Friday, January 10, 2020

Kinds of Patience

Over the holidays, I had a long, rich conversation with my sister Karen, who lives in Atlanta Georgia and who is experiencing grief at the loss of democracy that is so much written about in the more thoughtful media these days.  Such grief is real; there is worldwide evidence that democracy is under challenge, if not by dictators then by social media that is willing to propagate lies under the banner of free speech.  If you don't have access to facts, how can you possibly exercise your democratic rights?  That, and Americans' challenges to voting rights, is a question for another day.  In order to distract her momentarily, I asked if she had any New Year's resolutions.  The scoffed.  I said I did, but that I didn't really want to talk about it.  But her skepticism prompted me to tell three interlinking stories.

Over the past ten years or so, I've experienced three of those "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear" moments.  They were interesting teachers though:  an article in Oprah, an aging cat, and a line in a bank that refused to budge--followed by a kitten.

When Bill and I were getting to know one another, he regularly bought Oprah in the same spirit that he went to quilt shows with me:  he knew there were secrets women kept and he wanted to learn from them.  An article in Oprah written by a highly respected business woman (and I'm sorry; I don't know her name) wrote about the frustration she felt when she wasn't in control.  (Welcome to my life in academia, I thought.)  She told a story about being late, getting caught in traffic, only to have the woman in front of her ignore a green light to get out of her car and look in the back seat.  The author got out of her own car, marched over intending to offer a piece of her mind, only to see that a baby was in the back seat, choking.  The take-away?  "Just be curious."

It's easy enough in your fifties to believe you have the experience and the wisdom to know what's really going on, especially if you are ordinarily an astute observer.  It may even seem to be time-saving to jump to conclusions, to leap to judgement, and just get on with things.  But particularly in my role as professor and Graduate Coordinator, I found that asking the simple question "What's up?" when a student was in trouble or behaving oddly was ever so much more efficient.  We dealt with what was real, not with my hasty conclusions.  It was in that role that I got to practice "just be curious," but what I learned there barely scratched the surface.  Having a fight with someone you love?  Stop and be curious.  Bored, with that deep existential boredom that threatens your equilibrium?  Just be curious.  I later learned (and again, this is a source I can't find, though I've tried) that Alice Munro has said that "Curiosity is the only guarantee of happiness."  And I think she's right.  Life will change profoundly; that period of my life marks the death of both my parents.  But if one is engaged in the world by being curious, the loss can be managed.  Indeed, just being curious about the way you are experiencing the loss is probably the most likely route to understanding how you feel--and the only "closure" you'll ever really get.  Remember to be a child again, to revel in a child's curiosity about everything.  You can find  joy on the greyest and coldest of days by being curious.

Twig was my second teacher.  He tried teaching me to be grateful in his early days with us.  His story is, briefly, this.  My friend Deborah Morrison boarded a horse near the airport where she rottweiler was killing the barn cat's kittens.  She decided to go back and cat-nab Twig, whom she found curled up on the back of her horse, and brought him to me.  I had two cats already, about a year or two old,and they thought bringing up Twig was a chance to be a kitten again.  But before Twig settled in, he would take a bite of his food and quickly swivel his head both ways; he still felt under threat.  At the same time, he was one of those unusually cuddly kittens, perhaps because he was grateful to have fetched up with us.  In 2003, when I broke my ankle and had to put no weight on it for several weeks before I could have a walking cast, Twig came to bed and stayed.  He left for meals but otherwise he was my familiar, and indeed turned out to be one of the best nursemaids I ever had.

I thought his faithfulness was beautiful but didn't give it much thought until he was about sixteen and had the first of two horrific bouts of pancreatitis that allowed me to see how much I counted on his presence.  After we made our way through the first one, I started a new bedtime ritual.  After turning down the heat and turning off the lights, I'd bend down to put my forehead against his and tell him how grateful I was for another day with him.  It got so that he was purring even before my mouth grazed his ear.  Then when we lost Sheba--a heart-rending three months of mysterious ill-health that ended with her sitting with her face to the wall, untouchable--he began sleeping in her spot, in the curve of my belly.  He could have done that months before when she stopped sleeping with me, but waited.  What was going on in that cat's mind?  I'm grateful for those mysteries.  I'm grateful for a cat who lived a passionate part of his inner life in my lap and in that way shared his inner life with me.  I'm grateful for the many teachers I've had.  I'm grateful, at nearly seventy, for each and every day, every moment with the people I love.  Pushing seventy--subject for another blog post--you find everything more precious.  It's painful sometimes, ringed round with sundogs of grief, but mostly it's a prompt to celebrate.

There's robust research indicating that gratitude is good for us, and publishers have profited off that by creating gratitude journals for us while self-help experts suggest making lists of something we're grateful for on a daily basis.  But I find there's a often a barrier between what I know is good for me and what I actually feel or can commit to on a daily basis.  But the deeply felt ritual of telling Twig every night how grateful I was lodged gratitude in my being.

I learned my third lesson in a bank line-up.  After Veronica and I launched Visible Cities, we had quite a bit of cash on hand, and a good handful of toonies and loonies, so I actually got in line for a bank teller rather than doing my banking at an atm.  There was only one person in line in front of me; ever mindful of time, I thought this wouldn't take too long.  But ten minutes later, the line hadn't budged.  First I obeyed my first rule:  just be curious.  I eavesdropped, which was easy to do in a quiet bank.  One of the patrons being helped needed to understand his bank statement:  why did anything bought after the middle of one month not get paid for until the end of the next month?  He was an older man, perhaps used to a tighter economy, and this simply baffled him.  The other patron had brought a friend to translate for him:  he was clearly a newcomer trying to set up bank accounts.  And I thought to myself, "Yup.  Those are the people who need the help of bank tellers."  But I also wondered whether the people who get anxious and then angry when a line doesn't move and who begin to get noisy actually get what they want?  Could any amount of complaint or shouting move any of these processes along?  Whereas what I wanted was....  I thought for a minute.  Serenity.  That was what I wanted.  I struck up a conversation with the women in front of me and looked out the bank windows at people hurrying by on the street.

So when I told Karen I had an odd new year's resolution it was simply this:  I want to study patience.  I want to understand patience.  I want to see it as a positive choice not negative restraint.  For when we say that someone is patient, we often reference their restraint.  We can see them biting their tongue and rolling their eyes.  But I've found patience is one of the paths to serenity. Being patient while Lyra slowly eats his breakfast is the only useful strategy.  Do anything else, try to multi-task while the damn cat plays with his food only means that Tuck will shoulder his way into Lyra's bowl and I'll end up hollering at Tuck and where is the serenity in that?  In fact, Tuck was one of my early teachers of patience.  He earned his name in his early days here when he tucked himself in the most unpredictable places in order to feel safe.  But, I remember thinking to myself then, I have wily patience.  I can find exactly the right toy to dangle in front of his hiding place and show him that playing is more fun than hiding.  Wily patience often gives you a chance to be pleased with yourself and an opportunity to just be curious and use what you have learned.

There is also curious patience.  Bill taught me that.  We had a holiday after our first year together and went down to The Cypress Hills.  Now I need to say that being on vacation with my dad, and later my first husband, was a tightly scheduled affair:  we had to make time.  But when I saw a sunset I wanted to photograph, imagine my surprise when Bill simply drove off the road and was willing to wait as long as it took for me to get the photo I wanted.  He is almost always patient--if he's ready to go somewhere before I am, he doesn't stand and jingle the change in his pocket and whistle impatiently like my dad did.  The patience we have with children is often curious patience.  Maybe that's why I often patiently hang around while Veronica takes a photograph.  I'm never, ever bored.  I find it's a chance to stop and take a closer look, to see the world more carefully, even to wonder what inner vision of hers prompts this careful process.  I get a chance to see what she sees. 

There is also the patience of craftsmanship, which I experience vicariously while Veronica takes a photograph, the willingness to take whatever time necessary to make a photograph or a quilt or a piece of beading or a poem flourish.  In fact, this kind of patience actually moves outside time:  the artist is alone with the work in a bubble of inspiration and patience.  I made a new Christmas tree skirt this year, and I had four applique panels that had 16 leaves each.  And they were narrow leaves, not easy at all to applique, and I had a deadline, but they were a chance to learn something.  Why did they sometimes come out beautifully where others seemed off-centre, their points not at all pointy?  (Just be curious.)  But when I was done, could I applique a leaf!  And now I find more pleasure in my applique.

There are other kinds of patience, and I'll be looking for them this year.  And other settings.  I think it's easier to be patient when you're well-rested or when you're in a calm environment rather than standing among an anxious mess.  Perhaps you'll help by telling me your story about being patient.  You've got one.  I know it.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Alice Major: A Poet Thinks about the Anthropocene

Alice Major's latest book of poems, Welcome to the Anthropocene, begins with a poem of the same title--a rich, substantive poem about human hubris and its effect on the natural world.  Hers may be one of the gentler and more thoughtful voices that calls our present predicament a "climate crisis" or "climate emergency."  As a writer who has long combined her knowledge of science with her skill as a poet, she's well situated to write the witty, elegiac, and humane poem about where our knowledge has brought us in the twenty-first century:  we have a lot of knowledge but do not pay careful attention to what we should do with it, and even less attention to unintended consequences.

The Anthropocene is the name of the geological age we are now living through, one in which humans have had an enormous impact on our environment.  The previous period, the Holocene, lasted for about 12,000 years, since the last ice age, and marks the relatively stable period of time during which human culture developed and thrived.  Geologists  date the Anthropocene from about 1950, noting that radioactivity from nuclear testing, soot from coal-fired power plants, and the proliferation of plastics are some of its markers.  We know about the weather of the Anthropocene--floods and forest fires.  But we're less attuned to the changes that aren't happening in our back yards.  In his brilliant and moving book, Underland, Robert Macfarlane writes of the Anthropocene that "Biodiversity levels are crashing world-wide as we hasten into the sixth great extinction event....We have become titanic world-makers, our legacy legible for epochs to come."  These extinctions aren't good for the planet's finely-tuned ecosystems.  They're not good for us, either.  Our willingness to wipe out whole swathes of rain forest shows we take the human frame of reference--coffee replacing a rich array of creatures--way too seriously.

 Bruce Mau's "Massive Change" project for the Vancouver Art Gallery and Stephen Pinker's book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, both observe that this same period of time has seen enormous improvements in  human lives, two of which are the steady growth of human rights to groups that aren't white, able-bodied, straight, and male; and our ability to feed and provide medical care for more people, extending life spans and inducing population growth.  Now starvation only occurs because of political decisions.  In a sense, the growth of the scientific way of thinking that began in The Enlightenment has fostered solutions to many of mankind's problems; most of these solutions also flourished during the Anthropocene.

This is probably the most analytical blog post I've ever published, largely because the breadth of Major's conception and its roots in history and science necessitate that.  Suffice it to say that each section of this poem contains its own way of thinking through one facet of the mess we find ourselves in, the climate crisis we are finally admitting to, although we've known the science for forty years.  It's a poem that lives on the page in its use of meter, rhyme, diction.  But it's also a poem with several air-tight arguments about how we got into trouble and what we must do to mitigate the damage we've done.  Throughout, I will call the warm, charming woman I've only met twice but like immensely "Major."  Not Alice.  Seriously, you don't call Hemingway "Ernest" or Solzhenitsyn "Alex."  (Too many scholars call Woolf "Virginia," though.)  My appellation is a matter of respect. 

Major's long poem begins, seemingly counter-intuitively, with a quotation from Alexander Pope's Essay on Man: "In pride, in reas'ning pride, our error lies; /  All quit their spheres and rush into the skies."  In his lengthy poem, Pope sought to "vindicate the ways of God to man," a purpose that is most forcefully and appositely articulated in his assertion that God's power ensures that "Whatever is, is right."  The poem was published in installments between 1733 and 1734, and so might be seen to be part of the Enlightenment, and certainly his effort to articulate an eighteenth-century ethics and world view are part of that project.  But the Enlightenment more broadly questioned the authority of monarchies and the church, which Pope does not.

Yet, Major's adoption of quotations from the Essay on Man to begin each of her poem's ten sections accomplishes two things.  Pope, who wrote in his introduction that his purpose was better served by poetry than prose, felt that the rhymed heroic couplet allowed him to fashion his pronouncements in a memorable way.  Major similarly uses rhymed heroic couplets--often in subtle, skillful, and surprising ways--to give her words an added force.  As well, Major illustrates both how our period of time is not very different from the early eighteenth century--we're still overly proud of our accomplishments--while imaginatively updating some of those concepts.  The Mediaeval concept of the Great Chain of Being, which articulated the world's hierarchical, purposeful structure that began with God and the angels and ended with humans, animals, plants, and minerals, is brilliantly transformed into a metaphor for our bad habits.  We're always yanking the chain, questioning it, subjecting it to science.  But the truth is that, as with Pope's Chain, everything is connected--something we ignore at our peril.  Major's critique of our scientific discoveries also questions whether the hierarchy implicit in The Great Chain of Being should place humans above plants and animals and earth.  In a way that serves both as a warning and an inspiration, Major 's poem focuses in on the ways the hubris of science have landed us in hot water;  it is a study of the many attitudes and practices we need to shift if we are to keep the planet livable.  Where Pope wrote a call to religious ethics, Major writes a call to reject human hubris and to envision--in a time when democracy worldwide is under pressure--a democracy of the planet, for us to imagine that every ecosystem and every creature is as important as we are.

In the first section of her poem--the one about pride--Major welcomes all the creatures humans have brought into existence, from the Black 6 Mouse, bred for use in labs because they can consistently be reproduced and resemble humans.  They possess  "a tendency / to age-related hearing loss; efficiency / in breeding but erratic parenting; / willingness to drink booze; inheriting / a sensitivity to pain and prone / to biting."  Even in this brief excerpt, the reader can grasp Major's m.o.:  skillful use of rhyme (tendency/efficiency and parenting/inheriting) combined with a witty and even cheeky diction.  Here she takes a side-swipe at the human ability to breed but not to parent particularly well, and our thirst for "booze"--a word delightfully out of place with the elegant rhyme.  Well-informed, Majors notes the colours we've dreamed up for zebrafish, like starburst red or cosmic purple, or how we've evolved fruitflies that have lost their genetic ability to learn.  We breed dogs that can't breathe.  All of this is described by Majors as our "rattling The Great Chain," as our failure to admit there are limits or to take the time to consider the unintended consequences of what our clever science is up to.  Forgive me this bald paraphrase:  all readers of poetry know in the center of their being that paraphrase is insufficient, that the real work occurs on the page, in the diction, the pacing, the allusions, and Major rewards us for paying attention to all of that in a way my sad paragraph cannot.

Section 2 continues this concern with the great chain, but asserts that it's not a ladder but "a horizontal loop that rearranges / life repeatedly.  It's still ongoing -- "  Prefaced by Pope's observation that "All are but parts of one stupendous whole," Major's argument here echoes Pope's by bringing the reader to consider the ethics of our science.  What allows us to do all this genetic research on everything from fruit flies to dogs is a god-like sense that we are above them in the hierarchical chain, whereas modern science continually discovers (but does not always consider) that "We're family."

From Pope's perspective, reasoning man was needed to fill in a niche in The Great Chain of Being.  In section 3, Major articulates her misgivings about Pope's model.  First, she notes that landscape and ecology create--or "give rise" is perhaps a more neutral verb--to the creatures it needs.  We're just part of that tendency of the earth, and shouldn't be too cocky about our vaunted superiority. Other creatures have language and use tools--supposedly a uniquely human characteristic.  Corvids might have beaten us, as might a "smarter cephalopod," whose tentacles might have skillfully created underground worlds and who might have used colour as speech.  Here, Major's hypothesis is expressed in such a plangent, inventive way:  "Imagine a vivid, silent language / sweeping over skin, instinct's dictation / translated into willed communication."  It makes you long for another world, or prompts you to suspect it might come to be, in time.  Man has done nothing special:  we didn't know we were planning for a future full of libraries and universities and newspapers and the internet.  We were just trying to survive--like everything else.

Section 3 ends with this misgiving about whether we've earned our sense of privilege; section 4 examines what we've created, and is particularly critical of our cities and our "gadgetry."   Cities have forced "all you creatures who can live with us" to adapt.  Otherwise, our cities are "homogenized" islands--one city being rather like another with respect to the way we've treated the species who find adapting to concrete and feeding off our garbage dumps more difficult.  As I've often confessed in this blog, I worry, especially on those days when I leave my study for the real world, how we're going to tempt a generation whose lives are mediated by their cell phones to save a rich natural world they aren't paying attention to.  Major is even more categorical and certainly more articulate than I am when she argues that "we forget we live / on a planet that is more inventive / than ourselves."  When I voice my complaint, I'm thinking of trees and snow and birds and the occasional rabbit--plenty of beauty to warrant our attention.  Major is thinking about oceans, soils, the unseen world Robert Macfarlane writes about so movingly in Underland.  As Greta Thunberg and her generation have shown, however, the planet is far more interesting to the younger generation than most of capitalism's blandishments.

Section 5 addresses our extinction of species and our benighted sense that we're smart enough to fix anything.  Majors cleverly uses computer imagery to describe the effect we've had on the planet:  "we're running trials / like half-assed systems analysts whose files / have never been backed up, reckless geeks / who don't know when we've pressed 'delete' / once too often."  The familiarity of the metaphor reaches out to grab each of us who has lost a precious file, bringing what has been called the great extinction closer to home.  Major's strategies make it less theoretical.

Section 6 juxtaposes "our vaulting crania, our vaunted brains" with slime mold and its ability to adapt to almost any circumstance--and its ability to work together.  Too often scientists see themselves as gods, whereas Nature "solves / her vast equations without fuss."  Gravity.  The paths of planets.  These unthinking forces don't need human intelligence to keep on keeping on.  Major suspects that these "unthinking" forces are "a god's true form."  This critique of the human brain continues almost seamlessly in section 7, which may be the angriest in her poem.  Please read it.  Here Major's language and rhyme all serve the central argument:  that we allow ideologies and religious beliefs and structures to hijack our minds, causing us to misapprehend the world and its peoples.  Her argument is straight out of the work of Nobel Prize-winning economist and psychologist Daniel Kahneman:  our thinking is full of biases, and many of these are cleverly used to distinguish our in-group from undeserving and threatening out-group:  "All this with a brain / that doesn't realize its gaps and patches-- / the leaps, elided details, makeshift matches / inherent in the maps it sketches."  "Our craving to be in," Major concludes, does constant damage not only to us but to the planet.  Wars are not without their environmental consequences, and communities that can't work together are much less capable of organizing to address the climate emergency.  This conclusion allows her to explore, in Section 8, the myriad ways we're not the centre of the universe.  If we blew ourselves up, flooded the planet, or reduced it to ashes, the rest of the universe would change little.

This long poem begins with the strategy of welcoming creatures on the planet to the Anthropocene and draws to a close by welcoming the earth itself and by admitting our major weaknesses in thinking.  In Section 9, Major reveals again how well she knows her science:  our human tendency is to focus on what's close and on the present moment.  Part of my self-discipline as an eco-terrorist, when I'm faced with a line-up of cars idling while they wait to grab a cup of coffee is to remind myself that the drivers are not thinking about their grandchildren, but about the kid in the back seat who's whining about being late for hockey.  They're not thinking about how their actions are affecting the planet but about their desperate need for coffee.   We only note what's close:  the death of the dog is more important to us than the death of the rain forest. Major encourages us to think about "how everything does touch," and uses the beautiful, musical metaphor of a murmuration of starlings (if you haven't seen one, you can find a YouTube video) as a way of envisioning the complex and beautiful way everything on the planet is connected in her attempt to challenge our "Here.  Now." thinking.

In Section 10, she gestures towards two great chains of being.  One is the laws of physics that we merely understand more or less perfectly.  The other is our DNA which is "a motherlode / of story."  She asks us to responsibly recognize our place in that great chain which both is and is not Pope's.  Membership, however, depends on our admitting that we are part of a "palimpsest / that's written over time and time again."  Membership also depends on our shifting a bit from Pope's perhaps too certain conclusion about a universe organized by God:  that "whatever is, is right."  Rather, we should admit that "whatever is, matters, in a wholeness where / everything is common and everything is rare."  These closing lines explode our tribal selfishness and our historical blindness.  We share DNA with almost 150 different plants and animals.  Yet each tree, each tree toad, is related to us.  We all have much in common--beginning with our sharing a planet.  But everything is rare as well, Major asserts, in an effort to prompt in us a respect for our fellow creatures.

Alice Major was recently awarded an honourary doctorate from the University of Alberta, and the conclusion of her convocation speech as she addresses a generation newly encouraged to address our climate emergency serves as a useful parallel to and summary of what she has written in Welcome to the Anthropocene:

"We can’t plan or predict what will happen in our lives. However, that uncertainty is the greatest privilege the universe gives us. We live right at the boundary where the constraints of the past meet the openness of future. We live in the zone where we must discover new things—and we have to interpret and share those discoveries. What do they mean for how we live our lives, for how we should act?....This is a phase space with complex dimensions, but that complexity is a good thing. Solutions will bubble up from many sources—from each of you. In effect, this means we all have to live as both scientists and artists." 

I've given you only a slice of this wonderful book.  While its various sections have epigraphs borrowed from "Welcome to the Anthropocene," their exploration of subjects like the environment or work or ways of thinking about poetry are often whimsical and embody perspectives very different from our own, perspectives that ease us into the difficult corners of our humanity. 

I've posed Alice's book against a log cabin quilt made of Japanese fabrics that I'm just beginning to quilt.

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.