Tuesday, July 14, 2020

On the (Pandemic) Sublime


I get easily overwhelmed these days.  Things are just too.  Days are too beautiful.  Other days are too windy.  I'm overwhelmed by the number of cases of COVID 19 worldwide; I'm overwhelmed even more by the number of deaths and the impacts these deaths have on those left behind.  I'm living inside grief for both humanity and the planet.

I'm overwhelmed by my good fortune:  how rich and meaningful my life is!  How wonderful the people and critters who have companioned me--from Bill and Veronica, to good friends like Katherine and Jeanne or the former creative writing student I now talk to every Tuesday night.  My nine cats, each with his or her own distinctive personality, each with his or her own generosity toward their bumbling human companion.  The world is wondrous and bloody terrifying, and I feel in the thick of it all.  I feel this strange, uncomfortable mix of acute joy and profound sadness that can't be resolved into something one-dimensional. 

The best and simplest example is a beautiful evening.  Bill and I will have finished carrying watering cans to the pots and boxes and hanging baskets and tomato plants, and I'm sitting on my old garden bench, which will get a new coat of paint when it dries out after last night's thunderstorm which gave us the longest rolls of thunder I've ever heard, ending in a stentorian boom--but that's another story, a sublime story.  Or another side of this story.  Back to the lovely evening, sitting on my garden bench.  Golden light is coming through the brake of trees on the west side of our back yard, and a breeze is moving the leaves slightly, revealing two realities.  There are transparent leaves infused with green light, but these change slightly as the evening breeze moves the shadows of other leaves across them.  Even in a quiet breeze, that thicket changes second by second.  Sitting in my shady back garden, I feel as if I'm inside an emerald, with its dozens of different facets offering different viewpoints.  I can almost feel cooler air falling; I'm intimately aware of the fact that my skin is my biggest organ and it's reveling in gentle change.  I can count the times the wren who has nested in one of my bird houses comes in and out to feed her brood.  I hear, if I listen quietly, the sparrows of course, but also a nuthatch and a couple of chickadees, and the purple finch who sings to me in the morning and the wren who is celebrating the capture of another bug for her insatiable brood.  And there's a robin, singing his evening song.  The sky is like the vault of Santa Sophia.  I'm awash in joy and sadness.  All this is so present and so transitory.  When I described this state of mind to my friend Michael Trussler, he said "You've discovered the sublime."  Now I trust Michael.  And I've read both Kant and Burke about the sublime.  But I hadn't put it together in quite this way.  Just in case you sometimes feel the same way, I'll see what I can do about that--though I don't promise a philosopher's disinterested reading of either text.  I've cherry-picked elements of the sublime that at least give a name to what I feel so profoundly and so continuously this summer.

Edmund Burke began our fascination with the sublime in his 1757 study, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.  In this study, Burke is concerned with "the passions," that feeling part of human experience, and the sublime is one of the supreme of these.  He starts quite boldly by writing that "Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects...is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling."  We are most terrified, of course, by the threat of pain or death.  But in order to experience the powerful passions of the sublime we must experience them "at certain distances, and with certain  modifications" so that they may be as "delightful as [anything] we every day experience."  Think horror movies or thrillers, if that's what you find horrifying and delightful.  In fact, it was Burke's ideas of the sublime that informed the Gothic novels of Mrs. Radcliffe (Mysteries of Udolpho) and Matthew Lewis (The Monk) and that Jane Austen mocked in Northanger Abbey.  Burke considers how terror, power, vastness, infinity, loudness, suddenness or even magnificence in architecture prompt feelings of the sublime.  Infinity, he tells us "has a tendency to fill the mind with that sort of delightful horror, which is the most genuine effect and truest test of the sublime," but he doesn't mean the kind of infinity we find on the prairies when we crest a slow hill and can see the earth falling away beneath us.  He is more likely to see it in the ocean.  If it's a stormy ocean, all the better. 

Burke introduces us to the powerful feelings we have about something we cannot comprehend, like infinity or ranges of mountains. It's helpful to think about the Latin roots of "comprehend":  "com," or "with," "prehendere" or "grasp."  If we translated "comprehend" as "I can't get my head around," we wouldn't be far off.  Also helpful is his idea that we experience the sublimity of things at a remove.  We're not right in the incomprehensible mountains or afloat on a raging sea.  Our response, in other words, is aestheticized.  It's also contradictory.  We feel both horror and pleasure. Or, in my example of a lovely evening, we feel pleasure in the present moment while we're aware of an immensity of inexorably changing time that also evokes sadness.


In 1764, only 7 years later, Immanuel Kant wrote Observations on Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime [sic]; then in 1790 wrote his magisterial Critique of Judgement.  I only know the latter text, so cannot tell you how the earlier one might have responded to Burke or might have differed from Kant's later theories.  But I can say that his approach is much different from Burke's, in the sense that for him the effects of the sublime come not from our feelings or passions, but from the thinking we do about our reactions.  (Just right for me; more than one friend has said "Kathleen, you think too much!")  When we see something beautiful, we are aware of its purposefulness, of the rightness of its form.  Think about a cactus that manifests the Fibonacci sequence, and how we feel wonder at its beautiful mathematical order.  Part of the pleasure we feel is that our brain seems perfectly made to apprehend (from old French for "lay hold of") beauty in the natural world or in the arts. "But in what we are wont to call sublime in nature...it is rather in its chaos, or in its wildest and most irregular disorder and desolation, provided it gives signs of magnitude and power, that nature chiefly excites the ideas of the sublime."  The sublime offers us something of a magnitude that cannot be comprehended, indeed, something that seems beyond comprehension.  For Kant, we think about the sublime, attempting to comprehend it as a whole.  In turn, that effort of thought, successful or not, is evidence of a  mind that transcends "every standard of the senses."  Kant is Burke for eggheads:  "This makes it evident that true sublimity must be sought only in the mind of the judging subject and not in the object of nature" that calls forth the reaction.

It's our effort to comprehend the incomprehensible that seems to be the source of the sublime.  How, sitting in my garden, I try to wrap my head around the unfolding of season after season, year after year--not that many left to me in all probability.  As I wrote in "On Turning Seventy," this "judging subject" that produces Kant's sublimity is every day more aware of limits and endings--things my mind struggles to take in but that only have meaning if I joyfully try to comprehend them.

There's a sublimity to our experience of the pandemic, as well.  It is as incomprehensible as a range of mountains or ideas of infinity, particularly as the number of cases and deaths continues to rise wildly.  I can neither comprehend nor apprehend each individual who has died, much less those left behind who grieve those deaths, and the enormity of this overwhelms me.  I certainly can't comprehend some of the stupidity--political and individual--that puts our economies, ahead of lives. 

But our reflections on this sublimity reveal some other realities.  Even the pollsters know that we have become more reflective during the pandemic, and that on some levels we are relieved to have time slowed down for us.  There is an awkward beauty to the fact that the pandemic has forced us to be aware of what matters:  family and relationships--the foundation, many psychologists will tell you, of the good life.  David Berry wrote an article in the Globe's opinion pages this weekend, arguing that we will feel nostalgia for the pandemic, the way people felt nostalgic about the depression and for much the same reason:  we are pulling together as a community and taking care of each other.  Each time we put on our mask or use sanitizer before entering a public space or go the right way down the grocery aisle, we are acting in the interests of our community.  There is also evidence that during this reflective time we have taken stock of our societies and have decided that they can and must be made more equitable, and that change is already occurring.  City counsels are adopting resolutions.  Others are using the need to reconfigure public space, taking it outdoors, as a means of improving disadvantaged neighbourhoods.  We are attempting to create something meaningful from this tragedy, but that doesn't counterbalance all the death and suffering.  Like the sublime, we can't contain or balance the complexity and contradiction;  we simply have to be with it.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Should


I was really slow getting the garden in this year.  I gave myself ten days to turn over the vegetable garden but didn't manage to get it done in the ten days because some of those were cold and grey; others were unimaginably windy, and the wind makes my vertigo worse (or windy days make my vertigo worse, maybe because the air pressure is changing).  I got most of the seeds in on time, but some of the tomatoes were a bit late.  I got most of the mulch out on time because Bill had arranged to have it delivered and to have someone  help me.  There are still a couple of spots that need more mulch, but I also need to dig up more creeping bellflower and put down landscape fabric to discourage the bellflower from coming back before I finish that off.  I fertilized the lawn more or less on schedule, but putting down the seed, fertilizer, and mulch to fill in the holes took longer than necessary.  I was really late getting flowers into pots for the front deck.  I still haven't painted the front stairs or the old bench in the back yard that needs a coat of paint every year or two.  Again:  cold, wind, the tiredness of being seventy.  All these things became "shoulds."  Day in, day out: "I should do this today."  "I really should get that done before long."  "Should" made me miserable.  It was part of why I had a love/hate relationship with spring this year--the other reason being the crazy wind.  "Should" reminded me of my incompetence, of my tiredness, of my lack of discipline, of time passing inexorably.  "Should" haunted my days and beat me up.

It took me longer to clean up the rose bed for the same reason.  We didn't have nearly enough snow cover this year, so a couple of my roses almost died back.  One calm evening I took my sucateurs, my gardening gloves, and the bushel basket I put garden waste into, out to my favourite rose. It's not one of those hybrid tea roses that suddenly goes "pfft!" into layers and layers of petals.  It has a single layer of large, calm, pale pink petals that are almost white.  It somehow makes me think of earlier times, of the calm I attribute to gardeners of the past who are disciplined and not haunted by "should."  And maybe who had less to do.  Gardeners who weren't trying to finish a novel and bring a prairie garden back from the dead and get rid of creeping bellflower.  I had seen, from a quick look, that this rose had been seriously damaged by the cold; I wasn't even sure how much of it was still alive.  But by the time I had gotten around to this "should" on my list, I could see that this rose was not only fine, but had put out buds.  If I had cleaned up the rose bed when I "should" have, I'd have cut it back drastically.  Screw "should," I thought to myself.

I tried to think of a single instance when saying "should" had actually gotten me into the garden.  Never.  It only made me miserable.  Rather, when I had finally gotten myself out, finally found a nice day and enough energy to sow seeds or convince the clematis that no, it didn't all have to grow in a big clump, that there was lots of room on the trellis for it to climb, I found great joy in my time outside. So when "should" is going to make me feel incompetent, lazy, or guilty; when it's going to put me at war with wind and grey and rain, I'm giving up on it.

There are enough real, meaningful "shoulds" in our lives right now.  We should wash our hands more often; Dr. Tam is recommending that we wear face masks to protect others.  We should keep our bubbles small--no big parties!  We should maybe get to know the people who really matter to us a little better.  And those people living on their own?  A phone call, at least.

The murder of George Floyd and other people of colour at the hands of police--particularly in the context of a pandemic that takes the lives of the poor so much more often than the lives of the privileged--has launched a plethora of "shoulds" into our society.  At the very least, we should all do whatever we can, whenever we can, to ensure that everyone we encounter is treated with dignity.  As I try to untangle these painful incidents--some of them in Canada ironically occurring during "wellness checks," all I can conclude is that there is too much distrust of people of colour;  they're always up to something and always present a threat.  And of course there's another layer of distrust of people who are struggling with their mental health.  Whenever we can challenge those conceptions, we should.  Maybe after the Coronavirus Pandemic is finally over, when we've all come out from behind our masks, behind the plexiglass, we should all remember that every one of us helped to "flatten the curve," and that many of those who bore the most responsibility were people of colour stocking the grocery shelves and checking us out, feeding our parents or grandparents at long term care homes.  They deserve a raise in the minimum wage, but just in case that's not forthcoming we can give them our trust.  We can use whatever political leverage we have--writing letters, voting for progressive candidates--to change the way our country is policed and the way the justice system treats people of colour.

We should be more green.  I'll just stop there:  you know how I can go on about this. 

These are important undertakings that we can only work on a step at a time, one meaningful step at a time. In the meantime, I need to spend more time in my garden watching the birdhouse a little wren goes in and out of a dozen times an hour.  I'm sure there are wrenlets in there and I'm trying to make myself innocuous enough that she might let see them learn to fly.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Pandemic Exhaustion

At first, I thought I was just interested in the comforting social comedy side of Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Whimsy novels, but then I began to notice that windy weekends during COVID time seemed to require a mystery--a lengthy Sara Paretsky or a slightly shorter Peter Robinson.  I should have been getting into the garden, but this year's very windy spring had set me back and challenged my very deliberate  timetable.  I had divided up my vegetable garden into eight do-able sections which I thought I surely could get turned over in ten days.  (The vegetables are in, but I still haven't planted the boxes and pots that cheer up my front garden.  That's partly because I can't find the plants I want.)  Then last night as I was doing dishes, I found myself missing the characters and problems faced in Peter Robinson's Many Rivers to Cross, which I'd just finished.  'At least their lives had a sense of purpose, a clear meaning,' my unconscious delivered to my conscious mind.  And at the end of the novel, Banks's team can get together and celebrate their accomplishments, something forbidden to us now--if, that is, we have a sense of accomplishment.

I can't see much meaning to my own life right now.  I finished drafting Soul Weather in August of 2019, began revising in January of 2020, undertook two revisions for different problems, and am now carefully writing the last chapter.  I had hoped to be at the Sage Hill Fiction Colloquium in May, where I'd get some reaction to the work, but that has wisely been put off until September, and even then it may be delivered online.  So I feel as if I'm writing in a vacuum.  This is common for writers, particularly those working on long projects that don't lend themselves to piecemeal publication in journals.  It's part of the drill--part of the shape of our lives, so it's something we should get used to, something we should just learn to tolerate, this lack of meaning that we face everyday when we boot up our computers.

Except that our lives right now are full of meaninglessness.  First, there's the shape of our still partly locked down world.  Our virtues are negative virtues--things we don't do rather than things we can do.  Altruism in the face of a world turned upside down requires us to stay home as much as we can stand, to meet as few other people as possible, to avoid little situations where we might have a kind or grateful exchange with someone who has poured us coffee or baked us lovely muffins.  We can say thank-you to the grocery store clerk, but we're separated by plexiglass that is a continual reminder of the fact that we need to stay in our separate spaces.  I worry about how long that plexiglass will be a feature of our lives:  beyond the second wave?  Is it part of the "new normal," and a constant reminder that we're to keep ourselves to ourselves? 

Not only is our altruism tested.  We won't know if it's had any effect for two weeks.  Or, ironically, we will only know that it's been effective if there's nothing to see--no new cases or fewer new cases.  So in a sense, our restraint is invisible.

What is visible are the cracks opening up in the world around us.  Just in case we hadn't noticed, COVID 19 is making very clear that we are all interconnected:  my restraint is your well-being or the well-being of your grandmother.  On the other hand, your poverty is a threat to my health.  Even if we could have kept this fact invisible to ourselves--the fact that the health of a society or a culture is dependent on fairness and justice--we can't avoid it now as we see the demonstrations erupt in the U.S., not only over the most recent death of a black man at the hands of police, not only over George Floyd's very public murder, but over the disproportionate deaths of African Americans from COVID 19, because poverty is often sequestered in areas that lack fresh air, green spaces, food security, adequate education.  No wonder they're angry.

Then there's the fact that time has changed.  We have both too much time and too little time.  I've been thinking about this paradox for a week or so now, and I can only come to this conclusion.  The days stretch uncomfortably sometimes, since I'm not driving to the gym or partaking of any modest retail therapy a new season often justifies.  I don't have any rituals during COVID time that relieve me of the obligation to work as hard as I can.  But I'm not getting a lot done, either, which contributes to my sense that there isn't enough time.  

This is partly because a good deal of my emotional and mental energy is taken up with grieving.  I'm grieving for those who have died and for the families of those who have died.  I'm startlingly aware of my own mortality.  I'm grieving for the people who are unemployed or for the people trapped in a small apartment with an abusive spouse and three active children.  If I'm flummoxed by windy days, what can it be like in those small rooms?  There seems to be too much time because while I have extra hours in the day, I'm too exhausted to use those hours particularly effectively.

I'm grieving for a world that is going to change profoundly when we've found our way through a second wave and found a vaccine.  How many of the small business that create my little Cathedral Village ecosystem with unusual teas or beautiful paper will make it through this time?  When will I want to travel again and in the meantime what happens to all the airline workers?  I know that it's just possible that the world will change for the better.  We may see that an economic system in which the 1% accumulate their wealth at the expense, often, of those at the bottom of the economic spectrum, is utterly stupid, inhumane, and exploitative.  We may see the birth of a universal basic income, now that we've noted the dramatic effects of poverty.  We may see that people need to be adequately housed--not in some tenement with dark tiny rooms, but in homes they can feel at home in, homes they can be  healthy in.  As a country, we may insist on standards for the care of our wise and vulnerable elders.  

There are some signs that the planet is going to benefit from the pandemic as more companies discover that their employees can work from home.  We'll build fewer high rises, which have got to be carbon spewers, both in their building and their maintenance.  (And if you're going to lose income from the high rise you own because companies are use less space, well, tough.)  There will be fewer carbon-generating traffic jams.  We'll fly to fewer meetings, now that we've had to get comfortable with Zoom.  We may be more attuned to our local economies--the maker of Saskatoon Spruce cheese who ages his raw milk cheese on spruce boards--and realize they're more sustainable. 

But we're not there yet, and so we're exhausted by the prospect we'll never get there.  Mortality is part of all our days, yet while it threatens us, it's not giving our lives more meaning, partly because we're keeping our relationships to a minimum.  We're angry on the behalf of others for the ways they are paid and housed, yet we're not certain that exploitation will end.  As part of an ever-reinforcing cycle, the part of ourselves that is exhausted by being locked down is probably finding it difficult to be hopeful.  I can't tell you what to do with that sense of meaninglessness and despair.  I can only suggest that for now your actions are going to be closer to home rather than on the larger society.  Cultivate kindness wherever you can, because kindness is always hopeful.  Cultivate gratitude, even when you seem to be too exhausted to be grateful, because it will lift your partner's or child's or parent's spirits to know you are thankful for them. Pet the cat.  Walk the dog.  Wave to the dog-walker across the street or to the family out for a Sunday bike ride.  Find your own way to claim the little freedom you have to be kind, hopeful, and grateful in the face of circumstances that overwhelm us all.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Utopias


I began reading Boccaccio's Decameron in January.  I must have picked up a whisper of news about some kind of new flu arising in China at about the same time that I was thinking about Robert Pogue Harrison's wonderful book Gardens:  An Essay on the Human Condition, in which he recommends Boccaccio's collection of one hundred stories told by a group of seven people, five women and two men, who have left Florence during a plague that killed up to 3/5 of its population.  Decameron also recommended itself to me because I was experiencing "decision fatigue" about what to read.  Yes, "decision fatigue" is a thing; psychologists write about it and teachers and professors experience it in spades.  I do remember sitting down with a pile of exam booklets, endlessly optimistic and eager to get to my Christmas shopping or my summer writing and thinking "I don't have to comment.  I don't have to fix any comma splices.  This shouldn't take me that long," only to have my brain turn to mush three or four hours into the undertaking.  I couldn't tell a good response from an awful one.  That's decision fatigue, and during the winter, when I'm doing a lot of reading, sitting down with one very large book looks like a welcome break from having to decide on the next book.  Once the pandemic became international news, I found I had rather a few "plague" books on my shelf.  I muddled on with Decameron until I felt like an incompetent reader,  unable to thread all these stories of lusty priests and bad aristocrats together, though I did come to the conclusion that being in the midst of a pandemic prompts you to distrust authorities who otherwise ruled your lives and your ethics. I read Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera and started Saramago's Blindness, when I was defeated by bleakness.

As a response to my decision fatigue, Katherine Arbuthnott loaned me Jo Walton's trilogy, Thessaly, which I pounced into. It resonated for quite a number of reasons.  It took me back to the days when I was reading Ovid's Metamorphosis and other versions of Greek myths, which Veronica says I would tell her while I washed her long hair.  It took me back to the days of being an eager undergraduate who not only majored in English but took two of the University of Michigan's Great Books courses--a model created at the University of Chicago for juxtaposing any of the world's many towering texts to one another.  I do remember reading Plato's Republic in the same class, taught by a small, dapper biology professor, alongside Darwin's Origin of the Species.  So I thought how much more I would enjoy Walton's novels if I re-read The Republic, and managed to find a small hard-covered Classics Club edition on my bottom bookshelf.  

The pandemic hasn't just exploded my reading time, even after the midwinter tendency to huddle in the dark inside someone else's world has passed.  It's also changed my workout routines.  Trigger warning.  When  you are seventy, you become unfit very quickly, and as it began to appear that I would not be working out at the University of Regina gym anytime soon, I bought an exercise bike.  It's inelegantly occupying our living room, facing out into the back yard where I can study spring's small victories.  I could wheel it around to face the TV, but why?  I seriously don't want more news.  So instead I have been listening to the On Being podcasts, wherein Krista Tippett, who must do nothing but read, interviews writers, thinkers, artists, historians, poets as various as Rebecca Solnit, Mary Oliver, Stephen Batchelor, Ross Gay.  It's like a crash course in the humanities at this historical moment.  One of the things that I noticed is that many of these podcasts offer us little nibbles of utopias--possible utopias, inner utopias.  Rebecca Solnit talked about how progress is often made possible by disaster.  Stephen Batchelor (whose The Art of Solitude is on my iPad) writes about how time with ourselves, time being curious about ourselves, our desires, habits, quirks, strengths, undoings, allow us to forge what he calls an "inner autonomy" and "ethical intelligence."  Ross Gay talks about how gratitude and delight are central to justice.  He argues that too often we are angry about injustice--as we should be--but that this fury blinds us to the need to do justice to the things we love and to beauty.  He might say, pulling an example from the present moment, that demonstrating (two metres apart) on behalf of a living wage for front line workers is of course important, but that it's also important to thank them and to ask about how they are doing--and to listen to the response.

I'll admit that I have an affection, a deep affection, for people and representations of people who struggle to do their best with their own quirks and weaknesses.  This was one of the reasons I loved Downton Abbey and Call the Midwife.  This was one of the reasons that Warlight appealed to me in the early days of the pandemic's uncertainty.  Two children are handed an intolerable situation by their mother's decision to continue working as a spy after the end of World War II, but the unlikely people around them manage to jerry-rig surprising comfort and safety for them.  I'll be even more shameless in my admissions.  As I come to the end of my third edit of Soul Weather--the novel I've been working on at least since 2011--I realize that my favourite characters do this as well.  In the manner of earnest undergraduates everywhere, they face the crappy worlds they're handed by "adults" and manage to concoct, out of bailing wire, books, conversations, youthful energy and optimism, moments both of critique and of hope.  

So I've decided on a summer reading and listening project which I'll happily share with you.  I'm going to be reading utopias.  I'll begin with The Republic and move on to Thomas More's Utopia, but after that I may be a bit less systematic.  I'll happily re-read Hawthorne's Blithedale Romance, his fictionalized version of the Brook Farm experiment in creating a utopian farm.  But I thought I might read it alongside Walden and see if Thoreau's memoir is also influenced by utopian goals.  I'll re-read Harrison's book on gardens:  he'll have some suggestions.  I'll finish Jo Walton's trilogy and tell you how it strikes me.  Any recommendations?

  

Monday, May 4, 2020

COVID 19 and community




What complicated feelings pandemics arouse.  Even while you are frightened about the many unknowns created by COVID 19, you probably have a mental or literal list of things you'd like to change once the pandemic is over.  My own list includes a living wage for front line workers who have kept society ticking along: people who have unloaded the groceries and stocked the shelves, people who clean our grocery carts, people who clean the grocery stores and pharmacies we all depend on, the cashiers who now tell us to 'stay safe.'  I want us to realize that it's the artists and creators--creativity itself--that have often given us the delight and hope to continue on, and I want our newly recognized value of their work to be supported, financially, by all of us.  (More about that next week.)  

I want  us to be seduced by the return of nature in our newly-quiet cities.  Then I want us to realize that if a country can cooperate by closing itself down, it can cooperate in the task of addressing climate change.  I want the regulations around long-term care facilities to get a major overhaul as we recognize what those wise and caring lives mean to us.  I want us all to think about time differently--about how our time doesn't just belong to our employers, but to our families and to the people who matter to us.  Our mortality should remind us that our time belongs, in the first instance, to us.  Time to reflect.  Time to be.  Time to create.  Time to create living, feeling connections with others and with ourselves.

What I really want is for intrinsic values to rule.  It's so much easier to know exactly where you are--and who you are--if you can measure that by the money and power espoused by extrinsic values.  How much easier it is to comprehend the meaning of life, the meaning of the good life, if you can point to some figures or a corner office.  This is the myth that's been sold to us by neoliberalism.  Neoliberalism argues that we are all freest if we simply let the market do what it does while keeping government out of the way.  The market should control everything from the price of infant formula to the salaries of CEOs.  But it assumes that the freedom we seek is freedom to be a single-minded employee and a good consumer.  The person with extrinsic values believes in the individual, and even, as George Monbiot argues, espouses a kind of Darwinian narrative:  the deserving are successful.  The deserving become wealthy or relatively powerful.  

Kiran Misra has written an insightful article for The Guardian that reveals the cost to ourselves of the  neoliberal myth, of working hard to maximize someone else's profit.  (Link below.)  She, along with her generation, who do not have the financial security I for one enjoyed, is being encouraged to use the downtime from the pandemic for something she calls "the hustle," an effort to learn new skills or suss-out new part-time gigs.Yet psychologists and economists report that if our goals are extrinsic, there is never enough money.  Do you ever wonder why millionaires need to be billionaires?  Or do you wonder whether Donald Trump is a happy man?

George Monbiot, in his Out of the Wreckage, offers some straightforward definitions:  "Intrinsic values, in their purest form, are expressed as compassion, connectedness and kindness toward all living beings, including oneself.  Extrinsic values are expressed as a desire for self-enhancement, through attaining, for example, status or power."  These values aren't often manifested in their purest form.  For example, I write because I write.  I am a maker who wants to make something beautiful (not pretty) and insightful with words.  I write because I want a conversation with my readers; I want to pose a perplexing question about what it means to be human and to get as far as I can in exploring it so the reader and I can undertake this exploration together.  All intrinsic, seeking compassion and insight into my characters, in connecting with my readers.  But I'd be lying if I told you I didn't care a whit whether my work was read or reviewed or recognized in some way.  (Notice I didn't say anything about money!  My humility is still intact.)

Were I to forced by circumstances to efficiently define "extrinsic" and "intrinsic"--I here imagine Luke Skywalker hanging from that delicate pole beneath a spaceship, or a climber of Mount Everest edging towards a cliff, or just someone living through (albeit comfortably) a pandemic--I'd say extrinsic focused on self and stuff while intrinsic focused on connection and community.  And here I come to one of the paradoxes of COVID 19:  our isolation has brought us together.  We've been brought together by a world-wide emergency that can only be addressed if we stay apart.  The shooting rampage in Nova Scotia revealed how much we value connections:  people were worried about those who had to grieve alone, without touch or hug.

I think about all the ways we have tried to reach out, to create communities in our isolation.  The people in Italy singing together from their windows or sharing an exercise class from their balconies.  The hearts we put on our windows to thank the health care workers and the front line labourers are an attempt to express a sense of community.  The concerts people have put online.  My favourite quilt magazine, Quiltmania, has organized a block-a-thon:  you can make a 10-inch block in pinks or reds and mail it to them.  They write "Every day, healthcare workers around the world are working tirelessly to fight the Coronavirus, risking their lives and sacrificing time with their loved ones.  Here at Quiltmania, our hearts are set to unite our large quilting/patchwork community around a project to give thanks to our healthcare workers for their extraordinary work caring for the sick.  The blocks will be assembled for hospitals around the world."  I think of orchestras playing the lovely "Nimrod" variation of Elgar's Enigma Variations together via Zoom.  I've missed some things, surely.  Please--in an act of community--add them to the comments below.

One of the world's experts on pandemics, Frank M. Snowden, author of Epidemics and Society, was interviewed by Isaac Chotner for an essay in The New Yorker.  (That link is also below.) Snowden observes that "epidemics are a category of disease that seems to hold up the mirror to human beings as to who we really are. That is to say, they obviously have everything to do with our relationship to our mortality, to death, to our lives. They also reflect our relationships with the environment—the built environment that we create and the natural environment that responds. They show the moral relationships that we have toward each other as people, and we’re seeing that today." Those 'moral relationships' have shown up in the actions of governors who have "opened" their states, despite the fact that the number of cases continues to rise.  It shows up in everything Donald Trump has done--from minimizing the pandemic because he didn't want to rock the stock market to praising his  own actions because he wants to get re-elected.  The individual in all his extrinsic glory.  But those moral relationships also show up in each individual who practices physical distancing out of care for the vulnerable.

The central argument of George Monbiot's wonderful book, Out of the Wreckage--written well before a pandemic that can become an opportunity for change if we let it--is that the signal thing we need at this historical moment, when neoliberalism has been re-named "late capitalism" in a recognition that it's not working, is community.  A British author, he has seen the rise of the "ministry of loneliness" that the British government has created, as well as the increasing number of doctors in England who give out "community" prescriptions to patients whose symptoms might be addressed by a meaningful connection to others--in a choir, in an art class.  Many of these doctors have an employee, often an artist, whose job is to make these careful recommendations.  The later chapters of Monbiot's study focus on the nuts and bolts of organizing communities that strengthen social ties enough to have an impact on their societies--from the practice in Rekjavik of considering citizens' proposal to improve the city's infrastructure--and implementing many of them, to Germany's Federal Agency for Civic Education. 

Monbiot, who is more familiar with politics in the U.K. and the U.S. than with Canada, notes that we can depend neither on our jobs nor on our governments for our well-being, so we must rely on community:  "By reviving community, built around the places in which we live, and by anchoring ourselves, our politics and parts of our economy in the life of this community, we can recover the best aspects of our humanity.  We can mobilise our remarkable nature for our own good and the good of our neighbours.  We will no longer walk alone.  We will no longer work alone.  We will no longer feel alone.  We will restore our sense of belonging:  belonging to ourselves, belonging to our communities, belonging to our localities, belonging to the world.  In turn, we will develop a politics and an economy that belong to us.  By rebuilding community, we will renew democracy and the hope we invest in it.  We will develop political systems that are not so big that they cannot respond to us but not so small that they cannot meet the problems we face.  We will achieve something that, paradoxically, we cannot realise alone:   self-reliance.  By helping each other, we help ourselves."

At this moment, we can so clearly see and feel our longing for community and connection.  And I believe, as well, that we have an opportunity to challenge the way our world has worked:  how we have altruistically sought, through physical distancing, to protect the vulnerable, and how the vulnerable are nevertheless still with us, whether they are in personal care homes or homeless shelters; whether they are alone in a house or apartment, afraid, depressed, anxious; whether it is our planet itself.  Reach out.  Demand change.

The photograph was taken by Veronica Geminder and initially contained in our manuscript.  Because the woman is recognizable, University of Calgary Press strongly suggested removing it.  But it was taken a dozen years ago, and I've missed this remarkable woman, and so honour her here.



How Pandemics Change History

Being productive

Quiltmania's solidarity quilt blocks

Friday, April 24, 2020

COVID 19 and altruism


How many times over the last five weeks have you heard the statement--in numerous variations--"We're all in this together."  Or "We can get through this together."  Or "We are acting as one"?  From Justin Trudeau, every Canadian public health officer, even advertisers as various as Bank of Montreal, Toyota, and Staples.  We were told, again and again, that even if we didn't fear catching the virus, it was our task to reduce the number of vectors through which COVID 19 could reach the vulnerable.  As we look at the heartbreaking, lonely deaths occurring in long term care facilities, elders dying without their families around them, families losing a chance to say a loving goodbye--we realize that we didn't do enough--or that we hadn't closed down soon enough, that there wasn't enough testing done, or that some policies around long term care facilities worked again our best intentions.  Yet most of us tried to accomplish this very abstract task of protecting others.

At the same time, I would also venture that many of you have reached out to people you don't connect with often enough.  I've been having the richest, most meaningful "phone dates" with a couple of young women who live alone and whom I suspected could use some 'company.'  My sister Karen and I have been sending more emails asking "How are you?"  Even as Bill and I go on our physical distancing late afternoon walks, it seems incumbent upon us to holler out "Hello!" to the very people we are trying to avoid.  The tragic deaths in Nova Scotia (the only way for me to write about something as hugely incomprehensible is in the simplest way possible) only emphasized how reaching out in times of loss is just something we do.  Here is the central irony to the physical distancing COVID 19 has made necessary:  it has brought us together.

Like you, I've been doing a lot of reading and re-reading, though I found that fiction or poetry with too much angst was unbearable.  I admit I re-read the first two Dorothy Sayers Peter Wimsey novels--it was like going on a picnic or drinking hot milk at bedtime.  I read Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera and re-read Michael Ondaatje's deeply moving Warlight, which was both perfect for its nostalgic tone and for the way it captures what happens to human stories when history intervenes in our intimate and daily lives.  This is what history has done to us:  it has asked what happens to each of us when our small desires get caught up in history's mangle.  Despite the differences between Warlight's plot and the plots of our daily lives, it is a wonderful study of our helplessness in the face of forces we can't quite comprehend.  But one of the most helpful books I've been reading, and one I would highly recommend, was George Monbiot's Out of the Wreckage.  It is a hopeful book, and some of its thinking about how we can improve our civic and political lives meshes wonderfully with what I suspect you have been thinking about.

Because I'm sure there are some elements of your quarantined life--elements of our collectively quarantined lives--that you would like to be part of your lives after the pandemic is over.  The quiet of the streets and your ability to heard birdsong.  (We have a robin that begins to sing at 4:15 a.m.--don't ask.)  People from Italy, India, China, NYC are wondering how they can keep the air clear of car and industrial exhaust, and Milan is creating miles of bicycle and pedestrian lanes as we speak.  I ran into a woman--no, I didn't:  we were six feet apart--who first asked where she could get garlic powder, then where she would find the jars of chopped garlic, and then sought me out, my expertise revealed, to ask where she could find condensed milk.  She was going to bake and she was trying new recipes.  Walmart has apparently been keeping track of the trends in their sales.  There was a week when hair dye sold like hot cakes.  Then the sale of yeast rose over 600%.  A headline in the New York Times read "COVID 19 is making millions of Americans healthier." You've got it:  we're baking and cooking at home, and it's good for our spirits, good for celebrating with our family, and often good for our nutrition. If you're feeling guilty about the baking you have done or the baking you have consumed, here's the surprising fact:  almost anything you make has less salt and sugar than any fast food on the planet.

Anyone trying to work from home and take care of small children has my deepest respect.  Anyone home schooling similarly has my respect.  But how many of us are finding that more time spent with the people we love, less time shopping and running around to lessons and sporting events has been a balm?  I suspect the very nature of time has changed for many of us, and that going back to the old rush-rush seems foolish.  We've been given a chance to recalibrate what matters.  Amongst all the death, we've been given a quiet chance to consider what the good life is.  It's the people we love.  It's time to be reflective and to focus on things that matter to us, not on the things that matter to our jobs or our lives as consumers.

Monbiot's Out of the Wreckage was written in 2017, yet sheds important light on this moment.  Here's the startling fact that is the foundation of his plea for creating a better world out of the one we are living in.  The thing that distinguishes humans from the planet's other creatures is our altruism:  "We possess an unparalleled sensitivity to the needs of others, a unique level of concern about their welfare, and a peerless ability to create moral norms that generalise and enforce these tendencies."  This very human trait shows up as early as fourteenth months, when babies will hand another child something that's out of reach.  At two, we begin to share.

In a sense, COVID 19 is a test of our altruism.  The ultimate test was whether we'd be willing to shelter in place while the virus ravaged our communities because it was so abstract.  Our altruism largely sheltered others, but only fourteen days later.  Yet there are other tests as well.  Will governments find ways to protect the vulnerable?  We've come to recognize that the people who stock shelves and clean buildings and drive trucks and say "Stay safe!" after we've checked out at the grocery store are hugely important to our safety and well being.  Will we transform that recognition into a living wage?  Many of the ads I have seen on TV take time to thank front lines workers, right after the doctors and nurses, but I wonder if they will take action after the economy bounces back and push governments to increase the minimum wage?  Will we be willing to contribute to that wage, or will we complain that after COVID 19 everything seems a little more expensive?  The homeless are particularly vulnerable:  will we find better ways to house them?

I had planned to write about a couple more things:  how cultural institutions have given us free access to art--how Stratford is making Shakespeare available via YouTube, how museums are creating virtual tours, how concerts and book launches have gone online.  In the context of Neoliberal economics, culture should just be part of the market.  If it's really valuable, we'll pay for it.  But COVID 19 has shown how central it is to human thriving.  I see creativity happening everywhere, from my favourite restaurant's shift from serving meals to delivering them to homes, to the creation of an art gallery for a pet guinea pig or the various hearts that make their way into windows.  We've had time to discover how joyful creativity is, how it is part of our well-being.  We've also created communities in inventive ways.  But this post got long enough, so I'm going to save Monbiot's urgent thoughts about community and my thoughts about creativity and community in the time of COVID 19 for next week.  In the meantime, please share your thoughts about what changes COVID 19 has brought to your life that you'd like to see remain.  Just add them to the Facebook comments.

The photograph at the top was taken by my daughter, Veronica Geminder, as part of an Instagram project on photographs illustrating our COVID 19 isolation.  Here's what she says about it:  "The photo is a visual metaphor for the way that the isolation of the pandemic has made us turn inwards towards simple and solitary pleasures (tea and cake eaten on old, pretty china) while the outside world and the company that would require a second plate and cup are present in our minds but are physically inaccessible except through objects that both connect and divide."  Veronica is really skilled at using reflections so convey multiple realities, as you might have seen in our book of poems and photographs, Visible Cities.  So check out the reflections in the teapot.  Can you find the photographer?

Monday, April 13, 2020

On Colour


When Bill and I visited the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, we walked into one of their period rooms to find two still lifes adjacent to one another in a corner.  One of these was cheerful:  a blue and white cloth and colourful china and flowers spread on the table.  I was drawn to it immediately.  Then the other still life exerted its more powerful magnetism.  It was dark navy, rust brown, teal, ochre, its composition balanced and careful, not joyfully flung into an airy composition.  They were another of the slow holiday gifts I took home with me, finally letting me understand why I have several quilts on the go at the same time.  Never fear:  I am not going to write you a lecture on colour, particularly since I so often find myself breaking the rules and have never understood some of the rules anyway.  Can someone please tell me why navy and pumpkin orange are a "lively" pair, except for the fact that they are across from one another on the colour wheel?  When was the last time you said "Navy and orange!  How different!  How new!"?  You probably said "How seventies."  I've put my Midnight in Manhattan quilt at the top of this post because it uses every colour.  Hah!  Colour schemes be damned!
  

Instead, I'm rather fond of the work of Kim MacLean, whose Roseville Album Quilt you see at the left.  I want to make this some day, but my applique skills are going to have to seriously improve first.  Kim has said that "Colour makes us smile," and that was clearly part of my attraction to the cheerful still life.  Kim's principle was behind the two Tula Pink sampler quilts I made.  When I started the black and white quilt, I was supposed to add in grey, according to Pink's version, but I found that grey diluted the graphic pop of the black and white fabrics, whereas one little hit of colour brought it out.

On the other hand, I'm drawn to quiet quilts, like these two which I made for the daybed in my workroom.  Quiet doesn't mean humourless.  The quilt draped over the end of the bed has a row of carefully-cut and named birds' eggs surrounding it.  But you can see how having these two quilts on the daybed changes the mood of the room.  On grey days in the winter, I put Midnight in Manhattan on the bed for its energy and cheerfulness.  In the summer, the calmer quilts prevail.

Or I'm drawn to darker quilts that attempt to reflect our more serious experiences and moods.  There are quilts made by Japanese artists that are nearly entirely indigo,  and they make me want to dive into them, to get lost in the detail, the subtle differences, like a good piece of minimalist music.  They make me want to be reflective, just like that quieter still life at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria made me want to contemplate its balance, its mood.  I wanted to settle into it for a while, to be still, to stop moving and contemplate.

My own personal colour theory is that any colours "go together," particularly if they are bridged by some black.  The only unsuccessful use of colour that I experience is combining one saturated colour, like pumpkin orange, with what we call a "shade," a grey blue.  Technically, that means that black has been added to the blue but I prefer to think of shades as greyed.  Suddenly, your colours are out of sync, one of them looks almost "dirty" and one of them loud.  I'm going to be outrageous and say that two such colours--a loud orange and a greyed-down blue--would be fine in a painting but not in a quilt.  At least not in a quilt I'd make.  A painting has to have an idea behind it, and such a dramatic contrast or figure/ground might be the best way of conveying that idea.  But the quilts I make have to be wholes and harmonies.  No matter how many quilts are put on gallery walls, the quilt has its origin in the home where I suspect we favour harmony and unity, often leavened with playfulness or joy, to intellectually rigorous discord and imbalance--most of the time.  I think colour lets us experience a mood, a frame of mind, a memory.  We mustn't forget that our senses give us experiences, and that grasping those experiences is one of the most joyful, human, engaging things we can do.
This blog, along with the one on trees, was meant to skirt around the coronavirus pandemic, to remind us of something else out in the world besides disease.  I wonder if colour might help us through these weeks when we mostly stay at home.  A colourful scarf with blue jeans and a sweater.  The sight and feel and taste of an orange.  (If Bill and I have "hoarded" anything, it's been oranges.  I couldn't imagine being sick without oranges, and now each day at lunch I celebrate their orange-ness, in spite of the fact that it's my least favourite colour.)  Go right to the bottom of the kids' dress-up box and find the most colourful thing you can, or recruit old curtains or beach towels for their capes.  Draw something using only the loudest colours in your crayon box--or only the most subtle.  People as varied as Jamie Oliver and Diana Beresford-Kroeger tell us that the healthiest food we can eat has lots of different colours in it--a stirfry with peapods, red peppers and carrots or a salad with rounds of radish and carrot.  Let your eyes feast first.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

On Trees


In her March 21 post on Facebook, Katia Grubesic wrote "More forests; less capitalism."  She's so right in so many ways.

But let me begin at the beginning.  Trees have always played an outsized role in my life.  When I was growing up in Michigan, we had an American Elm in the back yard that sheltered my bedroom from the western sun.  But because it was an American Elm, a new world elm, it was subject to Dutch Elm disease, believed to be from Asia but identified by two Dutch phytopathologists.  My parents paid quite a lot for a company to come in and spray the tree twice a year, a process that always involved washing a lot of windows afterwards, some of them on the second storey.  As well, my father was endlessly troubled by the fact that he couldn't get grass to grow over its roots, so there were years of heavy seeding and watering, other years when he dug in plugs of zoysia grass and watered heavily.  Neither ever took.  I suspect, after having gardened in and around firs and pines that make growing grass impossible because their roots soak up every molecule of water, that he simply couldn't keep them moist enough.  As well, the grass was constantly shaded--either by the house or the elm.  But my father, a TV repairman since 1955, was a great problem solver.  He installed an industrial-strength fan in an unused bedroom, blowing out to create a vacuum, and on summer nights we opened windows in the rooms we wanted to cool.  My room, shaded by the elm tree, was cool on the warmest of days. That's still how I "air-condition" my house.

The elm created work, though my parents got me to do a lot of it.  I did most of the raking, having fun making outlines of the rooms in my ideal home with rows of leaves, playing for a while, and then getting down to business.  For a couple of years we had a tame squirrel living in the tree who would hop into my lap while I sat on the stairs, take whatever treat I had, and walk to the end of my knees and turn his back to eat it.  I have never forgotten how light and insubstantial the body of a squirrel is--maybe an early lesson in the vulnerability of nature.

My carefree tree was next door, a twisted cherry tree whose cherries were never gathered by anyone who lived there.  It had several places where you could settle down in the crook of a couple of branches and read, snacking on cherries when you got hungry.  In the next back yard there was a mulberry that attracted gazillions of birds at the end of summer who ate too many berries, got riotously drunk, and shat all over everything.

Both houses I have bought had troublesome evergreens in the front yard, and it's only after I bought the second one that I wondered whether this was a pattern.  We have green in the front yard all winter long, and I find it deeply comforting during the dark days to see white snow on green boughs.  The first time, I did what my dad had done, trying to grow grass.  This time, I've worked around the trees to create an ever-changing perennial garden--ever-changing because I never know what will survive the winter.  (The year it was so cold and we had no snow cover, I lost all of my hostas.)  But those evergreens are not only a lovely green, they keep me cool.  So here's the energy pay-off I calculated and thought about for a millisecond.  I could cut down the trees, put in grass that needed quite a lot of water, and get air conditioning, or I could leave the trees and water a perennial border and the rose bed.  I should say that I also have a veritable shelter-belt of trees on the west side of my back yard.  Yes, it's hard to grow grass, but when you walk into the yard from the back lane on a hot day, the temperature drops several degrees.

Walt Whitman loved trees, and credited a particular stand with helping him recover after a stroke.  He once said he could hear spring, but didn't know quite what he was hearing--a passage I've used as the epigraph of a poem that was part of the trio longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize.  What he was hearing, we now suspect, was a tree's heartbeat.  I've been curious about trees for years, as a couple of posts on senescence will testify.  I've read about how they "pump" water up their trunks--that water evaporating from the leaves, along with oxygen, creates a vacuum that pulls water up from the roots.  But that never made complete sense to me:  how do they get the sap going, which moves well before trees are leaved out?  Scientists now think they are hearing a kind of heartbeat, a contraction that pumps water up the xylem.  We also don't know much about the various hormones that play a role in trees' decision to turn colours in the fall, though if you walk along the bike trails east of Elphinstone, you'll see that some whole stands of willows have turned yellow, while another stand not far away has not.  They talk to one another, maybe even make decisions, just as Tolkien depicted the Ents doing.


For the really startling qualities of trees, you want to read Peter Wohlleben's The Hidden Life of Trees.  Trees are altruistic.  If a sapling in a stand of trees isn't doing well, other trees of the same species will use the Wood Wide Web, a term coined by Suzanne Simard, to provide it with nourishment. The web is made of micorrhizal fungi that grow amongst tree roots--I have seen these white threads in the soil beneath the fir in my front yard.  Trees provide some nutrients to the fungi while the fungi carry messages to other trees.  Trees' altruism shows that they think ahead:  they help struggling saplings so that when they fall from old age or a freak storm, another tree will be there to fill in the canopy.  Some aging trees will divest themselves of their resources even before they die.  They are communal, growing more successfully in groups, though their "crown shyness" keeps them from edging in on one another's space.  They know that through their community they can share resources, that a community can resist high winds or extreme weather events or droughts.  When they are attacked by a pest, they have two possible responses.  Acacia trees being eaten by giraffes will turn their leaves bitter and release a pheromone telling other trees that giraffes are about.  (This was originally noticed when giraffes would leave one Acadia and go quite a distance away before snacking again, and people wondered why they didn't simply turn to the next tree.) Or they will release pheromones that attract insects that will eat their pests while sending a message via the Wood Wide Web to other trees to let them know they need to take precautions. 


The Japanese have an old custom of "forest bathing," or Shinrin-Yoku whose effects have recently been measured.  Forest bathing is simply a slow, mindful walk in the woods, noting the rich diversity of the environment, listening to birds or wind in leaves or whistling along pine needles.  I am enchanted by the numerous shades of green--so different from that green crayon you used as a child to represent a tree--and the textures of plant and leaf and bark that reward all my attention and inspire wonder.  Did nature really need to be this various?  I suspect it did, but I also suspect that nature is sometimes just having fun seeing what it can come up with next.  Scientists have measured the effects of forest bathing and found that it promotes "decreased anxiety and a strengthened immune system. Japanese studies have shown that people who spend time in the forest inhale beneficial bacteria, plant-based essential oils, and negatively charged ions. The Association of Nature & Forest Therapy lists myriad benefits including reduced blood pressure, increased energy, and increased ability to focus."  This is according to the website listed below, which is a pretty good primer to forest bathing. 
  
It's my good friend, Katherine Arbuthnott, who knows all about the benefits of time in nature--whether with trees or prairie grasses, particularly if it a diverse environment--not miles and miles of wheat.  We are kinder when we have spent time in nature, and more generous.  Our stress levels go down.  We are smarter and can think more clearly when we've been lazing in a garden.  (This explains why I headed for the University of Michigan Arboretum with my Russian textbook during spring exam time--though of course, I didn't know it then.) We are more pro-social--that is, we do what is best for our society rather than for ourselves.  We are  healthier in so many ways.  I have spent the last few days reading Hope Jahren's direct, engaging, damning The Story of More.  Toward the end she writes "Indeed, if we look to the most comprehensive measures used to estimate the elusive quality of 'happiness,' we find that our increasing consumption of food and fuel over the last decade has not made us happier--quite the opposite....Americans [are] the unhappiest they have ever been....despite the fact that they [are] working, eating, driving, and consuming more than ever before."  Katia is right:  spend more time in forests and less in malls and you will be significantly happier, as well as doing the right thing for the planet and your fellow human beings.

 When Bill and I were in Victoria, I was struck by the trees, but not by the usual things we notice--their leaves, flowers, or seeds.  It was the architecture of the unfamiliar trees that struck me.  I think we see trees with leaves as part of a forest, whereas I find bare trees more individual. Each species of tree has its own architecture, its own shape,its own distinctive trunk and bark.  As you can see from the photograph, Swedish Aspens are the upstanding citizens of the tree world, whereas many of the other trees grow more horizontally.  But within those architectural boundaries or geometries or rules, trees can do what they want.  For some reason, the idea that no two snowflakes are the same piques our imagination.  I doubt, though, that any two trees are the same--or two  clouds.


I love bare trees--that first clean view of trees springing out of new snow.  I love bare trees at dusk on a damp evening:  their lace is an inky black quite different from their grey or brown selves.  I love trees in hoarfrost, as if nature is appreciating their individuality and decorating each of them just so.




Forest Bathing in B.C.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

On turning seventy


Turning sixty was a piece of cake.  Let me admit one of my silly, lifelong regrets:  that I would never be able to stand in front of a group of students dressed in tweed and professorially stroke my beard.  You have no idea how many times people have assumed that the bearded gentleman at a party or during breakfast at a B&B was the professor in the room!  Somehow turning sixty wiped that all out, as if with my life I had achieved something of the gravitas of a true professor (academics have a strong fraud complex) by dint of living well:  by observing and learning about the world with all my curiosity and compassion fully engaged, struggling to understand it. 

I'll fully admit that I approached seventy with trepidation. Enough so that about a year earlier I made use of a personal trainer!  I hated high school gym; what was I doing with the Fitness and Lifestyle's personal trainer???  My body aches.  I don't have as much energy as I used to.  So my trainer was going to sort some of that out--and he did--not all of it, but it's better.  So the mantra became 'strong at seventy,' though I have come to see that doing deadlifts isn't the only source of strength I've found.

I'm sure that many philosophers over the ages have observed that human mortality is one of our gifts, one of our strengths.  It's hard work getting the world to mean, to find your meaning in the world,  something you could easily put off beginning tomorrow, except for curiosity in youth and mortality in one's later years.  So here's the main effect of turning seventy:  I hold everything closer.  Everything matters more.  Everything is more irradiated with puzzles and possibilities and vulnerabilities--and 'irradiated' is not (only) a metaphor.  It's as if the world is more fiercely lit so that I can't ignore anything, not the birds at my empty feeder, not the cat who sleeps on my pillow, not the despair of someone I love.  So there are things to be done:  fill the bird feeder; find a way for your hands to convey to the cat how comforting he is; sit still with the despair: tease it out, listen to its plaint, and find some inadequate way for your love to assuage it.


And as you read this paragraph in March of 2020, you will realize that the coronavirus has indeed revealed how vulnerable we all are, and how the world sometimes refuses to mean on an unimaginable scale.  On the one hand, COVID 19 means that some governments have been more prepared than others--but how to explain that in a meaningful way?  It means, in Canada at least, that we all have a role to play in mitigating its effects, that our governments and our neighbours and the charming cashiers at the grocery store, who now add "stay healthy" to their goodbyes, take our individual responsibility as part of our social fabric seriously.  But the meaning of one death won't register, won't have a point, unless it is in some ineffable way balanced out by acts of kindness and generosity.  I suppose I could say that turning seventy is how we all feel right about now.  In the face of mortality--our own and others'--we  are all trying to find ways to make the world mean, not only by getting through the days, but also by finding meaning in the tedium and the terror.  A phone call to a grandmother in long term care facility.  A poem you read out loud.  The Zen boredom of making risotto.  An afternoon's deep dive into a book.  Your quest for something beautiful as an antidote.  Your creation of something beautiful as a road marker for you and others during the unknown weeks we have ahead.  We make meaning; it's not going to arrive anytime soon.

Turning seventy means redefining "a good day." When I was younger, a good day meant a good balance between three things:  giving care, thinking about ideas, getting stuff done:  all accomplished with a kind of manic energy.  I knew it was a good day because of the kind of exhaustion I'd feel at night.  Now I almost always take a nap after a morning's writing.  Energy is at a premium, and its disappearance can almost feel like profound depression.  A good day now is more likely to be just giving care and thinking about ideas, words, plots, narrators, poems.  A good day may have only three hours of "getting stuff done," and most of that in service of exploring ideas and words and giving care.  After that, you craft a good day with your attention.  Give your attention with all your senses:  cats; birds; sunlight or moonlight or candlelight; the colour, texture, geometry, adventure of quilts; the smell of dinner; the taste of wild mushrooms.  Not with doing.  With being.

There's a piece of paper from the pad behind the phone in the kitchen that's been kicking around the house and has finally fetched up beside my computer.  It reads "Mr. Jackson and civics class.  I'm in the dark, just growing away like a little mushroom.  Jointed sea grass--what is it?  This is the good life:  afternoon imagining a wild quilt; smell of mushrooms and olive oil; blue sky at six."  The first three are references to the plethora of memories that infuse my days.  (By the way, does anyone know what the jointed grass is?  It's found near lakes in Michigan, is cylindrical and hollow.  You can pull it apart and put it back together again.  Why do I remember this?)  The last three make one of those moments I spoke of above that's irradiated, mostly by my stopping to pay attention to it: to the earthy smell of mushrooms mixed with the fruity smell of olive oil, by sun on my skin, by the colours of the quilt that still swirl in my imagination as I try to refine my vision, by that infinite blue.

At seventy, you redefine "the good life."  Or maybe that's not precise.  If you are lucky and wise, you have a good life behind you, having done and accomplished things that were meaningful to you.  You now have a different kind of good life before you.  It's a wide doorway made of curiosity and attention, love and art, kindness and gratitude.


The bowl on the right in the photograph above was Bill's birthday present--in honour of my inner dragonfly.  I'll tell you about her someday.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Slow holidays: a chance to re-see and re-set



I stayed in "slow holiday mode" for a few days after we returned.  At the beginning, I was simply noticing that the light in the house had changed--that the movement of the sun northward illuminated new corners and flooded some rooms that had not seen a lot of sunlight.  I can't explain it--or maybe I can.  I bought this house--100 years old now--because of its windows.  There are generous windows on every side.  (I am about to get new windows that are more energy efficient and easier to clean.)  The longer days, the new shafts of sun invigorate me and make me more attuned to time passing.  I think in the winter I simply huddle down and try to ignore the dark, try to ignore the ticking of time that will only tell me how much longer I have to endure.  But in the 8 other months I am vibrantly and elegiacally aware that time is passing.  Light and time stand for life and energy, but also for time's sublime passing, something that needs to be noticed and embraced. Taking a slow holiday allowed me to see this.

And I noticed it in the cats.  This is only the third time we've left them with our wonderful cat- and house-sitter, Bronwyn Angley, a former student who has this thing for cats.  Our return was marked by some changes in habits:  Tuck now wants to curl up in my lap while I do my bedtime reading rather than rattling the closet doors hoping he can get one open and thus convince me to give him another treat for getting out of my closet. Last night Bill and I watched Vanity Fair--it's a bit dated, I suppose, but very relevant to a period we sometimes call 'late capitalism.'   During the movie, Lyra found a way to sit on my lap so he could hold my hand in both his paws--and maybe rest his cheek there.  They will be three at the end of May, and they're perhaps getting more mature and reflective about our absences, more deliberate about their time with us.  They remain the  most  cuddly cats I've ever had whose complicated inner lives I often glimpse, with delight, and I was so grateful to get home to them.

I've changed my work habits.  I started revising Soul Weather on January 6--the first Monday of the new year, after having left it in a virtual drawer since mid-August when I all but finished it.  When I get back into a large writing project, I'm so focused--perhaps you've noticed that I've written far fewer blogs in the last two years and that I've become a decidedly unreliable Facebook friend.  The revision is going well--which makes me nervous and hence even more driven and obsessive.  'Surely if I read this chapter one more time I'll see more clearly what's wrong with it.' I tell myself.  But while I was away from the work in Victoria, I decided that I need to at least try to write three blogs a month--not quite the blog a week I kept up for a while.  Writing a novel is so lonely.  You can ensure that your prose is musical and precise and colourful (when it needs to be), and that the layers of ideas are being elegantly and unobtrusively woven in, but if  your conception is off--unrealistic or, worse, boring or inconsequential--if your characters don't sing with complexity and curiosity--all these decorative touches are pointless.  That's just the way it is.  So I thought I could ease my loneliness a bit by writing blogs and obsessing happily over the two likes and the one share.

While we were in Victoria, we didn't go to any of the lovely quilt shops they have there, partly because I'm on a kind of minimalist kick and want to make use of the stash I have.  But even so, I realized I need to do more quilting.  After finishing my black and white quilt, I decided to work on one  unfinished project and one new project going forward.  I also realize that I need one bright, wild project, and another one that is more serene.  I've gotten Jenn Kingwell's "My Small World" quilt out and I've realized my fabric choices were simply too chaotic.  So I'm working panel by panel, sometimes taking out pieces that don't work and carefully inserting something better.  I've also started a quiet pyramids quilt. 

I need the comfort and delight of something I can demonstrably do well, plus the adventure of seeing whether my conception is actually going to work.  I need the small stakes plus the comforting connection to all the women (and some men) who have made quilts for use and for delight and to create beauty in their daily lives.  In some ways, this is an antidote to revising because the stakes are small.  In some ways, it's a reminder that craftsmanship really does count and that I should simply believe that.  But most of all it reminds me of the importance of everyday pleasures, everyday beauty, everyday attention--a recognition that slow holidays encourage.

I also wanted to practice the piano more and to shake up my workout.  And then, of course COVID 19 showed up, and the University wisely closed the Fitness and Lifestyle Centre, so my plans for a more challenging workout will have to be put off.  I'll write more about COVID 19 in the days ahead as I take it all in--the grief I feel for sick Italians and for their healthcare workers who now have to decide who lives and who dies--maybe it's just because there are more stories coming out of Italy whereas China didn't admit to any inability to manage the number of people who fell ill.  At the same time, I'm so proud of Canada's evocation of community to help manage the crisis, emphasizing that we all have a role to play in mitigating its effects here, that our individual health is part of a common good that helps to protect those most at risk.  Then there are the effects on our everyday lives, many of them fostering a smaller carbon footprint.  Oddly enough, though, much of the thinking about how to live that I did on my slow holiday is perfectly suited to the coming weeks of near isolation.  Light provides the everyday beauty I need, quilting and music provide a kind of aesthetic comfort.  Meanwhile, the cats settle me in place where I read the book I began, believe it or not, in mid-January:  Boccaccio's Decameron, set in fourteenth century Florence during a plague that killed between 2/3 and 3/4 of the population.  More about that in the days ahead.

In the meantime, please take care of yourselves and find your own ways, your own resources, to take your lives inside as serenely as you can.   As Alice Major so simply and wisely put it "we need to stay quiet for a bit and keep the vulnerable among us safe."