Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Shawna Lemay's essays


After Veronica and I returned from our wonderful trip to Alberta, I needed something slow, calm, and thoughtful to read.  An introvert by nature, I found trying to pass as an extrovert exhausting.  As well, the homebody found the intense attention to driving over several long days taxing.  As I unpacked the books of my wonderful fellow-readers, who so kindly created an audience for Veronica and me--we're all but unknown in Alberta--I thought Shawna Lemay's slim collection of essays, The flower can always be changing, might be exactly what I needed.  I both knew and didn't know Shawna; I had never met her, but we're friends on Facebook and I published some poems and a "secret" in Canadian Poetries when she was curating it.  And of course I am an avid reader of her blog, "Transactions with beauty."  We share that belief in beauty:  how it's not just some nice add-on to our stressed and technology-laced lives, but how it changes us.  At its most basic, beauty takes us out of ourselves, out of our moods and pessimisms, our anger and frustration, by providing, in Elaine Scarry's words "a wake-up call" to a world outside of us that delivers beauty to all our senses:  the smell of fall in the air, the crystalline silk of a rose petal or the soft rich fur of a cat, chocolate or warm bread, the sound of a Bruckner symphony or a loved-one's voice.  The world is made of beauty, not just of the politicians we want to excoriate today.

And because beauty takes us out of ourselves (challenging our narcissism--though we won't name names), there is an ethical element to it.  It trains us to be mindful; it even rewards our mindfulness so that when a friend or a partner or a child or the environment or a cause need our attention, we are ready with an attention that has been trained to slow down and notice carefully.  My manuscript on Virginia Woolf's aesthetics drew my attention to theories of beauty and how they've bloomed since philosophers have spent less time trying to define art--a hopeless undertaking because, I think, definitions of art are always personal.  There's Elaine Scarry above; there's also Alexander Nehamas's Only a promise of happiness and Roger Scruton's Beauty--which takes up the very useful idea of daily beauty.  I love Nehemas for two reasons.  One is that he says beautiful things promise wisdom, insight, meaning, and so we go back to them again and again.  This mindful quest seems to me part of what I might call "the good life," the attentive life.  The second is that he says we can't define beauty, so we have to talk about it.  Conversations, it seems to me, are like beauty:  challenging and comforting at the same time.

This idea that beauty requires, and maybe even facilitates conversations takes me back to Shawna's book.  Beauty permeates The flower can always be changing--with its helpful Woolfian reference.  I can only give you a general feel for the book because it's so complex and because some of its essays are only a few paragraphs long.  It has to be quaffed whole.  There are beautiful images in the book--no surprise given the way the visual arts permeate Shawna's life and her practice.  There is beautiful language--precise and evocative, language used always to reveal and touch, not hide and obfuscate.  There is beauty in the consonance between form and content (which I'll write about below).  And there is beauty in her effort to touch each reader, to start a conversation.  

"A Flower Held Up to the Light" is one of the many essays that considers how our difficulty connecting with one another might be facilitated by beauty:  "A flower held up to the light might express my hope for mutual comprehension and a spontaneous tenderness toward the open space between us."  In "The Held Breath," the beautiful provides a doorway to the spiritual:  "My daily practice includes taking photographs and this has refined my looking and changed who I am as a being. When we breathe in and hold that breath taking a photographs, we breathe in light, an instant of light.  We enter the vestibule of what is holy.  It enters us."  Parallel to 'inspiration,' a word whose etymology goes back to breathing in, taking a photograph reminds us that the world is impossibly rich and connects us with the world's holiness through our own mindful attention.  Later in the same essay, Shawna tells the reader that "What I want in my quiet life is to be a persistent witness to splendor."

For Shawna, beauty has an ethical component.  Shawna writes honestly of compassion fatigue, particularly in the midst of winter, but she also strives to overcome it when a man collapses in a heap on the floor of the library where she works.  Or she considers compassion from another perspective altogether.  Home from a family trip to New York City and visit to museums there, Shawna considers the "Museum Problem," an exercise in imagining where you can put security guards to cover the greatest territory, and the Museum Problem gives birth to a metaphor:  "I'm thinking of the guard in the museum, her sightlines, and wondering if our responsibility to others could resemble this a bit.  That we have an obligation, even, to heroically guard, watch over each others' paths, desire lines.  A greater obligation, maybe, to imagine the invisible tracery of where the soul has travelled."  Beauty and ethics permeate her practice in a startling and wonderful way:  "As a poet I've believed part of my task is to be an instrument of peace.  To describe that landscape of loneliness...for a friend, so that we may all feel less alone, more at peace."



 Shawna's essays have taught me something about the form.  Essay, as she point out to us, means "to try." and she claims nothing more for her work.  But it may not surprise us, given her sense of the link between poetry and ethics, that the words "to try" refer not only to what the essayist is doing, but to what we are all doing.  In moments when I'm feeling discouraged or judgmental, I remind myself that most of us are just trying to do our best and, because we're human, often falling short.  Of course, we all know of people whose idea of 'doing their best' is not the result of sincere self-reflection or of awareness of the needs of others.  But that, frankly, isn't the person for whom Shawna is writing.  Shawna gives us a clear sense of the audience of these essays that "try" when she writes of our successes and failures "This is the way it is.  All of these moments and gestures sometimes getting things right and sometimes getting them wrong.  All of us are moving from flower to flower."  I can only begin to unpack that rich metaphor in which our search for beauty in our lives and in our souls takes us from experience to experience, also in the realm, like the many many flowers in this collection, of the beautiful.  Implicit in the metaphor is also the compassion she has for those of us who "try."

Shawna also taught me something about the essayists' voice.  I wrote at the beginning that I both know and don't know Shawna.  But she lets the reader into the joys and the struggles of her life--a life at the beginning of middle age, while I am rather toward the end (if not onto the next phase altogether).  But her reflections on the invisibility of the mid-career female writer, on the puzzles of friendships, on attempting to cope with winter by buying bouquets of flowers from Safeway, made me realize that the friendliness of the essayists' voice is one of her greatest assets.  She walks alongside the reader when the attempts to create a beautiful life have failed--or have been eclipsed by life's shadows:  "I wanted to get at how to make the ordinary life a masterpiece even though my own often includes this quite dreary feeling that I've forgotten how to live.  To be bright eyed, and alive."  Or, a few pages later, this:  "I'm asking you to believe I'm in full command of the strategies I employ, even when I don't so much lack faith in them myself but understand that there is a certain madness in the process, and that what happens in that swirling fever of creativity past any analysis is also a form of hope."

Read this book, have a conversation with it.  Then leave it on your bedside table for those long, sleepless winter nights when you need someone to talk to.


Thursday, August 1, 2019

On Change

I find it disconcerting that what we see depends so much on how we are looking--with what mindset, what focus, in what direction.  Even physics has enshrined this truth in Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, which asserts that "the more precisely the position of some particle is determined, the less precisely its momentum can be known."  Or if you can calculate the momentum, you lose track of the speed.  (And this, of course, gives me a chance to tell my favourite Heisenberg joke.  The story goes like this:  he was screaming down the L.A. expressway in his little red sports car at a terrifying speed when the police pulled him over.  The officer asked "Do you know how fast you were going?"  Heisenberg answered "No.  But I know exactly where I am.") 

I've seen this fact about our attention in my awareness of the light this summer.  Approaching the summer solstice, I pay various kinds of attention to the light.  Mostly I'm chuckling over the minutes of daylight my weather ap tells me we are gaining over the next week.  Or my head is in the soil:  I'm planting my vegetable garden or putting in new perennials where the last two brutal winters have killed their ancestors off.  I'm smelling fragrant compost and studying the crystalline near-transparency of my old roses.  I'm watching for rain or for the seeds in my garden to begin to unfurl, to figure out which is up, and to stretch into the light.

As we move past the solstice, I've been noticing something entirely different:  how the light arrives in my back yard in a different place every week or so, giving me the shadows of branches dancing against my fence one week, sending late-afternoon light into my east-facing kitchen by way of a reflection in my neighbour's windows the next week.  I know I should be watching this process with foreboding:  each change in the light brings us closer to the shorter days of the year.  But while I know this intellectually, the only thing I can feel is wonder:  that the days are sending me these little surprises and little mysteries.  Last night I was out just before dusk, and the apricot light was changed both by the setting sun and by the way the breeze moved the many trees that line the west side of my yard.  It was breath-taking, and in an odd way time-stopping:  I couldn't help pausing in my reading Rebecca West's The Fountain Overflows to simply watch the light and the trees.

Often, I don't feel so sanguine about change.  I feel immense foreboding about how we have given over so much of our attention to our cell phones, so that we're ignoring the people we are talking to or the children holding our hands, or not noticing how glorious today's breeze is.  How, my inner eco-terrorist asks, are we going to do all the complicated things, make all the inconvenient sacrifices to save a planet we're not noticing?  And then beyond that, I think of everything Katherine Arbuthnott has taught me about our interdependence with nature--how it makes us kinder, physically and mentally healthier, smarter, less stressed out.  We need nature for our well-being. 

And then, of course, when the answer presents itself with a late afternoon traffic jam or the evening's news, I note the rise of impatient drivers or autocrats who flaunt their racism and their sexism.  In the rudeness and stupidity and stress that we see all around us in politics and grocery store lines, we can see already where this incipient unkind, physically and mentally unwell, stressed out culture is going. In The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011), Steven Pinker argued persuasively that most nations have widened the umbrellas of rights and protections given to their citizens--to include women, people of all races, LGBTQ, the handicapped, for example.  Some places are considering whether nature has rights.  

But something about the world's most recent manifestation--is it the immense pressure of refugees, the loss of well-paying industrial jobs to AI, or our belief in our carefully-curated Facebook personas--has many of us shouting "Me!  Me!  Me!  I'm the king of the castle and you're outta here!"  I should point to Martha Nussbaum's Monarchy of Fear, which I've written about elsewhere, for a more cogent, less impressionistic analysis of the current moment, urging you to read it along with Steven Pinker.

But let's go back to change, which is really the subject of my wonder and my anxiety here.  I've noticed that we seldom back-track on change, especially where there are sunk costs.  No one has said "Well, the internal combustion engine was a big mistake.  It's made us unhealthier and more isolated.  It's hard on the planet.  Let's backtrack."  I doubt many of us are going to give up our cellphones, though if you need to remember how to cope without them, you can ask me.   And while you are looking at your screen, remember occasionally to stop and take stock of the effect it's having on your life.  Remember that, for the most part, you only see what you're looking at, and this change has occurred with such seamless rapidity that it's invisible to many of us.

One of the antidotes to my anxiety about change is curiosity; another is magpie (or bower bird) reading--my habit of reading and collecting a lot of information trinkets to take them out of my pocket to study when I'm cutting vegetables for pasta primavera or weeding my garden. Much of my magpie reading makes clear how inventive people are--and indeed, much of that inventiveness has gone into making cell phones helpful.  I'm not a complete Luddite.  But consider this:  in England doctors are now making "social prescriptions" for their patients, many of which involve art.  The doctors send patients to their artists in residence, who know what is going on in the community.  If you are having trouble breathing or if you are isolated, the artist may recommend that you join a choir--and if you are nervous about going, the artist will go with you the first time.  Or you might be sent to an art gallery or to a painting class.  Creativity, like nature, is good for us, and the research is starting to show this clearly.

Here's another such story about ingenuity.  An engineer from India, Shubhendu Sharma, has started a business that helps communities grow forests--though if you want to do it yourself, he'll send you the instructions for free.  While he still worked for Toyota, he heard Akira Miyawaki speak at his plant before Miyawaki used his method to return part of the industrial site to forest.  Sharma decided one day to remove the grass from his 75-square metre back yard and put in 224 saplings of 19 different species, planting them thickly and spoiling them for their first three years by ensuring they had enough water.  He noticed the effects almost immediately:  birds and other creatures moved in, creating biodiversity.  Monsoon rains didn't flood his tract.  It was almost 5 degrees cooler under the trees than in the un-treed areas around his house.

Miyawaki, a Blue Planet award-winning botanist, studied phytosociology--the way plants interact with one another.  This area of study is growing and disseminating in books like Richard Powers's The Overstory, Richard M. Ketchum's The Secret Life of the Forest, and Peter Wohlleben's The Hidden Life of Trees.  We now know that forests are a kind of organism, not a collection of individuals, for example.  These books not only answer our curiosity about trees; they also implicitly (if not explicitly) address one of the greatest of our climate change challenges. Since 1990, the world has lost forested areas the size of two Texases, contributing about 17% of to our global carbon output.  When Miyawaki was first considering how to re-make the forests that had been lost, he visited Shinto sites to understand how their small forests managed to thrive, "showing how indigenous forest was layered together from four categories of native plantings: main tree species, sub-species, shrubs, and ground-covering herbs" (Lela Nargi, "The Miwaywaka Method:  a better way to build forests?  Found on J-Stor Daily). 

Using the strategy later followed by Sharma, Miyawaki created a system for recreating these "indigenous" forests that Sharma has turned into a grid for planting and advice on native plants.  What difference can these tiny forests make?  "Sharma is adamant that the impact of even very small forests on local communities is significant enough to matter. Research from Wageningen University in the Netherlands, which found increased fungi, bacteria, pollinators, and amphibians on two tiny planted forest sites in urban Zaanstad that were based on Sharma’s models" (Nargi) suggested these small forests had a significant impact.

A few days after reading Nargi's essay, I watched a documentary that was part of David Suzuki's "The Nature of Things" on fire.  The research is clear:  climate change is contributing to more forest fires which, as they burn, release an incredible amount of carbon into the atmosphere which in turn makes global warming worse.  Suzuki revealed that around the world researchers have turned their curiosity and ingenuity to learning how fires behave.  But I found the last segment of the documentary most interesting.  This explored how the ancient knowledge of Australian Aborigines is teaching us that a "mosaic" or patchwork" system small fires can lessen the occurrence of major fires like "the beast" around Fort McMurry. Fire made culture possible, Dean Yibarbuck knows; it is both helpful and symbolic; it must be treated with respect before it destroys his people's cultural heritage on nearby rock paintings.  And he has the ancestral knowledge to ensure the well-being of the forests.

Change and being deliberate about where you are looking.  What these examples share is the creation of positive change that involves looking backward, to ancient spiritual or cultural practices, in order to address modern challenges.  These examples also remind us that however benighted our leaders are, however wrongheaded some changes are, we can keep hope alive by looking elsewhere, most likely closer to home or on the ground, on the front lines of lived experience.  People are inventive:  don't forget that.    

Saturday, July 20, 2019

On Tiredness

There are elements of being sixty-nine (seventy next March) that I welcome.  There's perspective--but the minute I write that I realize the word should be plural.  I've lived, fairly self-consciously and awarely, through a lot of history.  I remember the assassinations of Kennedy and King, the impeachment proceedings against Nixon and his resignation.  (Hell, I even remember his sweaty upper lip.)  I remember Civil Rights marches and integration, though because I went to a high school already half African American, I didn't experience it.  I also have what I think of as psychic perspective, an intimate and long-standing knowledge of the ways of my own psyche.  I know when its switch has shifted from its "I can do this!" position to its "I can't do this," and I have a pretty good sense of what to do about that.  And then there's the human condition perspective that looks at some of the things that happen to me and to the people who are around me, and I simply admit that, much as it sucks, this is part of the human condition and experience. Bill's helped me nurture that one.

One of the reasons I retired was that I feared sleeping through a class in the comfy chair in my office.  I had perfected the half hour nap:  I could look at my watch as I settled down in my Ikea chair, and decide when I'd wake up, and do just that.  But I was becoming so much more tired that I feared that some day I'd start a class discussion on, say, Lisa Moore's February, put my head down on the podium, and let my wonderful CanLit students have at it.  I thought this was because life in the academy had become so hard and we were--we are--simply overextended.  For a while after retirement, I maintained that illusion.  Or I'd remember that the year of my first sabbatical, which was also Nikka's first year at McGill, I'd work away on my scholarship or on Blue Duets all day, only to call "nap time!" to the cats at around three or four.  Nutmeg and Ariel would dutifully join me in bed and we'd have a half hour nap.  

Many days now are fine and simply require the same half hour nap, though perhaps earlier in the day.  And then there are days--too many to ignore any longer--when I'm simply tired.  Initially I flailed through these furiously, impatiently.  My cats, Lyra and Tuck now, still know to come for nap time, and often I begin my afternoon calling them and doing some reading with cats and feeling pleasantly centred:  what can be better than heavy, sleepy cats and good  books?  But once I could no longer make sense of the words of Mark Anielski's Economics of Happiness or Gilbert White's A Natural History of Selborne, I distrusted myself to wake up in the requisite half hour.  Losing half an hour from my writing day was all right--I'd just think of it as two coffee breaks--but losing a whole hour was intolerable.  So I'd set my iPad timer for thirty minutes, often struggling when it went off to be conscious enough to make a sensible decision.  I'd set it for ten minutes more.  Then five minutes more.  Sometimes I gave up on setting it at all and would awake to realize it was time to go for a workout.  The self-flagellation is difficult to describe, as is the disappointment, the discouragement.  I have plans for these years!  So wake up already!

And then I started to notice something.  (This is where perspective comes in handy.)  I was making my tired days worse by fighting them.  One day I simply looked back over the tired day--both the experiences and the accomplishments--and realized that it had actually been fine.  If I could lose the self-flagellation, maybe....?  I began to realize that tired days require mindfulness, a different kind of mindfulness, perhaps with a bit more inventiveness.  On tired days, I'm still good for three or four hours writing in the morning.  But I might read the charming Gilbert White--his Natural History of Selborne has been continuously in print since he published it in 1789--rather than economics.  I might give myself time to piece or quilt and to use the quiet of thread traveling through a quilt to listen to the birds, to the life of the neighbourhood, or to a podcast.  I might think I was too tired to garden, but I could go out and see how things were, pull a couple of weeds, water the new shrubs I've planted, try to convince the clematis to spread herself over more of her trellis, or pick some lettuce, and in my leisurely mindfulness, gardening was a balm, not a chore.  

Mindfulness, however, does nothing about the creeping bellflower that I need to dig out of my front garden before it takes over.  Nor does it take care of Trump's most recent and most terrifying assault on people of colour and on women.  It doesn't sort out Brexit or give a safe place to the children the United States government is holding in what amounts to prisons, separated from their parents--a loss that will colour their entire lives.  We are living through a time that makes us all tired--helpless, defiant, horrified as we all are.  But Hannah Arendt--even Hannah Arendt, who studied evil--tells us that we can look away when there is nothing we can do and when looking away amounts to self-defense.  We can't make a habit of it, but we can make a habit of being kinder to the people around us, a habit of asking our politicians to be better.

Still, I've found mindfulness solves a lot of things, from  how to shape a garden to patient curiosity about a friend's despair.  Doubtless Shawna Lemay could write a better celebration of mindfulness--and I mean to write soon about her wonderful book of essays, The Flower Can Always Be Changing.  And I'll tell  you about Gilbert White's endless observations about nature--a kind of mindfulness in itself.  But I have a feeling that if your puzzle is local--your state of mind, a partner's behaviour, the irate customer in front of you at the grocery story--mindfulness is a good place to start. 


Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Francis Willughby enlightens us about birds

This post should have two beginnings.  Here's the first.  I think the one basic thing a university should do for each student, regardless of his or her chosen program, is to teach them to think about how they think.  Particularly now, when social media has become a conduit for misinformation--often vicious misinformation--we all need to query how we know what we know:  whether this fact conforms to that truth; whether this tweet simply confirms we we have always believed about immigration, race, hatred, inequality, or whether it offers some new insight that challenges our beliefs.  Because I have always believed this, I often began my classes with a small history the enlightenment project, which began, some believe, with Descartes' pronouncement "I think; therefore I am," or with the publication of Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica.  Perhaps the easiest way to think about this shift is to think about the replacement of lore with experiment.  Living in a world that God had graced with meaning, we thought we could safely assume that occasionally He sent us helpful messages in the structure of the world around us.  A plant whose leaves look like lungs was thus named lungwort and was thought to be  helpful when a patient was having difficulties with his lungs.  But with the Enlightenment project, which challenged the authority of both church and aristocracy, the individual becomes the source of truths.  That individual is challenged to ascertain, through experiment or close observation, the truths she stood behind.  And the individual is given this authority through belief in liberty and through the separation of church and state.  It's hard for me to say which came first, liberty or experiment, but one can see that they need to exist in tandem for the individual's observations to be freely undertaken and given credence.  Almost three centuries later, these notions remain rather abstract for students.

So let me begin again.  I have been working on some poems about the natural world, poems that seek to do two things.  One is to assume that the natural world has its own culture.  I'm trying, then, to encourage the reader to see nature differently--not less than our "civilized" world with its free markets and its technology, but parallel to it in ways that we all benefit from.  The second is to make these poems as crystalline and transparent as I could--simple, almost, though not simplistic.  This project was not, however, going to make a whole book, so when I serendipitously ran across Andrea Wulf's biography of the great nineteenth-century naturalist, Alexander von Humboldt, I fell down a rabbit hole.  What if I were to balance my idiosyncratic observations about nature's culture with poems about the work of naturalists--running from Linnaeus and Gilbert White to Catherine Parr Traill and Rachel Carson?  Characteristically, I began reading in a landscape I knew, devouring Thoreau's Walden and his volumes upon volumes of journals, or with Whitman's thousands of pages of Specimen Days.  How was I possibly going to find the moment, the detail, the point of illumination that opened Thoreau's or Whitman's ideas up to the reader, teasing them in the way some orchids tease in their pollinator?  It turns out that I have found one of these for Whitman--his assertion that he can hear spring.  And as Thoreau's journals turn from a kind of philosophical meditation on the natural world to rigorous walks to discover what nature is doing today, the question "how long?" rings again and again, as he wonders how long this shrub or this flower has been blooming.

But it was a review of Tim Birkhead's The Wonderful Mr Willughby:  The First True Ornithologist that took me right back to the front lines of the Enlightenment and helped me start my reading in a sensible place, though it is clear to me that I have a lot of wonderful, hopeful reading to do.  What can be more hopeful than scientists' efforts to understand the natural world, which seems in many ways shaped for human thriving yet beyond our understanding?  If you don't mind, I'll take you on my journey, and as I write about these scientists I can come closer to the moment in each of their lives that will open into a poem. 

As a young Cambridge-educated man of some means, Francis Willughby and his closest friend and tutor, John Ray, undertook (along with Philip Skippon and Nathaniel Bacon) a different kind of Grand Tour of the continent in 1663.  Their stops included botanical gardens, apothecaries' shops--full of cabinets of curiosities, medical and otherwise.  In Venice, they frequently visited the market where birds were sold and returned again and again to the fish market.  And here is where we see the difference Mr Willughby made.

"The key to the new science was the organisation of knowledge," Birkhead tells us.  "Although the scientific revolution sought to overturn much of Aristotle's thinking, it was, at the same time, based on two fundamental Aristotelian assumptions.  First, that there was order in nature."   I'm inclined here to say--again--that everything is political.  Willughby and Ray, along with other Britons, had seen the British Civil War as chaotic. Birkhead writes of the connection between science and politics, "Order was uppermost in many people's minds.  The Civil War had created monumental and awful disorder, so consciously or unconsciously the quest for order was paramount and classification and quantification became the foundation of the new science" (46).  Many seventeenth-century scientists believed that their task was to uncover or reveal God's order, which was manifest in the natural world.  The Enlightenment thus fostered much "citizen science."  But what to do with Francis Willughby's discovery of a buzzard  unlike any seen before in England--besides name it "Willughby's Buzzard"?  Under the protection of Charles II, the Royal Society was created and dedicated to the discovery, organization, and dissemination of knowledge.  As well, Patricia Fara argues in her provocatively title Sex, Botany, and Empire, the second task of the Royal Society was to spread the idea of empirical thinking throughout Britain.  Unfortunately, there was a dark side to this massive effort to create fuller knowledge of the natural world:  we can't ignore the fact that many of the journeys taken to gain knowledge of, say, Tahiti or Australia, were also meant to enlarge the British Empire.   

But what we don't quite understand, outside of a biography like this one, is the set of challenges that created barriers to apperceiving such an order.  First:  names.  Most birds had names that were largely local, so Willughby and Ray were going to need to create the name.  Second:  sex.  Quite often, as Willughby and Ray proceeded, they found that a new species theorized by an amateur ornithologist was really just the female of another species.

The second Aristotelian principle is the idea that an organism had an "'essence' -- what made it it" (45). And discovering what made a creature itself was going to involve shooting a lot of birds and dissecting them.  What Willughby and Ray contributed to the knowledge of birds was careful observation.  Before a dissection, Willughby patiently described myriad details of a bird's appearance, right down to the colour of eyelids or whether they had hairy toes, the number of feathers on a wing or a tail.  Dissection would tell them whether they had a male or female, of course.  But they also observed, for example, the length of the digestive tract, finding similarities between birds otherwise not recognized.  

Willughby returned to England, settled down, eventually married, though only four years before his premature death.  At that time, he left John Ray to complete the Ornithology and two other books on fish and insects.  The Ornithology was very successful, largely because of Willughby's careful and precise descriptions and because of the engravings that helped a birdwatcher identify a bird--though being black and white and being copied from paintings, they were not as useful as they might have been.  But "Ray's Ornithology," as it came to be called, published in Latin in 1676 (making it accessible to scientists who did not speak English) and in English in 1678, contributed much to the knowledge of birds and set a new standard for scientific writing.  This was not only due to the careful observation and precise descriptions that Willughby provided. When other writers of the time needed to flesh out areas beyond their own expertise, they often simply plagiarized from other books on birds, keeping errors and mistakes in circulation. More than one mythological birds endured because writers plagiarized from one another.

Birkhead talks exuberantly about coming on the Willughby family archive and finding a cabinet of curiosities that still held eggs labelled in Willughby's hand.  But there is an enormous gap in the archive insofar as it contains little of Willughby's own writing--the diary he kept while on his tour of the continent, for example.  His voice only lives in a handful of questions he left behind him.  He wanted to know about the smallest distinct features of birds, like the tomial tooth--a "hook on each side of the upper mandible"  or the varied colour of irises of birds like the petrel and the albatross.  Willughby and Ray's attention to such details and their ability to see a pattern in them led them to a classification system that Birkhead calls "ingenious and effective"--far better than anything Linnaeus proposed.  Though they did not ask why birds had a tomial tooth or a long digestive tract.  that would come later. 

Willughby also wanted to know about why some birds lay more hens than cocks--which only reveals his inability to distinguish between nature--which dictates that there are about as many hens as cocks--and culture, which eliminates too many cocks in a henhouse.  He wanted to know why some cocks had large testes, and intuited what we now know:  that in birds who are inclined to be promiscuous, the cock needs to produce more sperm.  He wanted to know "What birds hide themselves or change places, whether in winter or summer" (201)  There were all kinds of theories about what birds did to remain alive during the winter, including Linneaus's silly theory that swallows spent the winter hunkered down in mud.  Questions about the migrations of birds remained an issue in 1789 when Gilbert White published his wonderful book--never out of print--The Natural History of Selborne.  It would be several hundred years more before we learned that black-capped chickadees and hummingsbirds drop their internal temperatures on winter nights so they have sufficient fat to keep them alive (200).  In scientists' struggle to understand how birds adapt to harsh environments, whether they migrate or enter torpor or mini-hibernations, we come across a kind of problem that the Enlightenment struggled to solve:  how do you understand what isn't there, what you can't see?

Friday, April 5, 2019

Retreat


I began my last post by noting how brutal February had been; can I begin this one the same way?  I have been struggling with my writing for a handful of reasons, winter being only one of these.  The need for naps being another.  Lack of confidence a third.  So, inspired by Shawna Lemay, who wrote in one of her lovely blogs about living simply, I decided to organize my own artist's retreat.  I could, of course, have gone to St. Peter's College, where the Saskatchewan Writers' Guild organizes a winter retreat.  And I have often thrived on retreats, partly because the monastic rooms you are given focus your mind, partly because someone else takes care of everything, particularly meals.  My first retreat was at Emma Lake, where the inimitable Anne Pennylegion, the scenery, the wonderful food, and the visual artists who had joined us, created a magical space and context for writing.  My second was at the Banff Centre, where, because I was free to go in the fall, I had a cabin in the woods all to myself--complete with grand piano.  I hadn't expected the piano, but the Banff Centre has a wonderful library, and I was able to take out the music I was working on at the time.  And then there are the sublime mountains, about which I can say nothing original.

My third retreat was at St. Peter's, where Anne was once again in attendance, bringing with her the little net-covered gazebo where we often met at the end of the day.  But St. Peter's, for me, had a significant downside:  the food.  As Virginia Woolf has famously observed, "The human frame being what it is, heart, body and brain all mixed together, and not contained in separate compartments as they will be no doubt in another million years, a good dinner is of great importance to good talk.  One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well."  A good breakfast is also of importance to good writing:  beginning a day on disspiriting....well, enough said.   As well, there is no husband who wants to read what I'd written at the end of my day, and there are no cats.  (Lyra has just curled up on the ironing board with his shoulder next to the computer.)  I go on retreats for two reasons.  One is the kind of focus that comes from taking myself seriously as a writer while I let other people take care of practical details.  The other is for conversation with people who know something about the demons I battle.

So, inspired by Shawna, I began planning a home retreat, dealing with logistics first.  My PLR cheque had come, and I wasn't going to use it for gas (this was a "green" retreat) or food and lodging.  But I could use it to go to a small business in Regina called Wallnuts (I couldn't resist the name!), where they sell frozen meals they've made themselves--all of which have home-grown herbs in them.  Bill and I could also go out for dinner occasionally, courtesy PLR.  Bill and I usually do our dishes by hand because we use less water that way, but PLR would also run the dishwasher, and I'd have more energy for reading in the evening.


Logistics taken care of, I had to think about rules.  When I am on retreat, I do not listen to the news.  I do not check Facebook.  I open a browser only for information.  When I'm on retreat, I do not run errands or pay bills.  (Damn!  I couldn't dodge needing to clean the litter every day.)  I always have music; when I was at Emma Lake and the Banff Centre, I took my guitar.  And I always have something for my hands to do, some knitting, or some hand quilting or piecing because sometimes I need to feel like I am solving one problem (how am I going to get these Y-seams to meet) while I'm really solving another (why is my character misbehaving?  I've started this poem all wrong, and now I can't turn it around and it's a disaster.  Can't I find another opening onto the material?)  To the left you see some flowers I'm making out of traditional blocks for a garden quilt I'm planning.  The Y-seams all meet.

Really, it was the rules (and the frozen dinners) that made those two weeks a retreat.  It was the decision to be disciplined and focused and to do what was best for my writing and my psyche.  And some of those rules have stayed in my life.  I'm on Facebook less, which is probably going to be a problem in the long run as I lose track of all you wonderful people, but really, this novel is not behaving and I need to FOCUS.  I keep up with far less news, which right now is a good thing, right?  I have never seen train wrecks happen so slowly--whether we're talking about SNC-Lavalin or the Mueller report--and it doesn't need my attention.  I also learned, because I tried to push myself too hard, that I need to have time each day to "play" with fabric or yarn.  There's a connection between textiles and my subconscious--or between my brain and my  hands--that I shouldn't question but should just give in to.  Knitting a few rows or appliquing a few leaves isn't "wasted time."
I also learned to trust my creative process.  Sometimes I would look askance at my plans for spending three hours reading The Globe and Mail, but I'd do it, and whaddaya know?  I was right:  I needed to find the right context for this scene.  I listened to Dianne Warren, who told us at a Saskatchewan Writers' Guild workshop that we didn't need to write a novel chronologically, and pulled out a single strand of my plot to focus on.  I should just find ways to take my work--not myself, but my work--seriously.  And I remembered that my "Just be curious" mantra applies to my creative life.  It applies, above all, to other people and to my creative life.

Conversations about the creative life?  I managed to time my retreat to begin a few days before my poetry group met, and as usual Troni, Melanie, and Medrie were wonderful companions for a walk through the meadows made of our desire to create art.  A few days later, dee Hobsbawn-Smith came down to Regina for two workshops at the Guild, and stayed overnight.  We jammed an awful lot of talk about craftsmanship and recalcitrant plots and revision into an evening and the next morning.  Friends.  Friends make the creative life possible, even bearable on some days. 

Friday, March 22, 2019

Time and the Still Life


In the middle of Regina's brutal, relentless February--too cold and too cloudy--I had the good fortune to visit ceramicist Ruth Chambers in her studio at the University of Regina.  She had been creating bulbs out of porcelain she colours for that purpose, and walking into her space was like walking into promise.  Ruth explained that she's been thinking for a while about a connection between ceramics and the still life, making a variety of things like shrimps or pea pods, when her attention was captured by a pair of flower bulbs.  She says that these were not initially what she had in mind--as she worked them over, almost obsessively--when she had one of those aesthetic explosions that creative people so look forward to.  She began to model bulbs in the process of growing--keep in the refrigerator between "sittings" as it were.

The still life as a genre of painting already has a richly problematic relationship with time.  The finished painting, some argue, has the temporality of the mere seconds it takes the viewer to apprehend it.  (Others, of course, say that it takes time to appreciate all the detail and understand how the details coalesce in the final image.)  As a finished image, it purportedly represents a single moment that the painter has, over time, captured.  But if you look closely at many still lives, you will see the evidence of passing time:  a butterfly that has died and lies on a damask cloth, roses that have drooped, slight brown edges on a chrysanthemum.  Many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century painters of still life record the decay their bouquets undergo as they paint them.  Similarly, Ruth wants to make sculptures that are grounded in the careful, almost obsessive attention to the object itself.  As well, some of her sequences (unfortunately, these photographs didn't come out very well), which capture the bulb at various points in its flowering, make time part of what she is capturing.

But since I was in an artist's studio, I wanted to consider time in another way.  Or perhaps I should say I wanted to consider the timelessness of craftsmanship.  The mark of a true craftsman, one is reminded by this improbable capturing of something so tender and mutable in a medium as permanent as porcelain, is that the craftsman is willing to take whatever time is necessary to achieve the artist's vision.  Maybe that is one of the things that makes me nervous about our cellphone and Google immediacy:  are we still going to have the tender patience to create things like this?  Ruth talked about another experience of time when she is working on her bulbs:  time disappears as she is reduced to observing eyes and problem-solving hands that are trying to figure out how to sculpt the individual florets of a hyacinth.

 Ruth talked as well about engaging with the "metaphysics of the object"--the way a thing is more than itself, more than a thing.  I probably alluded to that above when I said that I felt like I'd entered promise when I walked into the studio:  an entirely different frame of mind than that I'd brought from the snowy outdoors.  There is also some way that these small sculptures emphasize the distinction between original and artwork:  is anything less like an almost transparent tulip petal than a medium as finally stiff as porcelain?


But there is another temporal quality that figures for me here.  On the wall beside Bill Reid's monumental sculpture "Raven and the First Men" at the University of British Columbia's Museum of Anthropology, is a quotation from the maker.  In some ways, Reid's wood carving, which is so large it has its own rotunda, couldn't be less like Ruth's tenuous porcelain flowers.  In other ways, the similarity couldn't be clearer.  He writes "One basic quality unites all the works of mankind that speak to us in human, recognizable voices across the barriers of time, culture, and space:  the simple quality of being well-made."

Monday, February 11, 2019

Coffee Houses

Yesterday at lunch, I was reading Ernest Hemingway's "A clean, well-lighted place," when I began to think that if the story had been set in Italy rather than in Spain, the ending could have been much more upbeat.  In Spain, bars were about the only place open late at night, whereas in Italy bars are also coffee shops, so the old man and the old waiter could have shared a congenial espresso at the end of the story rather than going home to their respective lonelinesses.  I know, I know, that's completely misunderstanding the point of the story--which is to affirm the "nada-ness" of life.  Whereas "the coffeehouse is the ideal place, as Viennese wit Alfred Poger once put it, for people who want to be alone but need company for it."



I love coffee shops.  If I'm not mistaken, my generation has seen a shift in how we live our social lives.  Instead of a woman cooking for most of the day to serve a fancy dinner that night, we now meet at Naked Bean, French Press, or Brewed Awakenings.  Now, our social lives employ people--people who need jobs, and our weekends are our own, something we very much need in a time when jobs take more time than they do and 24/7 availability is expected.

I like eavesdropping in coffee shops, capturing snapshots of other people's lives.  Bill and I breakfast out on Saturday morning, where we make up the week's menus and grocery lists before we do the shopping.  There's a group of about six that meets most weekends and talks respectfully and quietly about scrabble words, resources for families with a member who has Alzheimers, house renovations, vacations to Hawaii, the challenges of 'instant families.'  They give you the rich flavour of the human family--its curiosities and its challenges.

Coffee houses have a long history.  Jurgen Habermas lists coffee houses--along with the penny post and the novel--for The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, as he titled his study.  Coffee houses offered reputable places for people, mostly men, to come together and talk about politics and ideas, and in that setting they created a current of thought and opinion robust enough to wrest the public sphere from the exclusive purview of the British aristocracy.  Bach, in an attempt to raise his stock and convince audiences he was still in style, wrote a cantata about coffee whose translated title is "Be still.  Stop chattering"--the closest thing to an opera--the most popular genre of his later years--he ever composed.  It was written for the Collegium Musicum, a group that played in Zimmermann's Coffee House--one of Bach's own haunts.  Aria's father is concerned that she is addicted to coffee, but she sees it differently:  
Father sir, but do not be so harsh!
If I couldn't, three times a day,
be allowed to drink my little cup of coffee,
in my anguish I will turn into
a shriveled-up roast goat.
Ah! How sweet coffee tastes,
more delicious than a thousand kisses,
milder than muscatel wine.
Coffee, I have to have coffee,
and, if someone wants to pamper me,
ah, then bring me coffee as a gift!
In a parallel plot line, Aria's father, Schlendrian, is trying to find his daughter a suitor.  She tells each of her father's candidates that she won't marry anyone who will deprive her of her three cups a day, and through a series of attempts to manipulate suitors and father--father is afraid his daughter will refuse to marry--Aria not only finds a suitable husband, but has her right to three cups a day written into her marriage agreement.

If you are old enough, you will remember the arrival of Starbucks.  In 1983, a specialty coffee roaster from Seattle hired Howard Schultz and sent him to Italy.  Milan, "a city the size of Philadelphia," supported 1500 espresso bars where the making of an espresso or a latte was partly theatre, and the drinking was accompanied by friendly conversations among neighbours. In his book on coffee, Uncommon Grounds, Mark Pendergrast records the insight that led to Starbucks--and to all the small coffee houses that rose up from its inspiration.  Schultz thought they shouldn't simply sell well-roasted beans, but should create "community gathering places like those in Italy," "a third place beyond home work, an extension of people's front porch."  (All my quotations come from Pendergrast's book.)

Lee, the ceramicist in the novel I'm working on, holds body and soul together by working as a barista. When she needs to create pottery that will attract the young, the poor, and the hip, she makes ceramic re-usable coffee cups and writes their orders on them, just as a barista would.  Her experience leads her to what Pendergrast calls "the poetic art form" of ordering coffee:  double this, extra shot of that, this special milk.  Not surprisingly, Lee's mugs are a success, particularly if people can find their own predilections among her wares.

Not surprisingly, for something so basic in our private and social lives--how many of you can't even think before you have coffee?--there is a kind of ethics of coffee.  Starbuck's, for example, keeps its baristas by paying them more than the minimum wage and giving them stock options, and thus a stake in the company.  More recently, Starbuck's started giving its employees support for the third and fourth years of their post-secondary educations--whether they return to Starbuck's afterwards or not. As well, we have realized that we need to think about whether the people who work in the coffee fields are being taken advantage of.  McQuarries Tea and Coffee Merchants in Saskatoon "curates" (their word) their offerings, ensuring that fair salaries, schools, and medical care are available for the workers.  A whole host of organizations has sprung up around this need, one of which helped develop the coffee industry in Rwanda, so that their "exquisite beans..[are grown in] a country where Hutus tried to exterminate their Tutsi neighbors."  Now people from the two tribes "...work in harmony to grow and sell coffee."  As well, some coffee growers have been quite creative about reducing the environmental footprint of the coffee so many of us seem to need to kick-start our days.

Writers often work in coffee shops.  Malcolm Gladwell is perhaps one of the earlier writers to confess to his addiction.  He maintains that he was drawn to coffee shops because there he can see what the rest of the world is up to.  Madeleine Thien wrote her extraordinarily powerful novel in a Berlin coffee shop because her partner, Rawi Hage, was in the city on a fellowship that gave him space to write.  Lacking such a space herself, she would get her cup of coffee, put Bach's Goldberg Variations on her computer, plug in her earphones and go to work.  Bach's variations were with her constantly as she worked, and are beautifully woven through the novel.  J.K. Rowling worked on the early Harry Potter novels in The Elephant House, an Edinburgh coffee shop that gave her a view of Edinburgh Castle from the back room where she worked.  Perhaps it's apocryphal, but the story goes that her child would go to sleep in his stroller on the way to the shop, giving her uninterrupted time to write.

In their blogs, lots of writers confess to working in coffee shops.  One notes that there is nothing else one needs to do there.  There aren't guilt-inducing dishes to do or windows to be washed.  Or should that be "procrastination-inducing" tasks?  You can't easily take a nap there.  In some ways, said several authors, the coffee-shop setting alleviates some of the inevitable isolation of writing.  John Robin celebrates the "susurrations" of random chatter that is so comforting.  Nancy Warren finds evidence of the human condition there.  I have never written in a coffee shop, but I often read there, or simply sit quietly with the  notebook dedicated to the project I'm struggling with.  There's something about the combination of caffeine, sugar, and those susurrations of conversations (maybe with a little chocolate thrown in) that physically and mentally knocks me out of my grooves and helps me find the creative, insightful , maybe even quirky solution to a problem in my writing, not just the obvious one ready-to-hand.  

 One morning in Naked Bean, there was a voluble conversation going on two tables away that I couldn't help overhearing from time to time, the unthreaded fragments crying out for a narrative that made sense.  The young woman explained to the middle aged gentleman she was having morning coffee with that "Seriously, you can transform your life with this guy,"  particularly that he will "get your concentration back."  The gentleman countered with the fact that "my other dogs never needed dental work.  I'm supposed to brush his teeth now!"  Where else can  you find such a synecdoche for the human desires and puzzles that sometimes threaten to break our consciousness into little pieces?

The photograph above is taken by Veronica Geminder.  Together, she and I created a book of photographs and poems called Visible Cities (University of Calgary Press).

Thursday, January 24, 2019

The Illuminations of Reading


In my stack of books, I usually have several that I'm reading at once.  I'll have some nonfiction that illuminates the times and trends of Soul Weather, which is set in 2011, the year of the Occupy Movement.  I'll read all kinds of things:  economics, news reports, studies about our networks and technologies and the effects they have on us.  Then I'm likely to have a "serious" novel on the go:  in the last couple of weeks, it's been Esi Edugyan's brilliant, brutal and hopeful Washington Black and Timothy Findley's 2003 novel The Piano Man's Daughter, which has been on my "to read" shelf for years and which has altogether too many gratuitous wounds and deaths.  Then I'll need some gentler reading that has a sunnier view of the world.  Over Christmas, I turned to my shelf of nonfiction favourites, pulling off Eric Siblin's book on Bach's Cello Suites which intertwines three narratives, that of his own discovery of Bach (Siblin was pop music critic at the Montreal Gazette when he was seduced by a performance of the Cello Suites), that of Pablo Casals' life as seen through his performances of the suites, and that of J.S. Bach.  Intriguingly, the Cello Suites are often viewed as the most abstract of Bach's compositions, yet both Bach and Casals were profoundly political figures, affected by historical events that they needed to push back against.  That finished, I have picked up Molly Peacock's The Paper Garden:  Mrs. Delaney Begins Her Life's Work at Seventy-two.  After reading Siblin's book and talking to my friend dee Hobsbawn-Smith about her prize-winning essay on Wiebo Ludwig and about how the best nonfiction contains distinct traces of its writer, I thought I'd compare how Molly Peacock worked her life into The Paper Garden with how Eric Siblin did so.

Occasionally the strands of my magpie reading interact to create a small explosion of insight.  This time it was Siblin's book, a three-page article from the January 1, 2012 The Globe and Mail on "the protestor," a figure that Time Magazine dubbed the person of the year for 2011, and an essay from The Journal of Happiness Studies that Katherine Arbuthnott sent to help me understand the characters in my novel.

For me the central story of The Cello Suites is that of Pablo Casals, who introduced the Suites to the world when he recorded them in London and Paris just as the Spanish Civil War was escalating and it looked like Spanish Fascist Francisco Franco was going to win.  Casals is both Catalan and deeply independent and humane, so Franco's success was an anathema to him.  When the fighting came close enough to his home to be a threat, Casals trekked over the mountains to set up his studio in southern France, from where he gave concerts and organized music festivals, the proceeds of which were spent on whatever was needed in northern Spain and could be trucked over the Pyrenees.  Franco's men knew what Casals was up to and vowed that if they ever captured him they would cut off both his arms at the elbows.  This is how threatening art is to fascists and dictators. 

After the war, when Franco's government was recognized in Europe and North America, Casals vowed never to perform in a country that supported the fascist dictator.  He was finally convinced to perform at the United Nations because it stands on neutral soil, and for John Kennedy because Kennedy agreed to talk with him about Franco's illegitimacy.  This is a striking illustrations of something my generation of English types, raised on New Criticism, is not inclined to entirely credit:  that art and politics are inevitably intertwined, to the detriment of neither.  Thankfully, subsequent critical schools have sussed out that relationship, though it remains a vexed one. When does art turn into propaganda?

But it was Siblin's life of Bach that I found most interesting.  I'm passionate about Bach:  I'm always working on something new, his French Suite No. 4 at the moment.  (And I'm not the only passionate one.  I've been listening to BBC Radio 3 today, and I've heard three pieces of Bach programmed by three different producers.  One of these was a movement from the Cello Suites.) There is something about Bach's transparency, his clear yet surprising treatment of his materials that gives me a sense of tranquillity.  Veronica tells a story about the woman who lived above her in her old apartment.  Particularly in the summer, Veronica could hear this person talking to herself, mostly berating herself.  Veronica would put on Bach's Goldberg Variations just loud enough to be clearly heard on the balcony above, and the self-abuse would stop.

Siblin's account gives flesh to something I vaguely knew:  that Bach was out of date even during his lifetime.  This is seen not merely in his difficulty securing good appointments toward the end of his life that left him time to compose, but in the way his manuscripts were treated.  After Bach's death, these were divided among his sons who, at the time, were much better regarded than their father.  During this process, many things were lost, chief among them the text of the Cello Suites.  There are apocryphal stories about his manuscripts being used to wrap cheese or fish.  Bach's music quickly fell out of favour, only to be resurrected by the Jewish Mendelssohn, who organized a performance of Bach's St. Matthew Passion, "kick-starting," in the words of one website, Bach's posthumous career.

I think that most artists, particularly those of us worried about the quality of our work and the recognition and attention it garners or does not garner, could benefit from thinking about Bach's career.  The quality of Bach's work did not change between the first performance of the St. Matthew Passion in Leipzig in 1736 or his death in 1750 and the performance organized by Mendelssohn in 1829.  Was the Passion in particular or Bach's work in general too complicated?  Too polyphonic in an age when music was developing thicker harmonies and melodic lines with less movement?  Was it just out of style in the always changing history of styles in art?  This question even lurks around Casals' performance of the Cello Suites.  The manuscript has notes only, no tempi or bowings:  it is very open to interpretation.  Casals' performance is now regarded as entirely too thick and romantic in an age that is turning to the lighter timbres of historical instruments.  Despite the fact that he brought this transcendent music to our attention, many cellists have major quarrels with his interpretation.

The article in the Globe needs much less discussion (thank heavens! you think to yourself).  It highlights the work of  seven groups or individuals who were notable for their outsider status in the age of Occupy.  These run the gamut from Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi, Kalle Lasn of Adbusters, The Pirate Party in Sweden, and Chinese dissident artist, Ai Weiwei.  Most of these individuals, the Globe concludes, are Occupied in the task of reminding us that human beings need to keep seeking progress, seeking happiness and freedom for as many of their fellow human beings as possible.  And they call neo-liberalism to task, reminding us that "The relentless pursuit of new stuff is bound to be dissatisfying and dehumanizing.  You can't buy liberty and happiness at the mall" (TGAM January 1, 2012).  Of course that sentiment implies and liberty and happiness are goods in and of themselves.

This sentiment segues nicely into the third reading, "Living Well:  A Self-Determination Theory Perspective on Eudaimonia" by Richard Ryan, Veronika Huta, and Edward Deci.  I can get a little righteous when I write about people who seek hedonia, the immediate pleasures of our senses, or who think "the good life"--which we first find discussed in Aristotle--consists of money, power, personal beauty, and status.  But my righteousness risks ignoring the fact that much aesthetic pleasure, including that which I take from Bach's Cello Suites--is hedonic.  So without that righteousness, I will simply say is that a eudaimonic approach to life champions many of our psychological needs:  "the need for autonomy, competence, and relatedness.  The need for autonomy refers to a sense of choice and volition in the regulation of behavior.  The need for competence concerns the sense of efficacy one has with respect to both internal and external environments.  The need for relatedness refers to feeling connected to and cared about by others." The eudaimonic life seeks intrinsic goals that are good in and of themselves:  "courage, generosity, wisdom, and being fair and just in relation to others."  The person who is eudaimonic actively chooses his or her goals with an eye to their personal expressiveness (Ryan 145).  In the fairly robust research on the effects of a hedonic or a eudaimonic lifestyle, eudaimonia is consistently associated both with happiness, that deep satisfaction we feel when we step back to evaluate the lives we are living, and with lives that benefit others.  Intriguingly, people who cultivate a eudaimonic life have a smaller environmental footprint.

Not surprisingly, a eudaimonic life is mindful and reflective.  Like the outsiders I mentioned above, we can't make autonomous decisions without considering the values of our society and deciding whether they reflect our own desires.  In our reflections on our choices or our behaviour, we exercise our autonomy, define what our personal values are--not those of the marketplace--and consider whether we are living up to them.  Also not surprisingly, interactions with art are one of the ways we are mindful and are prompted to consider what we value and even whether we need to consider aspiring to something altogether larger, more transcendent when compared to the last time we undertook such reflection.

Visible Cities has been out nearly a year.  There has been one generous review.  And award season is just around the corner.  As a writer, I need feedback on whether I am doing the best work I can.  But the part of me that wants recognition lacks autonomy and skates perilously close to extrinsic motivation and a hedonic approach to life.  But if I think of Bach's life, I realize that a culture--seventeenth and eighteen-century Germany--can be way out in its estimate of works of art.  So perhaps the thing to do is to embrace my outsider status, which is possibly my greatest gift to my readers.  When I write a poem, I promise my readers that I won't be giving them "off the rack" perspectives.  Rather, as one who believes both in eudaimonia and in the outsider's urge to provide a space where readers can finding surprising perspectives, my job is to give readers a place to reflect.  I need to remember that one of the major contributions any work of art makes is to prompt people to consider their lives--or in the case of Visible Cities, the places where they live. 

And that, even more importantly, like the Occupiers, the artist does not do this alone, but in concert with all the other artists of her age. I have often thought of humility as a cloak or as the freedom to do what you need or choose to do without worrying overmuch about what people think.  But humility also acknowledges that, like the outsiders of Occupy, artists are part of a large chorus, each one contributing his or her own song or harmony.  It is that rich, varied chorus that matters.

(I have no idea whether I can link the amaryllis above to my thoughts, but it seemed significant that it decided to put out six rather than the usual four blooms, embodying life's richness.)     

Friday, January 4, 2019

Beating back against the darkness in the new year


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Beating back the darkness


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The photograph is from Venice:  I loved the light.