Friday, July 20, 2018

Giving attention


Last summer, I spent hours in my back yard watching the birds--mostly sparrows, but also mourning doves, chickadees, house finches, and nuthatches--my favourite, with their squeeky-toy voices and their ability to walk down tree trunks without tumbling off.  I'm not an experienced birder, so if there were other unusual birds in the tops of the Manitoba Maples in my back yard and the fir trees in front, I didn't notice them.  I couldn't miss the sparrows or the mourning doves, though.  The day often began with a pair of mourning doves flying in from their nest in the east.  As soon as they arrived to peck at the seed that had fallen from my feeders, a single mourning dove would arrive from the west.  Then a scene would unfold right out of a movie about high school.  The pair would proudly eat a couple more seeds (how do you know if a mourning dove is being proud?  I have no idea.) and then fly off in a huff.  (How do you know that a mourning dove is in a huff?  I don't know that either.)  In our anthropocentric way, we call them mourning doves because their cries sound mournful to us, but are they expressions of grief or sadness for the bird?  I have no idea about that either.  But I could see that any place the single mourning dove was eating was an anathema to the couple.  Mourning doves do mate for life, so my bachelor (or bachelorettte--sexes are hard to tell from a distance) could be mourning.  But he could also have been flirting with the other male.  Or with the wife.

My single mourning dove, though, was important for my ecosystem. After he was complacently pecking away at fallen seed, the sparrows would suddenly drop lightly around him, as if his presence was a kind of "all clear."  When I was sitting out regularly, they would then begin to arrive in large flocks.  A handful would go straight for the feeders, while others would line up on a couple of low branches close to the feeders--looking for all the world as if they were queueing.  They would make the most delightful brown chaos.  Occasionally half a dozen would take dirt baths in the dry soil of the unplanted part of my garden, creating little divots with their ruffling and their wiggling, which they can do faster than any pianist can trill.  I tried to find metaphors or similes for the landscape under my feeders filled with bobbing sparrows.  It is like a cauldron at a full rolling boil--but that hardly conveys the liveliness of all the brown feathers and the cacophony they create. Bubbles from a large wand?  But those bubbles are languid and elegant, not quick and unselfconscious like my sparrows.  Or like the flickering of dry leaves in an August wind--except the mood of that simile is entirely wrong for the lively energy of my sparrows.  Maybe there is no visual equivalent.  Perhaps they are like fifty lbjs (little brown jobs--the ornithologists' nickname for them) each dancing his or her own minuet.

It wasn't simply that I didn't have language for my sparrows.  There was so much I didn't know about them.  Clearly they travel in flocks:  what are their social lives like?  They seem to sit near one another on a long branch or join a second bird when they arrive, but I have yet to understand whether they hang out for long conversations, for competitions, or for the company needed to endure the physical and existential challenges of a long winter.  If any communication is going on, I couldn't hear or see it, despite the fact that fifty birds are doing it at once.  Often the whole flock at my feeder would be prompted by a single chirp to rise from the ground en masse, the whole troop together making a sound I can only compare to the wings of Milton's great angels.  Just as often there was no false warning from a paranoid bird--just the audible crisp crackling of seeds--that set off the flight of a hundred wings.  Whatever was happening, it was under my radar.

At this point, you are wondering why I didn't just get my bird book out.  I have a great hulking Audobon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds, but it answered none of these questions.  It did tell me that the sparrows are among the 436 species of songbirds in the finch family, but that the English sparrow--imported long ago from England--belongs to the weaverbirds and not the finches.  Also, there was a "finch war" in North America shortly after the English sparrow began multiplying exponentially and scandalizing families out with their children because they shagged in the streets, in the parks, on the roofs--anywhere, really.  Mao also declared war on sparrows, encouraging patriotic families to take a day outside to kill sparrows, only to regret it next year when the bug population soared.  Fortunately, sparrows shag...well, the population bounced back and Mao learned about unintended consequences. But no one can tell me anything about their social lives or their language. 

My general reading on bird languages suggests a problem scientists have not thought of.  Each researcher interprets the "phonetics" of a bird's song differently, so it's hard for them to compare notes.  Similarly, we know that different nationalities transcribe the sounds a cat makes differently.  And indeed, there are way more sounds that the "meow" we assign to our cats.  Tuck, my most talkative cat now, has a high, plaintive whine when he is hungry-something I've never heard before, but otherwise he talks to be in coos and trills and cheeps.  I've had other cats who made sounds like his, particularly the trilling coo, but he often makes the most uncatlike sounds.

You may remember that I was spending time out with the sparrows because I was in mourning for Twig, one of my most remarkable, intuitive, and humane cats, who simply stopped eating because his body was worn out and it was time.  So I would take my mourning coffee out with the birds instead of sitting under Twig and watching the news.  The sparrows were way better than the news, but my lap was empty.  Two new guys joined our household in early September, so I haven't been outside as much, and I can report that nothing like the flocks of fifty birds comes.  I am guessing that my presence suggested there were no cats to threaten them and that the feeders were full.  But I have had to take the feeders down because we have a marauding cat loose in the neighbourhood who leaps up and fastens all four sets of claws to the living room window screen and then yowls at my cats.  Last Saturday, he startled them so much Lyra and Tuck began fighting with one another.  I had not been watching these instances carefully enough, though I often closed the windows to the back yard. But Saturday was cool, and I wanted to cool off the house and Bill was making all kinds of noise in the back yard with the lawn mower and weed eater.  I thought the marauder would stay away.  Instead, I had to interpose the back of a chair between two cats who, until this moment, had never uttered so  much as a growl to one another.

The rest of the day was rather subdued, though both Lyra and Tuck came upstairs to curl up on my ironing board, where I was working on a quilt, and gently groomed one another from time to time.  I was kicking myself for not paying attention.

Don McKay generously edited Visible Cities before Veronica and I began sending it out to publishers, and he made a wonderful suggestion in the opening poem, "Unforeseen" about a back lane that, if studied carefully, is beautiful.  I had written

                           Paying attention we might catch
the architect's gesture toward serene geometry,
her love of a surface not glass, light
feathered in the blue shadow
of winter afternoons.

Don changed this to "Giving attention,"  and he was so right. We don't pay attention.  And in fact, as with my sparrows, attention doesn't pay in any of the usual ways.  Rather, we give it to the world.  If there is an economy of sparrow watching it is this:  they kept my curiosity alive, gave me many questions to ask, prompted me to struggle with metaphors, and essentially said that they are beyond understanding.  I should just enjoy them and the atmosphere they create in my back yard.  In turn, the attention I gave them kept them safe and well-fed.  Apparently urban birds get only about 10% of their food from feeders, but it is a 10% that can make the difference between getting by and thriving.

And I wasn't giving attention to Lyra and Tuck, with horrible results.  We have found them another window, this one on the second storey, that has become their viewing deck.  The tall lilacs between my house and my eastern neighbour are almost a flight school for small birds, and my cats are having a safe, wonderful time. 

Unfortunately, this summer I've returned to watching the news while I drink my first cup of coffee, which is not really a good habit.  But you've been doing something like that too:  it's like watching a train wreck.  You can't take your eyes away.  Are we paying or giving attention?  I don't want us to become cynical, so disillusioned that we stop giving attention altogether.  So here's another Trumptime tool:  give attention to the things that matter.  Sometimes giving attention is an exercise in wonder, an admission that you don't understand the world, but that you celebrate its joys anyway.  Sometimes it's an ethical imperative.   

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Hope and Trust in Trumptime

I'm going to try to keep this upbeat, so I'm not going to give you yet another precis of our current historical moment.  I almost wrote "hysterical." I don't mean you, of course.  I mean the autocrats and the 1% and the electorate who believes the wealthy and the powerful know best.  And I mean the fifth estate, who rightly believes they are under fire but who also have attempted to offer us some explanation of Trump's election or Angela Merkel's minority government or Recep Erdogan's re-election. Of the many compelling and well-argued attempts on the part of journalists and political scientists I have read, there have been two constants:  fear and distrust of the "Other," particularly a Muslim or dark-skinned other, and anxiety on the part of white working class men (and some women too) who have begun to realize that the well-paying jobs that have bouyed their sense of agency and purpose in the world have disappeared.  They are no longer the centre of a knowable, comfortable universe.  But those jobs haven't been given to the Other, but to technology. Trump can caterwaul and fulminate as much as he likes:  "beautiful coal" and tariffs on steel and aluminum are not bringing those jobs back.

Instead, I want to talk about trust and hope.

But I can only do that by talking about distrust first.  I think we are living through a time of enormous distrust and that those who are not benefiting from the twenty-first century's economy or from new technologies are the most distrustful of governments that appear to have failed them and of people who look like they want their jobs.   

The old fart in me keeps saying that things have become too complicated, so that we bump up against unknowns daily.  Let me give some idiosyncratic examples, and if you have any hobby-horses of your own, please add them at the end of the post in the "Comments" section.  Let's talk about databases, about the fact that the University of Regina has changed its perfectly functional catalogue (well, perfectly functional from my point of view) yet again.  It now resembles something more like a Google search, and it's now harder for me to simply find books or--shock of ages--do a catalogue number browse so I can see what other books on my subject there might be.  Let's talk about the fact that there are organizations--national and international organizations--that specialize in rescuing people in caves full of water.  Or let's talk about that fact that there are myriad organizations that are dedicated to helping disabled children take part in sports.

I've chosen my examples carefully, so I can illustrate what I see to be three kinds of change taking place.  Let's begin with the last one:  all kinds of work has been done to make the daily lives of people with disabilities richer and filled with the possibilities we should all share.  I remember back in the dark ages--okay, it was only the early seventies--when the University of Michigan was one of the first institutions that made its campus accessible--probably because its prestigious medical school gave all their nurses an interesting assignment:  spend three days in a wheel chair.  But the "mainstreaming" of people with disabilities doesn't always make us comfortable.  How do we talk to someone with Down Syndrome?  (Probably the same way we talk to everyone else.)  If someone walks with a cane, do we helpfully hold the door open or do we respect their ability to be independent?

How many rescues of people in caves involve divers?  Enough that there is a body of people with this expertise?  Obviously the world has gotten more complicated and there are more and more groups of people with expertise we didn't know existed.

When we the last time you traveled when the procedures for checking in and getting through security were exactly the same as they were before?  Travel is always discombobulating:  that's one of the reasons we do it.  But I've found that everyone checks in online.  But "everyone" also has a cell phone.  Would you believe that I only have an iPad but that Veronica has figured out how to save my boarding pass to my iBooks.  My iBooks?  How do I get rid of it there, lodged between A Tale of Two Cities and Michael McCarthy's The Moth Snowstorm:  Nature and Joy?  Our technology changes almost daily--often for the better, but not always.

So in this world of increasing and often uncomfortable complexity, the Other--one more thing we don't entirely understand--makes some people uncomfortable.  It can be an opportunity.  But it can feel like "Six impossible things before breakfast," inspiring distrust in people who are exhausted by change.

So here's something we can do in Trumptime to challenge the distrust that is behind many of his policies.  First, stop walking around with your cell phone.  I'm convinced--and I've already admitted to being an old fart--that communities of familiar faces are disappearing because we're not looking up to see where we are, but that we walk in the world--in the beautiful and everchanging and miraculous world--looking at tiny letters on a screen, getting one more dopamine hit. We've become addicted to these hits because we are so lonely. So stop making yourself lonely.  I work out at the University of Regina Fitness and Lifestyle Centre, and there's a whole community of people I speak to daily--people who want to know how I am--because neither of us has our gaze on a cell phone--and people who would be viewed as the "Other."  Were I in trouble, I know one of them would help me--and in fact when the little old lady stretches up to add more weight to her machine, they frequently come over to help.  Want world peace?  It begins with a smile, and maybe a nod or a hello or a how's it going.

The other thing you can do is to keep hope alive.  I've gotten pretty bossy and cocksure in my old age, so you may take this with a grain of salt:  I believe the only ethical way to live now is with hope.  Because otherwise, we're going to have given up, letting Trump and his cronies win.  You don't need to change the world today, but you need to be hopeful.  I have been reading Rebecca Solnit's Hope in the Dark, and she provides a wonderful example of the way hope might work.  First, she argues that despair is not solidarity with the disadvantaged or oppressed.  We don't need to be despairing to acknowledge that the world right now is FUBAR.  Some days I will I admit I get up with a strong sense of unease--even of despair--and I think the confirmation of Trump's more recent Supreme Court Nominee will be one of those days--partly because it's a self-satisfied minority which is going to make some monumental decisions about how we live for the next generation.  But if I remain in despair, I don't have the energy to make anything better--even in the little microcosm I inhabit.  I stop smiling at those delightful familiar faces at the gym.

But Solnit points out that hope isn't a reflection of the world:  we're not hopeful because we think the world is just dandy.  Hope is, rather, our frame of mind in the face of a world that is out of whack.  Our ship is listing dangerously.  But she and Jonathan Schell, author of The unconquerable World:  Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People, argue that hope begins in the imagination--which is why I'm writing to you.  If you are visiting Blue Duets, it's because you are in some way imaginative.  That is one of your greatest strengths.  It is imagination that allows you to be compassionate, kind, empathetic:  in any situation you immediately imagine what someone else's experience is like and imagine what they might need or like from us.  It is also how you conceive of a better world and how you navigate a route towards that time, even if that route, like a crab, must sometimes go sideways.  Ask the beautiful natural world that remains and the people who love you to help.

Let me end with a story Solnit tells of "Women Strike for Peace," a group founded in 1961 at the height of the cold war.  In its largest demonstration, 50,000 women in 60 US cities demonstrated against the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and their work is credited for the nuclear test ban treaty signed two years later, ending the practice of open air tests of nuclear weapons.  But on the particular day Solnit writes of, a handful of them were standing with their placards in the rain in front of the White House--one of them reflecting that their whole project seemed particularly silly in the rain.  But unbeknownst to them, Dr. Spock, the world's beloved pediatrician, was watching them, thinking that if they were willing to demonstrate in the rain he had better give their goals a more careful look.  He became an outspoken supporter of the nuclear test ban treaty that was signed 2 years later.

You don't need to get up every morning hopeful. But you need to help us keep the practice of hope alive in dark times.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Simplicity


I didn't make any New Year's resolutions this year.  Between Bill's convalescence and two kittens, things were simply too chaotic to give me the time to reflect.  And if I had time, I wanted to put it into my writing.  I didn't think that not making resolutions this year was going to compromise my moral fibre.  What I did notice, though, was a longing, a yearning for simplicity.  For some reason, it mattered that I should take the most efficient route as I did my errands--taking into account traffic patterns and time of day.  It mattered that any room in the house I walked into should tidy so I could see the way the sun's path was changing or the way the kittens' places for afternoon naps had become routine.  I didn't want to wonder when I was going to read the six books on my bedside table.  If I was writing prose, it mattered that my sentences should be as taut and clean as possible.  It's true that Bill's health had signaled the way life could spiral into chaos with unimaginable speed, but I thought my desire for simplicity was something else--something positive, not simply a stay against pandemonium.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to the bank to deposit the cash that came from the sales of Visible Cities at our various reading and didn't know if you could deposit it in an ATM.  The line was short.  It was also steadfastly unmoving.  After about five or ten minutes, I thought to myself that I could get impatient or angry, but decided to be curious instead.  Looking at the people conferring with the two tellers, I could see two things clearly:  the people who don't use ATM's are elderly and want someone to explain something to them, or they are fairly recent immigrants, accompanied by a helpful friend, who want to set up bank accounts.  Impatience or anger seemed fruitless, if not unfair or simply stupid.  So I people-watched my way through the fifteen minutes it took and tried once again to solve some problems with a poem I'm working on about memory's twists and turns, about how memory can cut in and take over the present moment, like an over-eager dance partner.

Later in the day, when I was telling the story to Bill I asked him "When people get impatient or angry do they get what they want?  The line's not going to move any faster.  Anger will only raise your own blood pressure or adrenaline, or make other people unhappy or unhelpful.  Whereas I want...."  I thought for a moment.  "Serenity."  We were sitting at a red light when I suddenly had the sense that serenity and simplicity were connected.

There's an aesthetic connection, certainly.  I'll admit to liking lifestyle porn, so I can tell you how absolutely trendy grey rooms are right now.  Pared right down. (I'm not sure I could do a Regina winter in a grey room:  the colour would make me colder and my mood gloomier.) In these rooms, there's nothing--to evoke William Morris (who would never paint a room grey)--that isn't either useful or beautiful, and there's just enough in the room to engage your eyes but not to seem confusing, chaotic, or fussy.  No Sevres, but a couple of pieces by Jack Sures. No hot pink or turquoise pillows, but cotton and natural wood.. If it's a sunny day, the room probably evokes serenity.

Or think about the people you see day in and day out.  How do their simple--or their over-the-top--sartorial choices affect your mood or the way you relate to them?  (It probably differs according to your mood or the weather.)

Or think about the novels of Kim Thúy, none of which has a name longer than three letters or scenes longer than 3 pages, or exceeds 140 pages.  Ru won a Governor General's Award and the Canada Reads Award, and was shortlisted for the Giller Prize, so the consensus seems to be that these are wonderful novels. I certainly loved them and loved the way their simplicity encouraged me to reread sections to find the resonances and the echoes that exist in the form rather than in words.  Another part of their appeal is explained by her simple yet poetic language that pulls you into the scene or reflection you are reading.  Part of it has to do with how she trains her simple materials to resonate with other scenes in the novel.  Thúy has managed to get her simple, evocative prose to resonate down the empathetic corridors of the reader's mind. 
 
I think there's also a temporal connection between simplicity and serenity:  it's hard to be serene when you are so busy you can't think.  Today's work climate doesn't foster serenity, given that employers are continually demanding more productivity of everyone.  Never mind that you can't be more productive if you deal with people or complex systems.  You can be more productive on an assembly line, perhaps, or doing something physical, but economist Thomas Piketty notes that teachers, social workers, writers, and artists can't ride the productivity wave.  When I retired, the first dramatic change I noticed--and like a frog in hot water I should have anticipated it, but didn't--was that I could concentrate on one thing at a time.  I had autonomy.  In my retirement, I've found myself reluctant to even multi-task (which psychologists will tell you never works well anyway), because I want to meditate deeply, which just takes time. It's not simply that Rome wasn't built in a day; the Greeks didn't hurry to give us ideas which still often serve us well.

There's also an ethical connection between serenity and simplicity.  We all have too much stuff, and making and shipping all that stuff has contributed significantly to climate change. As well, all that stuff crowding our closets and our desks makes us anything but serene.  What can I say besides buy less and ensure that what you buy lasts a long time and is versatile?  Fortunately, technology sometimes solves our problems.  Several years ago, Bill gave me an iPad mini, which I have loaded up with books--free books in the public domain from Project Gutenberg (most recently A Tale of Two Cities), and contemporary books from Kobo.

Along the same lines, James Wallman has written a book called Stuffocation, which describes our sense of being overwhelmed by stuff:  "Stuffocation is that feeling you get when you have to fight through piles of stuff you don't use to find the thing you need, or when someone gives you something and your gut reaction isn't “thank you,” but “what on earth makes you think I could possibly want or need that?" Instead of thinking of more stuff in positive terms, like we used to, we now think more means more hassle, more to manage, and more to think about.  Overwhelmed and suffocating from stuff, we are feeling 'stuffocation.'" 

But before I go all purist about simplicity and serenity, I need to be honest about the fact that two things I love to do are decidedly not simple.  The first is quilting.  Yes, you can make a quilt out of two fabrics--and in fact some of the most startling quilts are red and white or blue and white.  But this is true only if the pieced design is complex.  In any work of art there is a balance between order and complexity and perhaps the balance that you like--your taste in art--has much to do with the balance that characterizes the work.  I will admit to hating nineteenth-century French history painting.  Part of that has to do with the history of painting itself:  the French Academy valued enormous, well-populated paintings of historic events, and used these values to attempt to silence (or its visual equivalent) the Impressionists.  So I dislike history painting on principle:  it became conventional to the point where it made people unable to even see what the Impressionists were up to.  But I also dislike it because it's fussy without having impact.  Much better, I think, are Monet's late paintings of lilies--which often have sixteen layers of paint--but which manifest the light and air and water of the lily ponds--not to mention the lilies themselves.  Here--for me at least--is a complexity that I value, reined in as it is by an over-arching aesthetic purpose.    

Quilting takes time.  At the top of the blog you saw the Tree of Life blocks I've completed of reproduction fabrics--except for the cream that the tree nestles in:  all of the background fabrics have writing on them, since the quilt is for a writer.  I want the complexity of a scrap quilt, one that urges the viewer or owner to simply home in on a block and wonder why that particular group of fabrics has been chosen and to note both the harmony between colours and the occasional dissonance.  I can't make the quilt simpler:  it won't be the quilt I want to make.  Each block uses 49 different fabrics.  Cutting a single 2 7/8 square out of 49 fabrics and then repeating that process again for the next block (there will be 23 when I'm finished) would be extraordinarily time-consuming.  But what I can do is to streamline the process, as you can see in the photograph below.  I begin by cutting strips of fabric exactly 2 7/8 inches wide. Moving clockwise from there, you can see I pair dark and light squares, draw a line between two opposite corners, and then sew two seams, each 1/4 inch from the line.  I do these in great long strings that look like prayer flags--you see these in the middle of the photograph.  Then I cut on the line and press the resulting pairs of half square triangles before I start organizing them into a block.   The blocks are built in four sections, so now that I've got all my triangles made, I can simply do a section at a time, and don't need to upend my sewing room--which is also my writing room--every time I want to work on the quilt.


Reading also takes time and it's not a process we can speed up.  When Veronica and I were in London, we spent almost two full days at the National Gallery, and we were always the slowest people in the room.  We've noticed this elsewhere.  When we found an exhibition of Picasso's work in Florence, two groups of people went by us as we took in the art.  The same was true of an exhibition of Van Gogh's work in Canada's National Gallery--and when we got to the end we decided to go back to the beginning before our timed ticket expired.  We talk and look and compare and try out theories and are often found simply standing in front of a painting--or one of Picasso's drawings for Guernica-- gobsmacked.  But you don't have to take the time we take.  You can survey a room and home in on a couple of works that really strike you, and move on.  You don't have to read every didactic panel; it's perfectly respectable to go to an art gallery for simply the visual delight.

You don't have this choice when you read.  I suppose the speediest readers are those who ask the basic question "what happens next?"  But if you are reading Lord of the Rings or Remembrance of Lost Time, that's not going to go very fast--and in the case of Remembrance is not going to be very satisfying.  Reading paintings or books takes the time to let art's complexity unfold.  Here's where we still need the distinction between the words "simple" and "simplistic" that seems to have disappeared. Thúy's novels are simple, but not simplistic.  If we peel back to the most basic definition of art, something that is crafted or made and offers insight into what it is like to be human, we can see that "simplistic" isn't on, for the simple reason that being human, being human around other humans, is a complicated undertaking.
 
And I don't want art to necessarily make me serene.  Some art does:  Monet's waterlilies immerse me in the wonder of seeing, and I don't think I need them to do much more.  But Picasso's drawings for Guernica show him trying out a variety of visual languages to create a painting that is so disturbing that when Colin Powell announced the beginning of the war in Iraq at the United Nations, American officials insisted that Guernica be covered over.  There is art's power to disturb writ large. Right now my nighttime reading is Joan Didion's memoir, A Year of Magical Thinking, about the sudden death of her husband and the terrifying medical emergencies that clustered around her daughter, Quintana.  It is not serene.  But Didion, as usual, knows things that I need to learn about death and grief. 

And all this illustrates how problematic values are.  I'm thinking of the myriad values we hold that give our days and our behaviour and our choices shape.  My days are shaped now by my attempt to strive--in some things--for simplicity.  (Though I can't get over my maddening habit of parenthetical thoughts--inserting a thought inside the sentence that is already a thought--because thoughts of course are complex.)  But I can't prove that simplicity is better, just as we can't prove that people who don't make love until they are married or people who love animals are ethically superior, or that people who are tidy--or messy--are more fruitfully creative.  

But when I'm reading Didion's memoir in bed at night and little Lyra sits in my lap and stretches up to put his paws and face against my throat, I put my book down.      





Friday, June 15, 2018

Craftivism


One of my favourite mornings on our recent trip was spent at London's remarkable Barbican Centre.  In some ways, I shouldn't have felt the lifted spirits and joy I experienced:  the Barbican is an example of brutalist architecture, made mostly of concrete with small amounts of brick detailing.  Wikipedia tells us that  its "ruggedness and lack of concern to look comfortable or easy, "along with its massive contours made it popular for some things--university buildings, for example--but not for others--public housing, for example.  At first blush, it looks decidedly un-home-like.

But the Barbican works in some amazing ways.  Let me tell you what is contained within the Barbican's constructions:  Two tower blocks of housing.  A long and well-planted reflecting pool with a fountain on one end and a waterfall at the other;  on the day we were there, a heron and four watercolourists were enjoying its calm.  A music school and practice spaces.  A girls' school.  A movie theatre.  A library.  A theatre for live performances.  The home of the London Symphony Orchestra.  Three very different restaurants, all of them overlooking the reflecting pool.  A greenhouse and rooftop gardens.  A plan that coordinates all of these organizations in consideration of some big questions;  this year, it is "How can art respond to change?"

 But here's one of the things I most loved.  The crush space for the theatre opens onto the reflecting pool and when the theatre isn't giving performances it becomes public space.  You can see four young people gathered around a round table, all of them with their computers open, but all of them engaged in passionate conversation.  You can see a lot of mothers (at least ten) with toddlers and strollers who gather to get a cup of tea and let their children roll around on the carpet.  It's a safe, clean play space for a grey day in London's West End.  A young man who looked like an actor was stretching his arms and neck, unselfconsciously limbering up his body for something athletic or expressive.  The Barbican has residencies for artists:  in the week before we arrived, Christabel Balfour brought her loom into the Barbican's space for two weeks to weave a rug and to talk to anyone who was curious about what she was doing; the residency was part of "Make! A Season of Contemporary Craft."  And the Barbican has a shop where I found a button with its matching carry-all bag that simply read "Craftivism."  I'm not a wearer of buttons, but I really should have brought one.

Because we saw the spirit of craftivism all over Britain.  First, the smaller British art galleries--not The National Gallery, but The Whitworth and the Manchester Art Gallery, as well as the York Art Gallery--acknowledge the politics of art--its activism--in a way that is both unashamed and aesthetically rich.  We didn't see any installations that were lectures on, say, the environment or Europe's struggle to incorporate refugees without succumbing to xenophobia.  But we did see an exhibit at York called "The Sea's the Limit" that consisted of work by refugees.  One asked us to take a cozy blanket off its peg--a blanket with an image silkscreened on it that referenced the refugee experience--and wrap ourselves up in it to sit on a rug to watch a video of charcoal drawings of the refugee experience.  The tension between the viewer's comfortable setting and the homelessness of refugees was visceral.

In almost every gallery you would find a gray-haired volunteer who would approach you to talk knowledgeably about the work.  The York Art Gallery is in an old building that has skylights along the roof line of its second floor--not good space for displaying paintings, which really don't want to be bleached by natural light falling on them for part of the day.  But it's ideal space for displaying pottery--and so that's what they've done.
  The gallery thus owns the largest collection of ceramics in England--bigger even than the Victoria & Albert.  There an elderly man engaged me in a conversation about what I was looking at, observing that the long shadow of Bernard Leach still casts a bit of a pall over English Ceramics--and he gestured toward the room's display cabinets.  "Brown," he said, "Way too much brown."  I couldn't help giving him Victor Cicansky's name if he fancied  colourful ceramics, while telling him about Regina's strong clay heritage.  We had a lovely chat, and I shared other names, Jack Sures for example, and Marilyn Levine. 

In all kinds of ways, galleries were taking their art out into the streets in other acts of craftivism.  The Manchester Art Gallery has the usual large grey didactic panels at the beginning of each room explaining the period or the life and work of an artist, but they also have smaller panels that offer a cheeky feminist view of art history's assumptions about how men and masculine values have too long dominated art.  They have also been working with people who struggle with mental illness to explore the connection between the mindfulness of looking at art and improvements in mental health, and have chosen works for a room set up for just such reflections.  At the Whitworth--easily the most  cerebral gallery we visited--there are picnic baskets on tables chock full with art supplies.  You can load the basket up for your kid--or yourself, presumably--and go draw in the galleries or go out into the art gallery's lovely park--and make your own art.

Our first day in Manchester highlighted craftivism in another way.  We arrived on the train from London just after lunch, so our first job was to find lunch.  Veronica found a coffee shop with an inviting menu.  The first thing I noticed when I walked in the door was a chalk sandwich board that informed me that the next creative writing meeting was this Tuesday. 

The shop (which I can't locate on Google Maps--alas) is perhaps the funkiest I've ever been in--and I love funky.  I've tried to think why, given that my own aesthetic is minimalist.  I think it's because funky is playful and rebellious.  They had a large picnic table in the centre of the room full of students working at their computers and occasionally consulting one another.  We sat in comfy chairs with a lovely pie crust table between us where they placed our floral china cups and plates of sandwiches.  In front of us was an alcove made by bookshelves that were full of toys that could be played with by children seated comfortable on the floormats, though two students were using it to study

The owner or designer had clearly thought of all the creative ways people might like to use coffee shop space, and had created an atmosphere that accommodated them all.  Beyond us were small tables in a rather dark corner where people could focus on their work or studies.

My contribution to the afternoon was to take  us off to the Manchester Craft and Design Centre, which I'd found on the map but knew nothing about.  It is an old fish market that has been converted into artists' studios and shops--with nary the smell of fish anywhere.  The spaces were small, and thus affordable, but contained room for a ceramicist 's wheel and a display of his work or space for a jewellery maker's table and her work.  We saw glass, textiles and delightfully primitive embroidery, silk screen prints, pottery in several styles.  We didn't buy anything--I don't need more things--but it was like going to an eclectic art gallery that celebrated the varieties of contemporary creativity.  It made me happy the way the Barbican made me happy.  And its spirit was captured in that Barbican button that read "craftivism." 

I think the mash-up of "craft" and "activism" is important--especially just now.  I won't claim that it takes you out of the capitalist whirlwind:  most creative people need to buy their supplies somewhere and many of us have stashes of yarn or fabric that are a little embarrassing.  Unless you grow your own feed for your own alpacas, whose fur you spin and weave or knit into something useful, you're depending on a supply chain for your crafts.  What you remain outside of is someone else's idea about what will give you pleasure.  And there is something liberating about learning to do something well, to gain an expertise that ensures that little bit of independence, that rebellion against what is in style this year, your ability to make something that has never been made in quite that way before, to have a vision and the expertise to realize it.  Craftspeople are not only keeping and adding to our culture's significant lore (read David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas if you want to know how important this is:  when the end times come, my people will have warm feet.) You are keeping alive the practice of thinking differently, thinking rebelliously, thinking creatively in an age when we are too frequently being asked not to think at all.

(The first two photographs of the Barbican are Veronica's; the snapshots of ceramics and the wonderful coffee shop are mine.  I can't resist ending with my first truly funky quilt, which Lyra and Tuck seem to like.)

Thursday, May 31, 2018

The delights of English parks


Veronica and I have just returned from two weeks in Britain, our time split between London, Manchester, and York.  This is not in any way an intuitive itinerary--no one is going to say "Yeah, great, I'd never thought about that but it makes complete sense."  I had thought Veronica would be interested in the way an industrial city had re-imagined itself, and in the kinds of juxtapositions that resulted.  (We also wanted to hear its prestigious Halle Orchestra--which was wonderful.)  And while we were in the near north,  visiting the very edgy Whitworth Art Gallery, I thought a visit to the thirteenth-century Gothic York Minster would be an interesting balance. Knowing that I am often overwhelmed by crowds and only love large cities for limited periods of time, Veronica reminded me that public space in large or busy cities is used differently.  People create their little bubbles by not making eye contact, and thus protected go merrily about their day.

We arrived at Heathrow at 8:30 a.m. after very little sleep, so thought it was going to be important to just keep moving.  Covent Garden, where one can often hear wonderful street music, was just a bit south of our Bloomsbury hotel, but I wanted to make a brief detour into Holborn before we hit touristland.  So, turning left instead of right we found ourselves walking around Lincoln's Inn Fields, the largest public square in London, created in the 1630s by William Newton with landscaping by the famous architect Inigo Jones.  (I doubt we even see any ghosts of his plantings.)  It was around 12:30, and as you can see, the square was full of people who had probably poured out of the law offices on the perimeter.  People found ways of making their own space:  I watched several women lay out a blanket or deliberately fold a jacket, kick off their stilettos, and then sit down and arrange their lunch.  In one central area, a handful of people in very colourful spandex were having a yoga class.  Some people were alone; others had gathered ebullient groups of four.  Close by, as if she was a walking metaphor, a young woman stood outside the London School of Economics  with an unhooded peregrine falcon on her arm.  I didn't ask her if I could take a picture (and I wouldn't have dreamed of it without asking):  some privacies simply need to be respected--though now that I think of it, walking around London with a vigilant peregrine on your arm is rather asking to be noticed.

England's parks might well be one of the themes of the trip, in part because Veronica is 29 years younger than I am, in part because my vertigo would act up and I'd need to be still for a while, in part because I seek out such spaces.  There are good reasons for this, and there is good research to explain those reasons.  My friend Katherine Arbuthnott writes about the social benefits of spending time in nature.  Because we are a social species, we seek out ways of connecting with others.  If we have green space readily available, we tend to spend more time outside, creating more opportunities for meetings with others and thus a greater sense of community.  Researchers have found ingenious ways of testing their hypothesis that people are friendlier and more helpful in a natural setting--from having the researcher's covert helper drop a handful of pencils or a handkerchief, to organizing games that test whether we are feeling selfish or generous.  We're kinder, more helpful, more generous, and even more cooperative in a natural setting or when nature is top of mind. We have more self-control;  if someone annoys us by spilling a bowl of the soup we have just made, contact with nature makes us less likely to blurt out something rude or hurtful.  Being in the natural world correlates with having the energy to make the "nice" choice and to control our feelings.  Peace reigns--and you are rather proud of yourself for not taking the bait.  Blame it on the ivy growing enthusiastically in your kitchen or on the ferns in your garden.

We began our first full day at York by walking part of the old Roman wall--which means to walk in the tree tops, to notice the wild flowers that spring up in the verges between yards and wall that rises just beyond them.  We looked into well-manicured back gardens where golden laburnum glowed and horse chestnuts hoisted their blooms into rough and fragrant cones, into vegetable gardens where beets were being carefully thinned, the leaves put aside for a salad.  In contrast, the old centre of York (where some of the street scenes in the Harry Potter films are set) is a twisting rabbit-warren of streets, none of which meet at right angles.  The centre-most streets are free of traffic, so tourists wander vaguely everywhere.  Between having to watch the pavement carefully for unanticipated curbs, having to watch the cobblestones waiting to trip me up, having to watch the tourists--each of them in a different bubble as they searched for the purchases that would epitomize their time in York or their sense of self--my vertigo went wild.  Veronica loves the carnival atmosphere of these busy little towns and had presents to buy for others and tea to sniff, so I settled myself in the Museum Garden--which forms a large crescent that joins the museum and the York Art Gallery.  After she came back to fetch me, we could walk through this verdant space all the way back to our bus.

I had brought something to read, but I spent most of my time people-watching, seeing people turned outward in a way that they hadn't in the city centre.  It was a lovely day, uncharacteristically sunny and warm for Yorkshire, we were told, and people were simply joyful, delighted that nature had shown up just to make a lovely day for them.  They threw frisbees, sat cross-legged on blankets to talk, explained flowers and stones to curious children who touched the edges of petals gently or sought the most interesting pebble among the ancient stones of the fallen Roman walls and the ruins of St. Mary's Abbey.  They were curious, open, playful. 

When we returned to London, we stayed at one of the many hotels on Argyle Square, close to Paddington Station, where we'd arrived from our time in York.  On Saturday, Veronica wanted to glory in the delights of the Portobello Road Market, but I had found that markets make my vertigo vertiginous, so suggested that she go alone while I had a quiet morning reading David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas in Argyle Square. Parks are many things to many people, chances for them to re-invent space to answer their needs. On a weekend morning, the park belongs to older men who have come out of the hotels and flats for their daily constitutional and a little conversation.  As I walked into the park, there was large a dark mass on the lawn that could have been a person except that I could clearly see its head on the grass and its feet jubilantly aloft--not a natural way to lay in the grass  In truth, it was the overlarge bag of one of the gentlemen in the park, who eventually reached into one of its pockets, drew something out that he threw aloft before catching it, satisfaction on his face, in the fluidity of his wrist, and the crisp grasp of his hands.  He was off to some satisfying adventure--or perhaps just heading home.

One of the older men settled onto a shady bench near me and seemed to spend the whole day there, as if this were his outdoor gentlemen's club, and he the host.  Various people stopped by, some standing and just checking in, others sitting down for a good long chat and staying several hours.  There was enough busy-ness in the park that in the pauses between their thoughts they could separately watch the spectacle unfold before them--the group of eastern European students who had their last picnic in the park before heading for Paddington Station or the handful of basketball players playing three on three at the north end.   He was there when I left the square at 1:30, and again when we came back from the British Museum at 6:30.  I suppose one could conclude that his small flat was cramped and hot, but it was also true that he'd had a richly social day he couldn't have had anywhere else.

Our final day was quite hot and very humid, so when we decided that we wouldn't walk from the National Gallery to Whitehall, we got on the underground for a reprise of the day before, when we'd spent part of the afternoon among Greek ruins and the Elgin Marbles in the British \Museum.  Having only about an hour before closing time, I suggested we try the other long gallery on the first floor, identified simply as "Enlightenment."  We discovered...air conditioning (stones from Greece and Egypt don't need air conditioning) and the largest cabinet of curiosities we'd ever seen.  Shells, pots from Greece or China, botanical drawings, a Grand Orrery (a clockwork model of the solar system) made for King George III, nestled among other 18th century scientific instruments, thousands of books (probably the reason for the air conditioning.  On our last hot day, we headed once again for the air conditioning (where I was finding the seeds of poems in the works of botanists I hadn't known about or in King George's orrery), and when they kicked us out headed once again for Russell Square, a large park between the British Museum and our Bloomsbury hotel.

We had to walk a bit in order to find a shady bench, but the roses and lavender were fragrant and the simple fountain at the centre made the world seem cooler.  Children challenged the enclosure around the fountain to see how wet they could get.  An older gentleman had gone to the cafe in the corner of the park and brought back an ice cream cone for a toddler so clearly not related to him, patiently spooning ice cream into the boy's mouth.  Young women walked confidently across the square in stilettos or sneakers; young men lounged with their friends.  I felt like a traveler into another museum or gallery--that of people simply being happy, feeling the air and sun on their skin.  Veronica leaned over to me and whispered some perfect lines from Mrs Dalloway:  "Life, London, this moment in June."

Friday, May 11, 2018

A peroration, personal


But for our generation and the generation that is coming the lyric cry of ecstasy or despair which is so intense, so personal and so limited, is not enough.  The mind is full of monstrous, hybrid, unimaginable emotions.  That the age of the earth is 3,000,000,000 years; that the human life lasts but a second; that the capacity of the human mind is nevertheless boundless; that life is infinitely beautiful yet repulsive; that one’s fellow creatures are adorable but disgusting; that science and religion have between them destroyed belief; that all bonds of union seem broken, yet some control must exist—it is in this atmosphere of doubt and conflict that writers have now to create, and the fine fabric of a lyric is no more fitted to contain this point of view than a rose leaf to envelop the rugged immensity of a rock. 
                                                       Virginia Woolf
                                                       “Poetry, Fiction, and the Future,” 
                                                        Essays 4: 429-30; 1927

These words—with their sense of paradox and gloom that implicitly challenge the autonomy of art—could have been written for those of us living over ninety years later.  That there are an unprecedented 650,600,000 refugees who have had to leave their homes.  That poverty worldwide has decreased substantially; that the gap between rich and poor grows ever greater.  That we can find our “tribe” on Facebook, but that racism has seldom seemed so permissible nor privacy so threatened.  That scientists and scholars and artists delve deeper and deeper into the complexities of our world and our humanity.  That large groups of people want our humanity to be defined by a single ideology—religious fundamentalisms or capitalism.  That more people die at the hands of extreme weather than at the hands of terrorists.  That we struggle to be in the moment, appreciating the hesitant green notes of spring.  That we cannot, with respect to the health of ourselves and our planet, think about the future.  That we cannot ignore our cell phones.  That nearly thirty years after feminism’s Third Wave we need #me too.  That we are connected as we have never been; that so many of us are alone.  How can formalism, art, lyric poetry, beauty be a counterweight to the despair many of us feel after the evening news?

            Woolf’s art was woven “between the acts,” between the two World Wars, on the warp of history with the weft of form, in pursuit of the kind of beauty she first wrote of in her apprentice diaries, and of an honest engagement with the historical moment and with the reader.  Definitions of the autonomy of art vary widely, with  music critic, Theodor Adorno, arguing for a kind of pure autonomy—as he could, given his framework.  Gregory Jusdanis is rather relaxed about the autonomy of art, choosing metaphors that emphasize the many ways art remains true to itself and its vision while still relating to its historical moment.  Woolf, of course, did not have the benefit of these; she wrote in the climate of Roger Fry’s fervent questions and Clive Bell’s certainty.  She wrote without benefit of terms like “implied author” or “free indirect discourse”; indeed, she found herself, as artist and public intellectual, embroiled in arguments about what constituted literature’s artfulness and its legitimate resources, and whether these compromised the integrity of the work of art.  

            But she left us some touchstones.  She believed in form and formalism.  Her diaries, which record her often joyful, often fraught struggles with her work, almost always highlight her efforts to find the form that will contain her conception.  She did not have the benefit of more recent philosophers who assert that form guarantees a work’s autonomy, but she intuited it nevertheless.  One the one hand, the creation of a form was part of the hopeful play that infused her creative experience and expression.  On the other hand, that creation of a form allowed her to find or create the surprising, illuminating perspective from which both she and her readers could consider themselves and the world.

            In Three Guineas, Woolf’s narrator tells us that her interlocutor’s letter makes her believe in the efficacy of art.  A Room of One’s Own begins with “But…”  These two beautiful, tendentious essays (along with many others in her oeuvre) nevertheless affirm how profoundly Woolf believed that her work was a conversation that was open to each reader.  Her later diaries reveal how much despair she felt when historical circumstances made it impossible for those readers to concentrate and to reply. Yet readers of Woolf have found a surprising comfort in her work, partly because her address to the reader allows us to feel we are not alone:  we are talking with  Woolf—and what a conversation it is.

            Beauty as method and as subject infused her work—whether it was the beauty of Clarissa’s roses or of La Trobe’s “sham lure.”  The first Woolf novel I read was Jacob’s Room, found in a tiny bookstore in Venice that carried very few works in English.  When I finished it I said “I have no idea what this means, but it was so beautiful,” and immediately began to re-read it.  I have a feeling that beauty has thrust many readers back into her work.

            Like Woolf, each artist working now, unable to take his or her eyes off threats to safety, well-being, culture, off a society infused with intolerance and lack of belief in the rule of law—threats to themselves and to complete strangers—will nevertheless have to negotiate his or her relationship with the art of the past and the readers of the future.  Each can benefit from the variety of strategies Woolf uses to affirm two important things.  First, your private experience and private opinions count.  You needn’t be powerful or famous or an ace TV detective for your experience to matter.  Your relationship with art is one of the foundational privacies of your life.  But at the same time, art is social, a chance for us to have conversations, both listening and talking.  Her omniscient narrator of Jacob’s Room contemplates the lonely challenges of modern life, imagining our crises of identity and purpose:  “Is this all?  Can I never know, share, be certain?  Am I doomed all my days to write letters, send voices, which fall upon the tea-table, fade upon the passage, making appointments, while life dwindles, to come and dine?  Yet letters are venerable; and the telephone valiant, for the journey is a lonely one, and if bound together by notes and telephones we went in company, perhaps—who knows?—we might talk by the way” (126).