Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Violence, kindness, and beauty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 30, 2016


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Generosity in Contemporary Canadian Literature II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 6, 2016

Improvising a life after Woolf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Bit by bit; drop by drop

If three people walk into a Regina elevator, and one of them is interviewing for a job, one of them suspects he or she is in trouble with a boss, and the third is a harried student during exams, what do they talk about? [No, this is not a joke--or only partly a joke.]  For if they live in Regina (and doubtless other places as well), they do talk.  And as you have anticipated, they talk about the weather; but why?  Since the novel I will start to write again next month, Soul Weather, is at least partly about how we can be at home in a climate that has changed--about solastalgia, in short (though I began the novel before the word existed), I've often thought about this question.  I have three hypotheses.  First, none of us have control over the weather.  In our  hyper-controlled, hyper-connected, instant gratification lives, the weather is beyond us.  We are flummoxed, so we talk about it.  Second, the weather is the great equalizer; few of us can escape this uncontrollable thing we share.  Third, Heidegger tells us that mood is our primary interface with the world:  it shapes how we read the world's complexity, its intentions and limitations, its generosity and challenges.  And when you go out your door in the morning in one of those "I don't know yet because I haven't had enough coffee" moods, a sunny or rainy day can shape your mood and your experience quite quickly.

But I also suspect that seasons as a whole have moods--or maybe predominant themes or outlooks.  Spring comes so gradually and yet so ecstatically to us that it pulls us out of winter's emotional and mental and spiritual hibernation and turns us into seekers and doers who can appreciate things changing bit by bit.

Drop by drop.  Yesterday I drove out to Wascana Trails to walk.  I was in search of prairie crocuses which Shelley Banks tells me are up, but didn't find any.  Spring has barely come to Wascana Trails, though the tributary of the Qu'Appelle river is doing its gradual thing, eating away at its banks with the spring run-off.  I did see a single caterpillar and was dive-bombed by a couple of flies; I gloried in the air and sunshine.  I heard birds, but didn't see any.  Nevertheless, staring at the top of the tributary's banks, I could see that the trees had changed slightly.  They were no longer the architectural filigree of deadened winter trees.  Some presence had arrived to make them lacy with young, tentative green buds that will fatten as the trees' roots take up water and nutrients.

Bit by bit.  I think it is the changing of the trees that has given me the patience to do bit-by-bit things, like getting out my fingering exercises or taking on a new Mozart Sonata and working diligently at the fingering on the difficult passages.  I am not bored at all as I try a tricky, fast passage ten times and hear it getting ever-so-slightly better.  I have nearly finished Virginia Woolf's Aesthetics of Engagement, and am now at the point where I make sure all the references are in the bibliography and all of the commas in their Oxford-don appropriate places.  I don't mind this at all.  Nor do I mind working on a quirky story I've written in my spare time and querying every verb.  dee Hobsbawn-Smith taught me to avoid what Douglas Glover calls "copula spiders"--sentences where the subject and direct object are linked by the verb 'to be.'  (Doubtless this is the academic's bad habits arriving at the front door of story.)  But as I have learned, everything in a sentence gets better if you look at your verbs.  You see the sentences whose syntax is twisted, almost as if it wants to avoid active verbs altogether.  Then you see that those twisted verbs have subjects that aren't clear or interesting....Looking verbs has a domino effect, but one that occurs only when you are patient.

By installments.  I see lots of this gradualism around me, mostly in the runners and skateboarders who have rediscovered their bodies, their energy, their balance, along with the freedom of running or skateboarding outdoors.  Early this spring I dropped by the skateboard park near Wascana Lake to see what was up.  I love skateboarders.  When my mother was in serious cognitive decline and couldn't be taken many places, I could always take her to get an ice cream cone and then drive to the nearby skateboard park where she watched their acrobatics with delight.  Earlier this spring, the young people didn't skateboard much, but stood around talking, catching up, and then tentatively tried out a trick or two.  I admire skateboarders for their discipline, for their willingness to do something over and over again and imagine that when they are 40 and watching their own children on skateboards they will understand both the joy and the self-discipline of doing something over and over to gain a competency.

Note by note.  Sunday afternoon, I heard Angela Cheng's magical performance of Haydn and Beethoven Sonatas and Nocturnes, a Ballade, and a Pollonaise by Chopin in the Cecilian Chamber Concert series.  It has doubtless been decades since she learned anything note by note.  I could almost say that her performance so unfolds or discovers the spirit of the music itself that notes are nearly inconsequential--simply a means to an end.  But she said something about the late Beethoven Sonata that made me imagine each note to be a crucial node in a web of connections that we call 'music' and that is never finished, but is simply pursued joyfully:  "It is a privilege to study this sonata."  In spite of her moving performance of a piece of music that encapsulates Beethoven's despair at his deafness and his musical transcendence of that despair, she is not finished with this piece of music.  Like all beautiful things, this late sonata invites you to return again and again to see what you can find there.

Piecemeal.  We all hurry too much and work too long and too hard.  How wonderful a season, then, that unfolds piece by piece, that not only demands our attention but reminds us that there are entirely different time frames in the universe.  That it is an unfolding of beauty only strengthens our joy and our attention.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Generosity in contemporary fiction

This week, I was reading "On Writing,"  an old essay by Raymond Carver.  Writing both about what he values and what qualities a good writer should have, he says "But a unique and exact way of looking at things, and finding the right context for expressing that way of looking, that's something else....It's akin to style, what I'm talking about, but it isn't style alone.  It is the writer's particular and unmistakable signature on everything he writes.  It is his world and no other.  This is one of the things that distinguishes one writer from another.  Not talent.  There's plenty of that around.  But a writer who has some special way of looking at things and who gives artistic expression to that way of looking:  that writer may be around for a time" ("On Writing," Mississippi Review 14.1-2, Winter 1985).

When you are browsing a bookstore, on the prowl for the book that is going to assuage the particular, indefinable hunger you have at that moment, what do you do when you seem to find a promising book--one you've heard about, one that has been recommended by a friend, or even one with an attractive cover?  I'll bet you do the same thing I do.  If it's a hardcover, you read the inside flap to see what the book's "premise" is.  If it's a paperback, you unfortunately get a small taste of that on the back.  If the premise sounds interesting, you  read the first couple of paragraphs to see if the writer has a style you admire and can engage with.  When you do this, you are actually channeling Raymond Carver. 

Those first couple of paragraphs--which have probably been written and rewritten a dozen times--allow you to gauge what we think of as the author's style.  Does it grab you?  Is there a music and a rhythm you understand and can take delight in or that resonates for you?  Does the use of language promise nuance and depth in the author's expression?  Do you want to listen to this storyteller, this voice, whether he or she is offering you poetry, nonfiction, or a long, long novel? 

But as you consider the author's premise, you are looking for that "something" that Carver struggles to capture:  "It is his world and no other...a special way of looking at things."  What Carver is gesturing toward is world view.  How does the author conceive of good and evil, of pleasure and pain, of joy and suffering?  And how do those binaries shake down in the writer's world?  Is there more evil than good, more joy than suffering?  And how does the writer relate to the current Zeitgeist?  Does the author make our historical moment and the way we engage with that moment clearer?  Is the author a rebel--challenging the Zeitgeist?  Or does the author say, with more or less exhaustion, "Yeah, yeah.  It sucks, but that's the way it is."  Then you  need to decide if you really want to spend time with a writer who more or less accepts and replicates the cliches of our current world view.

If I had to sum up the current Zeitgeist (which I don't particularly share), I'd say it was fear leavened by a smidgeon of optimism.  We're fearful of climate change, of terrorism and the explosions that have ripped through Brussels and Pakistan in the last couple of weeks alone.  We're fearful that our own toddler can drown in a nearby creek; we're fearful of another market meltdown that will evaporate our RRSPs.  We fear the weather, as we should.  At the same time, we're optimistically buying stuff, giving a boost to the economy in January.  We think that there's a critical mass of people who see climate change rather than terrorism as our biggest threat.  We have a Prime Minister who says, every chance he gets, that economic growth and renewable energy go hand in hand.  Unlike Belgians, who seems to have ghettoized poverty and despair in Molenbeek, Canadians have a federal cabinet that is remarkably diverse.

These beliefs shake down into the literature we read.  When Todd Babiak wrote in The Globe and Mail a couple of weeks ago, "I can't remember the last time I read a novel without a violent crime, usually a murder," he was saying something about his sense of the current Zeitgeist and about how that makes its way into fiction.  Now there's detective fiction and there's detective fiction.  Most of it gives the reader a solution to the crime, pointing out that, though violence is part of our lives, the mystery (in both senses of the word--the literary and the human) can be solved.  As well, it matters whether that murder takes place in "Three Pines," Louise Penny's nearly idyllic small Quebec  town, or in the dark and shadow-filled wintry streets of Kurt Wallander's or  Lisbeth Salander's Sweden.  But regardless of the balance the writer strikes between the social comedy of Dorothy Sayers or the ethical darkness of Mankell, detective fiction makes murder central to our world.

There are reasonable people who say that if literature doesn't respond to the darkness of our current historical moment, it's being naive or lazy.  To some extent I get that.  On the other hand, in Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature, he points out that never have North Americans been safer.  As well, any good environmentalist will point that that you have a better chance dying by weather than by terrorist.  I think I've seen a small trend in the fiction I read (see above process for choosing a book) that suggests writers are exploring the ameliorating effects of generosity to the challenges we face.  (And I'm implicitly bringing Downton Abbey to my defense, suggesting that one of the reasons we found the series compelling was because people did try to behave well and to be generous.)

I'll begin with what is perhaps the most unlikely example, Lawrence Hill's The Illegal, which was the Canada Reads winner for 2016--clearly an admired book.  Certainly his premise takes into account one of the major challenges of the second decade of the twenty-first century:  the millions of people displaced by war, racism, and tribalism who might escape their terrifying circumstances but can't figure out how to go forward in their lives without the help of refugee settlement programs.  Even if they do get settled, they continue to face racism and poverty--as proven their ghettoization in Molenbeek, and by Donald Trump's ridiculous assertions about Muslims and Mexicans.

I don't think that its protagonist, Keita Ali, can face more difficulties.  He comes from Zantoroland, a fictional island off the east coast of Africa to which Hill gives many of the qualities of nations like the Rwanda of 1994--particularly the brutal and deadly tribalism of their dictators.  Keita's mother dies from a heart attack during one of the attacks on the Faloo, and his fearless journalist father is regularly picked up and tortured by the government.  The final time he is detained, he is killed and Keita must collect his body from the fountain in front of the government buildings where the dead are dumped in the night.  Keita rightly realizes that he needs to leave Zantoroland immediately, but all he has to support himself is his ability to run.  His situation seems to improve when Anton Hamm, a former Olympian athlete with serious anger management issues, agrees to make Keita part of his stable of runners--for an absurd percentage of any winnings.  Then his sister Charity is kidnapped in Zantoroland, and Keita must win races (while keeping Hamm from taking his percentage) in order to pay the ransom that will free her.  All this with no papers and a government whose platform is to cut down on illegal immigration from Zantoroland.

Keita's almost overwhelming difficulties are assuaged by the generosity of a handful of people.  The first is Ivernia Beach, an older white woman who is doing volunteer work for the public library and who sees to it that "illegals" in Freedomland can get library cards even  without the proper documentation.  She puts into action her lack of respect for Freedomland's current government and her sense that refugees need access to information and communication to stay one step ahead of the authorities.  Since Keita helped her a few days before he approached her at the library, she is also willing to let him sleep in her basement suite and cook for her.  

The second is Viola Hill, a dogged journalist in spite of being--in her words--black, gay, and disabled.  Having lost both her legs in a car accident as a child, she has crafted a life for herself from sheer determination, street smarts, and intelligence. She pursues the truth fearlessly, believing that every individual deserves truth's justice.  The third is Mitch Hitchcock, who organizes marathons in Freedomland and who treats Keita like what he is:  an incredible, disciplined runner.  He finds ways around Keita's lack of documentation (stolen by Hamm) and even pays for Keita's hospital treatment for diabetes and a hernia.  Finally, a black cop named Candace Freixa who becomes Keita's love interest and--how to say this without a spoiler alert?  Let's just say she's in the right place at the right time, and she's armed and a good shot.

Hill's novel is an insightful and biting critique of the ways racism, tribalism, ideology, and dictatorships permeate the lives of everyone who lives within their sway--the vulnerable and marginal most of all.  He could easily have read The Angels of Our Better Nature, so in tune is Hill with the Pinker's list of the forces that spread their disease in our political and civil lives, but I suspect that what I'm seeing here is two fine thinkers coming to the same conclusions from different perspectives.  The Illegal has been called a satire by some reviewers, but if it is, it's a satire with a difference.  Certainly its careful depiction of how the official and unofficial government of Freedomland is built around a network of lies and violence that touches the powerful and the powerless is in the tradition of satire.

I should be frank and say that satire isn't my favourite genre.  It's too easy to mock, in the tradition of Charlie Hebdo or to analyze a government's policies in a parable, as Swift does in his "Modest Proposal."  Though after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, I began to understand that someone needs to call forms of power and malevolence into question--and to be safe while they do it.  Satire may be one of the ultimate tests of free speech.  At the same time, satire leaves me slack-jawed and bug-eyed:  "But what do I do?" is my cry.

Hill answers that question:  "Be generous.  Be kind. Be fair.  Imagine someone else's experience.  Make those the values you live by.  If you don't, nothing will change.  If you do, you might be surprised by how much you can change." 

Hill is clearly a rebel at our Zeitgeist's present moment.  Fear and hope are balanced in a way we certainly do not see on the evening news.  It is likely that his book, as I studied the flap and read the first paragraph, appealed to me because we share values (and because I heard him read the scene where Ivernia Beach and Keita meet for the first time and knew I was in the hands of a superb storyteller.  But I'm a little wary of this consonance, as I should be.  It's important that literature echoes and explore many, many perspectives in our culture.  Culture is like an ecosystem:  the more diverse it is, the healthier it is, and the more likely it is going to have exactly the knowledge or perspective to solve or ameliorate an unexpected problem.  So when you're in a bookstore channeling Raymond Carver by looking for authors with perceptive worldviews and a style that matches, push yourself to move beyond what you believe or what appears fashionable.  For a healthy cultural ecosystem, then, each of us is going to need to widen our taste, to take home a book we sense is going to be brilliant and uncomfortable.


Friday, March 18, 2016

Generosity, Gratitude, and Heroism

I wonder if you too are a middlebrow TV viewer and have given the final season of Downton Abbey your fond attention.  Did any of you notice  how many times people said they were grateful?  I counted three, but it had only become a motif when I heard the third, so I'm not sure I can list them all accurately.  I know Robert told Cora how grateful he was to share his life with her.  I could list the people who probably felt grateful:   I'm pretty sure Thomas said he was grateful for Carson's training, the chance to be the butler, rescue from his former job:  the people taking part in that conversation were clearly uncomfortable, and as a result clarity got lost.  I do believe Thomas told Miss Baxter how grateful he was for her support.  Anna and Bates can certainly be grateful for Lady Mary's interceding in Anna's pregnancy and for letting Anna give birth comfortably in Mary's bed.  There was no small amount of gratitude among the Edith/Bertie/conservative Mother trio:  Edith for being given a second chance, Bertie's mother for Edith's honesty, and Bertie because the lady said yes.  Mrs. Patmore was certainly grateful to Cora and Robert for taking tea at her compromised B&B, just as  Lord Merton was grateful to Isobel and Violet for rescuing him from his appallingly greedy son.

Much of this has to do, of course, with the storytelling and with Julian Fellowes' principles of plotting.  Of course people are imperfect and do stupid and horrible and selfish things:  people have desires, fears, jealousies, corners of greediness, fear of more loss, chips on their shoulders;  then you must add into the mix the blindness caused by being "upstairs" or "downstairs," and that caused by being common or aristocratic with its own blindness about propriety and position. (Think of the relationship between the common Mrs. Crawley and the Dowager Duchess, and how often Violet pulled rank.) These weaknesses and failings drove the plot for six years, more or less successfully. (I wondered why Violet got such wonderful lines while Mary and Edith traded the same bitchy comments for years.  And why was Mary so sympathetic to Thomas and so unsympathetic to Edith--who like her had lost a partner?  Fellowes can do old dowagers but not young women?  It was fun to write lines for Maggie Smith?  I imagined him spending an entire afternoon thinking up her withering and wise one-liners.)

But a second principle operated in Fellowes' plotting:  people in great houses, upstairs and down, even in the midst of behaving badly, will tug down their waistcoats or settle a gown on their elegant shoulders, and decide to try to behave as well as possible.  People try to come out of themselves and be generous, just as Mary did when she called Bertie to let him know Edith was in London.  Most of the gratitude I wrote about above came out of this element of Fellowes' world view and was reflected in the plot.  We know the world isn't always generous, but it should be--or it could be more often.  And I wonder what it says about the present social and cultural moment that we have been so seduced by stories of people behaving well and generously.

The rest of the characters' gratitude comes out of feeling that Fellowes had at least given them a happy ending--endings that I could see from miles off.  As Bill and Veronica and I finished each episode, we drank our tea and bet on what would come next.  Bill got Thomas's suicide.  I knew Edith and Bertie weren't finished.  We were all sure of Anna and Bates's baby.  We did not see Henry Talbot becoming a used car salesman and Mary waxing proud over his shop.  I thought Thomas would get his job back when Molesley began teaching, not when Carson lost his steadiness--heaven forfend!--but I was sure he'd be back.  

The same weekend as the last episode of Downton Abbey, Todd Babiak began a column in The Globe and Mail this way:  "I can't remember the last time I read a novel without a violent crime, usually a murder.  Sometimes it's in the first chapter and we spend the rest of the book hunting the killer.  Sometimes it's a subtler affair about loss or the effects of war, an event that happened years before the protagonist was born.  But it's nearly always there.  Stories are about changes and ruptures.  In novels, in films and in a fine new generation of television series we're solving a serious problem, and violent crime--or the threat of it--is the most haunting sort."  Let me come clean here:  four of my favourite middlebrow TV shows are police procedurals or an imaginative riff on the genre.  I feel like those people who used to say they read Playboy for the articles when I write that I like the characters and the logical solution of a problem.  But my viewing habits aside, I could not disagree with Babiak more.  

It's the opening sentence:  "I can't remember the last time I read a novel without a violent crime, usually a murder."  As I have been saying in dribs and drabs here, Steven Pinker has convincing evidence that violence--intimate, domestic, political and ideological--is down.  As a species, we have more empathy and more self-control; the expansion of the human rights umbrella means that we imagine the suffering of people unlike ourselves.  Interestingly, but not surprisingly, literacy and literature has played an important part on these changes.  Yet we still see our world as dangerous; security is one of our highest priorities.  Why the gap between the way the world is and the way we represent the world?  Let's try this comparison.  On September 11, 2001, 2,996 people died; in Paris last November 130 people died.  Did your outrage or fear decrease because fewer people died?  Probably not.  In an age of empathy, all deaths bear more weight.  And the "availability heuristic" weighs in:  the twenty-four hour news cycle means that we know of more terrorist attacks, more of refugees, more of civil wars.  (That most wars right now are civil wars is proof that there is less violence:  yes, there are wars, but they are on an entirely different scale.)  What kind of world-wide response did the photograph of Aylan Kurdi's drowned body prompt?  

One of the delights of plotting (or reading) detective fiction is that our hero is the lone wolf, the one who uses every means available to him or her (and some that shouldn't be available) to bring a killer to justice.  He or she often works alone, because since the days of Doyle's Sherlock Holmes and Poe's Auguste Dupin we have not believed our institutions to be staffed by smart people nor have we thought these institutions really cared about truth or justice.  The lone wolf is a compelling hero.

But then I began to think about the heroes of Downton Abbey.  It took two older women, Violet and Isobel, to rescue Lord Merton.  It took Baxter's intuition and the help of three other people to save Thomas's life.  Some fans have commented upon the way Robert radically changed his attitudes about women, but it took four women--no, that's five, if we count Cousin Rose--to just keep piling on the evidence that they were competent in a whole range of ways he would never have imagined.  The heroes of our daily lives are not lone wolves, but part of a generous community that surrounds us. 

I hadn't realized I would say so much about two strands in our present experience: how we are smitten by the Downton Abbey worldview and how we long for examples of generosity and are often grateful on a character's behalf; and how fear of evil in our fellow human beings prompts us to put security ahead of human rights or to read and watch endless stories of the lone wolf who saves society.  I hadn't realized how much I'd have to say about these two examples, but I've held your attention long enough for today.  Next week I'll talk about a new trend in literature that I am seeing:  heroes whose generosity is their weapon of choice or who are saved by the generosity of others.  I'll write about Lawrence Hill's The Illegal and Marina Endicott's Good to a Fault and Close to Hugh.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Inventing Sunshine

Several years ago, Bill and I were driving to Saskatoon in late autumn and stopped at a little convenience store in Chamberlain.  We walked in on a conversation between the male clerk and a woman in her forties that ended this way:  "The days are getting shorter and shorter, and I'm solar powered."  I know exactly how she feels, which is probably why her words stuck with me.

Although I have lived in Regina longer than I've lived anywhere else, the prairies remain something of a mystery to me.  I actually keep a running diary that tells me when, each year, I heard the first robin, when the tulips bloomed, when the trees turned, when the snow fell and stayed.  But I don't need my effort to keep track of spring and fall to tell me that weather on the prairies is changing.  I'm not including what has been called our "Godzilla El Niño," which may or may not have anything to do with climate change.  But our distinctly warmer winters have also been distinctly cloudier winters, and when we've had four or five days of cloud in a row, I know exactly what that witty woman means.  

When I was younger, a stretch of cloudy weather had a distinct effect on my mood.  Now, only those days when the sky is relentlessly white and simply blends into the white snow, like a sheet of paper or a hospital bed, make me feel like a weight had settled on my chest.  I feel closed in.  I can't feel or see the cycle of the day.  I'm stuck in a relentless present until the dark comes down.  Rainy days are fine because they seem purposeful.  Otherwise,  a cloudy day is more likely to influence my energy level.  This winter, there have been many days when I looked out the window as I sat down at my desk and moaned, "Oh, no.  I'll never have the energy to work today."  I've discovered, however, that if I make myself stop moaning and simply put my head down, I can get more done than I imagined.  

It's as if the universe is holding out on me.  It's such a simple thing:  a sunny day.  But if you are a bird brain like me, and "solar powered," a sunny day can take ordinary moments, like staring out the window looking for a word or standing in the kitchen waiting for my little espresso pot to boil or playing the piano or talking to Twig, and turn those moments into celebration, not endurance.  The week of sun we had a while ago gave me a boost of energy and focus:  I finished off revisions of three chapters and had energy to spare.

So I am learning how to invent sunshine.  The three easiest ways are not entirely satisfactory:  espresso, chocolate, or sugar.  The espresso and chocolate can be hard on my pesky ulcers, and sugar isn't good for my health.  So I try to keep those indulgences to a minimum.  Candlelight in late afternoon turns out to have a psychological effect, particularly if the candles are scented.  Lighting a fire in the fireplace is helpful in a number of ways--though it's also more bother than a hit of sugar and probably isn't good for my carbon footprint.  The warmth and the crackling evoke a sense of coziness rather than the claustrophobia of the cloudy weather.  

Good long novels bring with them the sunshine of invention.  Over the last couple of weeks, I've read Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain and the final volume of Elena Ferrara's Neopolitan Novels, The Lost Child.  Both of these are good "put your head down and go to another world" novels.  Poetry doesn't work nearly as well, because when I've finished reading a poem I look up to consider how it's working before I read it again, and there's that blank page of a cloudy day.
Quilting usually helps.  Above you see some simple blocks I've made and auditioned with possible backgrounds.  These fabrics are all reproductions--modern designers' attempts to create fabrics like those we might have found in the nineteenth century.  The 150th anniversary of the American Civil War brought out an explosion of reproductions along with quilt designs that are true to period.  But as you can see, repros (as we affectionately call them) are safe.  Colour theorists would say that their shades are similar:  basically, the same amount of grey has been added to them (except for the red).  As well, the available colours are fairly limited, partly because reliable dyes were limited.  Red, brown, gold (sometimes called cheddar) and blue are the usual suspects, sometimes eked out by poison green (of a distinctly yellow hue), mauves, oranges, and cinnamon pinks.   Safe, not sunny, not an antidote to days and days of cloud.

So I decided not to play it safe and to get out Lucie Summers' Quilt Improv and some wild fabrics I've been collecting--lots of turquoise and yellow-green, some fairly wild chintz.  Summers' wonderful book gives you some slightly organized ways of "making it up as you go along."  One of these, on the left, has you make a block of diagonal stripes of different widths.  When you put four of them together, you get the perception of squares, even if you haven't organized your values.  Another strategy, in the middle, is to create chevrons by lining up your fabrics at a 45 degree angle.  Or you can make traditional log cabin blocks, changing the width of your strips to suit a desire for quiet or emphasis, to punctuate the block with a skinny hit of deep colour or use wide sections of pastels to provide quieter spaces.  Log Cabin blocks usually begin with a red square; then you surround these with straight, same-sized logs.  It's a highly organized block.  in the example up top, I asked what would happen to their geometry if you started with a wonky rectangle and didn't use straight "logs."  The result is probably unusable in a quilt, but it was a crazy kind of fun that generated its own light.

Unlike repros, this is very risky, yet somehow I'm not sure you can do it wrong.  Summers, who lives in Sussex England chooses colours that are very clear, and fabrics that are often geometric, so I brought in Kathy Doughty from Australia who runs a quilt shop called "Material Obsessions."  Doughty makes funky boho quilts, choosing to put fabrics together less because they "go," than because they have a similar kind of energy.  Summers is great with colour, but Doughty is more interested in the surprising, playful juxtaposition. 

Making these few blocks has been my best invention of sunshine, taking play, chance, the unfamiliar, the unscripted, and putting them in my mental kaleidoscope to see what comes out.  At this point, I have no idea how they are going to go together or whether they will even make a quilt--though that wild chintz I'm auditioning for a background looks promising.  They make me smile.  This is sunshine.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Paul Muldoon and the Layers of Life and Art

Applique is the slow food of quilting, with its layers and layers of process.  Once you have chosen or created a design, this must be marked on your background fabric.  Then you need to create templates of butcher's paper for all the shapes--every petal or leaf or acorn.  Butcher's paper is ideal because the waxy side can be ironed right onto the fabric you have chosen, making the fabric stable enough so that you can mark around it, which is the next step. (A piece of sandpaper under the fabric further helps to stabilize it.  It's only one of the tools we find in hardware stores.  Silicone washers are perfect for creating berries--or anything round.)  If your design involves long stems, which many of mine do, you need to mark and cut miles and miles of fabric on the bias.  You applique these down first, because they often create the skeleton for your work; the flowers and leaves should flow out of the structure they create, though I'm having difficulty getting this to work in my current project.

So why do we do it?  Once you begin to choose fabric for the larger pieces, you remember why you are willing to go through this process.  Though most applique designs are representational (the exception is oak leaf and reel blocks)--people, animals, houses, every kind of plant imaginable--your fabric choices can jazz things up.  You can use a piece of wild chintz for a leaf or a "ditsy" (a small repeating motif on a plain ground) for the centre of a flower.  Texture, colour, pattern, and style are all parts of the brilliant quilting fabric created for a huge industry.  In 2010, 21 million American quilters contributed $3.58 billion to the economy:  the design of quilting fabric is a huge business, which in turn gives quilters an unimaginable variety of fabric to play with.  It's possible to stick to quiet calicoes for your leaves and flowers--but why would anyone want to do that?

Once the cacophony of Christmas was over, I settled down to work on applique borders for this country crossroads quilt.  As I did so, I listened to a seventy-five minute interview with poet Paul Muldoon.  I don't know whether it was Muldoon's insight into poetry or the fact that my fingers and eyes were being tested, but I felt something unwind in me.  The impression was almost physical, as if my brain had been turned more and more tightly by my work on Woolf's The Waves, and as if Muldoon's charming Irish voice and the work of my hands was loosening that painfully tightened screw.  Thinking about it later, I realized that I had spent an afternoon thinking about and living inside the creative process.

It's not just applique--which I would classify as a craft rather than an art, though some people do make art with it--that comes in these layers.  Let me give a very simple example.  I want to work on some poems that put humans in a Levinasian relationship with nature.  I'm thinking specifically of Levinas's idea about the "other," whose absolute difference from us can call forth our curiosity or even our need to transcend ourselves by understanding something that is beyond us.  We are prompted to imagine the other even while we know we will fall short.  The result is an ethical relationship--the same kind of ethical relationship we need to have with the natural world if we are going to change our ways significantly enough to keep the earth's temperature rise to 1.5 degrees.  Weather, coral reefs, the crops we grow or the flowers we buy, our dogs and cats, the birds that feed in our back yard, yesterday's sunset and today's moonrise--all those little things that contribute so much to my quality of life, need to be understood as "other."

So I was starting small, standing in my back yard on still winter days simply watching the juncos and chickadees, the sparrows and the nuthatches.  That, in my applique metaphor, is the background that I was slowly creating.  How do these birds behave and sound?  How do their flights and their behaviours differ from species to species?  My next step was to work on a draft that simply captured what I saw.  When I was done, it was pretty enough, but not a poem--just as the design of stems in applique can have a lovely rhythm but isn't the place to stop.

One of the things Muldoon said that was most useful to me was that poetry is the edge where our inner experiences and thoughts meet our outer experiences and perceptions.  So I needed to stare at my page of notes until I understood what was happening at that edge--which is, by the way, very Levinasian.  (Perhaps most poetry is.  Maybe that's why it's important:  there we meet something beautifully other that we are urged to understand all the while knowing that complete comprehension of a fine poem is beyond us.)  Staring at my notes is like tracing and cutting out templates, which is very tedious.  But I agree with Sherwood Anderson:  Inspiration is a matter of fastening the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.  When I'd paid my dues to the muses, they spoke--and I have no idea where their words came from:  "The birds cultivate you."  "Cultivate."  What a complex, interesting word that is.  In how many ways do they cultivate me?  In my applique metaphor, I had arrived at fabric choice.  The poem isn't done, but I've built up enough layers that I can begin to see where it might go.

So much art is like this.  I think of Michelangelo's cartoons or the British 19th century painter, A.J. Moore, who laid down his entire composition in shades of grey before adding the layer of colour.  I think of Picasso's sketches for Guernica and of his attempt to create a visual language that would convey his vision of the brutal Spanish Civil War.  I think of Virginia Woolf's drafts of Jacob's Room or The Waves, where she was pushing the resources of the novel so far into the future that her vision and design (to use an expression of Roger Fry, a fine friend and the subject of her biography) could only develop in tandem.  Only by realizing what she could do would she see what she wanted to do.  I think of Lawrence Hill, who has said he spent five years on The Illegal.  I can only imagine what he was doing during those five years, but I suspect that he was layering the political ugliness of racist governments over top of the compelling story of the runner Keita.  How many networks of brutality and racism and violence become systems that reinforce racist privilege?
What I do is called needle-turn applique.  After you have marked your shape on your fabric, you cut it out, giving  yourself about three-sixteenths of an inch beyond the marked line.  Then you baste it on and begin both the joy and the frustration.  With your very fine needle, you pick up the fabric right where you want to fold it, burning it under with your left thumb.  Your needle comes up a hair's breadth from the folded edge and then down into the background under the very edge of the shape, to come up again into your fabric just beyond the fold and less than an eighth of an inch away.  Your stitches should be invisible.  In fact, the ladies of Baltimore who made such exuberant and beautiful appliqued Baltimore Album Quilts, used nothing but grey silk thread because no one should be able to see their stitches anyway.

If you are working on a tight curve or a point, you can't turn your fabric ahead of your stitches the way you can with a straight section or a gentle curve.  You turn it maybe a sixteenth of an inch, take a stitch, and then turn it another sixteenth of an inch.  As I worked at the coronet at the top of the large, stylized pomegranate in the middle of the border above, Muldoon talked about his view of poetry as revelation. He is interested in how the poem will reveal itself to him, and then to the reader.  One imagines him sitting very quietly with a few words of a situation or an image and wondering what this will become--rather like needle-turn applique.  

But art is not craft, though things that I consider art have impeccable craftsmanship.  For Muldoon, the poem not only reveals itself to him, but it contains within it the seeds of its own realization, its own wholeness and significance.  He may be waiting quietly for revelation, but the poet and the poem must also be working towards an ideal.  Here is one of the differences between poetry and applique:  applique has no idea, no significance beyond that of its own pleasure and beauty.  We hold poems to a much higher standard.

At the same time, though, I think that people who continue to write beyond their first creative writing class or their first publication have a process that works for them--a process that can become a routine.  As I was appliqueing and listening to Paul Muldoon, I realize that applique not only helps my mind unfold, but speaks to me as a metaphor for the process, for adding this to that, finding the contrasts and the harmonies that begin to build up into something at the very least beautiful.  Writing poems takes the attentive patience of a seamstress negotiating a tight but luscious curve a tiny stitch at a time.  And poetry, like any craftsmanship,  doesn't care about time--only about getting as close to the ideal as you can.