Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Creativity and hope

On August 24, I drove up to St. Peter's College, Muenster, for a fiction-writing workshop arranged by Barb Langhorst and offered by Meira Cook, a novelist and poet from South Africa now living in Winnipeg. I hadn't been working on my novel, Soul Weather, over the summer, and thought this workshop would be a perfect chance to leap back in with both feet. The late afternoon light was muzzy and golden from the B.C. forest fires, so that the fields looked like something out of Millet--an improbable comparison since Millet's fields are quite intimate and the prairie definitely is not. Sometimes I would arrive at a high point where I could see forever--where I could see the land falling away--a falling that I could imagine going on forever. Intriguingly, the smoke intensified this sense of infinity. People who talk about flat Saskatchewan don’t realize how much the landscape rolls, particularly north of Regina. The Qu’Appelle Valley and the land around it is shaped, doubtless, by the glaciers and their run-off, if not so dramatically as the valley itself. As I drove north, it changed quite suddenly at Raymore and became the flat fields made for industrial farming.

The roads were very quiet on a Friday night, as were the towns, many of them looking like the still, empty spaces in Edward Hopper’s paintings. You’d see the odd car’s trail of dust down a grid road or a kitchen light on, or a single child on a bicycle, and it made me wonder why it is so easy—or so tempting—to imagine other people’s lives at dusk. I suppose it’s a dreamy time of day for the imaginer and that the landscape or cityscape or townscape suppresses enough detail that you are liberated into imagining. Some of the aspen colonies (tied by their rhyzomatic structure--a stand of aspens is a single organism) have begun to turn yellow.

Possibly the one iota of American-ness left in me is the love of driving country roads. Time is both structured and unstructured: in one way, it's you and the miles unfolding, not needing to worry about anything more complicated than the traffic, the scenery, and the destination. In another way, that simple, open structure gives you time to wool-gather, to meditate, to let your thoughts turn to whatever seems to be top of mind.

Three things twined around in my mind. One was beauty and disaster. The thick, golden light, I well knew, was the result of the fires in B.C., which in turn was the result of climate change, which most human beings have resolutely decided to do nothing about, but to go on driving gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs, eating beef, cutting down trees in their yards, drinking bottled water. (Hint: the purity of water is controlled more rigorously in public supplies than in bottling plants. If you think bottled water is purer than what comes out of your tap, you are often wrong.) The summer we had severe fires in northern Saskatchewan, I came upon Monet's "An Impression" driving late one afternoon along Wascana Lake. The reddened sun cast a long reflection in the ruffled water of the lake, and I was forced to contemplate the relationship between beauty and disaster only to discover that they can't be contemplated, really, only acknowledged.  There is no meaning in the fact that disasters and losses in one place can produce beauty in another. But it is true nevertheless--just as the B.C. forest fires were rendering the prairie, thousands of miles away, golden and muzzy, ironically bringing infinity closer.

The second was my characters.  Over the summer, I had been working largely on an abecedarius that is an attempt to capture the myriad facets of my mother's very complicated personality and life. It's a complex exercise in memory, where my desire to be as true to her life as I can be often conflicts with a larger goal of capturing the lives of women who were mothers in the post-war years.  This project kept me sequestered in my mother's often depressed, often anxious, frequently playful and creatively practical frame of mind when I wasn't trapped in my own memory. In contrast, the characters of my novel are relatively young, half of them men, none of them wives or English professors or mothers or gardeners or cat mommas. (Lyra has just arrived to cuddle upright, his paw on my shoulder and his head nestled into where my heart theoretically should be, so I'm reduced to one-finger typing.)   How liberating to simply be curious about someone else's mind and world view, to imagine the world from their perspective, to contemplate their challenges (rather than my own, which are getting a bit dull as I get older)!  And then to create scenes that will embody my vision, translating this very wordy, complex individual into tight dialogue or her/his treatment of other people.

I thought of my characters almost rebelliously.  I have been reading Martha Nussbaum's Monarchy of Fear, an analysis of the current moment in American politics begun the night Trump was elected.  She argues (I am barely doing her justice here; I recommend the book; it's short, and it is never a bad idea to spend time with a philosopher who also loves literature) that fear is one of the primal human emotions that rises at least in part out of our helplessness for years after we are born.  Fear is not born of thought but simply of a sense of looming danger (24).  She saw the "politics of fear" on that election night in 2016:  "Fear is not just primitive, it is also asocial.  When we feel compassion, we are turned outward; we think of what is happening to others and what is causing it....Fear [on the other hand] is intensely narcissistic....Even when, later on, we become capable of concern for others, fear often drives that concern away, returning us to infantile solipsism" (29).  Fear often turns to anger and into a defence of the self--and all the people like oneself--our in-group.  Drawing on classical texts from early Greece and Rome, Nussbaum concludes that this asocial anger is often retributive:  "I'll get them!"  "Payback sort of makes sense," Nussbaum observes, but it also leads to a kind of "leadership" that is more concerned with retribution than with thinking about governing effectively and fairly.  Voilá!  A perfect description of American Congress and of Trump's presidency.  No wonder I wanted to think about characters who are young and hopeful--though fairly realistic (and a tad naive).

The weather was entirely different the day I returned from St. Peter's College.  It was raining, intensifying some colours but mostly making the landscape grey and bland.  I was anxious to get home, and simply set my car to the speed limit and concentrated on the road and the traffic.  I was coming down with a cold that would give me a gut-wrenching cough for 17 days.  No thoughts about infinity, about beauty and tragedy.  But I had come to the final chapter of Nussbaum's book, and in spite of the more muted landscape and my wicked cough, she made me hopeful.  This final chapter was written shortly after one of the many mass shootings in America, and Nussbaum herself was trying to flip the switch from fear to hope because they are two sides of the same coin.  Even the ancient Greeks and Romans realized that both view the outcome as crucial; both involve great uncertainty, and both leave us feeling we have little control of the outcome.  

Hope is a choice, as the thinkers I've been reading observe.  When we talk about hope or feel its effects, we use the language of expansion, of flight.  "Hope is the thing with feathers," Emily Dickinson wrote.  When we are hopeful, we breathe a little more deeply.  When we talk about or feel fear, there is an automatic circling of the waggons, a tight redefinition of my in-group, often a desire to build a wall between a "pure" in-group and the filthy, evil out-group that is often described as an animal or an insect--robbed of its humanity.  Think of Trump's walls, but also think of ghettos in the Second World War or the wall between Israel and Palestine.  Think of almost any civil war.  

For Nussbaum, there are two antidotes to toxic fear.  One is art, which she calls "loving, imaginative vision," and the second is respectful dialogue that acknowledges the full, complex humanity of people who have opinions different from ours.  It won't strike you as surprising that art plays a singular role in respectful discussion.  Where do you meet and understand people quite unlike you?  Where do you hear their voices--voices of choirs, bands, drummers, orchestras, spoken word poets?  Where do you have access to differing world views-in a literal sense--besides in art galleries?  It is no wonder that one of the effects of Canada's attempt to achieve reconciliation with indigenous peoples is an emphasis on indigenous art in our galleries, in our concert halls, in our libraries and on our bookshelves.  The Saskatoon Public Library has a reconciliation corner that contains copies of the report and books related to reconciliation. The Mackenzie Art Gallery  has just hired someone to help diversify their collection and to reach out to audiences on a number of issues, including race and gender.  That's how we begin to understand, how we have access to artists' sense of ugliness, trauma, and injustice, but also to the beauty, hope, and compassion of people whose lives have been so unlike our own.   

In a small way, these priciples were enacted in our workshop at St. Peter's College.  We were a group of nine divided quite neatly in two:  five young students from St. Peter's, and four older women.  Yet no one offered an opinion that was not respectful; everyone taught me something about humanity and craftsmanship.  Meira's pedagogy involved lots of discussion, lots of exercises and comment on those exercises--writing samples that made us feel vulnerable.  We could have seen the workshop as a zero-sum exercise: if praise was given to one person, there was less for us; if someone had an aha! moment, they might take our place in a tight publishing queue.  Instead, generosity and curiosity reigned.

Nussbaum appeals to Walt Whitman to explain art's role.  Whitman believes the United States needs poets because "the poet is 'the arbiter of the diverse,' 'the equalizer of his age and land.'  What Whitman meant is that poets have the professional habit of love in the sense that I have described it:  that is, they see whatever they see as full real, and infinitely complex, and as separate from the ego" (221).

But there is another way that creativity fosters hope.  Quite simply, if we are going to be artists we need to be hopeful.  When I sit down to translate my ideas about a poem into an actual (and effective) poem, or when I transform my ideas for a quilt into an object that keeps people warm while delighting them visually, I am at the cusp of hope and fear.  Writer's block and procrastination are a manifestation of fear:  will my idea be good enough?  Will I be able to make that leap between idea and words or between idea and character, setting, plot, narration?  Will the 100-plus fabrics I often put into a scrap quilt create chaos or will the block pattern impose order?  If I am unsure about my skill, my craftsmanship, or when I am thinking too much of myself and not of the work itself, I remain in the territory of fear and probably either scale back my efforts or find excuses not to try them at all.  In contrast, when I am focused on the work and on the fact that a draft is something to make better in myriad ways, I am hopeful.  When I recognize that my poem is in trouble, but go to my book shelf to read poets who have encountered the same difficulties, I am hopeful.  I believe that the failing poem is a problem to be solved, not a failure of artistry.  Right now, an applique project requires that I applique some tiny birds.  I will practie them on bits of leftover fabric until I can do them well enough. When we go to classes, to workshops, when we practice or read other authors, when the visual artist sketches, when the orchestra has rehearsals, we are hopeful because we feel that we can gain the skills that allow us to come closer to realizing our vision.  We acknowledge the important role of craftsmanship in the creative process.  Craftsmanship, in turn, allows us to build hope on firm ground.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Learning what a good day looks like

I haven't had a break from studying, writing, or academic reading longer than two weeks since 1976, when I finished my M.A. at the University of Michigan at the end of June and began my Ph.D. in September.  It's possible that there was also a break between my first and second years of course work at the University of Manitoba, so maybe the date in 1977.  That's still 41 or 42 years.  But this spring I turned in the second revision of Virginia Woolf's Aesthetics of Engagement:  Form, History, and the Autonomy of Art--fifty pages shorter than its ancestor--phew! What a project that was--on May 15 and immediately boarded a plane for England. My two weeks there with Veronica were rich and companionable and loaded with art, music, and architecture.  But it was not a "break."  When I came back, I had the week of jet lag that seems, now that I am 68, so accompany transatlantic flights home (but not, luckily, flights to Europe).  I got myself organized a bit to write some poems for the meeting of my wonderful poets' group. Veronica and I went to Winnipeg to read/perform our work there, and then I went to ground.

All I have expected of myself since mid-June is a couple of hours working on poems or reading something that applied to my three creative projects.  Maybe it was economics or an excellent book on trolling recommended by Michael Trussler.  Maybe it was a couple of essays from Mary Ruefle's Madness, Rack, and Honey, or Don McKay's The Shell of the Tortoise.  I took books of poetry to lunch meetings--Wendell Berry's selected, August Kleinzahler's remarkable Sleeping it off in Rapid City--which I've managed to lose twice, the last time permanently, just as I had figured out how his poems were much like Edward Hoppper's severe paintings.  I read Whitman's Specimen Days for the section of a book of poems I'm working on that will engage with nineteenth-century naturalists.  I read Thoreau's entertaining and endless journals for the same reason. 

At night I read fiction:  some of the novels I read were creative writing classes in themselves; others were definitely not.  Have you noticed a tendency in the contemporary novel to a certain a-temporal bagginess?  I re-read A Tale of Two Cities because the times seemed to demand it.  I found there were novels I simply could not read:  if there was considerable violence or disaster, it went back on the bookshelves.  The one exception was Michael Ondaatje's War Light, which I knew would be so beautifully made that its beauty would be an antidote to the horror.  I loved the novel, even though the critics didn't.  In some ways, I understand their reservations:  here is another Ondaatje novel about war, as if only wars challenged what is most human in us.  But I think their claim--that it doesn't speak to younger readers--says more about younger readers and their sense of entitlement than it does about Ondaatje's work.  His novel made to clear to me how intimate war is.  While we're concentrating on large movements of men and materiel, so much damage is being done in private lives, to families and parents and children.  The statistics on PTSD should tell us this, but Ondaatje's novel comes at the facts more...intimately.  We need--odd as it sounds--to remember how intimate war is--how intimate so many political and social battles are.

I worked in the garden as much as my back would let me.  Initially, I simply tried to get my vegetable garden in.  My tomatoes didn't mind their late start, but the carrots didn't deign to arise, and the beans are just beginning to give me beans, though I have learned that purple Italian beans (which turn an olive green when you steam them) tolerate our hotter summers better than the old fashioned Kentucky Wonder Pole Bean.  I have one enormous zucchini and three cucumbers, but nothing like the haul that the inimitable Brenda Schmidt will get from her garden.  But we lost so many perennials from the lack of snow cover--one rose dead, one growing like a weed but without a bud anywhere, the clematis barely blooming, countless hostas dead--that my perennial border was simply too dis-spiriting to spend a lot of time in.

As you kind readers of my blog will know, depression has visited for a couple of days most weeks, and I don't know whether it's Trumptime, or my downtime, or sending a manuscript off again and waiting again, or my back, or my vertigo, or the unusual heat, or the fact that I've given myself a break for the first time in forty-one years (give or take)--or something I'll never understand.  Maybe it's just a phase.  But those of you who have struggled with your own mental health know that we want causes or reasons because we desperately need to know what we can do to keep this from happening again if we possibly can.  Let us just say I also got a lot of nonfiction reading done, and would recommend Yuval Noah Hirari's Sapiens, Martha Nussbaum's Monarchy of Fear, Joan Didion's A Year of Magical Thinking, Rebecca Solnit's Hope in the Dark, and Michiko Kakutani's Death of Truth. Like me, many readers are turning to nonfiction, realizing there's so much we don't know and don't understand:  how can we convince people that climate change is real--and like war--quite intimate?  The floods in India and Pakistan destroy homes, just like the fires burning in B.C.   And like the trauma of the children separated from their parents by "illegal" refugees, some effects are ever-lasting.  (How do you know a refugee is illegal until you have examined their case?)  How do we keep hope alive?  How do we counter cries of "fake news!" each time Trump or his followers see something in the media that they do not like?  How do we make clear that giving up on facts means government by wishful thinking?  How do we tell people they are giving up their own power when they hand pick their versions of reality?   How do we understand the mania of the current moment, which Nussbaum so cogently argues is based on fear.  (More about this next week.)

When I am "working," I keep to a fairly rigid schedule.  This accomplishes two things:  no matter how well or how badly the writing is going, I have the comfort of having given my work the requisite hours, and of knowing that having done so probably means that the solution to my problems will come easing out of my subconscious in the morning.  I can also say "no" to people if I need to because my schedule dictates.  Selfish, I know, but to get creative work done, we need to be selfish.  But in this hiatus, I had turned from one thing to another only because I felt like it--or because the cats felt like it.  With Twig, I read nonfiction or poetry in the mornings, but at that time of day, Lyra and Tuck like to have deep, undisturbed morning naps that have no place for me.  In the afternoon, though, I can holler "Nap time, guys!" and they will take their naps with me while I read. So I will be spending more time writing in the morning, and will probably start earlier, and will read in the afternoon.

Drifting in this way taught me some things.  I played the piano much less than I thought I would--because, I think, I'm working on repertoire way out of my league.  I'm going to have to sort that out in September when schedules arrive again. I didn't walk nearly as much as I thought I would.  You know how you say to yourself "If I could completely control my time, I would do more X and less Z"?  Don't be so sure.  Yet I tell myself there are other issues to deal with--like my piano repertoire.  Really, after only four years of official piano lessons, do I expect to learn one Mozart piano sonata after another?  As well, I would really like to walk in the late afternoon, when nature and movement can help me sort through all the stuff that's been going on all day in my brain, but the heat made this impossible.  So I'll keep at these goals, though with a difference, and see what I'm doing by the end of September.

But there have been more luminous days than not, and a stillness not solely the creation of summer time with its golden-hazed light.  One night, Bill and I walked in the gardens in front of the Legislature, and then settled down to people-watch.  There was a family from India (how long they have been here I can't say) in full regalia:  lusciously-coloured saris and beautifully-wrapped turbans.  They walked through the flowers with a graceful, slow ease my vertigo wouldn't even let me imagine.  They were both spectacle and instruction, teaching me that I was happiest doing slow things, like an applique quilt I'm working on that has four varied trees of life--each with about forty little leaves.  I need something to do with my hands on those difficult nights when I cannot sleep.  I also think I need to re-think 'slow.'  Certainly this summer's slow times feel very rich, and lots comes welling up out of my memory that reminds me of the richness of my own life.  In the midst of slow, I feel gratitude and comfort.  These trees get done an 1/8th of an inch at a time, but they unfold in the most interesting way.  There is almost a timelessness in not caring how long it takes you to do something well, a timelessness experienced by many people who have turned to "maker culture" to add meaning and pleasure to their lives.    

A newsletter I receive on Saturdays called "On Being" talked this week about renowned zoologist and conservationist  Alan Rabinowitz, who was diagnosed with cancer 17 years before his death, and who had to make, after the initial diagnosis, some hard decisions about what a good day looked like to him.  Mortality does that.  Maybe depression does that too. 

You can find an earlier blog that describes the process that makes applique so slow here.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Hope as a horizon

For twenty-four years--between the ages of sixteen and forty--I struggled with depression, experiencing two or three eight-week episodes a year.  Because they were so brief--I'm a "rapid cycler"--who knew?--antidepressants weren't an option.  I had some helpful rules.  I didn't drink.  I didn't make judgments of people, I set myself a task to complete each day and completed it, whether I wanted to or not, just to show I could.  I had regular appointments with a fabulous psychiatrist.  These were all simple things I could do to make sure I didn't make my life, or anyone else's, worse.  The episodes stopped suddenly when I moved to Regina, and I have often said the city must put something in the water. 

But they came back this spring, though not in their old form.  I will have a couple of days every week where I am--let me count the ways--blue, exhausted, feeling hopeless.  Depressed.  I just want to go back to bed and find a nice, big, soothing book to read for the next forty-eight hours, preferably with cats for company.  Unfortunately, Lyra and Tuck are still young and a whole day in bed with me is right out, though that's a good thing.  As they go on living their playful lives, my blue self is dragged into their world briefly.  I still work in the garden, though not nearly often enough and not joyfully this year, which is too bad, because researchers say that there are microbes in the soil that lift our moods.  Walks remain helpful though:  eventually something will catch my attention and I will be lifted outside myself for a little while.  When I have been able to make myself accomplish something, I am surprised to see that the writing is going okay--which is all one expects from a draft.

Depression falls into two general categories.  One is endogenous depression, for which you can find no obvious stressors.  Something in your biochemistry has gone walkabout.  You can't identify any causes, so there is nothing you can fix.  You simply endure.  When you are experiencing the second kind, reactive depression, you can identify a cause.  A breakup, a death, a failure.  If you are lucky and have a a good companion on your journey, these depressive episodes can ironically be an opportunity to learn something about yourself, something about being human. 

Throughout my life, I've been a rather disciplined depressive.  When Forbes posts its "Twelve habits of happy people," I get a hit of affirmation because I do all twelve.  As a postmodern Pollyanna and an experienced depressive, I am so aware of making choices.  So my opportunity during these months is to be reminded of how powerless we are in the face of our psychic demons.   I needed to remember that we sometimes wake up in a mood today--and for an unknown series of days--wearing a pair of glasses that distort how we see the world, a pair of glasses we simply can't take off, although we know they are wrong.  We see the whole world through this mood and there is little that discipline and choice can do--though at least they can help us not to make it worse.

I can only think of one external stressor right now: Donald Trump.  That man has managed to suck so much joy and hope and opportunity and conversation and cooperation and love and safety right out of the air we breathe.  If he were Smaug, he'd be breathing stupidity and selfishness and greed and sheer angry delight in destruction with every flame coming out of his mouth.  I've noted  elsewhere in this blog that for a week after he was elected I did no writing.  I got nothing done.  I wallowed.  And I didn't even know then how bad it could get.  It's those children taken from their parents that have gotten under my skin, and the knowledge that this experience is rewiring their vulnerable brains, and not for the better, changing them forever.

So I have continued to read Rebecca Solnit's Hope in the Dark, and I find that she has good advice for depressives, activists, and creative people.  In a later chapter wonderfully titled "Getting the Hell Out of Paradise," she talks about the impatience of activists who believe that they have failed because they have not created utopia.  She quotes Uruguayan journalist Edouardo Galeano, who views utopia as a horizon, not an end point:  "When I walk two steps, it takes two steps back.  I walk ten steps and it is ten steps further away.  What is utopia for?  It is for this, for walking" (113).  As long as we are human, there are going to be things that we need to change about ourselves and our institutions, so we had better not lose the habit of taking stock of our lives and societies and figuring out what we need to change.

Solnit has noticed a trend in activism, a trend away from activists' adherence to a rigid set of principles and toward cooperation and non-hierarchical structures for setting goals and making decisions.  Her book was written in 2005, but the trends she notes were certainly at the forefront of Occupy Wall Street in 2011.  Activists in 2005 were aware that they were on the wrong track if they expected their revolutions were going to result in a change in institutional power--largely because institutional power is itself already problematic.  Instead, John Jordan argues, activists need to "walk away from power and find freedom.  Giving people back their creative agency, reactivating their potential for a direct intervention into the world is at the heart of the process....In that moment of creation, the need for certainty is subsumed by the joy of doing, and the doing is filled with meaning"  137).  In this context, Solnit concludes that "the purpose of activism and art, or at least of mine, is to make a world in which people are producers of meaning, not consumers" (148).   

Solnit and Jordan are envisioning a world where everything we do--from a kind word for an overwhelmed barista to a poem--matters.  And creativity and kindness matter in Trumptime even more than when Bush was president.  These simple acts keep a certain collegial way of living and a subversive way of thinking alive--for poetry is always subversive, isn't it?  Even the way poetry thinks is subversive.  Similarly, when we are depressed, these are things we can manage--perhaps barely--but we can.  To come out from under my blue fug and say something kind to someone else is wonderfully empowering, an antidoteto depression that is perhaps more useful than any drug.  Two lines of poetry that come out of an hour's desperate thinking are not only two lines, but a way of thought. 

Whether you are feeling depressed, or have writer's block, or have simply heard Trump lie too many times or act on "principles" that make no sense, Solnit's closing ideas are helpful:  "I believe in hope as an act of defiance, or rather as the foundation for an ongoing series of acts of defiance, those acts necessary to bring about some of what we hope for while we live by principle in the meantime.  There is no alternative, except surrender" (163).

As for my depression--which probably felt like "too much information" at times--today is a good day.  But I have always felt it was important to talk about my own struggles with mental health to make it seem less foreign to those who don't struggle and to offer a hand to those who do.  On my walk today along the bank of Wascana Creek,  I saw a rare pelican, floating with its awesome grace along the currents.  And then when I got closer, it began to beat its enormous swings slowly, slowly, first against water and then against air until it slowly, slowly rose, and began to soar on the wind.

(The first photograph is from Bolton Abbey in Yorkshire.  The second two are from the Barbican Centre.  You want an image of hope?  There's a great blue heron at the other end of the reflecting pool.)

Friday, July 20, 2018

Giving attention

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Hope and Trust in Trumptime

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

Instead, I want to talk about trust and hope.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 4, 2018


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 15, 2018


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 31, 2018

The delights of English parks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 11, 2018

A peroration, personal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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