, like the brown one in the top right corner.  Each of those 8 little "flying geese" sections that radiate from the central square are a mere 3/4 inch by 1 1/2 inches.  You need to make them a little large and painstakingly cut them down to get them accurate.  I may simply make a handful and put them together in a small quilt.  But I'm getting the drift of Jane's aesthetic, though it's not entirely balanced in my photograph.  When you put the blocks together, it's like the perfect party.  You've got your clown, who keeps everyone cheerful and entertained.  You've got your introspective soul who breaks in with the most extraordinary observations about life, the universe, and everything, so that she always leaves you shaking your head.  There are the good souls (read a bit square) who are the foundation of any community or party, and the slightly manic people who go off in all directions but are so creative, so innovative, so out there that they inspire all of us.

I don't know whether you have noticed, but the words "conversation" and "dialogue" have become part of our political discourse.  This may in part be a product of the Trudeau government, which has from the beginning said they wanted to know what Canadians were thinking about as they go about the business of governing.  I can be appropriately cynical; Trudeau's latest cross country tour was clearly designed as a kind of distraction, and I'm not sure that the 'conversation' around how we would elect our leaders--hard as that committee worked--was given the hearing it deserved.  But still, I think conversation is good.  

Only this week, in the Globe and Mail, the organizers of "Growing Room,|" A Room of One's Own's fortieth birthday party note that some of the people they had invited to come some time ago have shown up on the "wrong" side of the Stephen Galloway firing at UBC.  (I use 'wrong' ironically; we haven't given enough information by either UBC or its Accountability person to come to a conclusion.)  In this case, two sets of rights seem to conflict:  those of the women who--and here as I am about to use verbs, I myself am in trouble--told of being sexually harassed by Galloway, and those of an academic/writer who deserves a clear explanation of the reasons for firing him.  And since this case involves the rest of his career, he has the right to have those reasons made public if he so chooses.  Yet the organizers of the Room birthday party thought that bringing all these disparate perspectives together and creating a dialogue would be helpful.  A Room of One's Own's publisher, Meghan Bell says that "I think conversation is the best antidote to conflict....I hope the festival will get people talking in person."  Festival director Arielle Spence says "It's somethiing we expect people are going to want to talk about....We hope that that event will create space for discussion, for potential ideas of ways that we can move forward."

Similarly, in this month's Literary Review of Canada, reviewer Naheed Mustafa reviews two quite different books about feminism, Jessa Crispin's Why I Am Not a Feminist:  A Feminist Manifesto, and Erin Winkler's Notes from a Feminist Killjoy:  Essays on Everyday Life.  In her review, which is very much worth reading, and which I cannot possibly do justice to, Mustafa identifies five kinds of feminism which occasionally, though too rarely, intersect:  the feminism of white women, the feminism of women of colour, the feminism coloured by women's religious loyalties, the feminism of class, and the feminism of age.  I admit to experiencing a lot of inner conflict even typing that list. My first response is to say "Yeah!  Wow!  All those perspectives!  We should be able to come up with something really good if we see ourselves are learners rather than experts and just listen and remain curious."  That's my inner idealist.  The realist in me realizes that the distinction between--and I'm being provocative with my use of language here--brown feminism and white feminism is as old as feminism itself and is deeply disturbing.  Mostly disturbing, frankly, is "white" feminism with its rather naive and narcissistic concern for glass ceilings and power structures.  Yes, we have to change things at the top.  We know that until the very nature of power is challenged--I myself would rather have autonomy than power:  wouldn't life be rich?--women are going to have to continue to fight.  But let's give some support to the women in the trenches.  I would really love to just listen to a Muslim woman help me understand the meaning of her headscarf and the meaning of her feminism.  Thankfully, Mustafa too foregrounds the conversation, ending her essay with this wonderful image of Brownian motion exemplified by "a piece of pollen moving around in a glass of water that is "erratic and kinetic":  "I find myself recalling that speck of pollen in water as I observe--again, I am the observer--bobbing along, bombarded by a multitude of opinions and arguments.  The motion of these conversations is constant and unstopping.  Like the pollen, they will never settle.  Perhaps that is the point."

But conversation isn't simply an important part of our political discourse, it's crucial to our aesthetic and ethical lives.  I have just finished reading Michael Helm's novel, After James, which is really three slightly linked novellas, each told in a different genre--the gothic tale, detective fiction, the apocalyptic narrative.  The novellas share some images, the name 'James,' and an overwhelming sense that our twenty-first century world, with its technology and its science, is  slipping off its moorings.  Few authorities are to be trusted.  The only solution is, in a sense, is to go off the grid.  The reader's task at the end of the novel is to consider how these three narratives inform one another, how they work together as a novel, how they establish a conversation with one another and with the reader.  Helm's view of the present moment is very dark, but the structure left me with enough space--enough of a part of the conversation--that I can decide how I relate to or believe in the malevolent forces abroad in the twenty-first century.  He respects me enough to let me do that.

I have also just finished re-reading Julian Barnes's biographical novel about Dmitri Shostakovitch.  The very label "biographical novel" raises eyebrows.  Clearly Barnes has done his research and can exploit the wonderful details of Shostakovitch's life when Stalin led the Soviet Union and Shostakovitch didn't write the "realist" (what does realism mean when it's applied to music?) work that would exemplify Lenin's notion that "art belongs to everyone."  Sure that the KGB were going to come for him, he spent every night for quite a while standing in the hallway of his apartment building next to the lift so that when the police came they wouldn't disturb his wife and daughter.  The 'novel' has very little in the way of plot; rather it's a meditation on how an artist keeps his integrity in the face of threats and blandishments offered by his government.  Barnes explores this question, but never answers it.  We need to provide that answer for ourselves.

Virginia Woolf famously loved conversations.  After all, that was what Bloomsbury was built on.  At the same time, she begins A Room of One's Own with that famous opening--"But, you may say, we asked you to write about women and fiction.  What does that have to do with a room of one's own?"  ('Autonomy,' I slyly answer.)  Those first two words, though, establish her sense that her words are simply part of a conversation, as does her instruction to her audience at the end.  Observing that while she has been speaking "you no doubt have been observing her failings and foibles and deciding what effect they have had on your opinions.  You have been contradicting her and making whatever additions and deductions seem good to you.  That is all as it should be, for in a question like this truth is only to be had by laying together many varieties of error."  Noting that the reading of books makes one see "more intensely afterwards," she of course suggests that they write books.  But there is a caveat: "Do not dream of influencing other people, I would say, if I knew how to make it sound exalted.  Think of things in themselves."  She and Mustafa would have a lot to say to one another as they compare what they see to what the other sees in a friendly and curious way that Woolf has.

But how am I going to get back to Jane's quilt, having come by way of novels written by men and articles on feminism--with a detour through public discourse and the policies of the Liberal government?  I suggested that my "Dear Jane" blogs, given that Jane was born two hundred years ago, would be a kind of anti-Trump meditation, because she made beautiful, useful things while he only has made money.  But I am tired of Trump.  I am going to reduce him to Tweets and innuendo and government by executive order, and merely point out that he is not interested in conversation.

Elaine Scarry, in her wonderful, brief book,  On Beauty and Being Just, argues that qualities of beauty, like the unity of the work of art or the overarching beauty of a sky that stands over all of us, keep ideas of justice alive when justice has withdrawn.  I am going to suggest that works of art, whether they are quilts or novels, have something of the same function.  They show respect for us, giving us the freedom to come to our own conclusions.  They keep conversation and dialogue alive. They keep our curiosity alive.  In the face of government by Tweet, innuendo, and executive orders, we are going to need reminders of such respect, such curiosity, such dialogue.