Thursday, December 30, 2010

New Year's Resolutions: procrastination, politics, and the environment

Reading historiography, particularly postmodern historiography, warps your mind.  So yesterday--a beautiful day in Regina, warm by winter standards and nearly windless--I went for one of those woolgathering walks my daughter recommends.  Of course, I spent much time reading the traces in the snow, which is not a bad metaphor for the historical project generally.  Besides the ubiquitous dog footprints, I could see that the neighbourhood hares have been out and about, and noticed one tiny thread-like track that I suspect belonged to a mouse or vole.  The light was extraordinary.  While I understand that some of the words we humans argue the most about are the words for colour, snow in prairie light creates a particular challenge.  Is it blue?  Mauve-blue?  Are the shadows grey or silver?   

Standing here in the windless light meditating on the colour of snow, it's hard to take in the fact that in 2010 nature was deadly.  Natural disasters like heat waves, floods, blizzards and droughts killed over 260,000 people.  At the same time, a brief article in The Globe and Mail reports that only 115,000 people have been killed by terrorists between 1968 and 2009.   So why do North American governments spend so much money and ingenuity on protecting its citizens from terrorists and so little creativity and money on providing leadership that will address the human practices that lead to climate change?

John Allemang, in an excellent article on procrastination, may provide the answer.  We're procrastinators.  We've all done it:  check out Facebook status updates or visit Ravelry again rather than write that difficult essay or harranging blog post. Similarly, our governments prefer the immediate, measurable results of holding up thousands of travellers while their waistbands are checked for hidden explosives rather than drafting difficult legislation that will begin to address the environmental costs of the carbon dioxide we spew into the air.  Allemang writes that procrastinators lack impulse control, tending to focus on what's immediately before us, even though putting off dealing with "retirement planning, transit infrastructure, and climate change can have dire social consequences."  He goes on to comment that "if environmental degradation is a slippery slope of small procrastinations, then you craft regulatory solutions where success is tied to specific plans rather than the vague idealization of better air quality."

Canadian politics at the current moment seems to consists of the art of procrastination.  Don't do anything today that might put off a single voter tomorrow.  Because tomorrow might come with the next budget.  This really translates into not having any vision, into a politics of not offending anyone.  It's as if we no longer ask our politicians for leadership. But if somebody doesn't get creative, if somebody doesn't take some risks, will we be able to meditate on the colour of snow in 20 years, or to consider the miracle of mouse tracks?

Here's the link to John Allemang's essay on procrastination

Here's the link to the Globe and Mail stats on deaths from weather and terrorist attacks:

Thursday, December 23, 2010

On Convalescence

Two days before I should have finished my marking for the fall term, I came down with the flu for the second time in three weeks.

The first feverish day I mostly slept, trying not to think too much about the fact that I should be marking and that the next term is already pressing in upon me.  I need to read Heidegger over Christmas for an M.A. thesis I'm examining, and I need to get a new issue of Wascana Review online.  When I wasn't obsessing about the passing of time, but listening instead to every voice of my body, feverish memories arose:  vivid, fragmentary, yet surrounded by context that arrived like a flash of lightning, illuminating everything momentarily.  Is memory somehow housed in the body?  Is it when we're ill (or sixty and ill for the second time in three weeks?) that we feel the full weight of our history?  In those moments, time actually stretched out behind me instead of racing toward me, and I turned to face in the other direction in a kind of hazy wonder.  I am the person made out of all that.

Past the worst of the fever but still wobbly in the knees, I contemplated the personalities of my cats.  This is a good thing to do when you're sick and have time on your hands.  Four years ago when I broke my ankle and was confined to the house for several weeks, Twig climbed into bed with me to be nursemaid, leaving only to eat.  In spite of this bond, I feel I don't know him very well; even his needs (except when it comes to food) seem quiet to me.  I imagine that he's a Zen philosopher who has accomplished detachment from much of the material world, leaving only food, warmth, sleep and love.  He now nurses me only when I'm awake.  Instead, it's wild little Sheba who's there the whole time, though she prowls up and down my body when she's bored and thinks I really ought to play with her or at least do something interesting.  When the two of them come, he gives her a bath, nibbling off yet another of the startling white eyebrows on her little black face.  If she climbs under the covers, he's so careful to go around her and not disturb her cozy sleep.  What are they thinking when they take such care with one another and play this nursemaid role, or is there simply some intuition of need?  I suspect they know a lot more about me than I know about them.  My definition of "cat" is "a domestic animal whose habits you know intimately.  Yet there's always mystery beyond what you (think you) know."

Illness is a time to re-read books.  I was too hazy-headed to read any of the year's book that are on the bookshelf in my workroom--Kathleen Winter's Annabel or Ian McEwan's Solar.  I wanted something small, so began to re-read Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses.  It's perfect for illness: short, physical in a philosophical sort of way.  The first time I read it, it seemed like a coming of age memoir told from the vantage point of Trond's sixty-seven-year-old self.  This older character I thought I understood:  his desire to strip down to essentials in his life seems familiar to me as I start to line up my books in the third floor AdHum hallway so some unwitting undergraduate will take them home.  I also understood when he said that after the deaths of his wife and sister he didn't know how to speak  to people; I've had depressions when I didn't know what to say to anyone.

Maybe one of the advantages of re-reading books when you are sick is that you're too wooly headed to defy the fact that you always read a different book, even when you are re-reading it.  If nothing else, your own context provides a different filter that draws attention to some of the events or images, motifs or phrases, while ignoring others.  At their best, though, all novels have this rich complexity; we simply pretend too often to have a single, coherent reading experience.  That's harder to do when you have a fever.

This time, Trond's asceticism still appeals to me, but I found his philosophy grounded in a physical, active  masculinity that didn't really know what to do with women.  And how many silent women's lives there are at the border of the novel--his deserted mother who only gets a single scene to herself; his thirty-nine-year-old daughter whom he hardly knows; the two wives we know nothing of, besides the second one's death; and of course "Jon's mother," who doesn't even merit a name.  Still, it's a novel with the hard-working aging body of a man who wants to be, deliberately, inside the time that is left to him.  A fine novel for convalescence.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Guerilla Art

A couple of weeks ago, colleague Cameron Louis forwarded a youtube link to a Chorus Niagara flash mob.  Over 100 singers gathered at the Welland Seaway Mall to sing "The Hallelujah Chorus" from Handel's Messiah to surprised shoppers in the food court.  No one complained about having their space invaded by classical music while they enjoyed their lunch.  Rather, the videographers, AlphabetPhotography, capture delight, fascination, surprise, and joy on the faces of the people gathered there.

Flash mobs are wonderful celebrations of the human spirit, of our desire to give and take collective delight when an ingenious, dedicated group of people works to bring art to us in our public spaces.  "Frozen," the Grand Central Station flash mob where over 200 people freeze in place at the same instant, changes that anonynous, familiar public space, making it strange and curious.  People who would normally have passed by one another without a word now ask each other what's happening, what it means.  Is it a protest?  How long has it been going on?  They walk around the frozen figures, nudging them slightly to see what happens.  The beautifully choreographed and rehearsed flash mob in Liverpool Station of the London Underground not only completely interrupts people's routines, but seeks to get the audience involved in the dance; one of the delightful moments the cameras captured was two portly grey-haired ladies dancing like teenagers.

I suppose you could say graffiti is the visual art world's version of the flash mob.  Once again, something completely unprepossessing like a rail car or a brick wall can be transformed into art, making the mundane and unseen into something curious, inspiring, or provocative.  I suppose you could say that anyone with a can of spray paint can deface a public space, but artists like Banksy can also  transform it into an inventive moment of puzzlement, protest, contemplation, or surprise. 

Since Cameron sent the Chorus Niagara url, I've been thinking that we need more flash mobs, more ingenious and surprising moments when art interrupts the tedium of our daily lives.  Is there a way we can flash mob a novel or a poem, or is the written word simply too private for that kind of experience?

Here's the url for the Chorus Niagara flash mob:

The photographs are by my daughter, Veronica Geminder.  One summer day we drove to a railroad siding between Chamberlain and Davidson Saskatchewan where they apparently keep "defaced" railcars.  More of her photographs of railcars can be seen on her flicker site:

Sunday, December 5, 2010


Near Bill Reid's magical sculpture, "Raven and the First Men" on exhibition  at the Museum of Anthropology at UBC, there's a small card that quotes him:  "One basic quality unites all the works of mankind that speak to us in human, recognizable voices across the barriers of time, culture, and space:  the simple quality of being well-made."

 While craftsmanship may speak to the future, it is always tied to the past.  The craftsperson, whether potter, carpenter, knitter, or quilter, is always aware of the lore that makes their craft possible.  The potter knows the age-old recipes for glazes.  The knitter has cable and lace designs going back hundreds of years.  Quilters still return to the patterns found in the remarkable old appliqued Baltimore quilts made in mid-nineteenth century America or return to the simple log cabin pieced out of strips of leftover cloth by a woman settling the prairies.

The craftsman doesn't hurry.  Time, in the way we normally parcel it out, doesn't matter.  What matters is only the quality of the work.  The hand quilter may take a single stitch at a time if the quilting design twists and turns.  Knitters too work a stitch at a time, and often slow themselves down with complex but beautiful patterns.  We're moving forward, but in twenty-first century terms, we're moving at the pace of a tortoise drawing a very long thread.  At the same time, because people have knitted and quilted since time out of mind, that long thread is tethered to the past.  If time doesn't matter, beauty does, as does being truthful to the craft itself.

Having written that sentence, and feeling that it's somehow accurate, I had to stop and think about what I meant.  There are many ways of distiguishing between art and craft, most of them focussing rather narrowly on the fact that we use craft, while art is gloriously useless, happy to be itself.  This is a problematic distinction (and fodder for another blog?); much art is useful in an ineffable way; much mature craft poses questions that are not unlike those art ponders.  Perhaps a more useful distinction is this.  Art is only art once it's fully achieved, whereas craft admits of a process.  A simple scarf, knit on large needles, if the stitches are even and care has been taken with the tension, can be well crafted.  We learn our crafts in simple steps; a first quilt might be made of straightforward, easy to piece four-patches, quilted in a grid.  Pay attention to colour, sew your seams evenly, try to make your quilting stitches even, and you are learning the craftsmanship needed to make the most complex quilt.  When you do these things well, you are being truthful to the craft, regardless of where you are in the learning process.  Because craft can be done well at the most basic levels, it can feed a hunger in us to make something skillfully, a hunger Bill Reid alludes to.

Earlier this fall, I went to see one of my favourite craftspeople, Sue Turtle.  I met Sue last year when I bought the hand spun, hand knit shawl you see on the right beneath the woven scarf I bought this year.  The shawl is spun out of various fibres, including Qiviuk, the downy under coat of the Musk Ox.  It's extraordinarily warm, yet very light.  Sue loves the whole process:  filling the sink with stinky fleece that still smells of an animal, spinning the fibre, designing a project, and knitting it up.  Fibres, which can be rough and full of all kinds of debris, apparently bloom when they're washed.  Spinning, she tells me, is certainly repetitive, but it's like having a mantra that feels wonderful in your hands.  When her mother knit, she simply followed patterns, but Sue likes to experiment with the interplay between a particular wool and the designs it can make. While she depends on the lore of knitters--books that collect every decorative pattern of stitches ever tried--she wants to make something no one has quite made before.  The last ingredient in her satisfaction is giving it to someone who loves the work and who will gain pleasure from it.

Lest we think that knitting is falling by the wayside, undertaken by retired nurses like Sue, I should tell you that Ravelry, a website for spinners, knitters, and crocheters which contains everything from patterns to advice to blogs and chat rooms, recently admitted its millionth member.  Its enormous library of free patterns speaks to the craftsperson's desire to make it new, to conceive of something no one else has thought of. Cookie A, for example, can't seem to stop creating new and astounding patterns for socks that make inventive use of the sock's three-dimensional shape.

Today I am going to spend the day working on the hand knit mittens my nephew asked me to make him for Christmas.  When I asked him what colour he wanted, he said orange, purple, and black.  I suspect the colours have something to do with sports teams, but what do I know?  I just knit.  It was a challenge, but I found a Noro purple and orange on the edge between attitude and cheer to go with my black merino.   I'll be using a pattern designed during the Second World War to make dense, heavy mittens on tiny needles for the men at the front, largely because someone took the time to work out a pattern of decreases that give you a beautifully-shaped round top.  (They won't look like the toe of a sock, as some mittens do.)  Because the sleeves of his coat are quite open, I'll be adding a purple rolled stockinette cuff before I begin the orange ribbing.  Because he's a handsome young man and needs mittens with some class (in spite of the colours), there will be a complex cable up the back of the hand.  Each thumb will have a tiny, different-coloured stripe so he'll always know his right mitten from his left. I love knitting on four needles, so the craftsmanship will be more pleasure than challenge.  I do know that no one will have mittens quite like these.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Saskatchewan Book Awards

We were all dressed in our best.  Brenda Niskala, Tracy Hamon, and Bernadette Wagner were all splendiferous in evening gowns.  Tracy's was so elegant that when she accepted the non-fiction award on behalf of  Alexandra Popoff for her biography of Sophia Tolstoy, Tracy looked like Sophia--or some glamorous woman out of a nineteenth century novel.  A close friend of mine wore sparkly silver shoes that were so pointy I could have quilted with them--and kept the stitches small.  Ever understated, I wore my simple black German dress bubble dress (a very subtle bubble, mind you) with a silver scarf borrowed from my daughter and hand-made jewelery.  The book awards organizers had thoughtfully ordered tiny orchid corsages for each nominee, which was a lovely touch.  Complete strangers came up to me and congratulated me simply for being nominated.  Frankly, I had often congratulated myself for simply being nominated.

Once past the obligatory light bulb jokes, (which makes me wonder why, when we humans gather, we need to laugh before we get to the important stuff) Sheila Coles was an enthusiastic and skillful MC, revealing how much of the shortlist she'd read, telling stories about how once upon a time--for two whole chapters--she'd had to badger her son into reading The Hobbit.  But the highlight of the evening for me was Steven Galloway's brief, funny, but affecting talk about making art.  Coming, perhaps, out of all the thinking he'd had to do about the importance, the meaning, the futility and the hope of a cellist playing in the blown-out streets of Sarajevo, he called the making of art "acts of civilization."  The original manuscript of Albanoni's famous Adagio (which was played beautifully by Cameron Lowe and Hart Godden for us during dinner) was recreated from the fragment of the score after Dresden's Library was firebombed, and made into something different but perhaps equally affecting.  So, too, do writers attempt to make the human condition new--to illuminate it once again, to see a different corner of our ethical dilemmas, to celebrate new joys--just a poets recreate language every time they turn the words for a poem over in their hands.  Each time we do this, Galloway argued, we re-make a bit of the civilization that surrounds us.

People kept asking if I had my speech ready.  I am a realistic person, and was simply so glad to have my first novel included with those of experienced, perceptive, skilled writers like Dianne Warren (whose Cool Water I loved), Sandra Birdsell, and David Carpenter.  So no, I didn't have a speech.

Okay, I'm a realistic person most of the time.  During my morning showers, when my brain isn't fully online, I let myself daydream a little bit.  I'd have wanted to thank--I do want to thank here, whether I won or not--the important people.  Ruth Linka at Brindle & Glass for believing in my novel and fondly badgering me to find the novel she knew was there.   The Saskatchewan Book Awards for creating this wonderful celebration of Saskatchewan's rich literary offerings.  The awards themselves are one of Galloway's "acts of civilization."  My daughter, Veronica, for the beautiful cover photograph.  My husband, Bill, for teaching me how much we can joyfully transform our lives in middle age.

But I'd also wanted to thank every person who wrote a letter or a poem or a journal entry, every person who told his or her friends a story.  Because these are two very important "acts of civilization."  When you sit down to write Aunt Mildred about Uncle Fred's death and try to describe in words what it meant to go fishing with him on Saturday mornings when you were twelve--how the river smelled early in the morning, and how that smell has become part of your gratitude for Uncle Fred, something you remember each time you smell water early in the morning--then you're trying to pummel language into doing its real job.

Or you might tell your friends the story about the time your Doberman ate a quilt block with pins in it and then pooped the whole thing out.  Curious, you washed it.  It was a bit paler than the blocks, but there wasn't a single tooth mark in it.  It had gone down absolutely whole.  Or the story about sitting on a beach staring at Lake Winnipeg, when your baby suddenly walks by you, swinging her arms like she'd been walking all her life, swinging her arms like she'd figured out how sand would be a great place to try this walking thing out.   These stories remind us of how rich and full of wonder the human experience is, unlike the cliched stories we read on the covers of fan magazines and the tabloids.  Because telling funny sad stories is another "act of civilization."

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Time Travel

After coming in from a snowy parking lot, I stood in front of a bright green bin of fresh brussels sprouts, and found that I had suddenly dropped down through about thirty five years of time to the first Christmas I cooked brussels sprouts the way Julia Child taught me:  with cream and chestnuts.  I'm suddenly wrapped in a Boston winter:  its mood envelopes me in the middle of Sobeys.

If time is a line floating within reach, stretching toward the horizon, how is it we can sometimes drop down through it?  Having made that thirty-five year plummet, I easily went further, to the days in the late fifties when my father still owned his own business selling and repairing TVs.  For quite a number of years, we'd keep the store open weekday evenings before Christmas  in hopes that someone would come in and buy a TV set for his  family in a kind of Bing Crosby gesture complete with wrapping and bow.  I'm not sure anyone ever did; those evenings were filled with a desperate kind of hope we celebrated once a year with fried perch and an almond-filled pastry made for the season by our local baker.  Eating among the neatly chaotic workbenches where my father repaired TV sets was a ritual whose ambivalent, celebratory mood I can suddenly and fully recover from time to time, as I did standing among the brussels sprouts.  Doubtless I could have plummeted further, or even levitated to more recent Christmases if I hadn't needed to buy some fish.

I've never quite understood time travel in fiction, particularly the way characters travel to the past to change a present moment.  How do they also change all the myriad historical records--from newspapers to birth certificates to paintings or photographs or letters or laws--that would be influenced by an early death, a different path, or a new scientific discovery?   But I understand time travel in our daily lives.  In the days since my musing among the brussels sprouts, I've been trying to catch myself out at it, trying to understand better what happens.  Some moments simply seem more susceptible to the plunge, holidays particularly. Dylan Thomas knew this, writing, in A Child's Christmas in Wales:  "I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find.  In goes my hand into that wool-white bell-tongued ball of holidays resting at the rim of the carol-singing sea, and out come Mrs. Prothero and the firemen," along with a whole tumble of memories.  Clockwork mice, the neighbour's polar cat, parsnip wine, and a celluloid duck that made "a most unducklike sound, a mewing moo that an ambitious cat might make who wished to be a cow."

But gorgeous summer days will also open a rift in the cloud of memory to a pair of new white sunglasses or learning to swim or a stretch of beach and the time to go with it.  February, not so much.  It simply doesn't seem like a very resonant time of year, which is perhaps why we've plunked Valentine's in the middle of it, trying to stir up a little resonance, a little memory and desire.  Spring, certainly sets up memory echoes, particularly that first surprisingly hopeful day.

And yet.  Those sunglasses that I got when I was seven, which I wear on a beach in a snapshot.  My sense of being fabulously cool--an expression that wouldn't become common in our household for another five years. Or that marvelous hopeful despairing ambiguity of eating marzipan-filled pastry and licking the crumbs off my fingers.  There were three other people in the shop:  did any of them feel what I did?  Or Thomas's "mewing moo" made by an ambitious cat.  I've had seven cats and I'm not sure any of them have ambitions of the sort Thomas describes.  Are we sure we have it right?

Maybe that's why we suspend our disbelief about time travel.  We know how unpredictable it is:  how someone hands you a fact that has been sitting on the edge of your peripheral vision and you go back one day to find it all changed.  Now that I think of it, I'm not sure Julia Child ever recommended both chestnuts and cream.  At least that I can check.

Sunday, November 21, 2010


I've been complaining to anyone who will listen that I'm so tired this term.  I've never been a wonderful sleeper; ask my poor mother who was overwhelmed by my refusal to nap so she could have a few minutes to hear herself think.  I'm a very bad sleeper when I travel, whether to Calgary for the CCWWP conference, to Calgary and Edmonton to read, to Saskatoon tomorrow.  Then my youngest cat developed some new habits while I was away in Alberta and now wants to play in the middle of the night.  Some nights I can get her out of the bedroom easily by simply walking into my study where I keep the treats.  Knowing what's in store, she follows me eagerly. Other night she stands in my doorway metaphorically sticking out her tongue and saying "I'm on to you.  I want to smell the real thing before I do what you want." 

But my daughter Veronica has the most intriguing response to my complaints.  She tells me that I need woolgathering breaks in my day so I don't work 8 hours straight. Of course my brain doesn't feel like it fits in my head if I haven't taken a break.

Apparently she doesn't mean that I need to daydream.  Matthew Killingsworth, a doctoral student in psychology at Harvard, has done research on daydreaming that has recently been published in the journal Science.  We spend an awful lot of time daydreaming.  (Other people spend an awful lot of time daydreaming.)  But it doesn't make us particularly happy.

What we need is woolgathering.  British teacher Sue Humphries and University of Michigan brain scientist Marc Berman have discovered that the best woolgathering happens in the natural world--even when you're simply looking out the window.  Dr. Berman explains that we have two kinds of attention.  One, according to an article in The Globe and Mail "is directed and takes effort and concentration....[We] only have a certain amount of it."  "Attention restoration therapy,"  a.k.a. woolgathering,  happens when we walk into a rich natural environment that captures rather than directing our attention.

This last Saturday was a perfect day for woolgathering.  Here in Regina, we were so fogged in that there was no time:  you couldn't sense time passing because the light didn't change all day.  At the same time, the hoarfrost created an entirely different world.  Nature made herself strange for us, turning herself into black and white photographs, emphasizing the architecture of every leaf and branch. 

I suspect that some nights when I cannot sleep, I need a dose of woolgathering; indeed, part of my learning to live with my insomnia is learning to enjoy the added quiet time it gives me.  I don't know how else to explain why curling up to knit complicated lace is a perfect way to make myself sleepy.  My purposeful attention is very lightly tethered to the counting of stitches, to listening to the mantra that helps me remember the pattern of the row I'm working on.  Meanwhile, some other part of my attention floats free to revisit scenes from the day or to think about the next novel or to figure out how I'm going to inspire my creative writing students.  I'm knitting with silk right now, so should I call this "silkgathering"?  Intriguingly, the pattern I'm working on right now is called "Frozen Leaves."

Frozen Leaves is free from Ravelry

Here are the articles on daydreaming and "attention restoration therapy."

Thursday, November 4, 2010

On the Road

It seemed like a great idea at the time:  two readings in Alberta, Pages Books in Calgary on October 27 and Audrey's Book in Edmonton the next day.  But of course I live on the prairies, and nature will have her way with us.  So I shouldn't have been surprised by the snowstorm that blew in the day before I was supposed to leave, a storm that completely tangled up Regina's streets so that a trip which should have taken 7 minutes took 35.  Should I go?  Should I cancel?  I decided to drive to Moose Jaw.  If the road didn't get any better by then, I'd pack it in, turn around, and go home.

As an American who was happily transplanted to the prairies in the early seventies, I've often admired prairie people's helpfulness and sense of community.  This is an historical remnant, I concluded:  early settlers couldn't survive without the help and support of their often distant neighbours.  I only had to read Robert Kroetsch's "Seed Catalogue" or The Journals of Susanna Moodie to realize this was a reasonable hypothesis.  None of us could emotionally survive the frozen depths of winter without the cheer of the Safeway clerk or the helpfulness of the neighbour who shovels us out.  But you don't expect this sense of anonymous community on icy roads.  Yet if it weren't for the driver of a red pick-up in front of me who thought the TransCanada was as bad as I did  and whose response to the road warned me of particularly icy patches or drifts that had blown onto the road, I couldn't have made it to Chaplin, where the roads began to get better.

In the meantime, I thought about time.  First, that time didn't matter while the roads were bad.  All that mattered was staying on the road long enough to get west of the storm.  Then I thought that while nature unfolds in time--think of the laws of physics and the seasons--it can also play fast and loose with it.  It gives us the sublime moment that seems to stretch forward even while it snaps back on us  It also takes time away in a fearful storm.  While you can't pay any attention to the passing of time, only to your driving in the frightfully present moment.  You look up when the roads are better and find time suddenly gone.

But once the risks seemed past, I thought, uselessly perhaps, about the roads I'd just driven over.  It was the hardest text I've ever read:  every comma and ellipsis, every lump and drift and glare, meant something that I needed to interpret very quickly and very accurately.  Yet in spite of the storm that created human panic, the cows were so indifferent; they turned their backs to the wind and kept munching.

I haven't driven this stretch between Regina and Calgary in late October, so once I'd out-run the bad roads I studied the landscape.  In some places, the dusting of snow changed the texture and colour of the prairies, making them look more like a blank piece of old parchment that a Japanese calligrapher has inked in with lacy windbreaks, shrubs that have clustered in the hills' folds, with the odd spontaneous tree.  But the culverts by the side of the road also had their own beauty, particularly when the snow had passed them by. leaving their deep and subtle colours even more intense in contrast to the surrounding snow:  rusty reds, olive greens deep greeny golds, the whitish tan of dried grass. Could I pull that off in a quilt, I wondered?  Would it even translate?

The hills too are various.  Sometimes they're comforting bowls; other times you feel that fever-stricken giants have been plucking at the bed-clothes.  Long ridges follow you like old friends, one ridge folding into the next, until the line is suddenly cut by gravity or wind.

There's long been an argument about the relationship between landscape and beauty.  Some argue that we appreciate a landscape because artists, by representing it (or mis-representing it:  think of all those awful Krieghoff dayglo sunsets) have implicitly told us what's beautiful and we've simply taken the experts at their word.  Advocating a different relationship altogether, one in which nature seemed to trump culture, Eighteenth-century English gardener Capability Brown thought the formal plantings of roses or lavender in rows and lovers' knots were entirely unnatural and sought to return the English countryside around the houses of the wealthy to their former beauty.  Yet even the "natural" shapes of his gardens with their pleasant hills and judiciously placed trees were constructions.  Early Canadian poets had difficulty writing convincingly about the landscape they found because they saw it through the conventions of English Romantic poetry.  I'm not sure we can ever see the natural world without the cultural preconceptions we bring to it.  If we can, or if we can even get close, it's on the prairie, where we are prompted to look hard for the beauty--or let it pass us by in a snowstorm or a burst of speed.

That night, I read at Pages Books on Kensington with Lee Kvern and Freda Jackson.  Lee read from her new novel, The Matter of Sylvie, in which three narrators in three different time frames need to revisit and understand their relation with Sylvie, who is a mentally challenged and difficult child.  The novel shows how varied and chaotic and everchanging and dynamic family relationships can be, particularly when the arbitrariness of life arrives full force in the guise of Sylvie.  Lee read a humourous  passage in which Sylvie's father Lorne has to escort a drunken, beaten Jimmy Widman to the same institution where Sylvie lives.  It perfectly captured the knife edge on which the funny and the tragic balance.   Freda Jackson read from her second novel, For a Modest Fee; although the main character is Elizabeth Evans, she read--in kind honour of my trip that day--a haunting stormy scene in which a businessman hunts through the small fictional town where the novel is set, trying to find his wife, who is pregnant and struggling with mental illness.  I've had time to read Lee's novel since I returned; Freda's is next on my list.

I'm always nervous when I read, though I've learned to keep the nervous part of me just at the edge of my peripheral vision.  This pretense helps me believe that standing in front of a group of strangers reading words I've struggled over for years is exactly where I want to be right now.  This experience was even more weird in Calgary because I was not only fighting over who exactly is standing holding a book that looks vaguely familiar, but when she's doing it.  The white knuckle trip that morning seemed both so present and yet so far away; the woman following the little red truck and trying to figure out what is so beautiful about the prairie landscape was someone else altogether.

Let me give you the Pages Books link:  they've got some wonderful events planned, and it's a very tempting bookstore.  Congratulations to all of you at Pages for keeping readers informed and engaged!

I'll be adding pictures in a few days when I can figure out how to get my camera to talk to my computer

Pages Books on Kensington

Lee Kvern

Freda Jackson at Touchwood Editions

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Canadian Creative Writers and Writing Programs Conference, October 9

This morning's most inspiring and helpful paper was given by Susan Reynolds.  Her background is in psychology, but she worked the effect or value of creative writing into enough of her projects that she's quite familiar with the pedagogy and research on creative writing.  She runs a writing program at a maximum security prison that houses fifty-odd women in Ontario.  Inmates come to the workshop to write and perhaps--only if they feel like it--to read aloud what they have written.  The result is that the writers go more deeply into their lives, some of them finally crying for the first time.  When they read their work, their fellow classmates are offered the opportunity to say what was most memorable or vivid about the piece of writing.  This validates the women's expressions and voices, making a considerable difference in their lives.  In keeping with research that shows writing heals bodies as well as psyches, these women experienced renewed optimism and faith in themselves.  Some of them continue to write.

What I loved about this paper was that while I will probably never spend time teaching creative writing to women in a prison, it expressed what is perhaps at the bedrock of what we do in the creative writing classroom, but are unwilling to articulate because it probably sounds lacking in rigor, not to mention being touchy-feely.  We spend time, as fellow-travellers, with students who are becoming more human:  keener, more critical and insightful readers of any kind of text, empathetic with their characters and their classmates, more willing to encounter and express the complexity of the human condition.  Rigour?  Only students who are willing to engage fully with the inventive messiness and joy and despair of being human,  students willing to fully explore the language with which this is expressed, finally thrive in creative writing classes.  But the other students, in my class at least, become better readers and writers, on their own terms, and this is also a significant accomplishment on their part.

Here are Susan Reynolds' websites:


Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Daily Sublime

Eggs in Sunlight by veronica_geminder
Last week, my close friend Deborah and I finally had a few moments to have a coffee and catch up on one another's lives, and she talked about the many people--some of them sick, some of them old, some of them both sick and old--who depended on phone calls from her. So she's done what women have been doing since time out of mind: trimmed her life down to its essentials so she has the time and the emotional energy to make the calls so these vulnerable people feel less lonely and more safe. About the only thing besides work that isn't optional is walking the German shepherds, Seamus and London.

She spoke of a walk earlier in the week when she'd been lying in the grass with the dogs, watching a hawk swoop and soar, watching London's head doing a 360 when geese flew over, watching the fog gently rise out of the dusk and damp grass and leaves. It was a moment so rich and palpable that it more than made up for the missed movie nights and coffees with friends.

Stairs at Walden Pond by veronica_geminder

Ah, the sublime, I said. The comforts of the sublime. While few of us feel any longer that these moments illustrate the incomprehensibility of God, which Immanuel Kant thought was their purpose, we do feel something Kant thought characterized them: a powerful harmony between our senses and the world they apprehend. We feel that our sense of sight, hearing, touch are exactly suited to the world they give back to us. We are supposed to be here at this moment.

Fountain in Sunlight by veronica_geminder

 But the sublime is also tinged with powerful feelings of loss, because our senses tell us that the moment is always already fading. The notes we hear are disappearing into the past; the late October light is already falling and dimming. But it's being on the golden edge of a fading moment that makes it so beautiful. Paradoxically, it's because we're about to lose the moment that we value it so fully.

Study in gold-tinted glass by veronica_geminderI had an urban sublime moment yesterday afternoon. It was nearly 5, and downtown had emptied out; in fact you could hear the silent vacuum of sound created by all those people and their cars leaving, as if their absence hung in the air. A lone saxophonist played "All the things you are" at the Cornwall Centre end of the mall, reminding us that we were also in the presence of "the promised kiss of springtime." The slanting October light left the mall itself in dusk, but was hitting the taller buildings above; the dramatic difference between the sun-washed sky and the dusky street speaking of what was about to change.

Veronica's photographs shouldn't be able to catch the sublime, since they represent a single instant. But you can tell by the muzzy bars of light across the eggs that the moment is already passing (not to mention the fragility of the eggs themselves). The water drops on the fountain are on their way to some sea; the water in Walden Pond is still for now, but soon a clever old trout or over-sized tortoise will come to the surface and send ripples echoing out to the pond's edges. A Saturday afternoon beside the pond in Boston Commons will fade into a memory: and who will know that they had been, for an instant, looped back in time to be part of the replay of Seurat's La Grande Jatte

Saturday afternoon on the Boston Common by veronica_geminder 

You can find more of Veronica Geminder's photos at

Friday, October 15, 2010

Canadian Creative Writers and Writing Programs Conference, October 8

We began our second day listening to a vibrant, provocative plenary given by Aritha van Herk. Fortunately, this will be published by Wascana Review ( I can't possibly do justice to her playfulness, her gift with metaphor, her literary allusions, her intriguing digressions.

Like Hollingshead, van Herk noted that "Writing has entered into dalliance with 'the market,'" and suggested that we need to admit our complicity with the creation of this market. But noting that she'd become an author and teacher because she wanted to find a way to read for a living, she has suggested that creative writers should want, first, to be readers. I suspect van Herk is always thinking about her teaching and about her students, but she doesn't grouse about the literacy of the younger generation, saying instead that "the young have to find a way to immerse themselves."

As someone who has published her first novel and is at work on a second, I find I read differently. At sixty, and an academic for many of those years, I can figure out fairly quickly where the core of the text lies, how it prompts me to think about and query the world. But my new questions, ones I feel a need to record in a reading journal, are about how the text works to draw in the reader and create the "continuous dream" that John Gardner so convincingly wrote about. Writerly reading requires a complete immersion in the act of reading, a almost ecstatic engagement with the words on the page in order to allow the created world to rise up before you like a verbal hologram.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Canadian Creative Writers and Writing Programs Conference, October 7

The first night's keynote was given by Greg Hollingshead, professor emeritus at the University of Alberta who now runs the Writing Studio at the Banff Centre. It was a tri-partite address that began with the ritual of kvetching. Independent booksellers now account for 10% of the market, while a single individual chooses 45% of the fiction offered by Indigo/Chapters. By the end of 2012, e-books will account for 25% of sales, which will influence the royalties of the authors who actually get royalties. Writers of fiction can expect to see four reviews of their work if they are lucky: one in The Globe and Mail (if it gets by the book review editor), one in Quill and Quire, one in Literary Review of Canada, and one in those rare local newspapers who continue to offer the readers in their audience book reviews. (These facts—and I hope I've got them right—come from a “Report on Business” article Hollingshead cited.)

In spite of these facts, many of us are noticing that Creative Writing classes are full—if they aren't over-subscribed. Hollingshead feels that many readers have a strong aesthetic sense, one that is exercised in creative writing classes. The creative writing classroom, he argues, (and he'd have to argue with me about it, because I don't think his impression is entirely accurate, though I see his point) is one place in the academy where students actually study literature as art, satisfying that aesthetic hunger as well as an urge to create something entirely their own.

Creative writing classes, Hollingshead emphasized, provide a place where students meet the models they need to solve the problems they find in their own texts: reading is a creative writing student's “daily nourishment.” As teachers, we need to be careful, though, that the writers we encourage students to read aren't presented as Titans that none of them will finally be able to emulate but rather, (I use my own language here) as fellow-travellers offering one another a hand up, a hammer or a saw—or whatever tool is needed.

Hollingshead closed by wondering if the current model for literary fiction suggested to the reader that “This is good for you,” and if so how effective that strategy is. He pointed out that we go to movies completely unself-consciously; we aren't second guessing ourselves or wondering if we really know enough to be able to understand the artwork before us. He implied—but did not quite say—that the “read me; I'm good for you” voice, persona, or style, is perhaps not a good for creative writing—or any art.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Creativity on Saskatchewan's Country Roads

A couple of weeks ago, just as the leaves in town were beginning to fall, my daughter Veronica and I drove north of Regina, up highway 20 toward Craven, and then north and west on 322.  Because she's a gifted photographer, I wanted her to take some pictures of enormous stone cairns and shoe-clad fence posts I'd seen earlier this summer. 

It's as if a farmer has built a story on the side of the road.  These enormous stones are certainly the debris left by the ice age that created the Qu'Appelle Valley.  An early settler undoubtedly found them in the fields he'd hoped to break and plant, and had to dig them up to get them out of the way.  What prompted someone else, probably another farmer, to gather them up and poise them so carefully and playfully on top of one another?

Perhaps the story here is one of determination to get the best of the stones that littered the fields.  Maybe their maker felt playful:  perhaps some early spring when the frost had heaved the boulders even further out of place, he felt like growing something before his fields were ready to plant.  Or his daughter had come home from university where she had been studying physics, and they decided together to create a beautiful demonstration of balance and gravity.  Or maybe an art student decided he could rival Henry Moore with the stones in his father's fields.  Whatever the reason, we have been given something for our minds to play with as we drive toward Rowan's Ravine or Bulyea.

Further down the same road, another farmer has decorated fence posts with shoes, boots, wellingtons, and sandals.  The footwear has been taking over his power polls and fence posts for quite a number of years, and now they're beginning to appear in groups that look as if people have been dancing in defiance of gravity, so ecstatically that they haven't noticed they've lost their footwear.

Or they've been playing tag or hide and seek.  I am told that this is a fairly common artform on prairie roads, yet certainly each display is different and tell a story of a larger or a smaller family, one with lots of girls, of a farm wife who decides to buy a pair of stilettos for her child's high school graduation, of the runner who practices on country roads and made it to the Olympic games, of the single Wellington the pigs ate.

What is it about the creative spirit that these farmers, who doubtless work very hard, can't resist playing and making; can't resist giving the traveller something to play with, a story to spin, a snapshot of human striving?

Saturday, October 2, 2010


Tuesday night was Regina's first Fictionistas! event.  Being introduced as if we were models about to go down a runway--with information about our shoes, bags and jewels--was disorienting for four introverts there to read their fiction, but it was a lively occasion.  Perhaps because we'd put literature next to fashion, literature was suddenly less intimidating.  Or perhaps the promise of fashion simply attracted a crowd I'm not used to seeing at readings.  In any case, it was an enthusiastic standing-room-only crowd ready to quaff wine and listen to our stories about women's lives.  We read about a female RCMP constable, a young girl growing up in Saskatchewan, a young Indian woman who moves to Alberta from Tanzania, and a classical pianist; what this unlikely quartet of characters had in common was joie de vivre, a passionate engagement in their own stories. 

In the end, it doesn't matter whether people came for the fashion or the fiction.  What matters is that the evening celebrated stories.  After the readings, we dismantled the rows of chairs, sitting in groups of four or six, drinking wine and finding out what was going on in our friends' lives.