Friday, January 4, 2019

Beating back against the darkness in the new year

What is meaningful for you?  Do you think it's what the wider culture considers meaningful?

Over the New Year, my depressive episodes went deeper and longer.  I distracted myself a lot, a task that Bill helped me with.  But I'm not only a disciplined depressive, I'm a canny one:  I usually know what's wrong, and if I don't know how to fix it,  my psychotherapist does.  But I had no clue about the triggers.  So I went to see him and simply listed off the various things that had been weighing me down--none of them major enough to warrant my moods.  After listening to my litany, he observed that they were tied together by the question of meaning.  Against the delight of writing was the question of whether my writing was meaningful to its audience, or even whether it would find an audience, whether it had any meaning for anyone besides me.  He framed my query this way:  We're living in a time of high drama--Trump's tweets, government shutdowns, the murder of Jamal Kashoggi, the viral spread of anything that is not truth, widening gaps between billionaires and everyday people.  Anger.  (An interesting article in Atlantic this month takes on the way anger hijacks the civil conversation we should be having.)  What's the point of writing poetry or a relatively quiet novel about the quest of a handful of twenty-somethings to figure out how to be at home in their futures, in their skins, on a planet that is changing, in an economic system that is fubar?  I even shamefully lamented that my FB friends "like" my quilts much better than my blog, so why don't I just stop writing and just make quilts?  Except there are things I can say with words that I can't say with quilts, I acknowledged.

My therapist pointed out two things.  First, that times of high drama may get people excited or feel they are important--that the intensity of their anger or frustration or outrage inevitably makes them feel important--but it's not a time when we can grow, either as individuals or as a society.  We need stability for that--for each of us to undergo his or her quest for meaning, for the culture itself to face some of its existential questions. Second, he could articulate something about what was weighing me down I couldn't quite express:  the magnitude of my own un-at-homeness in this historical moment.  Essentially, I am exhausted by my attempt to make interventions in a world that's fubar.

In one of the Atlantic's nightly newsletters there was a link to an article by Adam Serwer titled "The Cruelty is the Point."  He looked at the way Trump's base can get energized by Trump's meanness.  Then he studied some photographs of southern lynch mobs, noting how often young men attempted to insert their wildly smiling faces into photographs of the hanging or burnt body.  His conclusion:  that some of us get off on cruelty.  I know this isn't happening here in Canada.  Here in Canada, the city of Calgary has just built a beautiful new central library.  If you are a newcomer to Canada and you need to work on your English, you and your children can go to the library, where students in the Bow Valley College early childhood program will take care of your children while you study English.  You can borrow instruments from the Regina Public Library and even test them out in a soundproof room where you and your buddies can record your song--eschewing your parents' garage.   This kind of ingenuity gets me really excited and seems so distinctively Canadian.  Yet the New York Public Library will also loan you clothing and accessories--a tie and a nice-looking briefcase and purse--to help you with job interviews.  I don't think it's entirely chance that my examples are libraries, which are taking their jobs as cultural guardians seriously--not simply guarding books, but also guarding civility, creativity, and hope.

So what do we see next door that so unnerves us, even while we believe "it couldn't happen here."  That it can happen at all.  Post Nazism, post Rwanda, post-Kosovo, we are shocked that the kind of hatred and anger Trump is exciting in his "base" still happens in a "civilized" country.  Even if we are not writing a quiet novel or poems about juncos and trees, it must occur to many of us:  how do you push back against such darkness?

If facts and truth have disappeared in Trumptime, then we resolve to be more truthful, more meaningfully truthful in our daily lives.  We keep the habit, the resolve, the discipline of truthfulness alive in a time when it's challenged in the public arena.  As two great nineteenth-century naturalists, Alexander von Humboldt and John Muir, recognized, the whole world--its people and its creatures and its plants--are interconnected.  We need to honestly nurture those interconnections.  So we shine the light of truthfulness wherever we can.

If cruelty is the point, then we spread kindness.  New research by psychologists has revealed that a kind word or act ramifies like the branches of a tree from trunk to the tip of its branches.  Kindness has a considerable half-life, and there's a dopamine hit for both giver and receiver.  A little dopamine goes a long way in Trumptime, keeping our energies alight.

We all contain the dust of stars, scientists now tell us.  So each of us is capable of casting some light, of replacing cynicism with wonder.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Beating back the darkness

One of the things I hate most about the midwinter blues is how frozen I feel.  After I put despair in its place with a few well-placed reality checks, which don't really change  how I feel but can help me understand why, it is easy, wrapped in that deep purple funk, to think that my life has gone badly off track and that the way I am living is all wrong.  Whereas the reality, for me, is that my life is enveloped by privilege.  The left-hand parentheses of my life is this: I am a secure middle-class woman living in Canada.  And the right hand parentheses is the fact that I am surrounded by a loving, thoughtful, helpful, intuitive partner; an amazing daughter with whom I had the opportunity to work over the last couple of years on one of the most creative projects of my life; and friends who are each remarkable and who support me in his or her own way.  And cats.  Let's not forget the cats.  Inside those parentheses are all the things I get to make and do and experience, from a quilt to a novel to a sunset.

The odd posting on Facebook tells me that as the solstice approaches on Friday, people continue to struggle with the dark mood this time of year often brings.  I've checked my weather ap as far as it will go, and it tells me that we get an extra minute of sunshine on Christmas day!  It's going to be a while before our brains tell us the darkness is over.  So I've been thinking about the ways I cope. They don't erase the mood, but they do improve the quality of my life.  And they are totally inadequate for the person experiencing a deep depression caused by the brain's storms, the anxiety of  modern life, or the griefs and losses that are handed to humans far too often.  So if you don't find these strategies helpful, don't beat yourself up for not coaxing yourself back to cheerfulness, but get the substantive help you need and deserve.

I had a wonder (life-saving) psychiatrist who helpfully distinguished between brain and mind.  Brain is the hunk of meat and synapses between your ears.  It's brain that's having a hard time right now, reacting, as primitives did--think of all those midwinter rites--to the shortening of the days.  Use mind to give brain some relief or better yet, distraction.  Distraction is always good this time of year. 

1.  Assign yourself something to accomplish every day and just do it.  This allows you to assert what is undoubtedly true:  you are functioning just fine.  It's just that those voices in your head keep reminding you of your incompetence, and they are lying.

2.  In the matter of reading, leave the twenty-first century dolor alone until the new year.  Go for fanciful or hopeful, even the other-worldly.  Since I don't sleep well this time of year, I binge read.  I've re-read most of C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia.  I'm currently reading Muriel Barbery's The Life of Elves, which is entirely unlike her best-selling The Elegance of the Hedgehog (also a good choice), but charming in its own way.  I'll admit I made an exception for Esi Edugyan's Washington Black, but when I opened the cover and read the first paragraph I was  hooked.  The voice of Washington Black is mournful and intelligent, telling you that along the way there will be violence, racism, hatred, and wounds, but that he still comes out all right.  And I do love a voice that's honest as well as hopeful.  So you  might choose your reading by voice.  I gulped down Sy Montgomery's How to be a good creature, which is a memoir told through her relationships with animals like border collies, pigs, tarantulas, and a singular octopus, Octavia.  (Is an octopus ever singular?  They apparently have a kind of brain in each of their tentacles.)  (The memoir's first chapter, about her relationship with her childhood Scottie, is not typical.  Keep reading.)  The over-arching argument of Montgomery's memoir is that inter-species relationships enrich our lives with surprising wisdom and perspective.  Which leads to my next point....

3.  Enlist the cat or the dog or the budgie.  Spend ten minutes just watching your cat play or go throw balls for the dog.  (Or you can throw mice for the cat; Lyra fetches.)  Meditate on your goldfish.  Snuggle with your bulldog.  Make dinner with your budgie on your shoulder.  Our animals suggest that there's another, completely different, way of viewing the world.  And they also remind us of joy.

4. Give your senses a treat.  Spent some time in a flower shop.  Cook something fragrant, like curry.  Knitters can go pet their stashes; quilters can study theirs and plan a new block to sew when the Christmas tree skirt is finished.  Listen to exquisite music or some energizing jazz. Go to the art gallery or to work online that moves you.  You are more than the sadness of your brain:  prove it by engaging with the world.

5.  Make something with your hands.  Working on the Christmas tree skirt, which will not be finished before Christmas, but will grace our tree in its glorious incompleteness, I am reminded that my hands have an intelligence all their own that seems to have nothing to do with what I think.  Play your piano or your mandolin.  Decorate some cookies.

5.  Beauty.  Beauty.  Beauty.  Need I say more?  Beauty is always soothing, hopeful, engaging.  Get out your camera and go out to take a beautiful photograph for your FB cover picture.  (How old fashioned I am:  use your cell phone.)  Study the dog or the cat or the bird or the orchid.  Go to Chapters and look at the photography books, the garden books, thinking about the ways you can make beauty. Let's go back to Kant, back to basics.  Beauty tells you that you are living in a world that is in some way made for you.  It won't feel quite like your world until the light returns, but it is.  Go seek it out.

The photograph is from Venice:  I loved the light.

Thursday, December 13, 2018


Depending on who is defining it, nostalgia can get a bad rap.  The word first appears in English toward the end of the eighteenth century, where it means "a sentimental longing or affection for a period in the past."  New words come out of their historical contexts:  eighteenth-century England would certainly have aroused such longing, characterized as the time was by the beginning both of the middle class and industrialization.  Industrialization was not the clean panacea for physical labour it was supposed to be, but rather the oppression of workers in terrible conditions for long periods of time.  And of course, the rise of the middle class threatened the aristocracy, who presumably had much to look back to in its past--a golden age that perhaps, like most golden ages, never quite was.  It's the word "sentimental" that accounts for the negative connotations of "nostalgia," "sentimental" sometimes describing (and here I quote the OED again) ""feelings of tenderness, sadness, or nostalgia" that are typically expressed and experienced in an "exaggerated and self-indulgent way."  Some writers have even characterized nostalgia as a kind of sickness. 

As a neoligism, "solastalgia" hasn't yet found its way into the OED, though it was coined by philosopher Glenn Albrecht in 2003.  It shares with "nostalgia" the "algia" root, which is Greek for "pain," but word "solacium' meaning comfort or solace.  Albrecht meant his newly-coined word to refer to "a form of mental or existential distress caused by environmental change."  In other words, he meant it to reference the effects climate change is having on humans.  While the Oxford English Dictionary does not deign to include it, The Lancet has no difficulty publishing work that illustrates the damage climate change does to human health, or to see it in a significant new set of anxiety disorders.  Most recently, consider the fires in California which have displaced thousands of people and destroyed their homes and probably the places where they grew up, kissed their first lover, started their first job, and earned their livelihood. Or think of the Puerto Ricans who still have not been able to put their lives back together.  The BBC website says that "Justin Lawson from Melbourne’s Deakin University explains solastalgia with The Eagles’ song No More Walks in the Wood to help people understand solastalgia because it laments the disappearance of a forest associated with powerful memories. 'It really is about redefining our emotional responses to a landscape that has changed within a lifetime.'

I bring up these examples as a reality check.  For about 2 1/2 weeks at the end of November and beginning of December, Regina had half a day of sunlight.  For the most part, the world was white:  the sky wasn't covered with clouds; it was cloud.  Both body and soul were running on batteries that were recharged a little less every day.  We're spoiled here:  our falls and winters may be cold, but they are usually sunny.  It's only in the last 8 years or so that I can recall periods when cloud settled in and refused to move off.  This year, even people who are normally sanguine and think that weather is just weather, called that period of time "brutal." I struggled to be productive, and finally hunkered down, re-reading C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia and working on a brightly-coloured Tula Pink quilt for Bill's office that I will set with a lattice to make an indoor garden for him.

Solastalgia, our experience of loss when a bird becomes endangered or extinct, when the weather brings drought or floods or fires, when it leaves us with that uneasy feeling that all is not as it should be, only emphasizes the fact that we depend on our earth and its climates for everything: our economies, the safety of our cities that create our working and cultural lives, as well as our mental well-being.  Air conditioning can help us cope with the heat--while creating even more carbon dioxide--but nothing replaces a sunny day and the lift it gives to our moods, helping us feel bouyant and hopeful.

Consult your own solastalgia meter.  Is a lake suddenly unswimmable?  Or has a tree you once climbed been cut down, leaving only the map of its trunk behind?  Do you miss the brief time when the bluebirds fly through the Qu'Appelle Valley? Your own solastalgia meter may tell  you that it's time for us to work together to lower our carbon footprint.  It may admit that there are limits to our luxuries and our freedoms:  that, despite what the American oil industry has been arguing with its CAR FREEDOM AGENDA (caps not mine)--that we should all be able to choose which vehicles best suit our needs, we don't have a right to drive gas-guzzling vehicles or the freedom to do our errands helter-skelter rather than planning a single efficient trip. 

The people of Paradise--what an ironic and apt name, given that we are all living after the fall from limitless energy--aren't feeling the self-indulgence of nostalgia, but the wordlessness of solastalgia, which can't quite express what it is like to have their homes destroyed so quickly and brutally that anything prompting memories has evaporated.  Their relationship to the landscape of their daily lives has been radically changed and will never change back.  The trees will not grow back in their lifetimes.  Recently conservative Canadian premiers and citizens in France have objected to a federal carbon tax because of its effect on economies both personal and national.  Yet Nobel-prize-winning Bill Nordhaus tells us that a carbon tax is the simplest, most effective way of nudging us toward reducing our carbon footprints.  We need to realize that it isn't taxes that threaten economies:  Economies are already being threatened by heat, drought, floods, fires, hurricanes, the rise of oceans, and we need to ask our leaders to lead, not to be bought off or to assume that old paradigms like "the market" will fix everything.  We also need to recognize that we all made this circumstance together; we all need to contribute our fair share to sorting it out.


Wednesday, November 21, 2018


November has seemed more Novemberish this year.  I might even accuse October of having stolen November's thunder and having gotten an early start.  The grey days, the grey days, the grey days.  I want to sleep more, to take more  naps.  I want to start a fight--just to get some energy to lift into the air. Though of course I don't want to start a fight when everyone seems so vulnerable, though the energy it takes not to is enormous.  The glass is half--and somebody keeps jostling  my elbow and slopping the cold water over my wrist.

Monday I drove to Moose Jaw to pick up a quilt from Half Yard Quilting Studio.  Since part of my workday was going to be stolen, I decided to add in a couple of treats that wouldn't really take much longer.  So I had lunch at Grant Hall, which is a lovely restored space with restaurant, bar, and shops downstairs and housing for seniors above.  The chairs are comfortable and the tables have pedestals where you can rest your feet and bend your knees just enough to plant a book there.  I was reading Cornelia Hoogland's Trailer Park Elegy while I waited for my lunch.  Really:  I got to read while someone made me a lunch in less time than it would have taken to make my own.  Then a quick stop right across the street to Quilter's Haven, where I needed to pick up some greens.  And I found some wonderful shades of green.

But something happened on the way home--that jostling I mentioned above.  The sun was still resistant, and all the little buildings and walls at Prairie Storm Paintball that have been tucked into one of the glacial crevasses looked more than usually provisional, like a miniature ruin.  They have little blinds--essentially sections of wall about four feet high--for paintballers to duck behind, but today they lacked their purposefulness and spoke only of fragments.  Then just down the road there was a black and white cat--recognizable only by the colour of its fur and size--that no longer looked as if it had ever had a role in giving or receiving domestic comfort as my two guys do. 

The cat drew my attention to the nests in the trees that have been sporadically planted (in very straight lines) along the Trans Canada.   Like the cat, they seemed unhomelike--even unheimlich, because you couldn't imagine a bird inhabiting them. Then I came, as one does, to the construction around the Global Transportation Hub of a huge and very unnecessary ring road.  On my way to Moose Jaw, I had cursed appropriately and muttered the words cui bono under my breath.  Who is really benefiting from this project--and will we ever know?  Bus companies serving smaller communities gone.  Threats to libraries.  Cuts to education and to cities.  Refusal to consider a carbon tax.  For this?  But the sun was a silver disk winking out of a cloud and I tried to stop my grousing because grousing alone in a car does no one any good--and can do much harm.  But when I came back to the construction site, which, going east, you must circumnavigate, I had to drive through a kind of wasteland that reminded me of Lord of the Rings--maybe Isengard after the Ents have finished with it.  Cars stream through the construction site at 60kph, but little seems to be actually going on.  There is a sense of futility and waste all around.

Part of that sense of futility and waste is exaggerated by a world that seems to have flattened to a piece of white paper--sky and fields flattened into a single plane, with no words or thoughts to give it meaning.  It's just my visceral reaction to the kinds of days we've been having.  So I tried to do two things.  One is to see the landscape, once I had passed the construction, through the Japanese lenses I used to create the quilt above, which is now waiting for me to quilt it.  One element of the complex Japanese aesthetic is to find beauty in what is pale and tenuous.  This was not a stretch:  looking at trees in the winter, I find brave beings willing to strip down to their skins and let us see the shapes they have created for themselves.  It is said that no two snowflakes are the same, and I frankly wonder how one can test such a hypothesis.  But certainly no two trees have made the same decision about when to crook a branch or add another, whether to reach out or up (though elms tend to reach up and maples to reach out).  Thanks to Japanese lenses, beauty arrived to challenge the sense of anger and futility I had felt driving through the construction site or the small grief that arrived with the dead cat.

I also re-read a paragraph from Annie Dillard's The Writing Life (which I must read in its entirety) found in my weekend Brainpickings newsletter:

"How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.  What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.  A schedule defends from chaos and whim.  It is a net for catching days.  It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.  A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order--willed, faked, and so brought into being:  it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living.  Each day is the same, so you remember the series afterward as a blurred and powerful pattern."

Dillard's defense of a schedule sent me back to my computer after this anomalous day out and about, drafting a sticky and difficult scene that is going well enough if I just give it time.  And I have been much less anxious since then (though I find that the work of hands and days--quilting, knitting, piecing, also keeps me grounded, something I'll write about next week).  But it's the first couple of sentences that resonated for me this week.  Clearly, seasonal affective disorder is having a stronger impact on my days than it has had for the last 28 years.  But wishing the days would just go on by, in Dillard's terms, is a mistake.  I need rather to remember that "How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives" and realize that SAD is part of those days and my life.  So what am I going to make of it?  How will I tame it?

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Literature and the health of society

Illness does not apply only to individuals’ bodies and minds, but to whole cultures, something we see in the United States, which is ramping up for the midterm elections, and which recently experienced the largest killing of Jews in its history.  What is the role of literature in societies where one of the world’s most powerful men, Donald Trump, does not….read?  Martha Nussbaum, a philosopher with a profound grounding in literature who has appointments in the University of Chicago’s Philosophy Department and Law School,  pondered this question in her brief but remarkable book The Monarchy of Fear.  Beginning the very night Trump won the election, she has incisive and well-supported theories about the role that fear and its corollaries—anger, disgust, envy, and a desire for vengeance—played in electing Trump, and I recommend that you read it if you want to understand why populism and autocracy are surging all around the world, most recently in German elections. 
But it is Nussbaum’s chapter on hope to which I turn.  She conceives of a number of roles for literature in a society that is sick, suggesting that what we need is some tenderness manifested in “loving, imaginative vision (through poetry, music, and the other arts)” (201).  Later she argues that during such polarized times, when we interact with people whose values differ from our own, “We need… to treat that other person as a person, having depth and an inner life, a point of view on the world, and emotions similar to our own….Through stories, novels, and poems we learn how to endow a human form with humanity and we quickly form the habit of doing so” (215-216).  Without making reference to it, Nussbaum is appealing to a fairly robust research into the psychology of reading which you can most easily find on Dr. Keith Oatley’s blog, On Fiction..  Let me briefly parse out the prosocial behaviours we learn when we read.  First, young children develop “theory of mind,” the sense that other people have inner lives as vivid and important as their own.  This leads to perspective-taking:  our ability to imagine a perspective unlike our own.  Oatley writes in his June 29 2015 blog “First, in reading fiction one can sample across a wide variety of societies, personality types, and circumstances so that reading extends the range of one’s experience of others, and second that in reading fiction, particularly artistic fiction, one has to make inferences about what characters might be thinking, feeling, and wanting…. these factors contribute to the better perspective-taking abilities of people who read a lot of fiction.”  Empathy, as I’m sure every empathetic English major knows, follows in short order.  In turn, theory of mind, perspective-taking, and empathy all short-circuit a tendency to insist on a tribe that is extremely homogenous:  the precursor of xenophobia and hate crimes.  In contrast, prejudice and brutality arise when we fail to see people as individuals—as literature teaches us to do.

I began this paper with two sets of literary principles.  Let me add another, from Walt Whitman, who is writing during one of America’s other periods of immense conflict, about the role of the poet in a democracy, and the poet’s contribution to the state:

Of these states the poet is the equable man….

He bestows on every object or quality its fit proportion, neither more nor less,

He is the arbiter of the diverse, he is the key,

He is the equalizer of his age and land….

He judges not as the judge judges but as the sun falling round a helpless thing.

Ah, tenderness and curiosity again:  the poet giving people and the world his full attention and in turn proffering that attention to the reader.  His words translate the writer’s tenderness and curiosity into something akin to justice.  In her eearlier study, Poetic Justice, Nussbaum develops a careful parallel between “the literary imaginer and a concern with social equality” (82).  She writes “it is Whitman’s point…that the ability to imagine vividly, and then to assess judicially, another person’s pain, to participate in it and then to ask about its significance, is a powerful way of learning what the human facts are and of acquiring a motivation to alter them” (91).

The importance of reading during dark times like our own, as a way of defending democracy, has been widely argued in a variety of contexts—and I’ve culled an odd and diverse list from things I’ve been reading lately.  The narrator of Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus is telling the tale, during the second world war, of a composer who courted madness for his art.  He says, of the Volk, “that ancient collective layer” that earlier burned witches, and which now burns Jews, “I do not consider religion the most effective means by which to keep [those ancient qualities] safely under lock and key.  In my opinion, the only help comes from literature, the humanistic sciences, the ideal of the free and beautiful human being” (41). In a British longitudinal study designed to reveal the factors in human well-being across classes, finding pleasure in reading was found to be a very good predictor of flourishing.  Certainly democracy must flourish when people do because they are freer to make disinterested choices about how their government should run.  Someone reading a book is a sign of order in the world,” writes the poet Mary Ruefle.  Certainly this is true in Brazilian prisons, where inmates are given four days off their sentence for every book they read and write an “appropriate” (thoughtful?  on topic?) report about.  Since the beginning of this program, there has been a 30% drop in criminal relapses.  Perhaps knowledge is power and literature helps us reflect on our place in the world?  At the end of his life Carl Sagan insisted that “Books are key to understanding the world and participating in a democratic society.

The aesthetic order of the book, manifested in us as we read, has the capacity to become a more just order for society. This metamorphosis occurs in conversation.  First, with oneself.  When was the last time you talked back to a book or felt that a book provided one more piece to the puzzle of being human?  And then in respectful, tender, curious conversations about books like those we have in book clubs and among families and friends.