Friday, October 18, 2019

On the changeableness of autumn

I can't quite pinpoint the moment when I think fall has truly arrived.  It has something to do with the beginning of the school year, and with the fact that for sixty-four years of my life change was always in the offing in September.  For me, the beginning of the school year is perhaps even more of a new year than the new year.  On January first, there's this collective search for our better selves--thinner, more fit, less materialistic, more sober, more (or less) sociable, less driven by the online world or more eager to try out a new online-identity--or whatever falls into those goals that we embrace so eagerly until about the first week in February, when the cold and grey have defeated our optimism.  In September, I was often forced to be different:  new classes, new students, new committees.  I welcomed the first two, not so much the last.

I still remember quite vividly coming back from my first sabbatical in 1998.  I did indeed have a new class:  Martin Bergbush couldn't teach the course on Thomas Hardy that had been assigned to him, and since I'd written about Hardy, it was given to me.  I spent the summer immersed in Hardy's less-than-cheerful worldview that didn't seem as foreign to me then as it does now.  (That might be a topic for another blog.)  I don't know whether it was Hardy, or some mistaken idea that it was time for me to be truly professional in the classroom, but I decided to teach without the whimsical--and sometimes silly--and hopefully witty approach I usually brought to the classroom.  I had had a sabbatical, finished a novel, and I was Grown Up. 

I lasted about a week.  And it turns out there's very good reason I recanted:  people learn  more when there's some laughter--something about flooding the brain with oxygen and lessening stress.  I don't know whether this anecdote proves or refutes my point.  I was ready for change, but also ready to abandon change when it didn't work.  A radical openness--perhaps that's what fall brings.  When I'm driving around in a green and gold world, listening to the  "unching of the leaves" (Bill's expression) beneath my feet or watching leaves fly by my car windows as I go about errands, my mind turns to what-ifs.

What if I moved house--someplace smaller in Regina, or maybe to Denmark? (I've been reading about hygge for an essay on minimalism I'm writing, and have learned how happy the Danes are, in spite of the weather.  They regularly win prizes for being the happiest nation on earth.) What if I let my hair grow?  What if I could actually lose those ten pounds, supported by my delight in newness?  What if I gave in and started new writing projects without finishing those I was working on and frustrated by? (Chaos and disappointment.  I prefer to finish things--or let's say I'm learning to prefer to finish things, particularly quilts.  Bill's birthday quilt is nearly finished.)  So change infuses my mindset in autumn, often in playful, unrealistic ways, but that's okay.  In an odd way, all this whimsy makes me feel young.  I can still play what-if.

And then I walked into our bedroom, which has a striking blue and cream/tan/white quilt on the bed, with autumn's golden light coming in from the west, and all I wanted to do was hunker down and make quilts.  Forget this writing stuff:  do what seems simple to me, what I struggle, in my post-retirement busyness, to get to.  What gives me joy at the smallest levels.  It's really hard to get excited over a stanza, because you don't really know if it's any good until you have the whole it belongs to, and you really don't know whether a poem is any good.  But I can get excited about a block. I know whether the patterns and the colours sing, and I'm pretty good at getting other blocks to sing in harmony.  I want to hunker down and make bread--the white bread of my mother's post-rationing recipe.  (We don't eat white bread any longer, though I have a hybrid/hy-bread that combines oats and whole wheat flour with the milk and butter of my mother's recipe.)  I want to make soup and knit socks.  I want to cleave to time and home and autumn light.

Cats change their behaviour in autumn.  In the summer, they're more independent, they sleep less and spend more time watching birds in the trees outside our upper-storey windows.They sleep downstairs, where it's cooler.  In autumn, they rediscover how much they love you:  Tuck has taken to sleeping on my pillow, and Lyra regularly snuggles the back of his head in the crook of my arm as if he were my baby.  Their purrs are ecstatic and they talk to me more.

But there's also a kind of violence to autumn.  You need to remember that I'm of the generation that read The Secret Life of Plants, and though the authors were a bit careless about the methodology they used to "scientifically" prove that plants have an awareness of their surroundings, more careful research by people like Peter Wohlleben has proven them right.  One September Sunday morning, before I pulled up the carrots and the sweet peas that never really bloomed, I decided to take out the bush beans and the pole beans that weren't really producing any longer.  The pole beans made it incredibly hard:  I had to rip the plants out of the ground and off the trellises that were supporting them.  I felt vaguely like a vegetable murderer and wondered if the carrots would ever forgive me.  They did. 

At the same time, there's something magical and beautiful about senescence, about the mysterious process we barely understand, by which a tree returns the energy stored up in its leaves to the roots, where it is sequestered in the winter, to be pumped back into the leaves in spring--a process we really don't understand.  There's something vaguely plangent in the way trees turn their seasonal collapse into beauty.  It's a submission I'd like to emulate. 

But I can also tell the trees from the forest, given that each species of tree does its autumnal change differently.  The willows and Russian olives remain stubbornly grey-green.  The ash trees go suddenly golden, and then just as swiftly drop their leaves.  The elms seem to do senescence differently every year.  One year they'll go golden and hold that goldeness.  Another year, they'll drop their green leaves at the sign of the first snow.  This year, in spite of early snow, they are turning bronzy-brown and holding onto most of their leaves.  One of my favourite red lights is at Wascana Parkway and the road into Conexus Arts Centre:  there you can see across the lake the startling differences between the trees. 

The sun changes weekly, partly because the west side of my back yard is a small forest; as the leaves fall, my yard is flooded with sunlight.  The birds in my back yard usually flutter from tree to tree--looking for food or a better view--but in the fall they shoot through the yard like arrows intent on a target, and I wonder what they are seeking.  Even looking out on my half-denuded trees as I sit in front of my SAD light is a gift:  the sun's southwards track lights up something different each week.  Last week it lit up my lemony-lace elderberry for the first time; this week it projects shadows of bare trees like lace on the wall rather than full branches of leaves. I am taken in by the beauty and yet pervaded by a sense of resignation.

A change of perspective.  That is autumn's gift:  birds, leaves, colour, shadows and light, all urging me to see differently.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Jenna Butler's Magnetic North: Sea Voyage to Svalbard

For some reason, the link to my blog that lives with the addresses for Netflix, my email, and Google, just under my "search" dialogue box, links me to an old post called "Trumping Trump."  Usually I ignore this sad commentary, but this morning I decided to actually read it.  I quote quite a number of thoughtful, articulate, and helpful people, including Shawna Lemay and Alison Powell.  But here's what Jenna wrote on FB right after Trump's election, a night she spent in the hospital room of her dying mother-in-law: "At this point, this space in time, be more than ever your best selves. Find the energy that lit you yesterday and stay fired by it, no matter what comes. We need your dreaming and your groundedness, your ability to be firm in where you stand, while all the time looking levelly to what arrives."  A reader finds that discipline and that determination in her book of prose poems, Magnetic North.

She and I have talked, Facebook style, about the way this book challenges the concept of genre.  A little background will help.  In 2014, she was writer-in-residence "onboard an ice-class barquentine sailing vessel in the Norwegian arctic," spending two weeks sailing around the islands of Svalbard during the endless summer days around the solstice. In spite of the sea sickness that Jenna admits to, those fourteen days were intense, full of sunlight and birds and whales and bones and history.  She has structured that experience into sixteen sections that are focused by a theme, and each of these is introduced by relevant quotations from poets and naturalists, followed by three or four prose poems of two or three poetic paragraphs each. 

She has admitted that she loved the intersection of genres:  is this travel writing? (Yes.)  Is it poetry?  (Decidedly so in particular sections that make full use of Jenna's lyrical voice and her original, insightful perspective.)  Is it prose poetry?  (Yes.  The prose half of this genre allows her to give us background, history, daily life in the most efficient way possible, while the constant pressure of language being used at its most intense keeps the reader alert to the poetic moments.)  Is it an elegy to a place and time?  (Yes, though through her references to the prairie landscape she left behind, it's hard to say just what place.  And through her evocation of the sailors' widows or the history of mining on the islands, it's hard to say what time.  But this ambiguity only makes the collection richer.)  Is it another plea for us to pay attention to what is happening on the planet and do something?  (Absolutely and heartbreakingly.)  It is a book that never feels out of control, yet relentlessly overflows.     

In her brief description of her journey that introduces the prose poems, she foregrounds the degradation that she saw:  the human impacts that have been left on the islands by miners and fishermen, the calving glaciers that exposed rock not seen since time out of mind.  Those that know Jenna's book, A Profession of Hope:  Farming on the Edge of the Grizzly Trail, know of her deep commitment to a thoughtful, responsible, challenging--and just plain hard--relationship to the earth.  So it is not surprising that one of the many strands of these prose poems considers the damage being done to the arctic by climate change.  So Magnetic North is another call to attention, a plea first to understand what changes are being wrought, and then feeling that plea in the intense and moving poetry, to act.

Magnetic North is also a song to the uncanny:  what it means to your body clock and your soul to have light twenty-four hours a day:  "Night is non-existent, circadian cranked to overtime.  No twilight, no dusk, no dawn.  Same abbreviated shadows on the road.  We jitter, grateful for anything that dims the light:  snow squalls, cloud banks, duty-free Svalbard Whiskey.  Something in us paces, sleepless, sits on its haunches and observes morning rituals of black coffee and gjetost, uneasy company."  How "darkness is not a right but an indulgence."   

And the uncanniness of docking, expecting a beach and finding a midden, where "hundreds of belugas [are] strewn like a jigsaw, heaped and abandoned."  The history of whaling shifts under your foot:  "Lift the skulls from their nests of campion and more bones gleam beneath.  The middens are built into beachheads, sand and stones packed like ice around a wound.  Hundreds of years of trade crack into the shingle."  And then the uncanniness of the glaciers calving, revealing surfaces not seen for hundreds of years even while they begin to entomb the present:  "What will this face remember? A Bastille Day truck attack in France.  The Pulse Nightclub in Orlando.  Dust and drought in the camps at Kigeme.  Perhaps it will see the future rattling by like a deck of cards, sharp shuffle, dab hand.  Ice thinning over a rictus of rock."   

Magnetic North is also a ballad about human beings pressed to their limits.  The simplest articulation of this is captured in Jenna's descriptions of the challenges of living with 29 other people in the space of 600 square feet.  And then the relentless daylight that erases circadian rhythms and leaves one jittery.  But Jenna's hard-won gift to us is to bring us into the experience of imagining the lives of this landscape:  "Looking out over the beachheads firing white in the sun, pods upon pods of bowheads, belugas driven up on the shore and flensed, it is impossible not to feel a peculiar resonance.  Bone recognizes its own in all places; it calls and calls, firecrackering through the marrow.  What can any of us hope for?  A pair of hands lifting us from the rubble of our end, aligning us in such a way that all of our darknesses break open and gleam."  Carpe diem, Magnetic North says to us.  And having read it, we find it easier to pay attention, to seize the day, keeping our compasses oriented toward magnetic north.


Monday, September 9, 2019

On Doing Nothing

My mother was a canny woman.  When I entered my teens, two things happened.  My sister began to smoke and science was beginning to show that smoking caused lung cancer.  She was also an elegant smoker; it was as if she smoked in part to show off her lovely hands and impeccable manicure.  So one day when she invited me to light a cigarette for her--at this point, everyone else in my family smoked--I was delighted to try it out.  I put the cigarette in my mouth and put the match to its end, but nothing happened.  "You have to inhale," she advised me.  So I did.  The cigarette took the flame and I coughed and retched for about five minutes.  So I've never smoked.  (Well, I went to university in the late sixties and early seventies and later hung out with musicians; you know what I mean.)

There are times when I wish I smoked.  When I wake up in the middle of the night and can't get back to sleep, I just wish I could stand by an open window, look out meditatively, and have a cigarette.  I suspect this vision owes something to Bogart.  There's just something so much more comforting and yet serious about being up when everyone else is asleep if you can stand by a window, thinking out a puzzle, and have a cigarette.  Whereas really, there's nothing at all romantic and focused about being awake in the middle of the night, when your mind is leaping all over the place--grasshopper mind, I call it.

But mostly, I think walking out into the back yard to check out the vegetables in the middle of a work morning would be much more justifiable if I had gone out to have a cigarette.  It's a way of doing nothing.

I'm terrible at doing nothing.  About the closest I come to doing nothing is people-watching in a coffee shop or in line at the grocery store.  I even plan my driving routes to avoid lights, though I've recently discovered that sitting at a red light is really an excuse to do nothing.  

Feeding Tuck and Lyra is the one moment in my day when I do nothing.  You see, Tuck is a foodie:  he scarfs his food as fast as he can and then always wants more.  If I let him have free rein, he gets fat quickly, and fat cats don't live long lives.  Lyra, on the other hand, has a healthy approach to eating.  Sometimes, for example, he thinks he should spend several minutes winding around my legs or stretching his paws up my thighs, hoping to get picked up:  thanking me for feeding him is more important than eating.  Then, if he's not particularly hungry, he plays with his food, neatly lifting a single piece of kibble from his dish and scooting it somewhere so he can chase it.  He's also a grazer.  He walks away from his dish when he's full, but also counts on me to hide it from his brother so he can come back fifteen minutes later and eat a little more.  In the meantime, I have to watch Tuck like a hawk.  Normally a sweet, laid back cat, he'll bully his way into Lyra's dish for as big a helping of "salmon feast" as he can get in his mouth.  Watching cats eat is really doing nothing, isn't it? 

Lyra is good at getting me to do nothing.  Like right now, when I'm typing with one finger (okay, that isn't quite doing nothing) because he's climbed into my lap for one of his ecstatic cuddles.  Either he tucks the back of his head into the crook of my arm and stretches out like a babe in arms, or he sits upright in my lap, the side of his face on my sternum, one paw stretched to my clavicle.  Either pose requires at least one arm, sometimes two.  He's my ADHD cat and he won't be here long, so I just stop and do...nothing unless the ideas are coming fast and furious.  Then I type with one finger.  Scratching the belly of a cat who's lying in your arms like a baby is doing nothing, isn't it?  It's important nothing, as are all those moments when we stop to celebrate love and affection, like the post-prandial hug Bill and I share every night after dinner, before he blows out the candles he's lit.  Then we go wash up the dishes.

Well, I'm better at doing nothing than Dave McGinn, who published a piece in The Globe and Mail called "You need to relax."  He and a friend went to the beach one day to do nothing, but he ended up spending the day on his cell phone, taking pictures and posting them to Facebook and Instagram, and texting friends to see what they were doing.  He has some interesting ideas about why we're so bad at doing nothing as a culture, suggesting that the convergence of the 2008 recession and the rise of social media has led us to believe that "busy is desirable."  He goes on to describe "the frustrating irony of our obsession with busyness.  Our leisure time rarely, if ever, feels rejuvenating and restorative, and whatever work we do during it never really feels important or productive in any meaningful way.  We lose on both fronts."  He blames the Protestant Reformation for our belief that who we are is the work we do and that our cell phones allow us to work everywhere.  There's some merit in that.

I have some techniques for doing nothing but seeming to do something.  I hand quilt or make Bill another pair of brightly-coloured socks in simple stockinette stitch.  I weed the garden or deadhead the roses.  I guess I have Protestant hands.  As long as they are doing something simple and repetitive, my mind happily does the wandering and questioning and leaping that McGinn says is the benefit of doing nothing:  "Downtime has been shown to improve creativity and is vital for allowing us to process our thoughts."  And for processing the complicated emotional lives we live.  I recently read an article I can't find again where two writers argued about whether taking a walk was doing nothing--one arguing that a walk was simply a walk, the other emphasizing the way walking was a crucial part of his creative process.

But I also blame our cell phones.  If McGinn really wanted to do nothing, he should have left his cell phone at home.  Here he gets at what I see as the central challenge on doing nothing.  We need to put our nothing on Facebook or Instagram:  "Why go out to dinner, on holiday, or to the beach if you can't put it on Instagram and be seen as exploring or indulging instead of just relaxing?"  We have to be seen to be doing nothing.

I think we all need to take back doing nothing, to make it ours, to see its intimacy, its legitimacy.  Your doing nothing is entirely unlike mine.  Maybe you do go out for a meditative smoke or take the dog for a walk just to see how fast the leaves are turning, whether the few startling and worrying branches have multiplied or whether greenness is holding for now.  We need to study the fall light that changes daily.  Maybe you simply lock eyes with your baby or lover or cat for one of those wordless conversations that take time to unfold.  In fact, the time is the very point of those conversations--that we will invest that time into saying nothing and everything.


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


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 " 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).