Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Francis Willughby enlightens us about birds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 5, 2019


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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 22, 2019

Time and the Still Life

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 11, 2019

Coffee Houses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 24, 2019

The Illuminations of Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, January 4, 2019

Beating back against the darkness in the new year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Beating back the darkness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The photograph is from Venice:  I loved the light.

Thursday, December 13, 2018


Depending on who is defining it, nostalgia can get a bad rap.  The word first appears in English toward the end of the eighteenth century, where it means "a sentimental longing or affection for a period in the past."  New words come out of their historical contexts:  eighteenth-century England would certainly have aroused such longing, characterized as the time was by the beginning both of the middle class and industrialization.  Industrialization was not the clean panacea for physical labour it was supposed to be, but rather the oppression of workers in terrible conditions for long periods of time.  And of course, the rise of the middle class threatened the aristocracy, who presumably had much to look back to in its past--a golden age that perhaps, like most golden ages, never quite was.  It's the word "sentimental" that accounts for the negative connotations of "nostalgia," "sentimental" sometimes describing (and here I quote the OED again) ""feelings of tenderness, sadness, or nostalgia" that are typically expressed and experienced in an "exaggerated and self-indulgent way."  Some writers have even characterized nostalgia as a kind of sickness. 

As a neoligism, "solastalgia" hasn't yet found its way into the OED, though it was coined by philosopher Glenn Albrecht in 2003.  It shares with "nostalgia" the "algia" root, which is Greek for "pain," but word "solacium' meaning comfort or solace.  Albrecht meant his newly-coined word to refer to "a form of mental or existential distress caused by environmental change."  In other words, he meant it to reference the effects climate change is having on humans.  While the Oxford English Dictionary does not deign to include it, The Lancet has no difficulty publishing work that illustrates the damage climate change does to human health, or to see it in a significant new set of anxiety disorders.  Most recently, consider the fires in California which have displaced thousands of people and destroyed their homes and probably the places where they grew up, kissed their first lover, started their first job, and earned their livelihood. Or think of the Puerto Ricans who still have not been able to put their lives back together.  The BBC website says that "Justin Lawson from Melbourne’s Deakin University explains solastalgia with The Eagles’ song No More Walks in the Wood to help people understand solastalgia because it laments the disappearance of a forest associated with powerful memories. 'It really is about redefining our emotional responses to a landscape that has changed within a lifetime.'

I bring up these examples as a reality check.  For about 2 1/2 weeks at the end of November and beginning of December, Regina had half a day of sunlight.  For the most part, the world was white:  the sky wasn't covered with clouds; it was cloud.  Both body and soul were running on batteries that were recharged a little less every day.  We're spoiled here:  our falls and winters may be cold, but they are usually sunny.  It's only in the last 8 years or so that I can recall periods when cloud settled in and refused to move off.  This year, even people who are normally sanguine and think that weather is just weather, called that period of time "brutal." I struggled to be productive, and finally hunkered down, re-reading C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia and working on a brightly-coloured Tula Pink quilt for Bill's office that I will set with a lattice to make an indoor garden for him.

Solastalgia, our experience of loss when a bird becomes endangered or extinct, when the weather brings drought or floods or fires, when it leaves us with that uneasy feeling that all is not as it should be, only emphasizes the fact that we depend on our earth and its climates for everything: our economies, the safety of our cities that create our working and cultural lives, as well as our mental well-being.  Air conditioning can help us cope with the heat--while creating even more carbon dioxide--but nothing replaces a sunny day and the lift it gives to our moods, helping us feel bouyant and hopeful.

Consult your own solastalgia meter.  Is a lake suddenly unswimmable?  Or has a tree you once climbed been cut down, leaving only the map of its trunk behind?  Do you miss the brief time when the bluebirds fly through the Qu'Appelle Valley? Your own solastalgia meter may tell  you that it's time for us to work together to lower our carbon footprint.  It may admit that there are limits to our luxuries and our freedoms:  that, despite what the American oil industry has been arguing with its CAR FREEDOM AGENDA (caps not mine)--that we should all be able to choose which vehicles best suit our needs, we don't have a right to drive gas-guzzling vehicles or the freedom to do our errands helter-skelter rather than planning a single efficient trip. 

The people of Paradise--what an ironic and apt name, given that we are all living after the fall from limitless energy--aren't feeling the self-indulgence of nostalgia, but the wordlessness of solastalgia, which can't quite express what it is like to have their homes destroyed so quickly and brutally that anything prompting memories has evaporated.  Their relationship to the landscape of their daily lives has been radically changed and will never change back.  The trees will not grow back in their lifetimes.  Recently conservative Canadian premiers and citizens in France have objected to a federal carbon tax because of its effect on economies both personal and national.  Yet Nobel-prize-winning Bill Nordhaus tells us that a carbon tax is the simplest, most effective way of nudging us toward reducing our carbon footprints.  We need to realize that it isn't taxes that threaten economies:  Economies are already being threatened by heat, drought, floods, fires, hurricanes, the rise of oceans, and we need to ask our leaders to lead, not to be bought off or to assume that old paradigms like "the market" will fix everything.  We also need to recognize that we all made this circumstance together; we all need to contribute our fair share to sorting it out.


Wednesday, November 21, 2018


November has seemed more Novemberish this year.  I might even accuse October of having stolen November's thunder and having gotten an early start.  The grey days, the grey days, the grey days.  I want to sleep more, to take more  naps.  I want to start a fight--just to get some energy to lift into the air. Though of course I don't want to start a fight when everyone seems so vulnerable, though the energy it takes not to is enormous.  The glass is half--and somebody keeps jostling  my elbow and slopping the cold water over my wrist.

Monday I drove to Moose Jaw to pick up a quilt from Half Yard Quilting Studio.  Since part of my workday was going to be stolen, I decided to add in a couple of treats that wouldn't really take much longer.  So I had lunch at Grant Hall, which is a lovely restored space with restaurant, bar, and shops downstairs and housing for seniors above.  The chairs are comfortable and the tables have pedestals where you can rest your feet and bend your knees just enough to plant a book there.  I was reading Cornelia Hoogland's Trailer Park Elegy while I waited for my lunch.  Really:  I got to read while someone made me a lunch in less time than it would have taken to make my own.  Then a quick stop right across the street to Quilter's Haven, where I needed to pick up some greens.  And I found some wonderful shades of green.

But something happened on the way home--that jostling I mentioned above.  The sun was still resistant, and all the little buildings and walls at Prairie Storm Paintball that have been tucked into one of the glacial crevasses looked more than usually provisional, like a miniature ruin.  They have little blinds--essentially sections of wall about four feet high--for paintballers to duck behind, but today they lacked their purposefulness and spoke only of fragments.  Then just down the road there was a black and white cat--recognizable only by the colour of its fur and size--that no longer looked as if it had ever had a role in giving or receiving domestic comfort as my two guys do. 

The cat drew my attention to the nests in the trees that have been sporadically planted (in very straight lines) along the Trans Canada.   Like the cat, they seemed unhomelike--even unheimlich, because you couldn't imagine a bird inhabiting them. Then I came, as one does, to the construction around the Global Transportation Hub of a huge and very unnecessary ring road.  On my way to Moose Jaw, I had cursed appropriately and muttered the words cui bono under my breath.  Who is really benefiting from this project--and will we ever know?  Bus companies serving smaller communities gone.  Threats to libraries.  Cuts to education and to cities.  Refusal to consider a carbon tax.  For this?  But the sun was a silver disk winking out of a cloud and I tried to stop my grousing because grousing alone in a car does no one any good--and can do much harm.  But when I came back to the construction site, which, going east, you must circumnavigate, I had to drive through a kind of wasteland that reminded me of Lord of the Rings--maybe Isengard after the Ents have finished with it.  Cars stream through the construction site at 60kph, but little seems to be actually going on.  There is a sense of futility and waste all around.

Part of that sense of futility and waste is exaggerated by a world that seems to have flattened to a piece of white paper--sky and fields flattened into a single plane, with no words or thoughts to give it meaning.  It's just my visceral reaction to the kinds of days we've been having.  So I tried to do two things.  One is to see the landscape, once I had passed the construction, through the Japanese lenses I used to create the quilt above, which is now waiting for me to quilt it.  One element of the complex Japanese aesthetic is to find beauty in what is pale and tenuous.  This was not a stretch:  looking at trees in the winter, I find brave beings willing to strip down to their skins and let us see the shapes they have created for themselves.  It is said that no two snowflakes are the same, and I frankly wonder how one can test such a hypothesis.  But certainly no two trees have made the same decision about when to crook a branch or add another, whether to reach out or up (though elms tend to reach up and maples to reach out).  Thanks to Japanese lenses, beauty arrived to challenge the sense of anger and futility I had felt driving through the construction site or the small grief that arrived with the dead cat.

I also re-read a paragraph from Annie Dillard's The Writing Life (which I must read in its entirety) found in my weekend Brainpickings newsletter:

"How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.  What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.  A schedule defends from chaos and whim.  It is a net for catching days.  It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.  A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order--willed, faked, and so brought into being:  it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living.  Each day is the same, so you remember the series afterward as a blurred and powerful pattern."

Dillard's defense of a schedule sent me back to my computer after this anomalous day out and about, drafting a sticky and difficult scene that is going well enough if I just give it time.  And I have been much less anxious since then (though I find that the work of hands and days--quilting, knitting, piecing, also keeps me grounded, something I'll write about next week).  But it's the first couple of sentences that resonated for me this week.  Clearly, seasonal affective disorder is having a stronger impact on my days than it has had for the last 28 years.  But wishing the days would just go on by, in Dillard's terms, is a mistake.  I need rather to remember that "How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives" and realize that SAD is part of those days and my life.  So what am I going to make of it?  How will I tame it?

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Literature and the health of society

Illness does not apply only to individuals’ bodies and minds, but to whole cultures, something we see in the United States, which is ramping up for the midterm elections, and which recently experienced the largest killing of Jews in its history.  What is the role of literature in societies where one of the world’s most powerful men, Donald Trump, does not….read?  Martha Nussbaum, a philosopher with a profound grounding in literature who has appointments in the University of Chicago’s Philosophy Department and Law School,  pondered this question in her brief but remarkable book The Monarchy of Fear.  Beginning the very night Trump won the election, she has incisive and well-supported theories about the role that fear and its corollaries—anger, disgust, envy, and a desire for vengeance—played in electing Trump, and I recommend that you read it if you want to understand why populism and autocracy are surging all around the world, most recently in German elections. 
But it is Nussbaum’s chapter on hope to which I turn.  She conceives of a number of roles for literature in a society that is sick, suggesting that what we need is some tenderness manifested in “loving, imaginative vision (through poetry, music, and the other arts)” (201).  Later she argues that during such polarized times, when we interact with people whose values differ from our own, “We need… to treat that other person as a person, having depth and an inner life, a point of view on the world, and emotions similar to our own….Through stories, novels, and poems we learn how to endow a human form with humanity and we quickly form the habit of doing so” (215-216).  Without making reference to it, Nussbaum is appealing to a fairly robust research into the psychology of reading which you can most easily find on Dr. Keith Oatley’s blog, On Fiction..  Let me briefly parse out the prosocial behaviours we learn when we read.  First, young children develop “theory of mind,” the sense that other people have inner lives as vivid and important as their own.  This leads to perspective-taking:  our ability to imagine a perspective unlike our own.  Oatley writes in his June 29 2015 blog “First, in reading fiction one can sample across a wide variety of societies, personality types, and circumstances so that reading extends the range of one’s experience of others, and second that in reading fiction, particularly artistic fiction, one has to make inferences about what characters might be thinking, feeling, and wanting…. these factors contribute to the better perspective-taking abilities of people who read a lot of fiction.”  Empathy, as I’m sure every empathetic English major knows, follows in short order.  In turn, theory of mind, perspective-taking, and empathy all short-circuit a tendency to insist on a tribe that is extremely homogenous:  the precursor of xenophobia and hate crimes.  In contrast, prejudice and brutality arise when we fail to see people as individuals—as literature teaches us to do.

I began this paper with two sets of literary principles.  Let me add another, from Walt Whitman, who is writing during one of America’s other periods of immense conflict, about the role of the poet in a democracy, and the poet’s contribution to the state:

Of these states the poet is the equable man….

He bestows on every object or quality its fit proportion, neither more nor less,

He is the arbiter of the diverse, he is the key,

He is the equalizer of his age and land….

He judges not as the judge judges but as the sun falling round a helpless thing.

Ah, tenderness and curiosity again:  the poet giving people and the world his full attention and in turn proffering that attention to the reader.  His words translate the writer’s tenderness and curiosity into something akin to justice.  In her eearlier study, Poetic Justice, Nussbaum develops a careful parallel between “the literary imaginer and a concern with social equality” (82).  She writes “it is Whitman’s point…that the ability to imagine vividly, and then to assess judicially, another person’s pain, to participate in it and then to ask about its significance, is a powerful way of learning what the human facts are and of acquiring a motivation to alter them” (91).

The importance of reading during dark times like our own, as a way of defending democracy, has been widely argued in a variety of contexts—and I’ve culled an odd and diverse list from things I’ve been reading lately.  The narrator of Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus is telling the tale, during the second world war, of a composer who courted madness for his art.  He says, of the Volk, “that ancient collective layer” that earlier burned witches, and which now burns Jews, “I do not consider religion the most effective means by which to keep [those ancient qualities] safely under lock and key.  In my opinion, the only help comes from literature, the humanistic sciences, the ideal of the free and beautiful human being” (41). In a British longitudinal study designed to reveal the factors in human well-being across classes, finding pleasure in reading was found to be a very good predictor of flourishing.  Certainly democracy must flourish when people do because they are freer to make disinterested choices about how their government should run.  Someone reading a book is a sign of order in the world,” writes the poet Mary Ruefle.  Certainly this is true in Brazilian prisons, where inmates are given four days off their sentence for every book they read and write an “appropriate” (thoughtful?  on topic?) report about.  Since the beginning of this program, there has been a 30% drop in criminal relapses.  Perhaps knowledge is power and literature helps us reflect on our place in the world?  At the end of his life Carl Sagan insisted that “Books are key to understanding the world and participating in a democratic society.

The aesthetic order of the book, manifested in us as we read, has the capacity to become a more just order for society. This metamorphosis occurs in conversation.  First, with oneself.  When was the last time you talked back to a book or felt that a book provided one more piece to the puzzle of being human?  And then in respectful, tender, curious conversations about books like those we have in book clubs and among families and friends.