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Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Bit by bit; drop by drop


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 4, 2016

Generosity in contemporary fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Friday, March 18, 2016

Generosity, Gratitude, and Heroism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 7, 2016

Inventing Sunshine


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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Paul Muldoon and the Layers of Life and Art


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Act III

When I retired a year and a half ago, I called the coming phase of my life "Act III."  The metaphor felt right, but I couldn't explain it well.  All I had to go on was a sense of urgency that wasn't at all threatening or frightening.  Though of course there will be a death in the end, I don't see my life after retirement as a tragedy--everything going downhill from here on.  Quite the opposite:  I've never had so much fun in my life.  But of course because there's a death, these years aren't exactly a comedy either, though because I'm healthy that death doesn't lour over my days.  All I had to go on were behaviours that changed.  

I never thought retirement would make me a better driver, but it has.  I find that civility on the road is declining--not precipitously but appreciably.  And I have the time to add a note of civility from time to time--not to get impatient with someone who is lost, or to let in a driver who is trying to make a right turn into a train of oncoming cars.  I have time when I'm doing Christmas shopping to thank the people--tired people, no doubt--who help me.  I make more bread, kneading it while I watch the birds at the feeder just outside the window.  My house is better organized:  each time Diabetes calls with news of a "Clothes Line" pick up, or each time the Cathedral Neighbourhood Centre has a garage sale to benefit the Arts Festival, I have a useful box of things to give them.  I can say one thing about Act III:  the frantic chaos of being disorganized is so aversive, that you get organized.  Perhaps I finally understand my mother-in-law (thirty years too late, alas)?

Ironically, I think that Twig's illness between October and December of 2015 focused my thinking about Act III, but it didn't have the expected effect of making me fearful about death.  I am afraid I am becoming the typical "cat lady," though I have only one cat just now:  each night I whisper in his ear that I'm grateful to have had one more day with him.  He has learned that this is coming when I turn out the lights downstairs and stretches up, purring and rubbing my face.  I could have learned this lesson about gratitude any number of ways:  the illness of a friend or a loved one would have easily done the job.  But rather than being panicked about time, I'm grateful for it.

Rather than feeling frantic about the time that remains, I find that time without the responsibilities of work stretches in intriguing ways.  Perhaps this is partly because I can finally focus on one, or at most two writing projects at a time.  I have my set hours for being at the computer, and while I'm there, I don't have to think about time.  I think only about what I am doing, with a focus so fierce that it knocks time all to hell.  Perhaps this change is caused by a different relationship to "work."  I'm not having to do the reading for a demanding committee and having to answer emails to students while I also try to think about class preparation and throw in a little marking on the side.  I don't have a "to do" list; I don't judge my time by what I accomplish.  I judge it by what I experience as I sit down at the computer and try to get my words to have an interesting conversation with my fledgling ideas, to see if we can't together create something meaningful and insightful and perhaps beautiful.  In the first instance, it's that experience that matters.  Only when I am happy with what I have made do I consider whether it can be launched across the chasm between me and a reader, and even that thinking and doing remains an experience, not a do-to list.

I do have some "legacy projects."  The list looks full of hubris.  I have finished, for the time being, Visible Cities, the poems inspired by Veronica's photographs; it's on hold now while a publisher looks at it.  I will write the last paragraphs on Woolf's The Waves tomorrow; after that I will start at the beginning and revise each chapter one more time, working on it in the mornings, hoping to finish in the spring.  Then I will turn to Soul Weather, a novel I started in 2011 and which has morphed in amazing ways in my imagination since then.  Time spent not working on it, though with my notebook close by, will make it a better novel, I suspect.  I also have a first-novel-in-a-drawer that has some virtues, but that wants an entirely different structure and a much less indifferent, defeated protagonist.  Poems come dribbling in for my next collection, and perhaps some blog posts would like to become essays.  But my other legacy project, the important one, is to be kind.  I have discovered that kindness takes time, and the freedom that having time gives us--which bodes ill for a society of workaholics.   

I don't know whether this tendency to value experience over accomplishment came from the gratitude I feel for Twig's health or from the freedom to focus and work in an entirely different way, but I can say that I have spent the year and a half since I retired high on mindfulness.  Seeing and walking through Richard Serra's "Wave" in Seattle (see the June 25, 2015 blog), and walking all through the Olympic Park with its many remarkable sculptures was one.  Taking a walk with Nikka in early November and seeing a Great Blue Heron and some startlingly beautiful images while I waited for her to take photographs was another (November 13 blog).  One summer evening, Bill and I drove toward White Butte Trails and caught a sunset along the prairie road.  The light was magical, but so were the smells and the changing sounds as dusk approached.  These occasions are highlights:  my days are full of joyful stop-time moments.  Every night I read outside this summer until it was too dark to see gave me joy.  Standing in the back yard just to listen to the birds at my feeder gives me daily joy.  I think I need to re-read Shakespeare:  is there any thing in the final acts of his plays that anticipates this intense joy I feel almost daily?  Perhaps, if I had to sum up Act III in a single word, it would be "intense."  Joyfully, mindfully, gratefully, and I hope kindly, intense.  Act III sings.


Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Solstice and the Paradoxes of Hope

I have been thinking about hope for several weeks now, since it seems a good thing to meditate on as we drift toward the darkest night of the year and the shortest day.  I have had two guides in my thinking, two guides who couldn't be more different from one another, but who made a great tag team. 

My first guide was Stephen Pinker, whose magisterial The Better Angels of Our Nature is a brilliantly researched book that could be said to be about hope.  His thesis is that in no other historical moment have there been so few wars, so little state-sanctioned violence, such an extension of human rights; this, in turn, has led to better health, standard of living, and education for more people on the planet than ever.  I began to read the book out of rebellion.  Like all of us, I watched the refugee crisis in Europe and the media's footage of endless lines of--hopeful?  hopeless?--people wandering from country to country, facing fences metaphorical and literal, trying to find an economy that could absorb them and the attitudes that would welcome them.  Like you, I was horrified by the Paris attacks, so close on the heels of the Charlie Hebdo massacre.  Then there were the attacks at San Bernardino.  The concluding report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the government's decision to study the tragedies of the missing and murdered indigenous women are certainly hopeful, but hope only in the teeth of too many tragedies.  

Pinker's book comes with its own paradoxes.  How do you research hope?  Well, you research violence; you write a history of violence.  And then you mark the various ways and reasons it has fallen off.  With reams of research and daunting graphs and tables, Pinker is able to reveal the way human beings have constantly re-shaped their relationships with one another in ways that result, first, in fewer large-scale wars and, second, fewer small-scale conflicts.  Believe it or not, the wars that gathered people into empires were one of the first ways we decreased conflict.  Empires gave rise to the rule of law, and though that law might be capricious and the king's or emperor's motives for keeping internal conflict at minimum might be completely selfish, "Leviathan," to borrow the name Hobbes gave these governing bodies, made the world safer.  As well, government didn't want to have to manage small-scale conflicts between one knight and another--such conflicts made it hard to collect taxes and threatened valuable resources like food.  So the king turned his knights into courtiers who jested at court rather than jousting just north of some dark wood.  Manners were born.  Self-control and self-restraint were born, though there are of course places around the world where the self-control of "the civilizing process," as Pinker calls it, hasn't reached.  The Middle East is one; the American south is another.

Capitalism has played an intriguing role in "the civilizing process."  If you grew wheat and your neighbour kept cows, you might decide that rather than fight your neighbour for his land--a chancy and expensive process--you might instead barter.  Once Leviathan had created financial and physical infrastructure--money and roads--you might conduct your trade at further distances.  Pinker argues that "gentle commerce" had a whole host of unintended consequences, the most significant of which was empathy.  You had to imagine what someone who lived a goodly distance from you would like to buy or trade.  

In "The Humanitarian Revolution," (which I admit to not having finished yet, but I need hope NOW), Pinker looks at the way in which state-sanctioned violence--the torture of heretics or the burning of witches--has also declined in most of the world, as has slavery.  This change, like "The Civilizing Process" I described above, is much more complicated than I can explain here, but this passage will give you the gist of his findings:  "People began to sympathize with more of their fellow humans and were no longer indifferent to their suffering.  A new ideology coalesced from these forces, one that placed life and happiness at the center of values and that used reason and evidence to motivate the design of institutions" (133).  Those of us over fifty can probably look back and see some of the changes in how our culture has regarded human and animal rights.  Women's rights.  Gay rights.  The rights afforded too slowly to people of colour--First Nations in Canada and African Americans in the U.S.  But it's no longer intellectually or legally defensible to deny these rights, though people's opinions of "the other" are too slow to change.  The right of a woman to wear a niqab when she takes the oath of Canadian citizenship.  Animal rights.  Even the rights of the planet are being considered.

What Nobel prize-winning author Daniel Kahnemann calls "the availability heuristic"--our sense that we can come up with a lot of examples of violence and the violation of rights, so there must be a lot of both--is playing us false.  Things are better than the nightly news would have us think.

My other guide to hope is Jenna Butler, whose A Profession of Hope:  Farming on the Edge of the Grizzly Trail has been an extraordinary and joyful reading experience.  Every word of this book is tender with hope.  She and her husband Thomas bought a quarter section of land 90 minutes north west of Edmonton and began farming, with the hope of being able to become self-sustaining. The book records their joyous and exhausting work on the land.  Here are some of the things I find hopeful--and these are idiosyncratic:  I find hope in the way they are able to see their quarter section as a complex and varied ecosystem where human intervention can allow the various parts to work together more richly and efficiently.  Who knew that digging a pond would bring frogs that helped with insects in the garden or that managing the forest would invite hawks and owls to help with pest control?  Who knew that "worm poop," which they cooked up in a bucket of red wigglers under the sink and to whom they fed their compost, would be the only thing between their market garden (besides a good shelterbelt) and grasshopper infestation that otherwise destroyed everything Big Ag had grown for miles around?  And then there is that wonderful relationship they have with the bees, who determine some of the cycles in the garden to ensure a constant supply of pollen.  (Another great hope book is Bee Time by Mark Winston.  Winston also has interesting advice for Big Ag:  leave more land wild to accommodate the bees, and you'll get a better yield than if you planted every square inch of your fields.)  In turn, the bees give them light in the middle of winter.  So here is perhaps the overarching hope of this wonderful book:  we can work with nature instead of against it, and find much joy, delight, wonder, and adventure in the process.  

But I also found the chapter called "Cartography" hopeful.  Jenna, who is also a poet, walks you through June in north country.  The prose here is so poetic that you are able to follow her through time and space with all the magic this entails.  Every one of our senses is engaged:  "Walk with the sun behind you, the cooling land lifting a night breeze around your ankles, to the bottom of the hill. Static ping of grasshoppers off road crush, sweet wild alfalfa in shades of purple, poplar leaves just past sticky green, everything about them the scent of rising sap.  A slight fog over the ground rolls as you walk:  the willows have let fly their seeds this week, and you will be chasing them through the garden beds for the next month.  This clock of seasons, of seeding:  past willow, not yet balsam poplar" (39-40).  Another element of hope was that McNally Robinson, where I bought my book, has planted A Profession of Hope all over their store--in memoir, in agriculture.  It's a book you can't quite categorize or pigeon hole, which is also hopeful.  We keep hope alive when we keep complexity and interconnections alive; we kill hope (along with a lot of other things) with certainty and with the idea that there's one right way to do everything and think about everything.

I also find hope in Jenna's humility, her sense that once she has stopped farming the land, it will return to some natural state, perhaps a bit better for her.  She has such respect for the land that she is willing to give it back to itself.  She knows she's only borrowed it for now.  That sense of the planet's integrity--that it's a place we've all just borrowed--is not only hopeful, but ethical.  When I taught "Literature and the Environment," I told my students that if human beings disappeared tomorrow the planet would be just fine--if not better off without us.  But if the bugs disappeared tomorrow, we'd all be toast.  Many of my students reminded me of that fact in their final exams, suggesting that they had suddenly seen that they were not the centre of the universe.  The bees and dragonflies and ants are that. 

I need hope not only because we are at the dark time of the year and I've watched too much news.   Twig is in the midst of another bout of pancreatitis, and I am faced with how much longer I am going to allow the cycle of suffering followed by treatment, which involves being in a vet's office all day for three days with a needle in his front leg, to go on.  Perhaps, at 15, his body simply doesn't have the resources to fight off this infection.  In How We Die, surgeon Sherwin Nuland talked of how hope changed for cancer patients, how they hoped not for a cure but to live long enough to see a child graduate or a grandchild born or to have one last Christmas with the family.  Twig has been reminding me, as has A Profession of Hope, that hope always exists in the context of our mortality.  Or, perhaps to be more precise, our mortality lingers around the edges of hope.  Perhaps our mortality is even a prerequisite for honest hope.  Hoping to find the perfect luxurious or cutting edge gift under the tree isn't really hope.  It's desire dressed up in hope.  "Hope is the things with feathers / That perches in the soul. / And sings the tune--without the words / And never stops at all," as Emily Dickinson wrote.

But hope may also require respect, our ability to get outside of ourselves.  Perhaps there is an ethics of hope that involves thinking both about self and other.  Many of the hopeful social transitions that Pinker observes came about because we could imagine someone else's suffering or we could suddenly envision the rights someone else deserved.  I have been thinking about a sentence in Sir Kenneth's Clark's Civilization:  that the Unicorn Tapestries illustrate nature naturing.  Once again, hope and mortality are linked.  Jenna's farm is certainly an example of "nature naturing."  But Twig and his chronic illness is also part of nature naturing.  He isn't talking to me, so I am going to need both respect and imagination to attempt to understand what his hope might be.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

The Memory-Roots of Christmas Trees


My memory is on full throttle this time of year, and I blame it on the light.  Just this morning, when I was talking with Katherine about the value of grasslands for carbon sequestration--which, counter-intuitively,  is equivalent to the value of forests--I remembered saying to Veronica when we drove from Montreal to the Eastern Townships and saw hills and hills of trees, "These are Quebec's lungs."  What a thing to come twanging out of my memory at 8 a.m. on a Monday morning!  Or Saturday I remembered David Powell standing in the middle of my tiny kitchen during a Christmas Noyse--a musical party I used to give every Christmas when my friends' children were young.  Adults and children brought violins, basoons, flutes, and the occasional rusty voice--and I remember David Powell saying that there had to be a way to give me more work room.

It's that late afternoon light that goes golden and looks like something out of a Vermeer or a Rembrandt.  How can a blue sky go golden?  If gold is added to blue, shouldn't it go green?  Or is light layered in a way that watercolour, say, isn't?  Then after the gold disappears, mystery starts to grow from beneath the trees and shrubs, close to the houses.  Neighbourhoods you know by heart suddenly look different in this light.  The sky remains azure while the tree branches and trunks turn an inky, saturated black that gives their tangles a new weight.  The azure subtly deepens until the air is a colour we never see in summer.  Then more change is wrought by what we do to answer this darkness:  we put up Christmas lights in our yards in arrangements that range from beautiful to funny, with everything in between.  We play with light.  All this changing of the light is an invitation to reflect and remember, to hunker down with the people we love and haul up the artifacts of memory through the sand of our everyday lives, like the early explorers of the pyramids.

I always find decorating the tree to be a kind of archeology, as each ornament comes swimming up with its history.  I have only one glass ball left of those my first husband and I bought in Cambridge Massachusetts the first year we were married.  And there's the tin Santa Claus Veronica brought back from her first term at McGill.  There is the flock of sheep my sister Karen sent to us, one at a time, from Atlanta, Georgia.  There are the decorations I bought when I knew I was pregnant and wanted to add a child's voice to the otherwise rather sophisticated tree.

But this year, it's the trees themselves that have come back to me, as if each of them is a layer in the sandstone of memory.

My mother had an older step-sister, my Aunt Hazel, who was childless and so who put her energy into breeding Scotties and making Christmas as beautiful as possible.  I make her sound like a cliche, but she was really a ferociously creative person, if sometimes frustrated by the outlets the 1950s gave her.  One year Aunt Hazel used only blue lights on her tree.  You have to realize that this was the late fifties or early sixties, and the only kinds of Christmas tree lights available were strings with large bulbs and many colours.  Suddenly the Christmas tree had an elegance that its otherwise higgledy-piggledy lights had never given it.  The next year, my mother did the same thing.  By that time, I was old enough to get myself up in the morning, and I had to leave to walk about three miles to school before anyone else was up--not uphill both ways.  Grand Rapids is relatively flat.  So I had my breakfast in front of the blue Christmas tree and used the house's silence to probe my Christmas presents to see if I could figure out what I was getting.  Books were a dead give-away:  everything was hardcover, and you could feel the slight dip made by the smaller pages.  That was the year I got Thor Heyerdahl's Kon Tiki and Lin Yutang's The Chinese Way of Life.  The Christmas tree had grown up and so had I.  These were doubtless Aunt Hazel's recommendations.  I managed to read Kon Tiki because Mr. McElheny, my grade nine English teacher (and the person responsible for my love of poetry) said that sometimes skipping the first chapter and leaping into the second was a good strategy for cracking into a book that felt foreign.  I never did figure out how to read The Chinese Way of Life.

Our families were a bit befuddled when Dan and I moved to Winnipeg, where he played trumpet in the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and I took classes on Russian literature.  They tried to imagine what this empty space north of North Dakota was like.  Was it wilderness?  So our first Christmas, my sister Karen gave Dan a little hatchet which we decided to use next Christmas.  There was an area east of Winnipeg where you could go to choose and cut down your own Christmas tree.  We found a lovely little evergreen, Dan wound up and gave it a good whack with his hatchet, and the head came flying right off.  Frozen wood is very, very hard.  (I suspect we should have soaked it before using it, but really Dan was a musician and I was a reader of long Russian novels:  what did we know about being woodsmen?)  We found another perfect little tree that someone had abandoned because it had fallen rather hard on its side as it came down and so was a bit flat there.  It nestled up closer to the wall than Christmas trees usually do.

Before Dan and I had Veronica--and an excuse not to abandon our own house for Michigan each Christmas--we sometimes packed up our Christmas decorations in our little Fiat along with our suitcases.  His parents didn't have a tree at all--something about allergies--so we sometimes bought a small extra tree to put up at my parents' house.  One year we stumbled on the perfect solution.  A man selling Christmas trees also had some live trees whose root balls were contained in bushel baskets.  We thought it would be perfect for my parents who lived out of town on a lot with lots of poplars, elms, and maples, but no evergreens.  After we'd used it for a Christmas tree, Dad could plant it.  There was a caveat, however; the seller said that if the tree were brought indoors he couldn't guarantee that it would make the transition back outdoors.  But we decorated it; Dad planted it; and it turned browner and browner through the spring.  Dad finally dug it up and found that there was no root ball; it had been chopped off like every other Christmas tree.

The first year after Dan and I separated, Veronica and I set out with the toboggan to buy a tree at a kiosk in our neighbourhood.  It was the coldest day yet, and dark, though star lit.  It seems, in retrospect, always the coldest day when we went looking for a tree.  But the long-needled Douglas fir, fragrant and thick, fit nicely on our long toboggan.  Veronica, who was seven at the time, sat backwards on the toboggan hanging onto the trunk, and we hushed through the snow in the starlight.  I have always felt that this was how you should bring home a tree.

I can still see a teen-aged Veronica and her best friends, Sara McQuarrie and Jenny Noland sitting in front of the Christmas tree to have their annual gift exchange.  Unlike Sara and Jenny, Veronica had no brothers.  I baked, as I always have.  We had about any kind of tea in the house you could want.  So Christmas happened for them in front of our tree.  One year the three of them decided that if Veronica and I ever had a less than perfect tree, that would be the year of the apocalypse.  Once we get the tree decorated, Veronica still sends a photograph to Jenny, and they joke about the apocalypse being averted.  But the trees were never perfect--or all trees are perfect, perhaps.  It's a matter of knowing where to hang the large silver balls to hide a hole.  It is not a matter of cutting off a branch from the bottom and drilling a hole higher up on the trunk and sticking it in--something my father frequently did. 


Bill and I work well together, whether it's building furniture, installing a workable closet for him, or putting up a Christmas tree.  We're calm and methodical.  He does the lifting and carrying, and I lie flat on my stomach to turn the screws that hold the tree in its stand. Then there was the year the just-decorated tree fell forward in slow motion.  I wasn't there; I was probably in the kitchen getting tea and Christmas cookies, but Bill and Veronica tell me that they simply stood, slack-jawed.  There was no time to rescue it, and yet the fall took forever.  That was the year we lost so many of the glass balls.  That year we decided that there was probably a complicated formula showing that the height of a feasible Christmas tree was in inverse proportion to the age of the person turning the screws to hold it up.  (There's probably another formula that calculates when seniors give up on live trees and go artificial.  We're not there yet.  We may never be.)  We've gone for smaller trees, and the ease of getting them up more than makes up for the lack of grandeur.  

For me, Christmas is at least in part a pantheistic holiday, as you might guess from the sheep and birds and owls and the Santa Claus holding Noah's Arc, a giraffe, and an elephant.  Bringing the tree into the house and lighting it with stars acknowledges how central nature is to our lives, how we are nurtured by its beauty even when it's energy is hidden from sight, underground in roots and dens.  As we lean toward the solstice with its almost atavistic threat that the days could just get shorter and shorter until...the lights that we put in the trees are promises to ourselves.  We create what's not there.  

This morning as I came downstairs in the still-dark morning at 7, I could see a glow coming from the living room.  Bill had lighted the tree before he left for work because he knows that sitting in the dark in front of a tree with a cup of coffee and a cat is how I like to begin my December days.  Just as the waning of the light brings a sense of mystery, so the dark mornings  are an invitation to explore parts of our minds we might otherwise ignore.  It's been a year since I undertook this ritual.  What has that year brought?  How have I failed the gifts it laid at my feet.  Where have I found the mysteries that, even in the dark of the year, glow with life and promise?  How will I nurture them? Where will I put down new roots this year?




Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Pleasure and Hope

I still have vivid memories of talking about pleasure to my mother, who was well into her eighties and lived in Florida--so our conversation was unfortunately long distance.  Otherwise, I'd have proved my point--that pleasure is moral--by walking across the room and folding her in a long hug.  If I waited 8 seconds, there would have been the requisite dopamine hit that lifts our spirits.

Instead, I found myself yammering on about Lord of the Rings.  My challenge was both unusual and usual.  My mother married in the forties and perfected domestic existence--pleasure for everyone else--in the fifties.  The fifties were a terrible time to be a wife and mother, as evidenced by the record number of prescriptions for Valium.  Yet we still regard it as the golden age of the family.  When I was pregnant, I read Adrienne Rich's remarkable memoir and study of motherhood, Of Woman Born, and suddenly saw that golden age differently.  It was the time of intricate jellied salads that required patience of the housewife:  each layer had to gel before the next layer was added.  If it was made in a Tupperware mold, then it would probably have a Christmas tree or a flower in the top that needed to be filled with dream cheese or mayonnaise at the last minute. The process said the housewife's time wasn't really worth anything that nurtured anyone, least of all her.  It was a sop to her boredom, a diversion from her lack of autonomy.

I also remember the weekend my mother made Chicken Tarragon, a favourite dish of Jacqueline Kennedy's.  It took an entire Sunday:  the poaching of the chicken breast in tarragon-infused stock, the reduction of the stock, the making of the intricate and delicate white sauce.  I had never tasted tarragon before, and the meal was indeed scrumptious, but along with her pride at successfully cooking a dish made by Jacqueline Kennedy there was a good dose of exhaustion.  

And here's a memory that occasionally startles me, one with its roots in Ladies Home Journal or Women's Day; one from the monthly column titled "Can this marriage be saved?"  I am standing in the front hallway, near the lovely oak door that graced what we would now call a character home.  I have no idea what I said or did that prompted my mother to announce that her first duty was to see that her husband was happy.  His happiness came before that of her children.  This was her clear duty, because if her husband wasn't happy, then the family simply couldn't thrive.  

Here is the source of my unsuccessful attempt to explain Lord of the Rings.  In our weekly conversation across the lines between Regina and Port Charlotte Florida, it is clear that my mother's spirits are flagging, that she is exhausted from continual self-sacrifice--as would have been any woman who still made jellied salads.  I am trying to convince her that taking care of herself by giving herself some simple pleasure--a cup of Constant Comment tea, an ice cream cone, a walk to the nearby park where she could simply sit and be herself, without my father's relentless, bored demands, while she watched the richly entertaining natural world--is moral.  Everything in her socialization had balked at that idea.  You can probably imagine the cycle that arose from her belief that everyone else's happiness mattered, and have probably even seen it:  self-sacrifice, self-sacrifice, and again self-sacrifice until the martyr explodes in anger.

So I was trying to bring the weight of Tolkien to bear in the hopes of staving off the explosion.  It was a silly, futile undertaking.  How could she take characters called Hobbits with names like Frodo, Sam Gam Gee and Pippin seriously?  How could she even imagine them?  But it has always seemed to me that, despite its mega-heroic quest, Lord of the Rings is about the ethics of pleasure.  If your greatest pleasure is a lovely meal, good Longbottom Leaf, and the companionship of the people you love, then you are of the race who can figure out how to return the Ring, which bestows almost unlimited power on the possessor, to Mount Doom.  The hobbits' life goals are intrinsic, not extrinsic.  They're not looking for power; they'd just like some decent pipe weed and time to chat with their friends.

At the end of last week, having finished (re)reading (in some cases) all Woolf's letters and diaries with the pleasure of my morning coffee and my now healthy cat, I decided to turn my morning reading to poetry.  The first book I pulled off my shelf was Dante's Divine Comedy, which I hadn't read since my undergraduate years.  Every morning, under Twig's heavy warmth, with a large mug of Highlander Grogg coffee, I read two or three cantos.  After each canto, I read the wonderful notes, and then re-read the canto.  It is glorious:  Dante knew so much that is subtle and penetrating about human nature, yet manages to convey this (so John Ciardi, the translator, assures me) in the everyday language of mediaeval Italy.  Ciardi, in turn, seems to draw his own poetic power from that simplicity, so that the astounding moments of a beautifully-turned metaphor stand out like candles in Hell.  Here is my favourite from this morning, set in the second circle of hell where the winds drive those who have let their carnal desires betray reason:

As the winds of wintering starlings bear them on
  in their great wheeling flights, just so the blast
  wherries these evil souls through time foregone.

Here, there, up, down, they whirl and, whirling, strain
  with never a hope of hope to comfort them,
  not of release, but even of less pain.

As cranes go over sounding their harsh cry
  leaving the long streak of their flight in air,
  so come these spirits, wailing as they fly.  

There is so much pleasure here, in the tension between the beauty and freedom of the bird images and the lack of freedom of those whose carnal desires are now wherrying (what a great verb!) them through the darkened air.  And then that phrase, "never a hope of hope"!  Hope is tenuous at best, but not being allowed to hope that you can hope, places one of the most important human  undertakings at unimaginable distance.  But my pleasure in Dante's lines is hardly the pleasure sought by those who live in the second and third circles of hell.  Their pleasures not only betrayed reason, but betrayed husbands and wives.  Gluttony focuses on desire at the expense of all else--well-being, friendship, duty as a citizen.  These are not the immoderate pleasures I was suggesting my mother might benefit from.

That cup of tea or home-made shortbread, the ten minutes spent watching the intricate dance of the birds at your feeder, a long hug, finding the words that almost capture what you mean--these are the pleasures with which we can feed ourselves.  Walking the dog or meeting a friend for coffee.  Standing in your garden in a still, sunny day.  They require us, unlike the gluttons or those who give themselves to immoderate and unfaithful carnal passions, to be in this moment, not the next one and the next after that.  Unlike the winds in the second circle of Hell, they stop time briefly.  They remind us how nurturing our everyday experiences can be if we will only pay attention, and they value experience over accomplishment or ownership.  I find such pleasures oddly hopeful.  How can ten minutes spent watching sparrows and purple finches give us such a calm energy to face the world, to write another paragraph or listen to a lover's plaint, a calm energy, even, to be generous?  

In writing of the simple pleasures of kitchen or garden, I am avoiding the more complicated pleasures of buying an expensive pair of shoes, a new car, or a fur coat.  The pleasures' simplicity is also part of their hopefulness:  at that moment, giving a small gift to ourselves, we are autonomous, unlike people who need expensive pleasures and need to have those pleasures seen and validated by others.

What we saw about ten days ago in Paris was an attack on the pleasures of going to a concert, spending an evening in a cafe with friends, or watching a soccer game.  Of course, this attack was presented in part as one founded in religious righteousness:  such pleasures are thought by some to be immoral.  And perhaps Paris was chosen in part because Parisians know how to do pleasure.  But it was also an attack on autonomy.  Like the subjects in Dante's hell, terrorists lack autonomy; they are driven not by the winds of the second circle, but by an ideology that has been shaped with the motive of getting them to do their masters' angry, judgmental will.  But that fresh baguette or cup of thick espresso is a hopeful defiance, a way of  grounding yourself and nurturing yourself in a simple moment that celebrates the freedom you are creating with a simple gesture.