Monday, March 5, 2018

Paper White Days

I'm guessing I do the naturalist's version of watching the paint dry:  I study the way light and humidity influence the colour and visual texture of tree bark and branches.  I love late winter afternoons when the low, golden sunlight inflames the otherwise grey branches at the tops of trees.  Or I take my time driving home at that point in the blue hour when trees and branches are the inky black of a Bernard Buffet streetscape.  In the dim light, you see only the larger branches, so that the trees make sense as they don't often during the day.  Their ramifying structure is clear, like a good argument or the simplified narrative of a life.  Of course, I love the hoarfrost.  I remember years ago seeing hoarfrost two inches thick on trees around Wascana Lake:  you could tell exactly which direction the wind had come from because you could see how the damp wind had, as it were, grown the crystals on top of one another.  The other side of the tree was bare.  Even the lightest hoarfrost can make the bare dogwoods and lilacs opaline.  On the sunny days we've had lately, you can actually see the different taupes and golds and ochres and greys and blacks and browns of tree bark, and you are drawn to the few leaves that still hang on the trees--the narrow greygreen oval of Russian Olives and a round ecru leaf belonging to a tree I cannot name.  If there's a bit of humidity on such days, everything seems doubly outlined; you can see the texture of bark and all the tree branches.  Some canny landscape architect had the sense to plant rows of trees--usually not the most creative thing to do--but as you drive past these down Wascana Parkway or through the park itself, you're aware of how a naked tree's shape is the core of its identity.

And then there are days like today when the sky is simply white, and, we hope, a prelude to snow.  On such days, the otherwise varied trunks and branches are simply greybrown.  Boredom is the mood of the day.  On principle, I'm not complaining.  After our dry summer, we need the moisture this snow will bring, and snow only comes out of a white sky.  We also need the cooler weather; the sea ice above Greenland....Well, there is no sea ice above Greenland.  Any time someone complains to me about how cold it is, I have only two words for them:  "sea ice."  The polar bears are getting, on average, three fewer weeks of sea ice each spring and summer that allow them to hunt.  The result is a declining population.

But as I look out my window, my principles are of no use.  It's an insubstantial world we're going to live in for the next couple of days.  The world looks like a blank page.

I like blank pages.  The blank page is a perfect metaphor for possibility, a place for something new to arise, a place for hope, for the belief that human creativity is a benevolent, honourable force in the world's cultures.  I'm trying to think of a single work of art that doesn't start as a blank page, and I can't.  Even the sculptor doubtless uses drawings to plan a work.  Music, that art that all other arts aspire to, begins as a score--even though it ends as an architecture of sound that gives way to other sounds as it fades.  I've never had writer's block ("Oh-ho, I'll bet she hasn't," I can hear colleagues, friends, and family saying.  "She always has far too much to say on any topic.") so I don't know how that fear plagues artists.  I get a scintilla of it when I can't remember the perfect word which I know I need to use but cannot find.

But I don't know what to do with days when an unspeaking sky is simply blank.  Such a sky seems indifferent to us.  And why wouldn't it be, given what we are doing to it?  It offers neither the cheer of sun nor the different cheer of rain or the aestheticizing beauty of falling snow that creates a world we only half see, as if we've shut our eyes half way.  On those days when the world it too much with us, a snowy day is a balm, a reminder that the world out there isn't everything.

The snow finally began to fall Saturday, so Sunday morning I went out into another blank sky to shovel, only to realize that my sense of blankness was not entirely accurate.  There were chickadees and sparrows.  The neighbour's wind chime began to peel in the rising wind. 

Now it's snowing again.  Bill has a huge pile of snow out in our back lane from shoveling away the snow from the garage.  I think we've got enough moisture to start spring.  But I've also discovered that the farther you look into the falling snow, the more slowly the flakes fall.

Monday, February 26, 2018

The Good Life--Act III

It's the good life, full of fun, seems to be the ideal,
Yes, the good life, lest you hide all the sadness you feel,
You won't really fall in love 'cause you can't take the chance,
So be honest with yourself, don't try to fake romance.
Yes, the good life, to be free and explore the unknown,
Like the heartache when you learn you must face them alone,
Please remember I still want you and in case you wonder why,
Well, just wake up, kiss that good life goodbye.
Frank Sinatra

Oh, the good life, full of fun seems to be the ideal
Mm, the good life lets you hide all the sadness you feel
You won't really fall in love for you can't take the chance
So please be honest with yourself, don't try to fake romance

It's the good life to be free and explore the unknown
Like the heartaches when you learn you must face them alone
Please remember I still want you, and in case you wonder why
Well, just wake up, kiss the good life goodby.
 Tony Bennett
My internet search skills are usually up to the task, but I can't find anything that will tell me who wrote the lyrics to this fairly famous song--famous if you are of my generation.  The first version is apparently the lyrics according to the Frank Sinatra recording; the second according to Tony Bennett.  Just comparing versions, we can find a problem:  there seems to be no authoritative version, though Bennett's make more sense. The syntax of  "Yes, the good life, lest you hide all the sadness you feel" doesn't make a whole lots of sense (unless "lest" is a typo), whereas Bennett's "the good life lets you hide all the sadness you feel" is fairly clear.  But even beyond these small but significant differences, the lyrics don't endorse "the good life" unreservedly.  And why does the beloved show up in only the last two lines?  Is she--or he--an afterthought?

Perhaps that's because "the good life" in this song is largely autonomous and a flight from emotion.  All that hopping in Jaguars and sailing on yachts and drinking of the best Scotch or champagne is busy-ness in the service of avoiding feelings and loneliness.  Because if you are going to be "free and explore the unknown," you can't be tied down.  The song, with its rather melancholy tune, is really ambivalent about "the good life."  On one hand, our culture presents it as an ideal, and we all recognize when we see it in car advertisements and beer commercials.  The individuals represented there have enough money to take life by the tail and wallow in the pleasures of excess and luxury, or the delights of the open road.  Yet if I'm reading the last two lines right--and I'm not altogether sure that I am--being loved necessitates waking up from that unrealistic adventurous dream and kissing the good life goodbye:  asking and acknowledging what someone else wants, changing a few diapers or spending some late nights at the office.  The lyricist has chosen an interesting verb for that last line:  if we kiss someone we love in a kind of acknowledging, passionate hello, we kiss the good life goodbye.

This double vision of the good life goes back to the Greeks.  Both Socrates and Plato thought "the good life" demanded some goodness of us.  Those living the good life are loving, empathetic, generous, compassionate...all those things we love to experience--so much so that empathy or gratitude from a stranger often makes our eyes water.  Epicurus, whose beliefs are complex and whose ideas I am simplifying--not quite to make him a straw man--thought that pleasure was important, although he also valued intense friendship.  As I have been thinking about the good life, I've thought it might be useful to put it on a continuum, perhaps with Mother Teresa on the generous, loving, ethical end and....oh why not put Donald Trump some place where he does belong: believing in pleasure and all the goods--particularly power and money--on the other end.  The individual whose days are spent in the pursuit of wealth, power, and pleasure has often seemed like a capitalist caricature, a figment of advertisers' imaginations, designed to get us to want more stuff.  It's a role we'll let Trump play.

Then after you've got the notions of "good" on either end of a continuum,  consider how much you want to move toward the other end.  I think, for example, that it is difficult to live a good life when your daily needs aren't reliably met and you don't know where your next meal is coming from or where you are going to sleep.  Then let me play with your head some more by throwing chaos theory into the mix.  Some complex systems, like the dripping of a tap, weather on the prairie, or rush hour traffic, are chaotic and unpredictable.  That's why the dripping tap drives you crazy:  you never know when the next "plop" will sound.  But mathematicians who study chaos theory observe that within the chaotic, complex systems there are underlying patterns that actually map the outer limits of occurrences.  What is contained near the outer areas of your idea of the good life?  I think--and I know Ken will forgive me--that walking is part of his idea of the good life--walking and the thinking and exploring that comes with it.  It's part of his idea of a needful social justice.  I know some people who couldn't live the good life without a pair of binoculars to watch the birds.  I know others, not gifted musicians particularly, who nevertheless feel that making music is part of their good life.

At the beginning of these posts on the good life, I described my own idea of the good life while also suggesting that my definition would not be yours.  Maybe you don't think that creativity is central to the good life, for example, or that people seeking the good life should take long walks in forests or through the prairie. Maybe you think gratitude is just nice--a bonus if it happens.  But we can probably agree on some central principles.  Love, with its assistants, empathy and compassion, can probably sit at the core.  (There is no love, after all, without empathy and compassion.)  We don't necessarily mean romantic love; love for one's fellow human beings, or at least some of them, will do just fine. I think generosity would be important:  without our generosity, those we love would never know it.  I think most of us would agree that it is difficult to truly live the good life in an unjust world--indicating that ideas of justice and fairness belong in the inner orbit of the good life.  But beyond the core, beyond that chaotic centre of your life, when the dripping of the tap or the gusting of the prairie wind becomes hard to predict, you should put the things that matter to you

If you don't like chaos theory, think about a nebula with a dense core, like a core of central beliefs, and the outer, looser orbiting dust that is being drawn in to the gravitational orbit at the centre that constitutes your individual, idiosyncratic idea of the good life. 

The point is that we reflect on the good life, that we make it a horizon we walk toward, a horizon that orients us, not something we will necessarily achieve, but also not a formula offered to us by others that we passively accept.  Maybe the good life is spent seeking the good life--though Google tells me that Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre said it first!

Monday, February 12, 2018

The Good Life and Politics

Saturday was Boris Pasternak's birthday, and by sheer coincidence I finished re-reading Doctor Zhivago on Friday night.  I had undertaken it because I am  in a Russian kind of mood as the result of reading War and Peace for the first time since 1973.  As well, concerts I have been to or listened to on the BBC kept immersing me in the most amazing Russian music--particularly Shostakovich and Prokofiev, both of whom had an uneasy relationship with communist governments. 

I did not expect to find creative writing lessons for me in Doctor Zhivago, but they were there.  Pasternak's characters--particular Zhivago ("zhiva" means life in Russian) and Lara--are to some degree embodiments of Russia and the strife she is undergoing from pre-revolutionary days until after the Second World War.  I am hoping that Soul Weather will be a "condition of Canada" novel, one whose characters undergo the stresses and strains of Canada in 2011 and 2012.  That is not inconceivable to me.  But how to position characters in Russia over a period of extreme turmoil?  How to write a "condition of Russia" novel set among such circumstances?  The answer, intriguingly is to create weather and landscapes or cityscapes that are larger than life, so that when a larger-than-life character walks on to declaim his lines and live his life, the character doesn't seem too big for the world.

At the same time, I could clearly see that one of Pasternak's purposes is to consider how political and historical circumstances make it impossible to live "the good life."  Zhivago is both doctor (an amazingly good diagnostician) and poet.  He believes in the revolution, which he learns about when he is at the Russian front during World War I:  having lost his father, who commits suicide because he loses the family fortune, as well as his mother; having grown up as a penniless orphan in the houses of other people; working in hospital wards, Zhivago well knows that drastic and inhumane inequality permeates Russian society.  But two things happen after the war ends.  First, living conditions are appalling.  Zhivago must sometimes go out and quietly take apart someone's wooden fence in order to keep his family warm.  Indeed, there is a brisk black market in destroyed fences and unground grain.  Secondly, those who brought the revolution about have splintered into (at least) three groups:  The Whites, The Reds, and the Partisans.  Within the territory controlled by each of these groups, it is very dangerous not to understand and accept the persnickety and in some ways arbitrary party line, elements of which are sometimes absurd.  Every group knows exactly what principles should obtain in a new Russian order, and they are not reluctant to kill those who do not agree.  After Zhivago has been kidnapped by the Partisans, escapes, and returns to Yuriatin to live with Lara, the people at the hospital are very grateful for his intuitive diagnostic skills.  At the same time, appealing to "intuition" is somehow ideologically forbidden by the party in control:  they love him for the same reason they would put him in prison or shoot him.

But let me back up for a minute.  In order to escape some of this insanity, Zhivago, his wife Antonia, their son, and Antonia's father, move to the old family estate in the Urals.  If you've seen the film David Lean made of this remarkable novel, you will doubtless remember Omar Sharif in fingerless gloves writing poetry in front of a frosty window at a desk lit only by a candle.  Here they manage--briefly--the good life.  To Yurii Zhivago, the physical labour is a tonic; it feels real after the labyrinth of political correctness he needed to navigate in Moscow.  Living alongside of nature, repairing an old building and doing your own laundry and eating your own potatoes seems authentic in a way that living in Moscow did not.  The fact that this life allows Zhivago to read and write and think during the long winter emphasizes how honest and fulfilling it is--not unlike Thoreau's time in his cabin.

What forces conspire to wrench the good life away from Zhivago and his family?  First, the doctor who is taking care of anyone fighting for "The Forest Brotherhood" (a splinter off the Partisans) dies, so the group kidnaps Zhivago one night as he is coming back to Varykino from Yuriatin.  Then circumstances become so difficult at Varykino without Yurii that his wife, two children, and her father return to Moscow, where they find themselves on the wrong side of someone's arbitrary ideologies, and they are exiled to Paris.  Yurii will never see them again.  After escaping from the Brotherhood, Yurii, not knowing where his family is, returns to Yuriatin with the plan of going from there out to Varykino, only to learn from Lara that his family has fled.  Then it becomes obvious that both Yurii and Lara hold unacceptable beliefs and are soon to be arrested and "re-educated" or shot, so they too leave Yuriatin for a brief and blooming time at Varykino before Komarovsky comes to "rescue" them both and take them by train to someplace safe.  Yurii lies to Lara so that she leaves with Komarovsky while Yurii remains in Varykino for a while before literally walking back to Moscow.

If you were to see Yurii on your doorstep in Moscow, you would quickly assume that he is an importunate street person whom you must get rid of as quickly as possible.  His life from that time until he dies of a heart attack is fractured and marginal, largely because he has PTSD.  (In a harrowing scene, Reds who have captured a member of the Forest Brotherhood cut off one of his legs and one of his arms, tie them to his back, and force him to crawl back to the Brotherhood's camp to warn them of Red displeasure.  This is only the most harrowing scene from Zhivago's time with the Brotherhood.  He sees plenty of cruelty there.)  Without the hope of work to do and someone to love, he simply has little energy to put into living.  And besides, 'living off the grid' leaves him with more freedom he would have in a steady job.  

Despite the fact that his name means "life," his life and his peace have been made impossible by these groups vying to parse socialism in the truest and most accurate way, without any compassion for anyone who does not share their assumptions. I have long believed that one of the founts of evil is individuals and groups who are certain they have the only correct beliefs and that everyone else is wrong if not immoral and vile.  Certainly that is borne out in Pasternak's novel.

We see a similar view of ideological destruction of the good life in Anthony Doerr's remarkable All the Light We Cannot See, particularly in the life of the orphaned young Werner Pfennig, who is destined on the eve of World War II to go down into the coal mines where his father died as soon as he reaches fifteen.  In some ways, he is rescued by a glimpse of the good life, when he is taken to the house of one of the mine officials to see if he can fix a radio.  There he sees carpets, piles of cakes (where rationing is the order of the day where he lives with other orphans), comfort he has never imagined existed.  He can indeed fix the radio, and the official is not likely to waste a gift that could be put to use by the Nazi government.  So Werner is sent off to a special school where his best friend is a lovely upper-middle-class boy named Frederick whose greatest joy is birds.  

Werner's gift is indeed valued and rewarded:  being recognized for his expertise is immensely rewarding, and he feels--not powerful, exactly, but perhaps not powerless for the first time in his life.  Frederick, on the other hand, rebels against some of the brutality that characterizes life in the National Political Institute of Education # 6 at Schulpforta.  While Werner attempts to protect Frederick by polishing his shoes and making his bed, overtly standing up for him is too dangerous.  Here is one of the ways the good life is made impossible:  under a triple threat of going down into the mines, being sent to the front or being badly beaten by his schoolmates, Werner cannot do what he thinks is right.  The good life is not luxury or comfort, Doerr suggests.  It is believing that your life is your own--something Frederick tells Werner that he wrongly continues to imagine.  Werner's time in the army with transceivers he has invented to locate enemy broadcasters merely provides variations on this theme.

For both Pasternak and Doerr, one of the foundations of the good life is at least freedom from political or social forces that seek to control the way you think and that invent brutal and clever ways of reinforcing their control over you.  Frederick is finally beaten so badly after his refusal to conform that this bright young man spends the rest of his days drawing spirals.  Brain damage has reduced him to a two-year-old who no longer registers the birds that gave him such joy.  Any time Werner thinks about rebelling against the ideology and brutality of the school, Frederick stands as a visceral and personal warning.

At the best, however, one has freedom to discover, observe, reflect, think about what one loves and what one hates and why, as one defines the good life for oneself.  The good life is not offered by ideology or politics--which may certainly contribute some values.  An intrinsic part of the good life, both Doerr and Pasternak suggest, is the freedom to reflect independently on what one values.  One of the things that Canadians--or at least white middle-class (and male) Canadians--need to realize is that we have an almost ideal society for defining for ourselves and pursuing the good life.  We have no excuses if we define the good life unwisely or unproductively.  White Canadians in turn need to be aware of the many ways in which this process has been complicated for the Indigenous community, the LGBTQ community, and for the frightened refugees who come to us for safety after years of lacking such freedoms.

Your idea of the good life is molded from your life and experience:  from the things you love, from what delights you, from what seems to you unfair or unjust, from your family and from relationships that widen your frame of reference, from your ideals gleaned from your life experience, from what you learn to imagine about other people's experiences.  Rigid ideology, both Pasternak and Doerr suggest, only gets in the way.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The Good Life II

Last spring, when I was called away from drafting my novel, Soul Weather, so I could revise my manuscript on Virginia Woolf's aesthetics, I promised to write a post about how questions about the good life find their way into novels.  I was finding that question posed by the characters in my own novel as well as seeing the question resonate through the novels I was reading.  That was April; it's now the end of January.  I'm back thinking about Soul Weather but not writing yet.  Instead I'm reading current nonfiction about trolling, about relationships in the 21st century, about economics, about the effects of social media on millennials.  I have yet to settle down and read through The Globe and Mail for the time period of my novel.  I'm reading contemporary novels to see what they have to say about the novel at this historical moment--which,  you must admit, is pretty singular.  I'm also reading through the notebooks I have been keeping for nearly ten years both to see what kinds of good ideas I had and to jettison the bad ones. But ideas about the good life keep returning.

As far as I know, Aristotle was the first person to think systematically about the good life.  A major part of his thinking was to distinguish between goods that were a means to an end and goods that had no practical use that he called goods of the soul.  Love, friendship, aesthetic enjoyment are some of these.  They won't keep you warm or buy you food, but something is missing from a life without them.  Aristotle thought is not all that different from that of psychologists who collect hard data on happiness and well-being.  Whether we're motivated by hedonia or eudaimonia--feeling good as opposed to doing good, as Veronika Huta so efficiently put it, will determine how happy we will be--how much of a sense of well-being we'll experience.  (I'm a bit nervous about the word "happy.")  I've written here as often as you would read about the difference between extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation--a distinction that is quite robust in the research.  (Thank you, Katherine Arbuthnott.)

Donald Trump is my poster boy for extrinsic motivation:  he seeks outward signs of his success that can easily be read by anyone else:  power, money, attractiveness (or an attractive partner).  So is he happy?  Clearly not.  Mother Teresa and Jack Layton are good examples of intrinsic motivation.  Within themselves they found the passion and the skills that translated into good in the world.  In a classic study, researchers gave graduating students a questionnaire that would reveal whether their motivation was intrinsic or extrinsic and then asked them where they wanted to be in three years.  In the three-year follow-up, most students had achieved what they'd hoped, but only those with intrinsic motivation--the teachers, the artists, the social workers--were happy with their progress.  There isn't enough stuff, money, or power to make someone devoted to extrinsic motivation happy.  On the other hand, the pleasure of creating something new, the discovery of a new idea or a new way of teaching, the nudge you can make to improve someone else's life are very satisfying.  I should also say that these kinds of motivation can be seen on a continuum, with intrinsic and extrinsic on opposite ends.  If I write a poem I'm proud of, do I want to share  it with someone else and for that person to admire it?  Yes, I do:  I'm not poetry's Mother Teresa

Why have ideas about the good life migrated from philosophy to the novel?  As I've been thinking about both my characters and this blog, I have come to realize that the good life is idiosyncratic and individual, and probably changes for each of us as we move through our lives.  I can tell you what I think the good life is:  it's a life with a purpose you have embraced, whether that purpose has befallen you or been chosen by you.  It's a life of kindness, generosity, gratitude, hope:  of rich and often intimate relationships with others, relationships built on how well you know them and how that knowledge plays a part in how you care for them.  It's a life questing for the balance between what Jane Austen thought of as "duty to self" and "duty to others"--one of the most difficult balancing acts humans undertake.  It's a life with a voice, a life that expresses its meaning to those who matter.  It's a life which has making or creating as part of the daily or yearly round:  making a meal, a garden, a sweater, a poem, a Christmas decoration, a painting, a quilt.  Otherwise, we lack agency; we are simply consumers of someone else's idea of a good life, and we lose the pleasure inherent in creating something that wasn't there before.

In all likelihood, if you are a reader of this blog, none of those ideas about the good life will seem questionable or absurd.  But they won't seem quite right to you either.  That's because they're not yours.  And in some ways, they are only the latest incarnation of my ideas of the good life.  I don't think gratitude always played the enormous role it now does in my sense of well-being:  it took my cat Twig and his terrifying illness, along with the daily ritual of telling him I was grateful we'd had one more day together, to move gratitude from a peripheral quality of the good life to one that is front and center for me. 

Only something as various and particular as art can give us insight how people like us or unlike us have solved--for the moment--the problem of a good life.  Our intimate contact with myriad characters, all questing for meaningful and ethical responses in an often unethical world, can help us with our own quest.

Zoe Whittall's The Best Kind of People illuminates some of these ideas about "the good life," particularly how fragile it is and how quickly it can change from intrinsic to extrinsic. George Woodbury is heir to a sizable fortune, but has chosen to teach science in a rather elite school instead of following in his father's footsteps.  He finds immense pleasure in helping students understand the mysteries of the universe in his physics classes.  He is the town hero, having tackled a man with a gun who clearly meant to wreck some havoc at the school where he teaches and where his youngest daughter goes, but that status isn't something he takes seriously.  Joan is an emergency room nurse; you have to want to help people and believed in your carefully-honed craft--all intrinsic qualities--to serve in that capacity. Their gay son is a lawyer in a loving relationship and his choice is fully respected by his family.  Their daughter is in her last year of high school:  she's beautiful and smart and has a wonderful boyfriend.  She's so successful that she doesn't even need to think about it, but can focus on her studies, her sports, her relationship with Jimmy. 

But what happens to this ordinary extraordinary family when dad is accused of sexual assault during a school field trip?  (I promise; no spoiler alert needed, except to say that there's a plot twist that reveals how fine a writer and how nuanced a thinker Whittall is.)  What happens to a family and its members who have pursued the intrinsic ideal of the good life when their lives are suddenly subject to intense scrutiny and venom?  Interestingly, they are forced to shift their emphasis toward extrinsic markers of the good life.  Whittall's novel points to the ripples that radiate from such questioning and abrupt shift.  It isn't simply that the characters undergo a kind of dissolution that starts from within;  the community makes those family members into pariahs.  We may think that our idea of the good life is an integral part of us, created solely by us, but Whittall's novel suggests that social approval or censure can have a profound effect on our definition.

Cats undoubtedly have intrinsic motivation.  Freud once said that happiness was easy:  work to do and someone to love.  They clearly love one another:  you can see that Lyra's white paws are around Tuck's neck.  And their work--oh how hard it is!--is to cuddle with us and make us laugh.

Next week:  the good life in War and Peace, Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See, Kate Atkinson's God in Ruins, and Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog.

Monday, January 15, 2018


On November 17 and 18, First Nations University at the University of Regina hosted "Land and Imagination," a symposium on "Sustainable ways to Inhabit Rural Saskatchewan," largely the brainchild of Sheri Benning who is now teaching creative writing at U of S.  Writers and visual artists came together to share their artistic practice and to create a dialogue about how art helps us understand the natural world and our place in it and about how our art can encourage its audiences to engage with the environment.  Presenters of papers that were provocative, angry, playful, insightful, challenging, and often guilt-inducing included Jesse Archibald-Barber, Heather Benning, Lori Blondeau, Terri Fidelak, David Garneau, Trevor Herriot, Tim Lilburn, Randy Lundy, Sherry Farrell Racette, and Jan Zwicky.  I'm not sure the symposium's subtitle reflects what actually happened that day, which seemed to variously--and rightly--triangulate between Indigenous Issues and art practices, environmentalists of a variety of stripes, and the way the making of art can bring us all closer to a just engagement with the natural world.  Because Bill still was not entirely well, I attended only about half of the symposium--and perhaps that's all my brain could have taken in.

At one point, when the guilt had gotten particularly thick, Jan Zwicky provocatively said that the best thing she could do for the planet was to volunteer to be shot.  Interestingly and appropriately, this led us all to ponder, via Zwicky's reference to one of Plato's Symposia, 'what is enough?'  How much stuff do we really need?  To put this question in context, let me cite an article in The Guardian on November 28.  The production of clothing produces 1.2 billion tons of greenhouse gases a year--more than international flights and shipping combined.  World wide, a truckload of clothing is taken to the dump every second of every day.

Curiously, I was reading two very different books that could contribute something to our conversation:  Tolstoy's War and Peace and Thoreau's Walden.  Two books that couldn't be more different both have something to say about this issue of "enough."

Tolstoy was born to an aristocratic, land-owning family, but toward the end of his life became an anarchist and a pacifist; his ideas about nonviolent resistance informed those of Gandhi and Martin Luther King.  Even before his conversion, he believed his privilege and his responsibility went hand in hand, so that in years when there was famine from which agricultural workers were dying, he and his family opened up countless soup kitchens.  I love the image, from  Alexandra Popoff's biography of Tolstoy's wife, Sophia, of her scouring the streets of Moscow for someone who would donate a railroad car full of onions:  high in vitamin C, they would prevent scurvy among the starving peasants.  

Toward the end of his life Tolstoy's ideals became more extreme.  Tolstoy wanted to earn no money from royalties and to give away all his property.  He had a Christ-like idea of purity in mind that he felt he couldn't achieve laden with material wealth.  Sophia--who took a lot of abuse from Tolstoy--pointed out that they had brought 13 children into the world, 8 of whom survived.  How were they to be educated if the family decided to live in poverty? Popoff's wonderful, award-winning biography makes its easy for us to see how difficult Tolstoy made her life:  how Sophia was faithful to him--even copying a manuscript that put her in a bad light--even while attempting to balance between Tolstoy's extreme spiritual needs, the needs of her family, and her faith in the integrity of his work.

War and Peace is an earlier work begun in 1862 and finished in 1869 when Tolstoy was 41.  Sophia copied out no fewer than 7 complete drafts of what is generally believed to be one of the longest novels ever written.  Although its composition predates Tolstoy's more extreme beliefs about the evils of property and ownership, Tolstoy does not fail to critique the generation of aristocratic landowners who lived between 1805 and 1814--the years of the novel's events.  

The two heroes of War and Peace are Prince Andrei Bolkonsky and Count Pierre Bezukhov, both in their early twenties when the novel opens, both of whom have liberal leanings.  Prince Andrei regards the well-being of the serfs who work his land as part of his responsibility.  He sees to it that their children are educated and that everyone has the medical attention they need.  All this is done without fanfare, and although it works efficiently his serfs are not exactly happy.  In a sense, he's trying to be an enlightened slave owner, so his serfs' dissatisfaction is understandable.

We first meet Pierre Bezukhov, the illegitimate son of a count, at at party where he reveals himself to be a well-informed young man with ideas.  Having spent his late teens and early twenties largely in France, he is full of the revolutionary and philosophical rhetoric that imbued late-eighteenth-century Europe.  When he inherits his father's estates and title, he plans to carry out reforms.  Tolstoy lets us see that in spite of Pierre's good intentions, each of his far-flung estates is run by a steward Pierre barely knows and certainly should not trust.  At one point, Pierre observes that he actually had more money for himself when he was a poor student:  now the incompetence and corruption of stewards and the requests of distant family members seem to require far more money than he actually takes in.  At the end of the novel--two wars with Napoleon later--Pierre marries Natasha, the novel's heroine, who keeps a well-run, efficient house.  Pierre, who has sold most of his land, realizes that running his private finances well is more cost-effective than trying to manage estates that are several days' travel away.  (Pierre is not the only one who discovers this; Natasha's father, Count Rostov, is nearly ruined by his greedy steward.  His finances are only rescued when both his oldest son and middle daughter marry well.)  Like today's CEOs, Russian aristocrats are too far away from their sources of their income to understand what their serfs need or how their income is derived.

While much of the information about the characters' relationship to money is offered by the characters themselves, Tolstoy clearly suggests that the Russian aristocracy has more than enough and often uses that excess very badly.  Many of the novel's most vital moments in characters' lives occur in moments of great privation--as when the Rostov family is on the road out of Napoleon-occupied Moscow with several cart loads of wounded officers, staying in mere huts. If you are dying, as Prince Andrei is, Natasha's loving, open, patient heart is enough.  Similarly, Bezukhov spends several months nearly starving in prison, accused by some of Napoleon's officers of being a spy, but it is here that he learns how little is enough if there is food for thought and reflection and if he can maintain his curiosity about his fellow prisoners, one of which is an uneducated peasant who is nevertheless very wise and  who knows the answer to the question Bezukhov has been puzzling over since the novel began:  why does one live and how does one live well?

In some ways, Henry David Thoreau's Walden couldn't be more different from War and Peace, though the two authors' lives intersect chronologically, Thoreau born in 1817 and dying merely 45 years later in 1862, Tolstoy born in 1828 and living on into the twentieth century until he was 82.  At least three different Thoreaus inhabit the pages of Walden.  There's Thoreau the purist, who is so delighted that he can make bread without yeast out of simply grain, water, and salt (though he admits pensively that no one ever comes to eat with him). Somehow that bottle of yeast that he carries all the way from Concord to Walden Pond is just too much--heavy, profligate, unnecessary and "trivial" as well.  I feel as if the purist in Thoreau, in paring down to "enough" has eliminated some things that many of us would consider important to a good life. His first (sometimes annoying) chapter is called "Economy," where he argues that all we need is food, shelter, clothing, fuel.  Oh, yes, and a few tools with which to build a house and hoe a bean field.

The purist in Thoreau makes me want to growl.  He seems unaware of the fact that his Harvard education--supported by Harvard's large library that he made excellent use of--forms the foundation of his thought and accompanies him in the woods.  Where's the simplicity in that?  He doesn't see the cultural richness of the few physical books he takes with him, nor does he consider what has gone into the paper he writes on or how books are made, transported, and sold.  Like many purists, he cherry-picks his ideals, ignoring those that don't quite fit. It's good to remember--just in case your New Year's resolutions embraced some absolute idea--that purity is entirely ideological and cultural:  you can't prove its presence or its absence except by appealing to ideas.

One of the babies he throws out with his ideological bathwater is man-made beauty--except insofar as it is  inevitably present in the books he reads and in the book he writes and rewrites to describe his time here. As he carefully describes his hut, I longed to have him mention a beautiful quilt to keep him warm or a beautiful bowl to mix his bread in.  Perhaps the taste of the day for "gewgaws" had sullied his ideas about domestic beauty.  Yet if we must have a table, a plate, a glass, a bed covering, why not have one that is beautiful?

Then there's Thoreau the philosopher who, like Bezukhov, wants to know what the good life is.  For him the good life contains enough time to be self reflective and time to observe the natural world.  The good life--in contrast to what it means now:  a life of wealth and power--can be had rather cheaply:  "Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul" (221).  Rather, one should "Love your life, poor as it is."  With a bit of blindness about what real poverty is, Thoreau observes that "You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poor-house.  The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the alms-house as brightly as from the rich man's abode; the snow melts before its door as early in the spring.  I do not see but a quiet mind may live as contentedly there and have as cheering thoughts, as in palace" (220).  It is the phrase "a quiet mind" that reveals Thoreau's shortcomings:  at least in the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries, the poor and homeless seldom have quiet minds, struggling as they do with mental illness. In another sense altogether, Thoreau is reflecting on the fact that the beauty of nature is available to most of us.  (And even here, I want to argue with him: I doubt there is much nature in the "projects" we have built to house poor families.)  Nevertheless, Thoreau's image of the good life proceeds from the age-old tradition of self-knowledge:  "Explore thyself.  Herein are demanded the eye and the nerve."  A life that is pared down to 'enough' makes this easier:  "In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, not weakness weakness."  Simplifying life gives one time for reflection and observation which we don't have when we are glued to our cell phones or our 24/7 jobs.     

And then there's Thoreau the naturalist, constantly and closely observing the natural world--and gobsmacked by the order, ingenuity, and beauty of what he sees. His very reason for trimming his life down as much as he could was to afford him unencumbered time to wander the natural world, observing, keeping records, indulging his curiosity.  Thoreau kept daily journals between 1837 and 1861 which give us a sense of the shape of his days; many of them begin by outlining where he walked to in the afternoons. 

 The tie between simplifying his life and his observations of nature are clear throughout much of Walden, but particularly potent in his comment on watching spring arrive;  "One attraction in coming to the woods to live was that I should have leisure and opportunity to see the spring come in.  The ice in the pond at length begins to be honey-combed, and I can set my heel in it as I walk.  Fogs and rains and warmer suns are gradually melting the snow...I am on the alert for the first signs of spring, to hear the chance note of some arriving bird, or the striped squirrel's chirp, for his stores must be now nearly exhausted, or see the woodchuck venture out of his winter quarters....I am affected as if in a peculiar sense I stood in the laboratory of the Artist who made the world and me."  

I have been to Walden Pond and have seen a replica of Thoreau's 10 feet by 15 feet house there. He had a bed, table, desk, bookshelf, and three chairs (so he could have company).  It bears quite a bit of resemblance to the rooms at Sage Hill or St. Peter's or Banff--or to a dormitory room, for that matter.  There are times in our lives when a monastic cell is the perfect form for us, the smaller space ironically liberating us into creating the inscape that can now dwell in our unassaulted brains.

What the conference on "Sustainable ways to Inhabit Rural Saskatchewan," War and Peace and Walden have in common is that they urge us to think about "enough."  Pierre Bezukhov's concept of "enough" will seem an excess to many of us, while Thoreau's might seem a little sparse.  But if we all think about "enough" in terms of both time and money--how much time on our cell phones is "enough?" how much wardrobe is necessary? how much income? I suspect we would find two things.  One is that our environmental footprint would shrink.  The other is that we would be happier, more engaged with the important people and the beauties of our everyday lives.

The Manchester Guardian's essay on how wasteful our relationship with clothing is can be found here.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Light, darkness, and shadows

I don't think it was a coincidence that Bill and I took our first "sparkle tour" (his lovely phrase) on the winter solstice. Bill always drives; his car has heated seats.  It's my task to store in my head the map of neighbourhoods and streets where people go all out.  (Elliott Drive off Broadway east of Winnipeg is a small crescent in which nearly everyone decorates to the max.)  Driving Regina's streets in the dark and admiring the way people have decorated for Christmas while we have unusually rich conversations has been an annual ritual for us for some time.  Perhaps because 2017 was so dark in so many ways and because the weather gave us several reprieves that let us get organized to put up lights, people seemed particularly keen this year to drape lights on trees, to outline roof line, to adorn walkways with red candy canes or to prop sprays of lights in a hibernating garden.  As well, by the solstice, most people have their Christmas trees up--trees they have placed in their front windows, despite the amount of furniture moving required.

Why do we do this?  The Christian Christmas is certainly a season of light, marked as it is in the telling by the light of a brilliant start and the sparkling songs of angels of light.  But for many of us, Christmas is a time when families gather for wonderful meals and an opportunity for generosity we may not usually feel for our second cousin or for a child who has learned the habit of begging for every new toy.  I think this practice is really much older and is founded in a whole host of anxieties we feel about the shortening days.  My old Chaucer professor, Leo MacNamara, once confessed that every year toward the winter solstice he experienced an irrational sense that the days would just continue to get shorter and shorter until the sun was absent altogether.  Many of us who cope with Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD don't express what we are feeling quite so dramatically, but we struggle nevertheless.  Something happens to my sense of self:  I don't worry about the sun disappearing altogether but about friends abandoning me one by one.

So when we move the furniture so the sparkling Christmas tree is in the window, we are sharing light, celebrating light.  Our homes speak to the streets through the gardens we put in, through the pots and boxes we fill with flowers.  Particularly on the prairies, where summers are relatively short, we celebrate colour--the antithesis of the white winter.  But there's something more intimate about putting a Christmas tree in the window: for a brief moment people are invited into the light at the centre of our living rooms.  Home owners who never leave their curtains open after dusk have suddenly thrown caution to the winds and let us see their Charlie Brown tree, their artificial tree, the tinsel and white tree they've had for years, the seven-footer Fraser Fir that they wrestled in the doorway.  There are little stories lit up in all those living room windows.

But one of the things I love about this time of year is that the low light coming from the south illuminates parts of my house that light never glimpses and that it comes with shadows that are complicated enough for a brief woolgathering study of them.  I have lilacs in the south facing front garden of my house, so that even if light came through my southern windows in the summer, the leafy lilacs would blot out a most of it.  But now their branches are bare, and the low sunlight casts their tangle into my dining room.

This has been a dark year:  I don't even want to elaborate on that sentence.  Each of you can do that his or her own way.  But there's a difference between darkness and shadows.  Shadows only exist where there is also light.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

In Praise of Cats and Surgeons

Two events have coloured this autumn for me.  The first is the arrival of two new kittens on September 2.  They came from Regina Cat Rescue and they came with stories.  Tuck, the black cat, had a feral mother who visited one of RCR's feeding stations.  They gave her a safe place for the birth of her kittens and when she was finished nursing spayed her and let her go back to the way of life that was comfortable for her.  We have called him Tuck because early in his time with us he was quite shy and tucked himself in the most improbable places.  But I have wily patience and taught him that playing is more fun than hiding.  Once he was more comfortable, he was more likely to "tuck" his face under your chin or in his brother's fur.  He remains an introvert who seems to spend some of his time just observing the world, curious about how it works.  He is a large, gentle guy who, I predict, will become a philosopher cat in time.

We named Lyra after a bright constellation because he is a bright, outgoing, curious, smart.  Lyra and his siblings were found under the stairs of a business on Roleau without any mother in sight.  Either they had been abandoned or their mother had been grabbed by a coyote or a hawk.  After waiting four hours to see if their mother would return, they called RCR, which has a volunteer whose particular gift is help animals without mothers get a toehold in this world.  Kittens who are fed "by hand"--which is to say cuddled by a person and fed with a syringe for quite a few weeks--tend to be very cuddly and affectionate, and this is borne out by Lyra's personality.  Lyra's world contains some fairly deep puzzles.  If I pour water into his upstairs bowl, it stays in the bowl.  But when I let water run in the sink, it goes away.  When I drink out of a clear glass, it disappears into my mouth.  Why, if there is a sink full of water, can't he put his paw in on the edge and pull it toward him--like every other toy in his world?  And then there are mirrors.  One day he sat up on the vanity in the bathroom and looked at his reflection.  Then he looked over at my reflection.  He looked at his again, then at me, and then again at mine.  I could see the mice turning the little exercise wheels in his brain:  if that shows me Mom, then this must be me.

Tuck and Lyra are not siblings but they are brothers.  Having been fostered together, they developed an early bond that is remarkably strong.  They wrap their arms around one another or wash one another's faces--until that turns into what I call "lick, lick, lick, chew, chew, chew"--a kind of safe rehearsal of self-defense.  There's no growling, but a lot of posturing,  lots of chasing that then turns into play with one of the catnip mice we've bought for them.  They are half joy--joie de vivre, really, and half love.  I frequently wake in the morning to stereo purr--one cat on either side of my pillow purring away, a cheek next to mine or the top of a head pressed into my hair.  They may be the most affectionate kittens I've ever had.  Or it may be that being retired and having been taught by Twig about the inner lives of cats, I'm simply more attuned to their moods, habits, and needs.

They came into our lives about a week after Bill's time in hospital that I wrote about in "Bittersweet."  In some ways that was fortunate:  he was still home, gaining strength, and he could learn their personalities, be distracted by them, laugh at their antics, and cuddle with them a lot.  They were obviously still here about a month ago when Bill had a second episode that called for major surgery (three hours of it) in the middle of the night.  It's still his story to tell, so I'll simply say that there were a couple of things that could have gone very wrong but that didn't, thanks to the extraordinary skills of the surgeon who happened to be on call that night.  Bill is on the mend, but has a ways to go before his energy is back to normal and he can return to work. 

One common denominator between kittens and recovery from surgery is mindfulness.  When you are raising wonderful, playful, cuddly kittens and are still learning about their personalities, you pay attention.  I still set aside some time after dinner and dishes to play with them.  While part of that play is laughter and delight, another part is attention.  What arouses their curiosity?  What challenges do they like to add to their play?  Similarly, when you are taking care of someone who is trying to build his stamina after surgery--someone who isn't all that keen to eat, but who must eat, you pay attention.  When does he need a nap?  Does he look comfortable?  What food might tempt him to eat a little more?  The surgeon told us to walk every day--not far, and certainly not quickly at first--and our slow late-afternoon walk down the back lane became a time to pay attention to changes in Bill's energy and to the waning autumnal light.

The second common denominator is gratitude.  I am so grateful for the little guys who seem so happy to have joined my household.  And I'm obviously grateful for every little change in Bill's sense of well-being and energy.  Gratitude, I find, is always a good foundation to build on.  But what I've found is that having a life right now that is infused with gratitude has changed me.  In some ways, I'm a very patient person.  In other ways I'm not:  if someone is wasting my time, I get edgy and even cranky.  But early in his time home, Bill had some questions about his progress that he could put neither to his regular doctor nor to the surgeon, both of whom were away.  So we spent 3 hours and 45 minutes at a walk in clinic with a very thorough doctor who did lots of tests, who took x-rays, and who was informative.  While all this was unrolling for Bill, I was sitting in the waiting room reading Salman Rushdie's new novel, The Golden House.  (I dunno.  I love Rushdie, but the jury is still out on this one.  It's great political satire on the present moment, but I have a feeling it's not built very carefully.)  I'd need a break, so I cleaned out my wallet.  Back to reading Rushdie.  A break to read The Leader Post.  Back to Rushdie.  It never even occurred to me to be impatient.

Bill and I have an equal opportunity household.  We've divvied up the basic household tasks between us with attention both to our strengths and preferences and to how much time each of us is  contributing.  But he can't lift over 8 pounds for the next several months, so I'm doing a lot more than I used to.  He usually cleans the house, but that is obviously falling to me.  And to make matters worse, Lyra is not afraid of anything--not afraid of vacuum cleaners or dust mops.  He's curious about why I'm moving everything on a table or why I'm looking under a chair.  Am I going to find a toy?!?!  As a matter of fact, it helps to have a catnip mouse in my pocket, but it also helps to let his sense of curiosity and fun infect me.  Yesterday, I decided to move all the chairs out of the dining room so I could do a thorough vacuuming.  (I'd been giving that room what my mother used to call 'a lick and a promise.')  Each time I moved a chair out of the room, Lyra jumped up to take a ride.  He did the same thing when I moved the chairs back.  When we were done, I laughed and he wrapped his arms around my knee and jumped up and down like a puppy asking to be picked up.  He purred in my ear.

Could it be that gratitude makes it easier to "go with the flow," to see the whole of the situation before you and to foreground what you're grateful for--Bill's growing energy or the way Lyra's playfulness puts house cleaning in a different light?  There have to be limits to gratitude--principles I haven't thoroughly worked out yet.  I'm certainly grateful when I hear good news stories about climate change, but those stories don't outweigh everything we're not doing.  People in Puerto Rico don't seem to have much reason to be grateful for U.S. aid in their recovery, though I'm sure there are many human-scale moments when they help one another out and when they are grateful.  But that doesn't excuse U.S. negligence.  There are wrongs in the world--injustices and meanness, greed and stupidity, abuses of power.  But if the down side is just the down side, the half empty glass, and not something you need to get mobilized to combat, taking a moment to think of what you might be grateful for is not only prosocial--grateful people are kinder, more empathetic, and more generous--but healthier for you and those around you.  I hate swimming upstream.  Gratefully going with the flow leaves me with more energy to fight when I need to.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Strands of cultural DNA

I didn't do any significant, meaningful work for a week after Donald Trump was elected president.  In the months following his inauguration, I became a news junkie, watching CBC news channel with my breakfast and my lunch.  Then dear Twig died, and I began spending my time much more fruitfully, out with the sparrows, chickadees, and nuthatches who came to my feeder and who learned I was no threat.  I haven't done that much since Tuck and Lyra arrived; instead I've found myself reading back issues of literary magazines over breakfast and lunch.  The New York Times daily briefing keeps me up on the American stories I might be curious about, and I catch the Canadian stories in The Globe and Mail.  There are two take-aways from this shift.  One is simply about habits, about how we can fall into them unthinkingly and maybe need some event--though preferably not the death of a lovely old cat--to prompt us to query them.

The second comes, naturally, with two quotations.  Though I no longer have my copy of Alice Walker's The Colour Purple, I well remember a conversation between Celie and Shug in which one of them complains about how hard it is to get men out of our minds:  they're even on our boxes of grits.  I only need to walk to the bookshelves in the next room for me to cite two similar passages in Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, one where Woolf's narrator draws the picture of the angry and unattractive Professor X who is angry in part because he is unattractive.  Later in that same chapter, Woolf's narrator (I make this pedantic distinction because I believe the voice we hear is not exclusively Woolf's) goes to take tea after her hard work in the British Museum, and while she is waiting for her meal to come glances over the newspaper:  "The most transient visitor to this planet, I thought, who picked up this paper could not fail to be aware, even from this scattered testimony, that England is under the rule of a patriarchy.  Nobody in their senses could fail to detect the dominance of the professor.  His was the power and the money and the influence....With the exception of the fog he seemed to control everything.  Yet he was angry....Is anger, I wondered, somehow, the familiar, the attendant sprite on power?"

I find it interesting that Woolf sees how angry and unhappy the powerful men are.  Have you ever seen Donald Trump smile?  Or perhaps I should be more precise and note that when he does smile it's what psychologists identify as a "chimp smile."  That facial expression isn't about joy or happiness, it's about power, about having more power than the individual or institution being smiled at.  (Come to think of it, I've never seen Melania Trump smile either.)  There simply isn't enough money or power to make Donald Trump smile.  Do you remember early on when he complained about how the framers of the Constitution cheated him?  If he's not all-powerful, it's not fair. 

For Mother's Day this year, Veronica bought me the three-volume boxed set of Lord of the Rings, which I began reading in late summer.  The family copy--which she has claimed in any event--is falling apart.  I have read Lord of the Rings out loud at least twice, but I've never simply read it to myself--which was a very different reading experience. Reading it out loud, I just keep moving forward, and I foolishly gave the various characters voices, so I had to concentrate on being in character.  (I'm quite proud of my Treebeard voice, which is very like the one in the film.  I've also borrowed his mantra often, partly because it's got musical vowels and consonants:  "Now don't be hasty.")  But this reading was different for yet another reason:  it was impossible not to think about Donald Trump when I read about Saruman or Sauron.  Prophetically, Tolkien's villains are also destroyers of nature--which is not only one of Trump's qualities but one which pervades Neo-Liberalism.  'Nature?  No--forget about nature.  You've got to get product on shelves and stocks into the market.  Nature is a figment of your imagination--or at least something you don't need to worry about.'

But Tolkien was even more prophetic about the way a desire for naked power distorts the men who relentlessly seek it.  Reading LOTR in Trumptime is a different experience.

Except that wise old Tolkien infuses the novel with characters who critique the values of Sauron and Saruman at every turn.  I still remember fruitlessly trying to convince my mother to give herself treats and pleasures occasionally because "pleasure is moral."  This idea was simply not part of the ideal of self-sacrificing womanhood prevalent in the fifties.  But it seems to me that people who laugh joyfully at children playing and watch sparrows, people who make bread and who take a few moments to eat a warm piece and stare out the window to considered how it is with the world and with themselves, people who have fruitful conversations with members of their book club or who watch birds are good people.  My useless example--useless only because my mother had never heard of Lord of the Rings much less Hobbits--is of course Hobbits.  Why would a pair of Hobbits be the only ones who could return the ring to Mount Doom?  Because they have their priorities straight:  friendship, elevenses, pipeweed at the top.  Frodo and Sam are particularly susceptible to beauty and nature.  Sam, when he is tempted to take over Frodo's quest just after they have entered Mordor, rather than try to rescue his "master," realizes that though he'd love to be in an Elvish song sung by Hobbits to come, he really only wants his bit of garden and the hands with which to work it.

This reading I was struck by a motif that recurred in the chapters on the Fellowship's stay in Lorien.  Haldir, the Fellowship's guide into Lorien points out that they can see "Dol Guldur, where long the hidden Enemy has his dwelling.  We fear that now it is inhabited again, and with power sevenfold.  A black cloud lies often over it of late.  In this high place you may see the two powers that are opposed one to another; and ever they strive now in thought, but whereas the light perceives the very heart of the darkness, its own secret light has not been discovered.  Not yet."  Similarly, when Frodo looks in Galadriel's mirror and sees the eye of Sauron, which is searching him out, Galadriel comforts him somewhat by observing that "I say to you, Frodo, that even as I speak to you, I perceive the Dark Lord and know his mind, or all of his mind that concerns the Elves.  And he gropes ever to see me and my thought.  But still the door is closed!"  The good, the wise, the kind see the evil in their world, whereas the evil doesn't see the forces for the good.  Yes, yes, I know that Trump complains about everyone who criticizes him.  But do you really think he sees them?  I don't think narcissists see anyone but themselves.  I was going to write "stupid narcissists," but that seemed redundant.  I've never met a really smart narcissist.

Tolkien's elves have given us good advice for living through greedy, intolerant, and self-aggrandizing periods of our history.  It is even more important now that we keep on doing what we are doing:  being kind to one another, making beautiful things like the cloaks Galadriel and her ladies weave for the Fellowship, taking time to reflect, considering the lives of those whom society has marginalized, remembering to answer generosity with gratitude, using our imaginations as a guide to beginning to understand the lives of others, being curious rather than judgmental.  I could say this is especially important for Americans, but I don't think Canada is free of racism and sexism, given last January's  murder of Muslims at prayer,  the plight of missing and murdered aboriginal women and their families, the new Quebec law that prevents women who wear a niqab or burqa from receiving public services like mass transit or to work in public institutions, or the rise of Alt-Right groups in Canada.  On some days, I think that Steven Pinker has failed me, but I know that his data is accurate.  Maybe our intolerance for intolerance is a good thing. 

Each of us carries important strands of our culture's DNA and expresses it in our actions and our values. This is the element of ourselves that the power-hungry can't and don't see.  Our every act--from a smile at a stranger to a hug given a struggling friend, from the books we buy to the concerts we attend--is an expression of both the values our culture has encouraged in us as well as of the thoughtful, considered choices we have made about the way we want to be in the world and the world we want to live in.  That cultural DNA morphs through time, undergoing evolutions encouraged by both the world outside us and our relationship with that world.  Pinker, for example, notes that one reason the world has become less violent is that feminist values have begun to have an impact on how we think about....power and its attendant violence--whether that is manifested in bullying or in combat.  Sometimes we let ourselves go with the flow and suddenly find ourselves on the edges of social movements that are anything but social.  But it's everyone's job right now to protect that strand of cultural DNA that she or he carries, and to think clearly and carefully about any evolutions the current zeitgeist might encourage in us.  It's what we protect from the blindness of power.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017


I have been living inside a bittersweet frame of mind since about the middle of August when Bill was in the hospital for five days.  Why he was in the hospital is his story to tell, not mine, so you can imagine whatever scenario you find convincing, as long as it involves a fair amount of pain and uncertainty.  Yet living right beside the pain which so worried me was the care the nurses gave and the helpful questions they asked.  In my heightened frame of mind, I could see each of them making the world better one patient at a time.  I would drive home from the hospital at the end of the day and notice the sunsets, which were spectacular because of all the smoke in the air from forest fires.  Since two summers ago, when Saskatchewan had its bad run of forest fires, I've been aware of that bittersweet paradox:  that the destructiveness of fires in one place created beautiful sunsets in another.  One Friday evening as I drove home down Elphinstone a worker was putting the final touches on a brick structure made to hold the new sign for the beautiful new Connaught School that would be opening soon.  The juxtapositions were myriad:  beautiful sunset created by forest fires, work on a Friday night, craftsmanship, young students returning to school.

Sometimes I came home for a while in the middle of the afternoon so Bill could nap or zone out on his iPad.  Then I would sit in the dry back garden and watch the sparrows before I got up to start hauling watering cans full of water--again--to my vegetable garden in the back where the beans were languishing, the tomatoes bountiful, and the carrots mere matchsticks because June had been so cold.  I'm trying to write elsewhere about watching the sparrows, so I'll simply say here that after Twig's death that's what I did.  He hated having me outside and would complain at the door or the window, so while he was alive I didn't spend much time outside except to work.  But this summer, I took breakfast and afternoon tea with sparrows, nuthatches, chickadees, and house finches, just simply watching them eat or take dust baths about two metres from where I sat.  They had become, over the summer, completely used to my presence.  Chickadees would fly into the crab apple tree not two feet from me, eye the bark carefully, stuff in a seed and begin to crack it open.  Nuthatches flew close enough over my head that I could feel the air their wings displaced.  A pair of adolescent nuthatches--their feathers still rumpled--would play hide and seek with me from the far side of the bird feeder, cracking open seed, and then darting their heads around the feeder to see whether I was still there or had come any closer.

I find it hard to describe the sight of a couple dozen sparrows under the feeder searching for fallen seed or taking dust baths.  There ought to be a metaphor, but if there is, I haven't found it.  It's helpful, though, to note that sparrows move their heads as if they have been designed by outdated cgi software.  Their heads move constantly as they look for seed while also keeping an eye out for signs of danger--but each movement is sudden and jerky.  Then add to this the fact that sparrows do not walk but hop and bounce, and perhaps you get a sense of the bubbling of brown feathers under the feeders.  In a part of the garden where my ground cover has not yet spread, half a dozen sparrows would be taking dirt baths.  In the dry soil they would create visible divots that cupped them and then they would flutter and wiggle with a quickness that made my head spin--faster than any pianist can trill.  Pure joy it was to watch them.

But in the background always was the faint smell of smoke and the dry susurration of trees that had not felt rain for nearly two months.  Sometimes during those days when Bill was in the hospital the wind was unnerving.  In that sound of the wind and dry leaves I heard the march of fall.

Like most academics, I love fall.  It's a second new year.  I was always aware of students starting a new chapter in their lives, and I was excited as well by new classes or new approaches to old classes.  And then the fall season for new books would begin and I would feel there was simply too much excitement in the world for the few hours in each day.  This fall I made the last of the changes to the text for Visible Cities and returned my revised manuscript of Virginia Woolf's Aesthetics of Engagement, so while I was not even in the classroom, I felt the newness of the year.  I had new ideas to explore, new projects in mind.  I could shift from the disciplined rigor of revision, where you are largely facing what  you have not done well enough, to crafting something new while knowing that it in its turn would need revising.  But something new!  An engagement with a fresh idea or observation!  Yet in some ways it was terrifying.  It sent me spinning again into those questions that always pepper new years with their existential significance (if we choose to give them existential significance, and I do):  What mattered?  Was it just being--what I perceived and experienced in my daily life and how those things made me feel and think?  Or was it doing?  Was it what I wrote?  Was it how I took care of others?

For some reason, I decided to finally read Lark Rise to Candleford, a memoir by Flora Thompson set in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  As I read, I realized that it was less a memoir than about life in the rural hamlet of Lark Rise--how its inhabitants managed on thgeir agricultural wages, how they turned or re-made coats sent to them by relatives in service, how they kept bees and dealt with their swarming, how they kept pigs and gardens, expressions pronounced with broad accents, distrust of Laura's love of reading.  It's a book almost without event, an anthropology rather than a memoir.  Yet it seemed exactly the right thing to be reading at the turn of the seasons, perhaps this yearly turn echoed by the turning centuries of Lark Rise.  The minimalist make-do, hard-driven life has something almost autumnal about it, partly because she is indeed writing about waning ways of life and traditions, but also because those lives provide an analogy or a metaphor for what we in the north do emotionally or psychologically at this time of year:  pare back to simpler, less expansive lives as the weather gets colder.  We turn our emotional coats, trying to see how the old patterns of wear can be hidden so we can present respectable selves in the coming months, though we feel neither respectable nor selves. Somehow it captured a fact about myself:  how the waning daylight can lead to Christmas shopping, family meals, parties.  But also how it is for me a walk down a hallway that gets darker and has fewer and fewer open doors.  I feel at its dead end that no one would think me a respected writer, that it  is not possible that people even link the word "respected" with my name.  My self thins.

I love the beauty of autumn--and I'm not simply talking about the time when the leaves begin to change and you can walk down a street of elms under a canopy of gold, but also the time when things are getting bare.  The trees in my back yard loose a sense of depth:  they become like the rather decorative Norwegian paintings that inspired the Group of Seven where the lines and spaces have an exquisite rhythm aside from their representation of late fall.  On one of those later days, Bill and I drove out to Condie where all was gold and grey and brown--mostly gray and brown.  Yet lines of shrubbery outlined the shapes of the hills around Boggy Creek.

We take in summer's green with a kind of entitled glance:  'this is all mine right now' we feel without exactly thinking about it.  We probably spend little time distinguishing one tree from another,  but gulp greenness down whole as a prophylactic against the monochrome of winter.  In fall we see differently, searching out detail and beauty, noticing as I did at Condie that the leaves of the wild roses are a soft red among the pale golden grasses that susurrate around them.  The sere Wolf Willow is decorated with a dozen silver oval coins, looking like something a Japanese brush painter would love to capture.  Birches hang on to only half their leaves showing us their architecture, showing us how each leaf flickers in an uncertain wind.  I feel an uneasiness in autumn that is like living inside bittersweet:  a profound sense of a beauty that demands and rewards my attention nestled alongside an equally profound sadness.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

In Praise of Cats

On a misty October Saturday in Boston, my first husband and I drove to a cat sanctuary we had been told about.  At the back of the house was a large concrete storage building with several large cages, one holding only an old Siamese who was too aggressive to spend time with other cats and who had been given up by its owner.  The other cages held cats of various ages:  there must have been twenty.  We were there for a kitten to keep me company on the nights when Dan had orchestra rehearsals up in Portland Maine or when he had graduate classes.  I was working for a social science research group at Brandeis University, editing articles and books; back then, no one wrote more badly than social scientists.  Nights I was working my way through Russian literature.  We knew one couple in Boston, and most of my colleagues lived in Boston's suburbs, so I was lonely.  Since we lived in married housing, a dog was right out, but we thought we could hide a cat from the super.

The room full of cats was overwhelming, partly because I really knew nothing about cats and partly because so many creatures and their stories had fetched up here and might never leave.  I had wanted a black kitten because I thought the feline shape was beautiful and showed most clearly in black cats.  Our cicerone surveyed the cages before her:  no black cats.  And then she confessed that she had found a small box on her doorstep that morning that she hadn't yet opened.  The string off, the flaps of the box raised, there sat my first cat with a black and white sibling.  We called her Blackberry.  But we had no idea how impish kittens are, and so we were soon using an expression that I'd picked up from British fiction and clearly didn't know the meaning of.  I thought "bugger" was someone who was energetic and annoying, so we began calling her simply "Bugs."  But she had a fondness for War and Peace and Dostoevsky, and was happy to curl up on my chest in the evenings while I read fat novels.  We soon figured out that in a studio apartment with only a single door, there is no way to keep the cat from sleeping with you.  So Bugs slept every night of her life on my pillow, sometimes climbing over the back of the hide-a-bed to watch the pigeons roosting on the fire escape outside, then getting cold and racing under the covers and then back on my pillow.

She remained, all her life, a tiny black fire.  She was particularly fond of attractive men and people who didn't like her or who were frightened of cats.  (She loved Ken Probert.)  She was dangerously fond of me.  When I'd return from school or work, I could hear her meowing at the door.  So once we had settled in Winnipeg, where Dan played with the symphony, we decided she needed company.  But we also realized that she had too much attitude to welcome a second cat.  So we borrowed the un-neutered Siamese belonging to composer Victor Davies, turned the humidifier on high, closed the bedroom door, and let them have at it.  Misty was an enormous cat, but he was also completely overwhelmed by Bugsy's attitude; nevertheless, he got  his job done.  As the birth approached, we did everything the little guidebook told us to do, setting up a nice quiet "queening box" for her to use.  One winter night, when Dan and the orchestra were on a run-out for an out-of-town concert, Bugs started trying to lead me toward her box--meowing, walking a little way down the hallway into the bedroom, looking to see if I was coming, meowing again--a feline Lassie trying to lead me somewhere.  Nothing seemed to be happening, so I climbed into bed with a book, and she climbed into my lap, which was where she had her kittens.  We kept two, naming them Ivy (she was a clinging vine and climbed up my pantlegs--thank heaven they were wide in the 70s) and Niagara (who liked curling up in the sink, watching the water drip on her, or tumbling down the bedclothes).  It is hard to say exactly where my adventure with cats began, in that shed of abandoned animals or with a birth in my lap.  But with three cats, you are committed.  This is no longer a desperate, lonely choice but a realization that, in spite of growing up with dogs, you find cats suit you.

The three black cats lived between 19 and 20 years.  When only Niagara was left of our original family, we took in two young males, Nutmeg--a ginger-coloured long haired cat with eyes like nutmegs, and Ariel, his grey tabby brother who seemed to have the attendant sprite's insights into people's moods and needs.  Ariel, for example, knew when Niagara, who was slowly succumbing to failing kidneys, didn't feel well.  He would follow her around the house, wait for her to get comfortable somewhere, and then curl up behind her and put his arm over her shoulders.

Not long after Niagara's death, Deborah Morrison arrived at my door one summer day with a kitten she had rescued from the murderous Rottweiler who was killing the barn kittens where she boarded her horse.  "Kate, can you take him?" she asked about the kitten already fastened to Veronica.  "We'll see what the guys think," I told her.  Nutmeg and Ariel thought bringing up a kitten was delightful, and so Twig entered the family.  Ariel and Nutmeg died far too young, Ariel of bone cancer and Nutmeg of congestive heart failure, so we soon added another orphan, Sheba, to the household--wild loving Sheba who went beserk after a series of infections that seemed to have nothing to do with the dramatic changes in her behaviour, breaking my heart with the mystery of her death.  Wednesday, Twig, his heart and lungs worn out, Twig the foodie who had stopped eating, was ferried over the Styx and I am catless for the first time in nearly 45 years.  This is not going to be easy.  The house feels like a vacuum, as if there is some immense silent hole at the centre of it.

Cats are a a balm, an antidote; they are guides and nature's comedians; they are philosophers.  They are the perfect companions for reading, especially if you are having trouble concentrating and are tempted to get up and do something else.  You simply don't want to dislodge the warm, sleepy weight from your lap, and so you keep on.  And they are limpid companions for the insomniac.  Niagara was the first cat who understood my sleepless nights, and she would simply wedge herself between my body and my arm, her head on my shoulder, until I went to sleep.  Nutmeg, who was too big to be a lap cat, nevertheless made himself into one on sleepless nights, if I got out of bed to come downstairs.  Or he would simply curl up next to me on the bed and not stop purring  until I went to sleep--and as a large cat he had an enormous purr.  We called him the "insta-purr majesti-cat" for his huge and generous purr.  All you had to do was to walk into the room where he was to set him purring.

Two of my cats, Ivy and Sheba, have fetched.  All of them have thought that I arrange quilt blocks on the bed only as a backdrop for their beauty or curiosity.  Sheba and Twig have been particularly good writing companions, Sheba curling up next to the computer and often putting her head on the back of my left hand as I typed.  Curiously, after her death Twig took over the job of guard of the thesaurus and companion of the order of writer.

Two of my cats have both understood and invented languages.  I took my first sabbatical in 1998, when Veronica was in her first year at McGill.  Until then I didn't know what it meant to be middle-aged and to think hard all day.  So at the end of the day, I'd sing-song my invitation to Ariel and Nutmeg, telling them it was nap time! in the same tone of voice every day.  They cheerfully piled on the bed.  But one day I said to Nutmeg, matter-of-factly, without my sing-song voice "Well, are we going to go upstairs and have a nap?" only to watch him get down from his chair and lead me upstairs.  Nutmeg also recognized questions, and if you asked him one, he would reply.  Otherwise, conversations with him were one-sided.  Twig, in contrast, rarely talked, which made me sad until I learned that cats do not use their voices to communicate to other cats, but only to clueless people, to whom they teach their language.  I wondered if he had so few desires or whether he thought expressing them was pointless.  Then I noticed that he "talked" to me by where he stood in the room or with the expression on his face.  If he stood just inside the kitchen door, he was reminding you it was meal time.  If he looked at you searchingly, he wanted you to sit down somewhere so the two of you could have some quality time.  He frequently tried to herd me onto the sofa or the bed in the spare room by looking meaningfully at me and then walking off, his ears swiveled backward to ensure I was following his lead.

Of my seven cats, two have been philosophers --Niagara and Twig.   Either the percentage of cats who are philosophers is very high or I have been gifted.  After Dan and I separated, I brought home a tall bookshelf, knocked down, in a compact, heavy box.  Apparently when the door caught the long box, I accidentally dropped it on Niagara, because when she didn't come for her dinner, I found her under the bed with a bloody mouth:  I had dislocated her jaw and cleanly broken her mandible.  Back at home, after surgery, she curled calmly in my lap to get well--forgiving me and teaching me that pain is best thought of as something you are enduring now, not something you foresee continuing on into a faraway future.  She was also attentive to my moods, and in my dark times she would sit crosswise on my lap, not facing away from me as she usually did.  Though small and black like her mother, she was slender and long, almost the shape of the cats found in Egyptian art.  She would look at me meaningfully:  "See how beautiful I am?  Stroke me.  Isn't that better?  And if I am beautiful, you will be fine in a little while."  In many ways, she taught me the calm that becomes endurance.

Twig was also a philosopher cat.  His whole life and demeanor reminded me that happiness doesn't require drama or excitement, but is made of daily habit and love.  He was the antithesis of the drama queen.  "The good life," he taught me, is created in part by attention to the life we are living.  The slowly reflective moments of stroking a purring cat and stopping to look up and notice how full of love and joy your life is both create and appreciate the life you are living.  As well, he taught me gratitude after I thought I had lost him 18 months ago to pancreatitis, but which he and his wonderful vet, Dr. Jinx, managed to subdue.  Since then I thanked him almost daily for gracing my home, for simply being beautifully alive.  Such a practice has resonated through my life because its reminder was fully, affectionately alive.

Philosopher cats?  I don't know if they do indeed experience the wisdom I ascribe to them.  But I do know that when you open house and heart to someone so entirely different from you, you are bound to learn something.