Wednesday, September 30, 2015


"Senescence" refers to the "graduate deterioration of function characteristic of most life forms after maturity."  It occurs at the level of the cell and at the level of the organism, though it is believed that cellular senescence underlies the death of the organism.  Senescence explains why so many people in industrialized and developed countries now simply die of old age; their cells give up and so do they.
But senescence has its enchanted side, which we are seeing right now, that have more to do with survival than with mortality.  All the leaves in our deciduous trees are undergoing senescence--a process scientists don't seem to entirely understand.  We know that senescence begins when the chloroplasts break down, so that leaves lose their green colour.  But they do this in order to release the chloroplasts' nitrogen back into the tree to prepare it both to survive winter and to flourish in spring.  We understand the external causes of senescence--extreme temperatures, drought, lack of sufficient light.  But plants are full of hormones that provide internal cues to start the process that we don't entirely understand.  The result is that trees turn from their cool green to a wide range of warm colours:  yellow, gold, orange, red, purple, rust.

Senescence doesn't proceed in an orderly way.  Right now on Wascana Parkway there is a row of four aspen trees, three of which are bright gold, one of which is still a clear green.  Each plant seems to have its own internal clock, giving them an individuality they don't have when they are as green as the rest of their kind.

There are so many of us that think of autumn as the real new year:  academics and teachers, people who are students or who loved being students, readers eager for the fall offering of new books.  Even in retirement, I still think of fall as the beginning of something.  Were I thinking carefully about the coming months, this time of year would instill dread, knowing as I do from long experience that as the winter solstice approaches there will be more insomnia; I will lose all belief in myself, particularly as a friend and a writer; and I will struggle valiantly (mostly succeeding) to enter into the spirit of the season. I will also, in Virginia Woolf's words, glory in the "lyrical mood of winter."  But as the days grow longer my spirits will lift and I will realize how exhausting the last two months have been.  But thinking ahead is entirely intellectual:  I don't feel dread or even concern.

Perhaps that is because I think of fall as a season of light.  Perhaps on some metaphorical or psychological level, I too am experiencing senescence, storing up thoughts, images, characters, ideas to mull over before the fire during the long nights, making lists of difficult books I want to muse over in the timelessness of insomnia.  Perhaps those of us who love fall are, without understanding the process, tuned into trees' survival mechanisms.

But something happens to light (accompanied as it is now by the sound of a trial flight by the Wascana Park geese) when it hits a burning golden tree.  Light also seems to have puddled beneath the trees, to be almost springing out of the colder earth.  I have a very shady back yard with volunteer Manitoba Maples growing in my own shelter belt on the west side.  Suddenly light starts to come through, and the leaves that remain create lacy flickering shadows that dance in the yard.  More light comes into the house (especially since I went on a window-washing rampage a couple of weekends ago).  I discover light coming into the house differently, sliding in the single living room window that faces south for the first time in months, tossing those leafy shadows on the wooden floor and on the quilt I'm working on.

I've noticed that when you get a group of people together who don't know one another there are two reliable topics of conversation that are both banal and illuminating:  animals or pets, and weather.  You can learn quite a bit about a person who talks of surviving the west coast rain for five years or the one who teaches a cat to play fetch.  I suppose when we talk about pets or animals we reveal our attitudes toward the helpless, the other, the wordless, and our sense of their rights in the world.  We're speaking of relationships and principles--as well as about what amuses us.  When we talk about weather, though, we talk about our own helplessness, a helplessness that is profoundly social, that many of us share.  Weather and moods; seasons and moods.  There's an enormous body of literature that attempts to articulate and understand those connections--some of it engaging in the pathetic fallacy, seeing weather as a reflection of human moods, but much of it more honestly trying to see weather as it is.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Literary Locavore III: What Can't Be Undone

There's a whole academic discussion about what makes a short story a short story.  Length, the obvious descriptor, doesn't cut it.  If a short story is a brief narrative, how is it different from a fairy tale, a joke, an anecdote your great uncle tells every time the family gets together?  Frank O'Connor suggests that short stories have protagonists who are outsiders.  Hence the title of his book:  The Lonely Voice.  That would work for dee Hobsbawn-Smith's first collection of short stories, What Can't Be Undone:  the characters in these stories, many of which have been shortlisted finalists for prizes, have been turned into outsiders by enormous losses.  A twin brother can't manage his addictions; another brother dies when the quinzhee he's been building with his sister collapses.  Wives die; husbands leave or die; none of the book's children (if memory serves) still have both parents.  In a culture that has pathologized grief or that studies happiness with the desperation of someone trying to kick a drug habit, this certainly renders them outsiders.

But I have a different metaphor, one that is eerily appropriate for this wonderful collection.  I think of stories structurally, as rich nodes of events that come out of a life that's been fairly pedestrian and that carry on into a future that may or may not be changed.  But certainly in those moments of the successful story there is a collision of energies that pose burning questions that will not brook a character's refusal to answer.  He or she can't say "Um...maybe?"  For me, the best metaphor is that of a horse riding across country rather casually who suddenly sees before him or her a fence or a stream that needs to be leaped.  A short story is like that moment when all the horse's energy and concentration are gathered together, when its past experience and knowledge is brought to bear as it gauges the challenge--and there's no shilly-shallying or indecision.  Three stories in this collection involve horses.  Hailey is the young horsewoman in "Nerve," and as she discovers, indecision in a story or dressage is deadly.

These stories are beautifully crafted.  In "Monroe's Mandolin," a twin sister's despair over her brother's addictions is revealed through a sequence of beautifully-realized scenes in the bar she owns.  He has been gone for some months when his mandolin, brought by their mother back from little town in Tennessee and reputed to have belonged to the great bluegress mandolinist, Bill Monroe, is offered for sale in her bar.  There is no exposition, no stopping a great scene to fill in details about the past:  the background we need is given as elegantly as Monroe used to play.  All the tensions between Lise and her twin Cory, between Lise's desires and the life she is now living, are revealed as rhythmically as a horse's canter. 

We also see one of the collection's preoccupations in this story:  how do you help someone you love who doesn't want to be helped?  How do you even broach the conversation about giving help?  How do you give help to a wife who was once a dancer and now can barely move?  How do you manage not to steal the independence of a sister to whom you've donated a kidney and whose health is a constant concern?  How do you help your brother's wife and her son after your brother has been jailed for abuse?   When help is accepted--when a young boy takes a lift from a mother who lost her own son to leukemia--the acceptance is a gift to the giver.

So is being asked to give help.  One of my favourite stories, "Still Life with Birds," makes use of a world that Hobsbawn-Smith, an award-winning food writer who ran a Calgary restaurant, knows well:  the world of the professionals who make us wonderful food.  In "Still Life," Ariana has been called back from a food sojourn in France to see if she can donate a kidney to her diabetic sister, Violetta.  The experience tightens their bonds, though Ariana doesn't worry any less over Violetta's health:  she knows that organ recipients seldom live more than 15 years after a transplant.  As well, the drugs Violetta takes to prevent organ rejection leave her prey to osteoporosis and other medical difficulties.  As the story opens, Ariana has opened Bistro Etoile, "a deliberate recreation of the small lake-side cafes she visited in France."  Enter Gordon, a young man who keeps bringing Ariana and Violetta cherry trees to plant; his attention to Violetta leads the narrator to comment that "This man's generosity is wearing down her worry-stone's hard edges."  While the story gives me insight into the professional world of food and its constant pressures, the generosity of food also forms a lovely backdrop for the favour Violetta and Gordon will ask Ariana:  to support their decision to marry and have a child, in the implicit knowledge that Ariana may someday have to be that child's mother.  Standing by the lake, thinking over her response, another kind of stone altogether enters the story world:  Ariana picks up "a smooth small stone that just fits within the cradle of her palm.  A rapid release and it skips across the lake, one two three four five skimming arcs that the avocets ignore....She lifts her face to the birds, their impermeable bodies graceful in the air, their beaks pointing south.  Their parabolic lives will bring them back in the spring.  That much is certainty."  The echo made by the stones is crisp and sure, pulling story and character and the moment for making decisions together beautifully.

"Still Life" is one of the few stories in this collection without a first-person narrator.  Another of Hobsbawn-Smith's cooks remarks that her chef, Lance, has "taught me how to build nuanced layers of flavour as elegant as a debutante's ball gown." That same narrator, Stacy, notices "black gravel spitting like curses behind the car's rear tires."  In a different register, Troy, the "pick-up man" of a story with the same name (and his role is both a pun and a comment on his life), notes that his nephew Aidan is a little hesitant about life:  "Aidan gets out of the back seat slowly.  I've noticed that, he don't run into things.  He holds back and assesses the lay of the land.  That sure ain't what I see in most of the teenagers who hang out near the drop-in centre where I work security.  Some of them run toward trouble with both arms open."  We hear Troy's socioeconomic place in the world, but also learn to trust his perceptions about people, all without comment.   Here's the voice of Alex, a widowed playwright and the narrator of "The Good Husband":  "At two AM, I'm settled in a comforter on Astrid's old divan on the balcony moon-watching.coyotes, madrigals in four part harmony, the late night sky ruffled with melody."  The collection is full of such moments when language brings character and that character's worldview alive for us effortlessly.

This is a collection to be read slowly, in part so you can appreciate Hobsbawn-Smith's gift for voices, for the precise yet surprising turn of phrase that brings a narrator's frame of mind to life.  The other reason for taking these stories slowly is implied by the collection's title, What Can't Be Undone  The collection speaks to the inexorability of life, time, fate, and character--all of whom will have their way with us at those moments when life gathers itself to take a significant leap that looked so do-able as you approached--not much worse than the other difficulties you have faced.  But suddenly the abyss, before you are quite on it, lets you see how wide it is, what challenges you will have to meet and how much you have to lose, how much you have already lost.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Fun and Joy

Last week I found myself--not for the first time--accused of not making time for fun.  In fact, accused of not "doing" fun very well.  Of course I objected to the judgment, though I was stunned to wordlessness.

"Okay.  What do you do that's fun?"

"I weed and deadhead.  I feed and watch birds.  I practice the fingerings in Mozart piano sonatas so that someday I'll be able to play them musically--I get better at them each time.  I knit lace and socks--though I've realized that I don't think of knitting sweaters as fun.  I make quilt blocks, though setting them together into a quilt isn't as much fun.  Too much can go wrong.  I don't walk as much as I should, but that's fun.  I spend time with wonderful friends and brush the cat.  I read Proust in the garden on long summer nights.  Oh, and napping, especially in a sunny room."  I decided not to go into the many ways I had fun with Bill:  taking walks, checking out the singing frogs in the spring, or driving out of town to study clouds.  Going to art galleries and talking about what we see, like, don't like.  Talking, talking, talking.  Going to parades in small prairie towns.  That's just some of the  G-rated fun.  Nor did I say that teaching was once fun, when it was valued by students and administrators alike.

Of course, my interlocutor felt that I'd proven his point.  "Define 'fun,'" I demanded.

He admitted that he couldn't define fun, but he could give me a definition of play:  "An activity that's very satisfying, has no economic significance, doesn't create social harm, and doesn't necessarily lead to praise or recognition."  He went on:  "Research shows that regularly having fun is a key factor in having a happy life; people who have fun are twenty times as likely to feel happy" (with thanks to Gretchen Rubin).

Argument ensued, during which time we recognized two things.  First, that I didn't, by any stretch of the imagination, "do" fun the way other people did.  I didn't buy anything; my fun didn't involve eating or drinking, particularly to excess.  It didn't resemble a party, in short.  Also, it was rather quiet, except for the Mozart piano sonatas.  There was no glue involved, and no glitter. 

Second, that ideas of fun were intensely personal.  During the years when I both queried and accepted some of the tenets of postmodernism, whose number one rule was that subjectivity was always "contradictory and in process"--in other words, that the unified human subject was a fiction--I secretly believed that people were their stories.  It was my way of reconciling our sense that we're one human being with our sense that we're also full of contradictions and change constantly.  

But our sense of what's fun might also define us. Is your fun quiet or noisy?  Crowded, sociable, or solitary?  Does it require a lot of other people or just one or two or even none?  Do you make something?  Do you appreciate, listen to, or watch something--going to hear Leonard Cohen or watching the latest superhero movie?  Is it best done or experienced with an altered state of consciousness, or after a cup of coffee? (Which in some cases is an altered state of consciousness.)  I'd hazard a guess that our idea of fun or play is some ineffable mixture of our temperament and what our lives too often lack.  Even in retirement, I don't have enough time, so fun for me involves liberating a few hours to spend in a way that balances how I normally pass my time.  I'm indoors, alone, writing on a computer or reading Woolf criticism, so walking provides a good antidote, or conversation.  If I'm writing about Woolf, thinking as hard as I possibly can about the aesthetics of one of the twentieth century's most challenging authors, then simply getting my fingers to do something--knit lace or get a a Mozart fingering right--changes the subject nicely.  Maybe part of our idea of fun or play is an antidote or a balance to the normal tenor of our lives.  If so, those hard party-ers must live boring lives.

Play also seems to me to come in two flavours:  escape or immersion.  Sometimes after an exhausting day, I simply want to "chill."  TV, Facebook, movies, reading (of a certain kind), or knitting lace are my standbys.  And I've even occasionally been caught playing game after game of solitaire--with a real deck of cards, for pete's sake!  I'm not entirely sure that I'd call any of these "fun."  I'm driven to escape by a brain whose engine is badly tuned, spluttering away without quite reaching the haven of sleep. 

For me, play implies immersion in something that gives me joy--hence working in the garden, having a great conversation, or piecing a quilt.  The one you see above is an antidote to the coral and turquoise quilt whose border treatment I crowd-sourced.  (That one is in a bag somewhere, because I'm seriously not happy with it.  Too much is going on:  it's visual chaos.  I'm going to break it back down into its blocks and start over.)  Oddly enough, "fun" in the quilt above involved cutting fabric into the very careful strips of eggs, each with its name underneath, meaning my cutting and sewing had to be really straight.  Not everybody's idea of play.

But when I think of play in this way, I have trouble telling the difference between "fun" and "joy," which probably aren't entirely different, but perhaps exist on a kind of continuum.  At one extreme, fun for me has a kind of whoopy-do quality about it:  walking in the rain and looking for puddles to splash in.  Going wild in a quilt shop and imagining creating something that is unlike anything I've ever made before.  There's an "in-the-moment" wildness about it that creates energy.  Joy for me  means connecting or creating; joy quietly resonates for hours afterwards.  Both, I suspect, are important to the good life:  the crazy whirling goofiness that explodes like fireworks, reminding us that we're alive, and the meditative immersive play that changes the whole world with creation and connection. 

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Literary Locavore 2: The Trouble with Beauty

One of the paradoxes of this summer's forest fires was how much beauty they brought to southern Saskatchewan, to areas not directly affected by thick smoke and the desolate landscapes that fire leaves behind it.  Sometimes the smoke simply turned the landscape into ever paler distance.  One night I drove through Wascana Park on the west side, parallel to Broad, to see the prairie version of Claude Monet's painting, "An Impression," which gave Impressionism its name:  hazy trees, clouds, and houses irradiated by a gold-red sun whose rays glinted on the choppy lake.  I felt vaguely guilty about my reaction, as if in some weird way I was benefiting from other peoples' misfortune, displacement, and loss.  Yet Hannah Arendt says that it's ethical to turn away from history's tragedies if you know that's what you're doing; she seems to realize that we all need a break from bad news and disasters, particularly if we don't know what we can do about them.  Perhaps she'd give me permission, for a moment, to be suffused by breathtaking beauty if I also think, a moment later, about the paradox, about people who are struggling with the fires, people whose lives have been put on hold, people whose homes may be gone.

In Connie Gault's A Beauty, I couldn't decide what makes Elena Huhtala get out of Bill Longman's car to walk toward Gilroy without any money or belongings, in impractical shoes.  Was it simple impulse?  A sense that her trip with Bill was nearing its logical end?  Or was it the fact that Gilroy, at that moments, had been irradiated by a different kind of glistening light caused by the alkali dust from Old Wives' Lake in the atmosphere?  Was she in search of beauty--a beauty that can  be harmful over the long term?  Bruce Rice, in his award-winning book of poems, The Trouble with Beauty, seems to ask a similar question.  In the title poem, "The Trouble with Beauty," beauty becomes something we need to leave our mark on, like graffiti on trees and Parisian monuments beaten into beauty by bombardment.  Beauty may be embodied in the patina of old rifles, mountains leveled and, yes, the smoke from fires, but it's a troubling beauty.  Bruce's book seems to belong what has been called the "recent ethical turn" in literature.  At the end of this poem, the speaker strikes the ethical note when he observes that "Someday we'll pay, but for now, / see how beautiful it is."   

The very phrase "the recent ethical turn in literature" suggests that until recently literature had nothing to do with ethics.  While it's true that a group of British writers at the end of the nineteenth century that included Walter Pater, John Addington Symonds, and Oscar Wilde thought that it was the duty of art to be beautiful, and that modernist formalism (and a whole lot of other issues of practice and politics) seemed to move away from posing and exploring ethical questions, literature has always had its ethical edge.  If all the writer does is to create a word-window on other lives, other cultures, other places, then the writer is committing ethics.  For what is more ethical than to help readers imagine what they do not know, and to keep that act of imagining, wondering, and questioning  resonating through readers' lives?

In the section he titles "Questions for an Overcast Sky," Bruce brings ethical questions to the fore.  In "Mobile Homes," the nothingness of a trailer park is juxtaposed to the crucifixion, the bomb on Bikini Atoll is said by the speaker's mother to have infused prairie milk and air, a man who survived Hiroshima asks the  24-year-old speaker for a job, Martin Luther King marches, "Indian kids were starving," Nina Simone sings, Israel shells Beirut.  Here, amongst militarism, messy politics, and failures to extend basic human rights we find two other sides of beauty.  In "Dialogue 2:  Regina Prairie Dog Interviews Photographer Robert Adams," the photographer tells a perhaps apocryphal story of a Vietnamese girl who is photographed asleep in a box on the sidewalk.  The photo goes "viral," (whatever that means in 1973), and the girl is rescued and brought to the U.S. for surgery to cure her heart murmur.  Adams tells the interviewer "I wouldn't begin to pretend that my own work has saved anything, not in that way.  But no matter how battered it is, beauty survives in the worst possible places.  The pictures are proof and that's what saves me."  The very next poem, "Askew," puts this another way as it describes an old building any observant prairie dweller has seen, leaning away from the prevailing winds:  "If we could hear like that / all the whispers in the world would tremble."  The poet and photographer do their jobs, calling attention to moments in the world; it's our task to observe and listen.

But just as often as Bruce "commits ethics," he "commits beauty."   I found two ways in which he wrote of the beauty of the prairie.  One was to put his speaker squarely in the middle of the landscape.  A good example of this is "Poem for Looking Up," that is exactly what it advertises.  Here the speaker lies in "last year's grasses" and considers the meaning (and the beauty) of what he sees and hears.  There are some lovely images in this poem, my favourite being his description of "the edges of clouds / glowing like heated wires."  His second approach to prairie is to leave it empty of everything human except, perhaps consciousness.  Let me quote from the conclusion of the opening poem, "Glossary of Hills," though I won't get the spacing exactly right:

There would be no apostrophes
                                in the Book of Hills, no possessive form.
                      To open the cover would be like looking

                                                 into the mirror
of our own faith, all the lost translations
                           the songs at the end of the wind.

Of these two approaches, speaker in the midst of landscape, or speaker as mere consciousness, I preferred the latter, though this says as much about me as a reader as it does about Bruce as a poet.  It was occasionally awkward for Bruce to logistically plant his speaker in centre stage; I wanted to get through the stage directions so I could get to the meditations.  It seems fitting to me, and somehow ethical, to simply find a way to let the prairie be itself, to imagine its immensity without us.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Literary Locavore 1

Summer is a wonderful time to eat locally, to take advantage of the freshness of food that is produced, metaphorically, in our back yards.  It also seems to me a good time to read locally, in part at least because there is so much fine work being published in Saskatchewan.  Part of our decision to eat locally is pure pleasure:  there's nothing quite like eating peas that were picked yesterday, or slicing into a tomato fresh off the vine, perhaps still sun-warm.  But part of it is ethical.  We want to keep our local farmers, who are neighbours of a kind, in business.  We want to keep their land out of the  hands of the industrial farmers.  We want--when we can get it in this climate--food with the smallest footprint possible, not food that has been trucked in for hundreds of miles.

Similarly, reading locally brings pure pleasure, sometimes of the kind I found at the Wilf Perreault exhibition:  the pleasure of seeing our own geography, albeit from a different perspective.  Sometimes it's simply the unique pleasure of a good book, in my case intensified by the pleasure of reading out in my front garden on the beautiful (though sadly rainless) summer evenings that are delivered fresh to my door.  Other times it's ethical.  Just as I have enormous questions about  industrial farming, so am I uneasy, in spite of  Russell Banks's reasurrances last week in The Globe and Mail, about industrial publishing from the monster Penguin/Random House/McClelland & Stewart.  If we want a distinct Canadian voice, we need, I believe, to be supporting smaller publishers like Coteau and Thistledown.  (Though I must confess that two of the books I want to write about were published by M&S.)
Just as I think diversity makes ecosystems stronger, so I think diverse voices can better give us a sense of the wondrous complexity of the human condition.  So I'm going to begin my literary locavore diet today with Connie Gault's wonderful novel, A Beauty, and in the coming weeks (though I can't say in what order), I will reflect on Bruce Rice's The Trouble with Beauty, Cassidy McFadzean's Hacker Packer, dee Hobsbawn-Smith's book of short stories, What Can't Be Undone, and Gerry Hill's Hillsdale.  I may sneak in a few more before I'm done.  These won't be reviews:  I know all these people, though some of them only slightly. Virginia Woolf (to whom I am certainly not comparing myself) was constantly getting herself in trouble by reviewing friends and by pretending she could bring a reviewer's objectivity to their work.  She was generous to B-list authors and very hard writers in her own league.  She felt, rightly I think, that a reviewer hired, say, by The London Times, owed a service to her culture to identify which books that were excellent, which could have benefitted from one more draft or a different approach, and which simply failed.  Every culture needs a multitude of people doing this job, but I'm not one of them.  I'm a blogger; what you'll find here is a personal response.  As well, I take Jan Zwicky's line on reviews or responses: the best way of dealing with an unsuccessful book is silence.  So I'm going to be looking for what's good and strong and truthful in these books.

Often the writing of novels begins with a question that may or may not be answered, but at least gets a thorough exploration.  I can easily imagine Connie Gault beginning her work on A Beauty by wondering what might happen to a beautiful woman who has everything taken from her.  At the novel's outset, Elena Huhtala, who has already lost her mother, is left by her father who hopes that the assumption of his suicide will impel Elena off the failing family farm into the city, where she will find work.  He has left her some money, but this is stolen.  So she has nothing:  no family, no food, no  money, no transportation.  Even the single dress she owns is thin with washing, and she hasn't eaten for days.  She is convinced by the Gustafson family to go to an event in town where she dances with Bill Longman, a privileged young man from Calgary whose father has given him a golden roadster and who is cruising the small towns of the prairies looking for adventure.  When he asks Elena "Can I take you home tonight?" she takes his hand, walks out of the dance hall, and begins the first of the three journeys that comprise most of the novel's action.

Some of the questions Gault asks about beauty are the ones taken up by philosophers over the last 25 years.  Elaine Scarry, in On Beauty and Being Just, writes that "It is as though beautiful things have been placed here and there throughout the world to serve as small wake-up calls to perception, spurring lapsed alertness back to its most acute level.  Through its beauty, the world continually recommits us to a rigorous standard of perceptual care:  if we do not search it out, it comes and finds us" (81).  It's the dirty thirties.  Hotels and shops and restaurants can barely keep going, but when Bill and Elena begin their trip they bring excitement, new viewpoints, and hope to the various witnesses of their journey.  Gault's references to the movies and to the fan magazines that have become popular give one a sense that this historical moment  in its own particular way is hungry for beauty.  But unlike Garbo's beauty, Elena's cannot be precisely described.  In that way, Gault echoes the thoughts of I.A. Richards, who says beauty is "inexhaustible to meditation," Dennis Donoghue who remarks that beauty is undefinable, and Alexander Nehemas who notes that beauty asks us to return to it again and again.  We regard something as beautiful because we have the sense that each time we return to it, we will be given something more:  more insight, more wisdom, more pleasure. 

But none of these philosophers (Scarry--the one woman--excepted) considers what is like to be beautiful, to be the beautiful object, if you will.   In a way, that's what A Beauty partially illuminates. We don't, finally, know much about Elena Huhtala, but when we meet her 27 years after the novel's opening, we don't have the sense that her beauty has brought her any peace or advantage, though she admits that the men in her life changed fairly frequently--each of them richer than the last.  We know that she has gone back to Finland, where her mother died, but has not exactly found a meaningful connection there.  When she returns to her father, all she has is a handful of Marimekko dresses which everyone admires, but which she isn't sure about. Tantalizingly, Gault ends the novel before Elena makes the choice that will or will not change her life.

What I particularly admired about A Beauty was its structure--and how appropriate it is to the questions we ask about beauty.  The novel is largely made up of three distinct road trips.  The first is Elena's with Bill Longman.  Before she gets out of his car for no apparent reason in Gilroy, before he impatiently takes off and leaves her there, Bill and Elena visit three small prairie towns:  Addison, Charlesville, and Virginia Valley.  Each of these communities is represented by a couple of people who live there:  we get to know how the depression and the dirty thirties have affected their lives.  We know their struggles, their failings, their desires. And we're allowed to see how Elena's beauty is that perceptual wake-up call Scarry writes about:  how she can inspire people, make them hopeful again.  Gault beautifully populates these small prairie towns with characters as sharply drawn as a shadow near sunset, giving us (like Wilf Perreault) an historical sense of the place where we live.

The second journey is Elena's father's attempt to find her.  The third is Elena's and Bill's return to Trevna, where Mr. Huhtala now lives, Elena in search of her father, Bill hoping to find her again.  The novel is, then, a series of quests, none of them quite "achieved" as Mallory put it in his Morte d'Arthur.  The life of a beautiful woman isn't a straight line from tragedy to success, fulfillment, peace. 

I haven't spoken of Ruth, who is one of the novel's narrators, eleven at the time when Elena stops in Gilroy.  In a gesture that Elena later recognizes is a kind of revenge, she leaves Gilroy with Ruth's father, leaving Mrs. McLaughlin (and the very responsible Ruth) with seven children.  Elena is everything Ruth will never be.  While Elena is beautiful, Ruth has a wandering eye that will require thick glasses for the rest of her life.  While Elena can walk away on adventures, Ruth is tied to her family by her sense of responsibility.  One suspects that at least of one of those wealthy men might have allowed Elena to have an education, whereas Ruth quits school in grade ten to help support the family.  But Ruth has advantages that seem to elude Elena.  Ruth marries the handsome young man in Gilroy who is initially struck dumb by Elena's beauty and now has (by my careless count) two sons and a daughter.  As well, Ruth has maintained connections to both Mr. Huhtala and Bill Longmore that not only give them comfort but that facilitate the novel's final meeting.  Ruth's life may ask a very important question about beauty, one the philosophers don't consider but that Gault does:  is beauty a matter of being seen, or is it how you see?

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Nature as Muse and Craftsman

Thinking about aesthetics for the book I'm writing on Virginia Woolf's use of form forced me to formulate my own definition of what I considered art.  I realized that it spoke to my own taste, and in good Kantian fashion (in his Critique of Judgement, Kant insisted that we not impose our taste on others, though we hoped and sometimes believed others would share it), I did not want to impose it on anyone else.  Art was an object or an event that made use of a language (musical notes or visual images, as well as the language we use every day) that was used with a deep and respectful sense of craftsmanship to express an idea.  My definition, like any ill-fated attempt to define art, was meant to keep out things I felt didn't belong.  It excluded clever conceptual art more or less cobbled together that surprised one with its idea but showed no craftsmanship.  It also excluded the merely pretty or the simply beautiful.  Monet, of whom Cezanne said he was simply an eye--but what an eye!--just gets in, since besides creating breath-takingly beautiful canvases, he challenges our way of seeing.  Jim Dine occasionally makes it through my gate, though not with a 5-foot-high heart cut out of a hay bale I saw in the Guggenheim.  Banksy definitely gets in.

Bill and I have just come back from a wonderful trip to Seattle.  It's worth flying there to walk to the Olympic Sculpture Park to walk through Richard Serra's remarkable installation, "Wave," which you see above, and which completely changes your sense of the world by dwarfing you and by changing how air moves and how the world sounds.  You can follow that up by sitting near Calder's "Eagle" in a Calder-red garden chair to watch the sun set over the ocean.  But it was our time at aquarium and the Chihuly glass museum that I found challenged my sense of the distinctions between nature, art, and craft.

Bill loves aquariums, so we visit them early in our trips.  Seattle's does a spectacular job of bringing you close to the underwater world and then teaching you how our behaviour is changing these ecosystems.  They have shallow tidal pools filled with starfish, anemones, and sea urchins--all in remarkable colours like the lime green anemones, soft orange starfish and deep wine sea urchins.  You could use one childlike finger to touch them, and were then urged to wash your hands.  There is also a glass archway that encloses white jellyfish:  you can stand underneath and watch their almost transparent, amorphous bodies surge through the water.  It was like watching a ballet of air ringed round by lace.  Other tanks replicated coral reefs with their brightly-coloured coral and even more brightly-coloured fish.  Nature's gone wild with pure, unsaturated colour in these ecosystems, twisting it into every shape, trying out every pattern of stripes or dots or scales.  A coral reef, I would have had to say to myself, is an aesthetic whole--just as a forest, a mountain, or a prairie are aesthetic wholes.  Farther on, there are  quieter tanks in which nothing seemed to happen:  a few grasses, a rock or two, a beige plant wafting in the currents.  But if you stood there long enough (and most people didn't), you began to notice the fish and the snails going on with lives as interesting and busy as the lime green sea urchin or the bright blue fish with its orange cheeks.  This too was an aesthetic whole, in fact, illustrating nature's sense of craftsmanship.  Perhaps I should be a bit less romantic and refer to this as evolution's craftsmanship.

On Tuesday, reading about short fiction after I finished packing up my office, I read these words from Oscar Wilde in an essay by Joyce Carol Oates:  "That is the mission of true art--to make us pause and look at a thing a second time."  Now I'm not inclined to argue about aesthetics with Oscar Wilde; I am inclined to think about that phrase, "look at a thing a second time."  Reconsider?  Pay something the attention it deserves?  See something differently or even consider the idea that there are a variety of ways of seeing and judging?  All these seem to be important (see Monet above), but they don't sound very different from Elaine Scarry's observation in her remarkable book, On Beauty and Being Just that "It is as though beautiful things have been placed here and there throughout the world to serve as small wake-up calls to perception, spurring lapsed alertness back to its most acute level.  Through its beauty, the world continually recommits us to a rigorous standard of perceptual care:  if we do not search it out, it comes and finds us."  In the rest of her argument, that word "care" takes on many meanings, rising finally to perceiving with enough empathy and imagination to prompt us to justice.  Ironically, it was a justice that Oscar Wilde deserved, but did not get.

But Wilde wrote of art and Scarry of beauty; surely these words and ideas are not interchangeable?  As if to put pressure on this conflation and confusion, our second day in Seattle took us to Chihuly Garden and Glass, a museum devoted to the glasswork of Dale Chihuly.  Having been at the aquarium the day before was helpful:  it allowed us to see the way many of Chihuly's forms reference the aquatic world around him.  It was also helpful that we know something of the indigenous West Coast culture, for some of his forms pay tribute to their baskets and their eye for colour, like the photograph below.  On the one hand, I was gobsmacked by a beauty I could not imagine being made.  How do you rim an undulating red form in bright green?  How do you create stripes?  How do you put together such structures of glass?  Craftsmanship was everywhere in evidence:  this is one culmination of the art of glass blowing.

But where was the idea I needed for this work to be art?  Okay, I'm going to stretch my brain here to see what I come up with.  I can see Chihuly's almost Platonic sense that there is a world of forms--of baskets, sea urchins, flowers, water drops--that the artist can reference to wake up our attention.  I can also see the paradox between the solidity these forms take in glass and their fragility, impermanence, mortality even:  some athletic idiot with a hammer could destroy this beauty very, very quickly.  But how is that different from, say, an ecosystem?
I might find an answer to this in the garden outside the museum, where nature's and Chihuly's craftsmanship collide in a friendly, echoing way.  There, Chihuly might have created more flower forms to echo those suggested by the garden, but instead he offers us surreal forms that emphasize their glass-ness.  Art as artifice?  Art as nature's counterpoint, and a way to emphasize the artness of nature?  Or I might find the answer in an essay by George Saunders about reading Vonnegut while he's working as an engineer in Sumatra and being surprised by Vonnegut's use of humour to reflect on or depict the firebombing of Dresden.  Saunders writes "I'd understood the function of art to be primarily descriptive:  a book was a scale model of life, intended to make the reader feel and hear and taste and think just what the writer had.  Now I began to understand art as a kind of black box the reader enters.  He enters in one state of mind and exits in another.  The writer gets no points just because what's inside the box bears some linear resemblance to 'real life'--he can put whatever he wants in there.  What's important is that something undeniable and nontrivial happens to the reader between entry and exit." 

Does it come down to this, the artist's intentions?  The natural world simply wants to go on being the natural world?  It doesn't purposefully lay claim to my attention, although its beauty has that effect.  Art, on the other hand, might want to draw my attention to nature as a way of engaging that perceptual care that Scarry writes about and that is perhaps the basis of many environmentalists' beliefs.  We preserve the beauty of art; why not also preserve the beauty of nature?  Both are equally life-giving.  Besides, nature, perhaps, is the first teacher, the first example of craftsmanship.  What a wonderful way to end a holiday:  with more questions than answers.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Paper Clips

I was supposed to have my office at the University cleaned out by May 31, but the department head, Troni Grande, kindly organized a reprieve.  At first, I put my attention to finding good homes for my books, and into reorganizing my bookshelves at home, which were more or less frozen in time the minute they filled up, taking the books that no longer suited my interests or my temperament into the university where I parked them in front of the elevator, and then bringing home the books I wanted to keep.  All of my Anita Brookner went into the university:  her listless heroines no longer appeal to me.  A lot of the American male authors from the 1970s and 1980s found themselves dumped unceremoniously on the floor in front of the elevator:  really?  You thought masculinity was that easy--or you hoped it was?  In turn, I'm bringing home a lot of aesthetics and philosophy.  Craig Melhof tells me that Walter Benjamin thought his library was a kind of biography.  Certainly that's true of me, except that something different emerges when you must pare down.  It's as if retirement is forcing me to choose between my past and my future: between the books I read and taught and the books I want to read during Act III.  When I began, I had three walls of books; I'd say I only have one wall left, so I've done well enough. I'm "donating" what's left  to SK Books (, an independent bookseller on Albert and Fourth.  

I'm still puzzled by some of my choices:  why fewer novels and more philosophy?  Even typing in that sentence forces me to face some uncomfortable truths.  I have told my students many times, in a sentence that's not quite grammatical (because making it grammatical would add too many words and muddy the waters), that they will never writer better than they read.  Maybe the slight ungrammaticality is the point:  the skills that they bring to reading they also bring to writing, and the books they write will never be better than the books they read.  There's a historical dimension to this as well:  you have to know what is happening in literature right now in order to enter the contemporary conversation about the human condition and about the form and content of the art that is reflecting on our humanity, our joys and trials, our energy and defeat, our inventiveness and our blindness.  

When I had the honour to examine dee Hobsbawm-Smith's thesis at the University of Saskatchewan--essentially her first novel (and a very fine one), she made the comment that putting characters in very difficult and extreme situations allows both writers and readers to see what those characters are made of.   I saw her point and was grateful for the observation.  But am I the only reader who balks at many of the plots of critically-acclaimed fiction and its tendency to depend on extreme situations to  do the hard work of illuminating the challenges of being ethical, of being human, of failing or succeeding at either of those important tasks?  I've been reading and writing about E.M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel, so I'm certainly aware of the need for the narrative drive that prompts the reader to ask "And then....?"  But when was the last time you needed to make an ethical decision?  When you were in a parking garage with a gun, shooting a gangster over stolen paintings, as in Donna Tartt's beautifully-written The Goldfinch, or the last time you had to choose between your own need  for a quiet evening and the need of someone you love, someone who's having a difficult time, to go to an action-packed movie?  I'm avoiding modern fiction as Soul Weather percolates, and it puts me in a dishonest position, but one I can't seem to find my way into or out of--whichever is called for now.  Hence the philosophy rather than the fiction.

My second task as I clean out my office is to recycle three filing cabinets of teaching notes.  This doesn't mean simply taking files out of the drawers and dumping them in a recycling bag.  At the very least, I need to pull out the paper clips.  This is a potent, sometimes nostalgic immersion in my past, but also an opportunity to reflect.  One of the things I can see is how my teaching changed over the years, how I shifted from teaching the few things I actually knew something about, like feminist theory, to learning about new things because the discipline changed, literature and society changed, the department's needs changed, or I needed to challenge myself.  Always interested in contemporary fiction, I taught the postmodern Canadian novel in the 90s, postmodern British fiction at the turn of the century before turning back to Canadian fiction written after 2000 for my last CanLit class.  

Early in my time here, I came to the conclusion that I couldn't be a self-respecting feminist critic unless I got a handle on Jane Austen's work, so I foolishly volunteered to teach a class on Austen.  Two years later, Austen-mania arrived, heralded by Colin Firth's Mr Darcy, with his dive into the lake and his wet, sheer shirt.  I used to joke and say that I'd "caused" the plethora of movies based on her novels.  You need to understand something:  in my classes for my B.A.  and M.A. at the university of Michigan, taken between 1968 and 1976, I read no women authors, which is perhaps why women authors and female characters were the focus of my Ph.D. thesis, becoming my first book:  The Callisto Myth from Ovid to Atwood:  Initiation and Rape in Literature.  So if I wanted to teach Jane Austen or Virginia Woolf, I started from nothing but a love of their work and the feminist theory I'd also learned on my own.  Intriguingly, at the University of Manitoba in the late 70s and early 80s, there were no classes in feminist theory, though deconstruction and postmodernism were all the rage.

I was, in fact, hired U of R to teach feminist theory--but how that too changed!  The last time I was asked to teach feminist theory, I came to the conclusion that feminism had to be informed by an understanding of masculinity, so I picked the brain of former Dean of Arts, Murray Knuttila, and offered a class on gender and literature.  Unlike my feminist theory classes, which were usually full, this one had only about 12 students.  I never taught it again, though I don't fully understand why.  Perhaps faced with students' apparent indifference, I didn't think I could reinvent the class one more time.  Were I teaching it now, I would need to reshape it entirely to include things that I don't understand and perhaps don't have the right to talk about, like the missing and murdered indigenous women or the young men who think it socially acceptable to holler sexist and objectifying remarks at female journalists.  (I still don't think we understand masculinity.)  I have long likened gender roles to boxes made for us by society and the people closest to us, boxes shaped by acceptable behaviour, attitudes, and goals.  Why do we put other people in such boxes?  (Perhaps that's why I brought my philosophy home.)  If it's gender we need to understand, then we need to wrap our heads around individuals like T Thomason, the young musician who doesn't feel comfortable with either gender.  How is that, that at this historical moment, gender is both more fluid and more ossified than it's ever been?  All this in a single term?  The task is daunting.  

If Benjamin's biography is his library, mine might be the pile of paper clips above.  Yes, I know, they're empty now.  Once they held ideas about gender, history, and aesthetics, about writers as diverse as Jane Austen and Salman Rushdie, Charlotte Bronte and Michael Ondaatje, James Joyce and Lisa Moore.  I'm hoping that the more illuminating ideas have become part of me so that they can be reconfigured in the writing I hope to do for the next ten or fifteen years.  Just as I'm delighted to have my former student, Cassidy Mc Fadzean successfully launch Hacker Packer and begin to teach at Luther, I'm happy to return my paper clips to the Department office.  The world is unfolding as it should. 

This morning, I was re-reading Robert Pogue Harrison's wonderful book Gardens:  An Essay on the Human Condition.  Perhaps like anyone who sets out to explore the human condition, he quoted Rilke's famous line, "You must change your life."  For once, I did not feel like pushing Twig off my lap to scurry around, changing my life.  I read about the gardens of the homeless this morning, about Socrates and Epicurious and their academic gardens; I've reflected here on my past; in about half an hour, Bill and I will leave for the gym; and this afternoon I will plant my boxes and bake a rhubarb cake.  Tomorrow morning, breakfast with Katherine, and then a week's writing about Virginia Woolf's intriguing essay, "Phases of Fiction."  Perhaps there's not a lot to change at the moment.  Perhaps I also don't need paper clips to hold it together.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Travel in 1905

As I mentioned in March, I have been reading the early diaries of Woolf, a volume titled The Passionate Apprentice that spans the period between the end of her first encounter with mental illness in 1897, when she was first advised to keep a diary, and 1909.  Whoever suggested that she keep a diary after she began to convalesce was inspired.  She encountered another very difficult period after the death of her father, man of letters Leslie Stephen, in February of 1904.  Once again, writing came to her rescue, but this time it was a request from Fred Maitland, who was writing a biography of Stephen and hoped to have a "note" from Virginia about her father's relationships with his adult children.  Then, little by little, family members and friends clearly brought their connections to bear, giving Virginia the opportunity to write reviews and essays for newspapers and journals.  

I've found this volume incredibly moving in a number of ways. One was seeing the way writing saved her.  In a late entry in 1903, she records the story of a suicide in Hyde Park's Serpentine who had in her pocket a note that explained the cause of her despair.  It is a simple sentence that closely echoed Woolf's own situation, given that her father's death seemed imminent:  "No father, no mother, no work."  Except that thanks to a family that understood what work might mean for a young woman, they saw to it that she had work after the mental breakdown and suicide attempt that followed Leslie's death.  I also saw the early stages of her love affair with beauty.  In her descriptions of her travels in Greece in 1906, you can see her encountering a kind of beauty that contrasts that of the English countryside, about which she had already been writing, and trying to find language to describe that beauty.  I saw Virginia Woolf the aesthete born, and I've been thinking about how I can bootleg this material into my already gargantuan study of her aesthetics.  Because beauty was important to her.  Denis Donoghue, in his study, Speaking of Beauty, observes that since that no one has been able to formulate a satisfactory definition of beauty, it's always something we need to talk about.  So I can say that one of the ways writers--all artists, really--can reach out to us to create conversations between the artist, artwork, and viewer, listener, or reader is to create beauty that we then want to talk about.

But what I'm interested in tonight, as I unpack my suitcase from my annual mother/daughter vacation, is Woolf's record of travel.   I wrote in March that her diaries became self-consciously historical during the General Strike and as Hitler came to power;  but really, it's hard for a keeper of diaries not to record some elements of social history.  The diaries of her travels to Spain and Greece give us a close look at the delights and difficulties of travel at the beginning of the twentieth century.

In 1905, she and her younger brother Adrian traveled to Spain in April.  Because Woolf was writing and selling creative nonfiction as well as reviews, she thought of this trip as grist for the writing mill.  So Woolf made herself a "paper book" for what she called her "Spanish Diary" before leaving:  no trip to Paper Umbrella to pick up a small Moleskine notebook.  Her packing was also complicated by the fact that she wanted to take a fair number of books.  In fact, she traveled with two boxes--no suitcases on wheels--one completely for books, the other for clothing--although her maid found space for more books there as well. Woolf was incredibly beautiful, but no one has ever accused her of caring much about dress; reading was more important.  Since they weren't going to France, they did not simply jump the English Channel; rather they sailed from Liverpool almost directly south to Portugal, and had a fair amount of time on board the ship for reading in their comfortable cabins.  Their ship ran into difficulties, however; it  overheated, so that they sometimes had to turn off all the engines and simply drift for a while.  Having lots to read was helpful.  This created havoc with their timetable, however, so that one of the first things they needed to do when they docked was to find another ship for their return journey.

Other difficulties arose.  One of the legs of their trip was made by a train that paused in a small village called Amonhon.  They were assured at the outset that there would be "a good second-class hotel" for them to stay in.  When they arrived, however, what they found more resembled a public house with a few ill-equipped sleeping spaces separated by sheets.  Needless to say, they spent a much-disturbed night in their clothes, listening to the conversations of customers who were getting more and more drunk, only to get up at 6 a.m. to catch the train for the next stage of their journey.  The ship that they had needed to arrange because theirs had been late was not nearly as comfortable as the one they had hoped to travel in, though Woolf reports that she had no difficulties with sea sickness, though others did.  When they arrived in Liverpool, they were almost out of money and had to apply to Lloyd's Bank for enough to buy their train tickets to London.  When you traveled at the beginning of the twentieth century, you needed to figure out how much money you would need and to take it all with you at the outset. No ATMs or credit cards.

Veronica now has an iPhone, which she puts to the best possible uses.  She and I arrived in Toronto on different flights, since she was coming from Winnipeg, so we messaged and found one another with no difficulties.  On the evening of our first day, we had tickets to Tarragon Theatre's Bollywood-inspired adaptation of Shakespears's Much Ado About Nothing, which was hilarious, energetic, and true to the text in a funny way.  Here's what the iPhone did for us:  thanks to a Toronto transit ap, we knew how long it would take us to get to Tarragon Theatre via public transit.  Thanks to Google maps, Veronica could look at restaurants along our route, follow the links to menus and reviews, so that we could choose, appropriately enough, an Indian restaurant that made amazing roti.  The iPhone was similarly helpful when we drove back from the McMichael Art Gallery and needed to find dinner before we went to a Toronto Chamber Choir concert of music from Renaissance Naples.  |It identified traffic jams, found us great Japanese food, and took us to the out-of-the-way church with remarkable efficiency.  And of course, neither Veronica nor I packed a box of books.  I carried my iPad mini, which allowed me to text Bill, could even be used as a phone, and gave me all the books I wanted.  So I alternated between Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh, which Woolf identified as one of the novels that showed how life and human character were changing around 1910, and Ted Bishop's intriguing book, The Social Life of Ink.  

It is startling to note how much travel has changed in the last hundred years, which leads one to ask "Which traveler had the most intense and meaningful experiences, the one who was certainly immersed in the world they traveled through or the one who had the technology to buffer some of the inconveniences and frustrations of being in an unfamiliar place?"  I can't decide.  Certainly, facing unfamiliarity is a valuable part of traveling:  it de-centers your world view and your habits; it forces you to pay attention to the local customs and practices if you're not going to be one of those travelers who carries your snail shell on your back; and it challenges you with problems to solve, often quickly, keeping your wits agile.  It's also part of the sheer fun and adventure that we seek when we travel:  we're on the lookout for the unfamiliar, sometimes even finding it in ordinary things that are simply dressed a little differently.  

But travel, for me at least, is also about curiosity, about having one's curiosity the primary link between the traveler and the people and place.  Perhaps curiosity is sometimes thwarted by frustration, bad food, anxiety about where you are going and how late you are going to be getting there.  Finally, it's about having one's senses on high alert: listening to the sounds of the cityscape or landscape; studying the different light, the architecture, or landscape; tasting unfamiliar food; smelling the coal-infused air of the London Underground or the still, damp air of a rose garden.  And of course, it's about art, and the way this both feeds and challenges our minds and senses.  Thanks to the internet, we packed in a Shakespeare play, music from the Italian Renaissance, an incredible Emily Carr show at the AGO, the Group of Seven at the McMichael, and the Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival at a number of sites.  I'm guessing that if you take your curiosity and your senses on holiday, no matter how you organize it, you'll be able to take rich experiences home.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Contemporary maxims suitable for wall or shelf

Did you know that for $99, you can get "Happiness Pennants" to mount above your fireplace?  Or, for rather less, you can remind people in your household to
I've been noticing this trend since about March, and furtively taking pictures, wondering what to make of our tendency to decorate walls, pillows, mailboxes, and mugs with words.  

Such maxims have a long and varied cultural history.  We have Aesop's fables with their tightly-expressed advice.  Proust's beloved grandmother reads Madame de Sevigny.  Gandhi advised us to "Be the change you want to see in the world," advice I try to make one of my principles.  It is unarguable: something we all need to do.  At the same time, does it ask us to do something we may inherently be too lazy to do:  think about what needs changing and about how our behaviour might change that?  We also have to believe that our tiny gestures matter.  So we don't argue with it, but I also don't know how much these words govern the way we live.   I need only type in "Do unto others...." and you know exactly what I'm talking about.  Or do you?   Has the maxim become the cliche, which poet Robert Hall once described as "the cinder block of language":  something functional that you don't really think about?

Some of these seem to be stands-ins for family crests: a statement of who we are.  If you have a cottage and also own a pillow that says "I love the lake," isn't that a bit redundant?  If you don't own a cottage and have the same pillow, it's an expression of nostalgia or desire.  But is a pillow the right place for it? 

"Paris is always a good idea" might identify you as one of the adventurers-in-the-know, except that the piles of mugs suggests that clearly there are quite a number of you out there.  "All you need is warm socks" is certainly heartwarming and quirky--knitters would doubtless agree--but warm socks are pointlessly comforting on a hot day when you have lost the love of your life.

Other examples, like the "Happiness Pennants" seem to be advice.  Once upon a time, I liked the phrase "It is what it is," because it seemed to express a kind of Buddhist acceptance. Then I began hearing it too often and realized that it also expressed a demand:  "It is what it is!  Deal!"  Or it advocated apathy or helplessness.  I soon realized that I had my own version was "Whatever it is, I can probably work with it."

 I should probably delighted that we are adorning our walls and sofas with words, but I'm not.  These all seem too easy, unearned.  I have a sense that we give them lip service and then go on with our lives.  

"Am I a snob?" as Woolf once famously asked?  Am I drawing a false distinction between a popular trend and my own mantras, some of which might be suitable for pillow or plank?  "Just be curious" is rule number one for me.  It speaks of a way of orienting myself to the world and to the people in it.  It's a reminder to be curious before I get judgmental or resort to stereotypes or other methods of avoiding hard thought.  I suppose my second, if I had to put it briefly, would be "Talk.  Listen.  Listen.  Talk."  But that doesn't quite capture the way I think that conversation and dialogue are at the centre of everything from our most intimate relationships and to the more successful civic discourse that helps us negotiate the challenges of living in communities that seek to be fair and inventive.  It also doesn't quite capture the fact that I believe having a voice that is respected and heard is one of our most primal needs--right after love.

"Whenever possible, say something kind.  Give praise where it's earned" might be my third.  Apparently there are parts of my brain that give me a hit of dopamine every time I do this, but I simply feel that being human is hard work and people deserve to be told when they've done a particularly good job of it.  "Be where you are" is probably my fourth, but it is meant to be evoked in those moments when you are with someone else, but aren't quite focused, attentive, or patient, as well as in those moments when you are out walking on a lovely spring evening, but are texting madly away.  It's my old fart's objection to the fact that too much of the time we're where our technology has taken us, not where we actually are.  In my old  fogey's way, I'm worried about what is going to happen to our sense of community, our daily treatment of others, our environmental goals--not to mention our driving--if we're not actually where we are.  If I'm in my device and not out for a walk, what's the point of saving the planet?  It's this maxim of mine that makes me suspect that our little phrases come as much out of the things that bug us as much as out of our own wisdom.

I think four of these is about all I can manage.  (Please let me know if I've left out something earth-shattering.)  And each of them is associated with a particular recognition or "aha!" moment that I can still recall, and then a period of reflection.  Only later did the principle get whittled down to maxim length  for easy recall.  "Hmmm.  I know I got a principle for this kind of situation....Right. Just be curious."  

Dare I say, at the risk of being called a snob, that what these mugs and boxed canvases do is to allow us to feel that we're on the right track--of course, we must be:  somebody's marketing it!--without thinking about what that track really involves.  (Yes, Katherine, it's' all system one thinking.)  You want words:  pick up a book that puzzles you.  You want a graphic image on your wall?  How about a painting that you return to again and again, fascinated, without completely understanding it.  In spite of my own mantras, I think it's puzzles we want and need, not certainties.  Unless you're talking about flossing and flushing.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Fear vs. Spring: In Praise of the Commons

I regularly get furious at the world view implied by our politicians and the media that cover them without asking enough questions, and I've been tempted to blog about it.  Stephen Harper and his Conservatives want us to be frightened, to be convinced that terrorists are a major threat in North America.  In turn, they want pubic policy to be devoted to addressing those threats with equally terrifying legislation like Bill C-51.  They don't want us to ask questions about the missing and murdered Aboriginal women or to consider what we might do about climate change--two much more important issues.  The media frequently and uncritically conspire, repeatedly running stories about three Muslim women who made their way through Turkey to ISIL in Syria, or interviews with neighbours who knew "Jihadi John" when he was a mild-mannered member of their community.   What makes me  most angry is the way fear changes the social contract, making us more distrustful of others, urging us to focus on ourselves and our personal safety rather than the needs of our society, prompting us to adopt what Northrop Frye once called a "garrison mentality" that estranges us from everyone whose values or appearance might be "different."

But my temptation to write an angry, scathing blog has been, thankfully, assuaged by two things.  One is a change in the news cycle that is now dominated by the Duffy trial, by the accord between Ontario and Quebec that created a cap-and-trade system for carbon that involves almost 70% of Canadians, and by the CBC's series on missing and murdered Aboriginal women.  I never thought I would thank Mike Duffy for anything, much less for making me feel as if it was 1973 again and as if my first responsibility when I got home from work at night was to see what new revelations the day's testimony had brought.  But at least we're forced by Duffy's trial to think about our own institutions and their values:  this is something we can change, and for the better.

Spring also dissuaded me from writing a cranky blog.  Or rather, it made wallowing in anger something I had no heart for, beginning on March 16 when I saw three robins in my back yard--the earliest I've ever recorded seeing robins.  Then bit by bit the weather encouraged me to look up from my burrow.  It wasn't a very pretty world I saw, a fact that was made dramatic by the two snow storms we've had since the general thaw:  I would get up in the morning and beauty would be back.  

But when you are as addicted to beauty as I am, you search it out.  Or perhaps one could say that the changing weather--weather that made promises and then took them back before making more extravagant promises--prompted me to keep noticing.  The brilliant literary critic, Peter Brooks, has convinced me that in Europe and North America at least, we tend to pay the most attention to what we can see.  No, that's not quite what he says.  He maintains that a "scopophilic regime" permeates Western thought, from the philosophy of the Greeks to the current moment with all of its YouTube cat videos and photographs of meals we're about to eat.  (Brooks wrote Reading for the Plot well before Facebook and YouTube:  he'd be shocked at how right he was.)  Perhaps that tendency is summed up in the cliche "Seeing is believing."  But last weekend when I was driving south on Pasqua, I heard frogs.  I can't tell you how much I love the sound of frogs in the spring; I can't even explain why I love them so.  I only know that when Bill wants to give me a spring-time treat he doesn't offer ice cream or chocolate, but a ride, often west on Thirteenth, to see if we can't hear some frogs.  We park by the side of the road and I just listen.  If birdsong is the expression of a celestial, airy joy, then the singing of frogs is birdsong's earthy counterpart.  And there's something profoundly earthy about spring.

I have also been listening to the conversations my male and female downy woodpecker have in the back yard.  Then last Friday when I was gardening, I heard the characteristic squeek of a mourning dove in flight, even before its haunting call. As I was cleaning out the front flower beds, I found little unravelling green buds of silvermound and flax just as the mourning dove arrived. So I've been looking more carefully the last week, even getting to the point of thinking that the still subtle landscape was the colour of juncos and sparrows--shades of browns and greys.  Then today the trees suddenly exploded with buds.

Here's the thing about spring.  About weather or sunshine or birdsong or the richer, longer light of April days.  It belongs to us all, to what we call "the commons."  If you want a perfect illustration for this, go into a restaurant or a store on a lovely day and talk to your server or cashier about the weather--weather they're not going to get out into for quite a few hours yet.  They're as blissed as you are.  They're probably blissed, in part, because you are.  Working retail is a slog, but I imagine it's a real slog during the coldest and darkest winter days when we're all cranky.  

Things that belong to the commons, to us all, are the antithesis of the Duffy trial and all the news about terrorist threats.  The pleasure we take in spring doesn't belong to the world of commodities or expense accounts, and it's something we instinctively share with the people around us, not something that divides us, the way fear does.  Weather belongs to us all, reminding us in the way neither politicians nor the news has been (except in the case of B.C., Ontario and Quebec), that it is a shared joy and shared responsibility.