Saturday, March 21, 2020

On turning seventy


Turning sixty was a piece of cake.  Let me admit one of my silly, lifelong regrets:  that I would never be able to stand in front of a group of students dressed in tweed and professorially stroke my beard.  You have no idea how many times people have assumed that the bearded gentleman at a party or during breakfast at a B&B was the professor in the room!  Somehow turning sixty wiped that all out, as if with my life I had achieved something of the gravitas of a true professor (academics have a strong fraud complex) by dint of living well:  by observing and learning about the world with all my curiosity and compassion fully engaged, struggling to understand it. 

I'll fully admit that I approached seventy with trepidation. Enough so that about a year earlier I made use of a personal trainer!  I hated high school gym; what was I doing with the Fitness and Lifestyle's personal trainer???  My body aches.  I don't have as much energy as I used to.  So my trainer was going to sort some of that out--and he did--not all of it, but it's better.  So the mantra became 'strong at seventy,' though I have come to see that doing deadlifts isn't the only source of strength I've found.

I'm sure that many philosophers over the ages have observed that human mortality is one of our gifts, one of our strengths.  It's hard work getting the world to mean, to find your meaning in the world,  something you could easily put off beginning tomorrow, except for curiosity in youth and mortality in one's later years.  So here's the main effect of turning seventy:  I hold everything closer.  Everything matters more.  Everything is more irradiated with puzzles and possibilities and vulnerabilities--and 'irradiated' is not (only) a metaphor.  It's as if the world is more fiercely lit so that I can't ignore anything, not the birds at my empty feeder, not the cat who sleeps on my pillow, not the despair of someone I love.  So there are things to be done:  fill the bird feeder; find a way for your hands to convey to the cat how comforting he is; sit still with the despair: tease it out, listen to its plaint, and find some inadequate way for your love to assuage it.


And as you read this paragraph in March of 2020, you will realize that the coronavirus has indeed revealed how vulnerable we all are, and how the world sometimes refuses to mean on an unimaginable scale.  On the one hand, CORVID 19 means that some governments have been more prepared than others--but how to explain that in a meaningful way?  It means, in Canada at least, that we all have a role to play in mitigating its effects, that our governments and our neighbours and the charming cashiers at the grocery store, who now add "stay healthy" to their goodbyes, take our individual responsibility as part of our social fabric seriously.  But the meaning of one death won't register, won't have a point, unless it is in some ineffable way balanced out by acts of kindness and generosity.  I suppose I could say that turning seventy is how we all feel right about now.  In the face of mortality--our own and others'--we  are all trying to find ways to make the world mean, not only by getting through the days, but also by finding meaning in the tedium and the terror.  A phone call to a grandmother in long term care facility.  A poem you read out loud.  The Zen boredom of making risotto.  An afternoon's deep dive into a book.  Your quest for something beautiful as an antidote.  Your creation of something beautiful as a road marker for you and others during the unknown weeks we have ahead.  We make meaning; it's not going to arrive anytime soon.

Turning seventy means redefining "a good day." When I was younger, a good day meant a good balance between three things:  giving care, thinking about ideas, getting stuff done:  all accomplished with a kind of manic energy.  I knew it was a good day because of the kind of exhaustion I'd feel at night.  Now I almost always take a nap after a morning's writing.  Energy is at a premium, and its disappearance can almost feel like profound depression.  A good day now is more likely to be just giving care and thinking about ideas, words, plots, narrators, poems.  A good day may have only three hours of "getting stuff done," and most of that in service of exploring ideas and words and giving care.  After that, you craft a good day with your attention.  Give your attention with all your senses:  cats; birds; sunlight or moonlight or candlelight; the colour, texture, geometry, adventure of quilts; the smell of dinner; the taste of wild mushrooms.  Not with doing.  With being. 

There's a piece of paper from the pad behind the phone in the kitchen that's been kicking around the house and has finally fetched up beside my computer.  It reads "Mr. Jackson and civics class.  I'm in the dark, just growing away like a little mushroom.  Jointed sea grass--what is it?  This is the good life:  afternoon imagining a wild quilt; smell of mushrooms and olive oil; blue sky at six."  The first three are references to the plethora of memories that infuse my days.  (By the way, does anyone know what the jointed grass is?  It's found near lakes in Michigan, is cylindrical and hollow.  You can pull it apart and put it back together again.  Why do I remember this?)  The last three make one of those moments I spoke of above that's irradiated, mostly by my stopping to pay attention to it: to the earthy smell of mushrooms mixed with the fruity smell of olive oil, by sun on my skin, by the colours of the quilt that still swirl in my imagination as I try to refine my vision, by that infinite blue.

At seventy, you redefine "the good life."  Or maybe that's not precise.  If you are lucky and wise, you have a good life behind you, having done and accomplished things that were meaningful to you.  You now have a different kind of good life before you.  It's a wide doorway made of curiosity and attention, love and art, kindness and gratitude.


The bowl on the right in the photograph above was Bill's birthday present--in honour of my inner dragonfly.  I'll tell you about her someday.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Slow holidays: a chance to re-see and re-set



I stayed in "slow holiday mode" for a few days after we returned.  At the beginning, I was simply noticing that the light in the house had changed--that the movement of the sun northward illuminated new corners and flooded some rooms that had not seen a lot of sunlight.  I can't explain it--or maybe I can.  I bought this house--100 years old now--because of its windows.  There are generous windows on every side.  (I am about to get new windows that are more energy efficient and easier to clean.)  The longer days, the new shafts of sun invigorate me and make me more attuned to time passing.  I think in the winter I simply huddle down and try to ignore the dark, try to ignore the ticking of time that will only tell me how much longer I have to endure.  But in the 8 other months I am vibrantly and elegiacally aware that time is passing.  Light and time stand for life and energy, but also for time's sublime passing, something that needs to be noticed and embraced. Taking a slow holiday allowed me to see this.

And I noticed it in the cats.  This is only the third time we've left them with our wonderful cat- and house-sitter, Bronwyn Angley, a former student who has this thing for cats.  Our return was marked by some changes in habits:  Tuck now wants to curl up in my lap while I do my bedtime reading rather than rattling the closet doors hoping he can get one open and thus convince me to give him another treat for getting out of my closet. Last night Bill and I watched Vanity Fair--it's a bit dated, I suppose, but very relevant to a period we sometimes call 'late capitalism.'   During the movie, Lyra found a way to sit on my lap so he could hold my hand in both his paws--and maybe rest his cheek there.  They will be three at the end of May, and they're perhaps getting more mature and reflective about our absences, more deliberate about their time with us.  They remain the  most  cuddly cats I've ever had whose complicated inner lives I often glimpse, with delight, and I was so grateful to get home to them.

I've changed my work habits.  I started revising Soul Weather on January 6--the first Monday of the new year, after having left it in a virtual drawer since mid-August when I all but finished it.  When I get back into a large writing project, I'm so focused--perhaps you've noticed that I've written far fewer blogs in the last two years and that I've become a decidedly unreliable Facebook friend.  The revision is going well--which makes me nervous and hence even more driven and obsessive.  'Surely if I read this chapter one more time I'll see more clearly what's wrong with it.' I tell myself.  But while I was away from the work in Victoria, I decided that I need to at least try to write three blogs a month--not quite the blog a week I kept up for a while.  Writing a novel is so lonely.  You can ensure that your prose is musical and precise and colourful (when it needs to be), and that the layers of ideas are being elegantly and unobtrusively woven in, but if  your conception is off--unrealistic or, worse, boring or inconsequential--if your characters don't sing with complexity and curiosity--all these decorative touches are pointless.  That's just the way it is.  So I thought I could ease my loneliness a bit by writing blogs and obsessing happily over the two likes and the one share.

While we were in Victoria, we didn't go to any of the lovely quilt shops they have there, partly because I'm on a kind of minimalist kick and want to make use of the stash I have.  But even so, I realized I need to do more quilting.  After finishing my black and white quilt, I decided to work on one  unfinished project and one new project going forward.  I also realize that I need one bright, wild project, and another one that is more serene.  I've gotten Jenn Kingwell's "My Small World" quilt out and I've realized my fabric choices were simply too chaotic.  So I'm working panel by panel, sometimes taking out pieces that don't work and carefully inserting something better.  I've also started a quiet pyramids quilt. 

I need the comfort and delight of something I can demonstrably do well, plus the adventure of seeing whether my conception is actually going to work.  I need the small stakes plus the comforting connection to all the women (and some men) who have made quilts for use and for delight and to create beauty in their daily lives.  In some ways, this is an antidote to revising because the stakes are small.  In some ways, it's a reminder that craftsmanship really does count and that I should simply believe that.  But most of all it reminds me of the importance of everyday pleasures, everyday beauty, everyday attention--a recognition that slow holidays encourage.

I also wanted to practice the piano more and to shake up my workout.  And then, of course COVID 19 showed up, and the University wisely closed the Fitness and Lifestyle Centre, so my plans for a more challenging workout will have to be put off.  I'll write more about COVID 19 in the days ahead as I take it all in--the grief I feel for sick Italians and for their healthcare workers who now have to decide who lives and who dies--maybe it's just because there are more stories coming out of Italy whereas China didn't admit to any inability to manage the number of people who fell ill.  At the same time, I'm so proud of Canada's evocation of community to help manage the crisis, emphasizing that we all have a role to play in mitigating its effects here, that our individual health is part of a common good that helps to protect those most at risk.  Then there are the effects on our everyday lives, many of them fostering a smaller carbon footprint.  Oddly enough, though, much of the thinking about how to live that I did on my slow holiday is perfectly suited to the coming weeks of near isolation.  Light provides the everyday beauty I need, quilting and music provide a kind of aesthetic comfort.  Meanwhile, the cats settle me in place where I read the book I began, believe it or not, in mid-January:  Boccaccio's Decameron, set in fourteenth century Florence during a plague that killed between 2/3 and 3/4 of the population.  More about that in the days ahead.

In the meantime, please take care of yourselves and find your own ways, your own resources, to take your lives inside as serenely as you can.   As Alice Major so simply and wisely put it "we need to stay quiet for a bit and keep the vulnerable among us safe."

Friday, March 6, 2020

Slow holidays


Toward the end of February, Bill and I went to Victoria for one of our "slow holidays."  We've come to know Victoria quite well over the years, so we know how to spend our time pleasantly:  breakfast at least once at Murchie's, a visit to Munro's Books, and a stop in the needle craft store in Trounce Alley where I stare and stare at the hundreds of buttons, think about adding embroidery to my repertoire and decide not to, and buy just one skein of yarn to make Bill another wild pair of socks.  I'm sure the baggage handlers on our return trip thought I'd packed bricks, but it was really only five books, several pounds of tea and a pound of coffee.  This time, we chose a week that allowed us to go to a Victoria Symphony Orchestra concert and to a moving, frustrating, wise play that was being premiered at the Belfry Theatre:  Ministry of Grace by Indigenous Winnipeg playwright, Sara Beagan.

We spent our first couple of days in a delighted haze, wondering why a familiar drive made us so happy (again), why a favourite coffee shop made us so contented, why we didn't get cranky looking for parking on the U Vic campus on a windy, rainy day, huddling beneath our umbrellas as we walked to the concert, hoping that following other greying couples was taking us the right way.  The answer to the last one is the easiest:  going up the ramp to the University Centre, I spotted among the ferns the tiniest pale pink cyclamen I've ever seen, blooming ecstatically, despite the rain.  Thinking about the other simple pleasures, I realized that when we're on a slow holiday we give daily busy-ness a break and shift from "doing" into "being."

On that same rainy Sunday, I watched a young girl in the Mayfair Mall food court react to her father's proposal that if she was thirsty she should try some of his iced tea.  Eye rolling.  Unhappy grimaces.  The determination to get the top off the bottle.  Tentative sips followed by confusion and a slight smile.  The young let all their emotions play across their faces in ways we have forgotten, but the drama is always there if we simply stop and look.  We were paying attention, the most minute attention, to the world around us.  In the same vein, I would notice older men and women express delight when their favourite comfortable chairs in the coffee shop were free, or holding hands as they set out for their daily constitutional. I talked to a young mother knitting brilliantly-coloured Zauberball socks while her baby smiled at me and patted the large plastic whale that lit up in different colours.  As you can see from the first photograph, Victoria was not sunny the whole time we were there, but there was always colour to be found.


The sign that this was going to be the kind of holiday when you focused on what was there rather than what was not came when I first got out of the car in Sidney, where we stopped for lunch.    I swung my feet out of the car onto the most brilliant bright green moss I have ever seen and felt a spurt of joy.  (The moss in the photograph above bears only the slightest similarity, but in the forest of Douglas Park, it was the brightest I could find.)  Sidney has a lovely walk along the shore with the sea on one side and land close by on the other, often held at eye level by a stone sea wall.  It gave us a chance to admire the gold and purple crocuses, the pink hardy heather, the occasional stand of daffodils, fruit trees just coming into lacy bloom.

We stopped to admire the mossy curves on a tree trunk.  We found a forsythia with two ecstatic blooms.  I admired rain drops on new grass.  I saw long-time friends who had not seen one another in a while meet in a restaurant called The Fishhook on Mermaid Point--and was prompted to wonder when male hugging had become so enthusiastic and to think what a wonderful thing it was.  The VSO ended its concert with Berlioz's Symphony in C, which I wasn't that crazy about, but thought Bill--who gets French music in a way I don't--would enjoy it.  But there was a conductor in a rumpled tweed jacket, Jean-Claude Picard, who conducted with his whole body, once urging on the tympanist by crooking his index finger with a come-hither gesture that was just so human.  And the habit of paying close attention encouraged by our holiday made me hear things I'd never noticed before, particularly in the oboe solos in the slow movement that were so musical and plangent.  I wondered whether we were living through a time when we need the stability of music in C major.  (We ignored the news.)

Bill always has the good sense to ask locals for advice.  When we fetched up on Oak Bay Road at lunchtime, he thought gong into the toy store to ask about restaurants would give us a good recommendation, and he was right.  (He carefully and playfully chooses whom to get advice from.)  In the same vein, he talked to a group of older women with heroic equipment for watching birds, asking what was out in the bay.  Once we knew there were mergansers and harlequin ducks, we could actually see them, reminding us again that how we consciously choose to see shapes what we see.  Copying Bill, when we were out at Sooke, I asked the owner of a craft shop for places to walk and we finally found the board walk I'd read so much about but could never find.  There, the sun was shining, giving me an almost cliched snapshot.  You'll have to imagine how the air and light felt on our skin.


Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Winter torpor and light


A gentleman I see regularly in Naked Bean once told me that the part of winter he hated most was Canadians complaining about the weather.  (His accent tells me he's from away, but I don't know where.)  But we do this for a reason.  Weather is the great equalizer.  We may be driving a car with heated seats, as Bill does, or an seventeen-year-old Honda with a barely adequate heater, as I do, but we all have to get out of the car to get ourselves a cup of coffee.  We may be wearing the latest down gear or a pair of mittens made of old sweaters, as I do (Recycled sweaters!  They are so warm and comfortable.) but you still have to get the shopping cart from the store to your trunk. We're all equally helpless before the weather, all in this weather thing together.  So why not use it to make a little warm contact with others.

During this winter's week of extreme cold, Katherine talked about how she thinks of bears in the winter, how much sense their hibernation makes and how torpor is, perhaps, a natural response to winter, particularly in bitterly cold weather.  Cold makes me tired.  Grey days make me tired.  Not getting to sleep until 2 a.m. makes me tired.  So perhaps giving into that tiredness, creating for myself a kind of physical and psychological torpor is adaptive behaviour.  So I've been reading Sara Paretsky mysteries and Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, books that have great plots that urge me on, but prompt me, when I'm re chopping vegetables for a stir-fry, to think about what the plots are saying.  I can think about plots with a knife in my hand, whereas I can't really meditate on language clusters or thematic motifs without flipping through a book and getting the juice from the ginger I'm peeling and chopping all over the pages.  The two Rachel Cusk novels I've read since that bitterly cold week are not clarified by thinking while I'm quilting and cooking.

Last winter was difficult for me.  So, as a canny depressive, I took matters into my own hands, finding myself a better SAD light.  I started sitting with it for the obligatory half hour in the morning in October, when I also read poetry and watched the birds at the feeder out the window.  Birds that my cats were eager to eat--I could hear their little predatory smacking noises.  I created a ritual of light along with some others that were helpful:  Bill always lights candles before dinner.  I'd been reading about Hygge for an essay on minimalism and learned how the Danes cope with their long season of darkness.  The Danes, says the European Candle Association (who knew?) burn more candles than anyone else--about six kilos per person.  Candles, they say, give off a spectrum of light rather like sunlight.  As for Hygge--the pursuit of comfort and homeyness that puts the Danes first or second in the list of the world's happiest people--it turns out to be quite simple.  Begin with light.  Add a hot drink.  Focus on your thoughts or the person you are with:  Hygge is always mindful.  You can add other people--not too many--and food, but candlelight, a hot drink and mindfulness are the basic recipe.  I think in Denmark Hygge is an end-of-day kind of thing, but my morning ritual has been working fairly well for me.

But there was something else implicit in Katherine's idea of torpor that I found helpful.  I finished a draft of my second novel in mid-August and resolved to put it away until the first Monday in 2020.  So I worked on poems and this essay on minimalism that quickly got out of hand.  Then I worked on trimming it down, giving it shape.  I let myself enjoy Christmas shopping.  At the beginning of January, I started revising Soul Weather.  Unlike some writers I know, I actually like revising.  A draft is just something you can make better.  You've got a vestigial structure and some motifs and, in my case, characters I'd been living with for quite a few years.  You know what question you're asking, what element of the world confuses you in an intriguing, maybe even obsessive, way.  As well, you've got this self-contained thing, a chapter, that you can read as many times as necessary for language and syntax, for the narrator's voice, for the relationship between incident and the questions you are preoccupied with, for the way the characters (whom you've gotten to know better as you wrote) unfold in all their wholeness and brokenness, in their kindness and selfishness.  You can keep in mind Henry James's credo:  "What is character but the determination of incident?  What is incident but the illustration of character?"  You can work on your weaknesses; in my case, this involves getting enough tension and conflict into the events to keep the reader interested.

As I've tried to teach my students, revision is something you do not do quickly.  Unfortunately, the writing they do in university always has a deadline, so I'm never sure if the advice takes.  When you are drafting, you need that little voice in your head that says "Yeah!  This is so great!"  But when you are revising, you need a slow, firm voice that says "Okay, let's fix what's not working here.  All of it.  Everything you can find."  Katherine's idea that January and February are naturally times of torpor has meant that when noon comes, I'm happy with whatever I've accomplished.  I can have my afternoon nap with the cats who always join me; I can run errands or work on a quilt.  I can huddle down and read, as I wanted to do when it was cold.  I can spend an afternoon reading Thoreau's journals, hunkering down into the wonder he experiences and conveys when spring comes to Concord.  About the only rule is no screens.  No TV or Netflicks.  Above all, no news.

I don't really need to tell you that this is a confusing, disturbing, even depressing time to live in.  I only need to say the words "Brexit," "Impeachment," "drone attack," "Iran shoots down Ukrainian airliner with many of the world's best and brightest on board," Democratic primaries in chaos," and you know what I'm referring to.  But there's another reality living alongside this one.  It has a new library in Edmonton in that reality--all of the world's public libraries stand against this dark time.  It has random acts of kindness.  It has music and books and hoarfrost and gardens in it.  There are animals in that world--Orca whales who, besides us, are one of the few species who live past their capacity to breed because they have lore to give the younger generation.  There are teenagers and twenty-something like Greta Thunberg.  One of the things that art needs to do is to keep alive the light, the candlelight, the SAD light, the search light, the street light, that shines on these other realities.  And, when you are revising, trying to kindle that light, admitting that you're slowed down by torpor can be a very good thing indeed.


Friday, January 10, 2020

Kinds of Patience


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 13, 2019

Alice Major: A Poet Thinks about the Anthropocene


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


Friday, October 18, 2019

On the changeableness of autumn


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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