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